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The Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)

South Slavic Folktales
Translated and retold by Dennis C. Boxell

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Dennis Boxell

A Tale from Bosnia

One fine day long ago, two Turkish dignitaries, a priest and a judge, were traveling along the old road to Sarajevo, mounted on two splendid Arabian stallions. The judge, dressed in the costume of the times, wore an elegant velour jacket embroidered richly with golden braid. His baggy pants were made of felted wool and his waist was wrapped in a woven silk sash of many colors. Wearing a maroon fez on his head and a silver dagger tucked into his sash, he looked every bit as fair and wise as his great fame reputed him to be. His companion, similarly dressed, only with a silken turban wrapped around his fez, was a devout Moslem spiritual leader, a hodzha, known throughout the land for his piety and knowledge of the Koran.

The sun was setting as they approached a small Christian village nestled among the rolling hills. In a nearby field, they found a shepherd boy tending his flock of sheep. "God be with you, young shepherd," greeted the judge, dismounting his fine horse, the hodzha following suit.

"Can you tell us who is the most upstanding man in your village?" he asked, trying to learn where they could find lodging for the night. "Yes, sir. That would be the blacksmith," answered the shepherd boy. "He stands up all day, pounding away on his anvil."

"Young man, you don't seem to understand," replied the judge, thinking the boy might be a bit stupid. "When I say ‘upstanding', I mean, ‘who eats the best in your village?'"

"My father and I do, your honor. Just put some food in front of us and we can eat better and faster than anyone in the village!" answered the boy.

"Mischievous boy, you still don't understand, do you?" said the judge, becoming irritated. "When I said, ‘who eats the best', I meant, ‘who is the most well-to-do in your village?'"

"Well, our Turkish governor is. The whole village gives their money to him," replied the boy.

"Infidel of a child!" shouted the judge. "You have answered each question correctly, but each answer deserves a good spanking! Now simply tell us what we want to know. Where can the two of us find food and overnight lodging for ourselves and our horses in your village?

With a twinkle in his eye, the shepherd boy gave the judge and the priest the following curious directions: "My lords, look for the house with the biggest pile of manure in front of it. Where there is livestock there is manure but, on the other hand, there is also milk, cheese and butter."

Taking this bit of hard won advice, the two Turks entered the village and began the search for the house with the biggest pile of dung in front of it. Good luck was on their side and they soon found the house they were looking for.

They were warmly welcomed into the house by their Christian hosts, as was the custom of the land. Meanwhile their horses were taken to the stable and fed oats and hay. For dinner, the two travelers were served a feast of local specialties. First, a young lamb was roasted on a spit by the head of the house himself. Then came rich plates of goat's milk cheese, and baked pilaf (chicken and rice casserole baked in a seasoned broth). Next, a creamed, mild white cheese called "kaimak" was served with fresh homemade bread. Finally came the most prized delicacy of all, "gibanica," a pie of many alternating layers of a cheese mixture and rolled pastry dough, brushed with butter and baked to a golden brown.

They had barely finished their meal when, who should enter the house, but the very same shepherd boy who had matched wits with them earlier that same evening!

Surprised, the judge turned toward him with a look of astonishment. "Again you have done well, young man. You have most cleverly sent us to your own house," he said with amusement.

There followed a pleasurable evening of good conversation and story telling around the table with the shepherd boy's family. Finally, after making sure that their horses were well fed and cared for, the judge and the priest retired for the night. Early next morning they continued on their journey to Sarajevo.

On their way back, ten days later, the two travelers again stopped to spend the night and enjoy the hospitality at the shepherd boy's house. Again, their highest expectations were met.

The next morning, as they were leaving, the judge could not resist one last chance to match wits with the boy. He galloped over to him where he was tending sheep on a hillside pasture. Leaning over in his saddle, he called to the boy. "One last question, my son. Who taught you how to answer our questions so skillfully?"

"Who else, but God and my parents?" returned the boy.

Still not satisfied, the judge asked again, "But are all the children in your village as clever as you?"

"You ask many questions, master. But this I know: The failings of our mothers did not include the raising of foolish sons who would allow their brains to be picked by blackbirds!

Smiling, the judge replied, "Go to the devil, young man. You're too wise for your own good!" "And you, my Turkish lords, go with God. And leave me in peace!

At this, the two Turks turned and rode away. The hodzha thought for a moment and said, "He's clever, that boy. I think he's outsmarted you again. When you sent him to the devil he sent us with God. He's done it again!"

The judge stopped his horse and turned around to yell, "Shepherd boy! I didn't mean what I said to you about going to the devil!"

At the top of his lungs the shepherd boy shouted back, "Nor did I mean what I said to you. So we're even!"

Outwitted for the last time, the judge and hodzha gave up and continued on their journey home.

Bulgarian Version

Once upon a time, a man set out from his village, carrying a load of wood on his back. After a while, he got tired and sat down on a rock. All of a sudden, the rock began to shake and he heard a strange voice coming from underneath, crying, "Help! Help! Let me out of here!" What could this be, he wondered? He got up and quickly lifted the rock from its place. And as he did so, a huge snake with green eyes slithered out, and wrapped itself around his neck, as if to strangle him. The snake hissed at him and said: "Man, although you have set me free from a terrible wrongdoing, I am going to kill you! One bite from my poisonous fangs and you will die a terrible death!"

"Wait!" shouted the frightened man. "What have I done to you to deserve such a fate?"

"I will tell you," answered the snake. "The man who left me to die in that hole under the rock, was a human being just like you! Until that time, I had lived peacefully at the bottom of one of his sacks behind the barn, minding my own business. But one day he found me and rudely stuffed me in that hole and put a big rock on the top so I could not get out. There in the darkness, starving and about to die of thirst, I swore to kill the first human I saw. And that just happens to be you!"

"Please!" pleaded the man. "Did I not save your life by setting you free? Then how can it be fair and just what you plan to do to me?"

The snake thought about this and decided to take pity on the man. "I have a plan," he said. "Let us ask the first three people we meet and ask them to judge. "If I am wrong, then I promise to spare you. If I am right, however, I will keep my vow and it will be the end of you!

"Agreed, said the man." And they set out through the woods where they came to a small meadow. There they found an old dog tied up to a tree.

"There is our first judge," said the man. "You tell him what happened."

The snake leaned toward the dog and began: "I was living quite happily at the bottom of a sack when a man came and grabbed me and stuffed me into a dark hole in the ground. He covered the hole with a big rock and left me there to slowly starve to death. During those long and dark days I made a vow to myself that if I ever was freed, I would kill the first human I saw in revenge. This man here lifted the rock and set me free. Therefore, if I keep my vow, he must die. How do you judge, my dear dog? Do I have the right to bite him with my poisonous fangs?

The dog looked at the man sadly and began his story. "When I was young and strong, I served my master faithfully and loyally. I went with him hunting; I guarded his house day and night, in snow and ice, rain and fog. Every day he fed me juicy scraps from the kitchen. I wore a collar with a golden bell and I was taught many tricks which I performed happily at his command. I let his children pull my tail and said nothing. Now, that I have grown old and am blind in one eye, he has tied me up here in the forest and left me for the wolves to come and eat me up. So you see that humans are not fair and they certainly are not grateful. Therefore, I judge the snake has the right to kill the man!

At this point, the snake began to tighten his grip around the man's neck with anticipation. "Please!" begged the man. "The dog cannot be right!" "We must ask another to judge. "You promised! The snake reluctantly loosened his grip a bit and they continued on their way.

They soon came upon an old horse tied up to a tree. He was so thin you could count his ribs. The snake said happily, "Here's a good one to ask to judge." So they told the horse everything that had happened between them and asked him to judge who was right.

The horse began to speak: "My dear man, when I was young, I served my master faithfully and honestly. He rode me while hunting and he and his children enjoyed riding me everywhere. I carried heavy loads for him and helped him plow the fields. In fog, rain, snow and sleet, I was there for him. Once in the war, I even saved his life. I toiled for years until, at last, my legs gave away. Now that I have grown old, he has tied me here in the forest for the wolves to come and eat me up."

"So you see, human, your brothers are not kind to us. Why should we treat you better than you treat us? That's why the snake is right and should bite and kill you without mercy! His heart sinking, the man saw that the horse, too, had judged against him. Still, he reminded the snake that he had one more, third and final chance and begged the snake to give it to him. The snake, becoming impatient, nevertheless agreed and they started out across the meadow.

All of a sudden, a fox ran out of the bushes where it had been hiding and came up to them. Here was their third and final judge! They quickly explained to the fox everything that had happened and begged him if he would be the final judge of the matter. Now the fox, being very cunning, leaned up close to the man and whispered to him: "If you promise to give me ten of your chickens, I will judge that you are the one who is right." Then speaking in a strong and serious voice, said, "It's very difficult for me to judge fairly who is right and who is wrong. And as it is a matter of life or death, let us go back to the place where it all happened and you can show me exactly what took place.

So they all went back to the place where it had all started. "Now, said the fox. Man, where were you?" "I was here," said the man and sat down on the rock. "Where were you, snake?" asked the fox. "I was in that hole," replied the snake.

"Even a lie has its limits!" said the fox. "I don't believe that a big snake like you could fit in that little hole." "Oh yes I can!" answered the snake. "I'll show you!" and it began to crawl slowly back into the hole. Soon, only the snake's head remained outside. "There!" cried the fox. "That proves you are lying! There's no room for your head!" "Yes there is!" returned the snake, and its head completely disappeared into the hole.

"Now!" cried the fox to the man. "Cover the hole with the rock!" The man quickly picked up the big rock and covered up the hole tightly so that the snake could not get out ever again. And that's how the man and the fox tricked the snake.

Now they continued awhile together until they came to a fork in the path. There, it was necessary to go their separate ways. But first, the fox had a urgent question: "What about my ten chickens?" he anxiously asked. "Ten chickens," chuckled the man. You can have more that ten chickens, if you want! You saved my life and I will keep my promise to you. Just help yourself, whenever you and your family are hungry!"

"Thank you, my friend, and farewell!" replied the fox and trotted off contentedly into the bushes.

And that is how the fox got onto the habit of raiding the chicken coups some nights, taking one or two chickens at a time. After all, he considers he is entitled to them.


It was time for the man and the fox to part and as they started on their way, the fox called out to the man: "Remember what you promised! I will come on Christmas Eve for my part of the bargain."

By the time the man reached home he had put the unpleasant event out of his mind.

When the day before Christmas came, his wife came to him and asked him to go out and kill a few chickens for her to prepare for the holidays. "I'm sorry, wife," he replied. "We cannot slaughter the chickens this year, for I have promised them to the fox. "He then told his wife the whole story about what had happened with the snake and how the fox had saved him.

That evening, when Christmas Eve came, the man and his wife were sitting in their house, looking out the window, when they saw the fox arrive to take his promised chickens. The wife, who could no longer hold her tongue, jumped to her feet and said: "Husband, we need those chickens for ourselves and our children! Go get your rifle and shoot the fox!"

The man, following his wife's advice, reached for his rifle, leaned out the window and shot the unsuspecting fox on the spot. The poor fox rolled over and with its last dying breath said: "This is how a man keeps his word! I save his life and he takes mine!


Once upon a time, a farmer was working in the hay fields on a fine summer day. He had finished working his own fields and had gone to help his brother who lived in the next village, on the other side of the great forest.

As the afternoon wore on, he grew tired and decided to take a nap in the shade of one of the haystacks he had made. He put his pitchfork down, shaded his eyes with his hat, and was soon fast asleep. After some time, he awoke with a start as he noticed that his nap had lasted way too long – for the sun had nearly set. Already the evening shadows were falling on the fields. He quickly gathered his things and hurriedly started on his way home. But alas it was too late! Without the sun to guide him, he took the wrong path and soon found himself wandering through the great forest, lost in the dark.

All of a sudden, a huge brown bear with long shaggy fur, and eyes glowing red in the dark, stepped out from behind a tree and blocked the path. The man froze in his footsteps, afraid for his life.

The bear stood there silently for a few seconds and then growled in a low voice, "Don't be afraid, human. I won't hurt you. I am a friendly bear and only wish to help you."

The man was surprised to hear these kindly words from a wild beast. Still he asked, "But aren't you planning to eat me?" "No" laughed the bear. "Since I see that you are lost, I will take you home with me for the night. And in the morning, after breakfast, I will show you the way back to your village."

Hearing this, the man was greatly relieved and they set off together to the bear's house.

When they had gone a ways, the bear stopped and, pointing to an old oak tree with a large opening at the base, said to the man: "Here is my home. It is not very fancy, but you will be safe for the night. I have only one bed but you are welcome to share it with me." The man agreed and following the bear, entered the hole in the tree and immediately fell fast asleep on the bear's bed.

In the middle of the night, the man woke up, becoming aware of a terrible smell. "Bear!" he cried. "Wake up!" And he shook the bear until he was awake. "What is it?" asked the bear, wondering why he was so rudely awakened. "You stink!" shouted the man. "You stink like a wild beast!" he added. "And I can't sleep with a smell like that."

Without saying a word, the bear quietly got up out of the bed and spent the rest of the night on the ground.

In the morning, the bear rose early to prepare a proper breakfast for his guest.

First, he heated some homemade brandy and sweetened it with honey. Then he served a small cup of it to the man who was still in bed. After tasting this stimulating brew, the man arose in a pleasant mood, having forgotten all about last night's occurrence. He entered the kitchen.

There, the bear had prepared a typical breakfast of the region: An omelet of scrambled eggs, tomatoes and onions, accompanied by yogurt and delicious home made bread on the side.

Since it was early fall, the bear had prepared a seasonal specialty; fried, peeled banana peppers.

All this was topped off with a cup of Turkish style coffee; roasted coffee beans, ground to a fine powder, added to water in a special pot called a "jezva" and then the creamy foam brought to a rising boil three times for good luck.

When the man had finished his last drop of delicious coffee, the bear then did a very strange, startling thing. He picked up a sharp bread knife and stuck it into his very own leg. The man nearly fell out of his chair and, in shock and horror, cried out, "Bear, why have you done this painful thing to yourself!

The bear, looking at the man gravely, answered, "This wound will heal. But the words you said to me last night will never heal!"

The man thought deeply about this.

Then the bear, as he had promised, pointed out the way back to the village. The man turned to thank the bear for the last time. But the bear had vanished as suddenly as he had appeared the night before, leaving the man alone to continued on his way home; a little wiser from his encounter with a very unusual bear.


Once upon a time, the lion, king of all beasts, fell ill. Slowly and gracefully he retired to his den in the side of a nearby mountain. There, the animals, one by one, came to visit and wish him well.

First came the bear. He entered the cave and bowed deeply to show his respect. The lion greeted the bear and asked an odd question. "Tell me, bear," he snarled. "Does it stink in my cave?" The bear, sniffing the foul air, answered honestly. "Why, yes, your majesty. It indeed stinks in your cave." "What?" shouted the lion. With a roar, he angrily reached out and clawed the poor bear to pieces.

The rabbit, trembling at the entrance of the cave, watched how truth was rewarded. Now it was his turn to visit the lion. Shaking with fear, he hopped nervously into the cave and bowed to the lion. "Tell me, rabbit," the lion growled, "Does it stink in my cave?" "Oh, no! your Majesty, it smells good in your cave," squeaked the rabbit, desperately trying to please the lion. "What a liar!" roared the lion, "It doesn't smell good in here, it stinks!" And with that he ate the rabbit whole in one bite.

Now the lesson was not lost on the wolf who was nervously pacing back and forth outside. He drew near and bowed to the lion and was greeted with the same fateful question: "Tell me, wolf. Does it stink in my cave?" The wolf thought for a moment. And then it came to him how to answer. "It doesn't stink but on the other hand it doesn't smell good either," he answered, thinking himself very clever. At this, the lion became furious and jumped to his feet. "What nonsense! he bellowed. "What a lie! It has to be one or the other!" Enraged, he grabbed the wolf and tore him to shreds.

Having seen and heard the fate of the others, the fox trotted cautiously into the den and bowed before the lion. The lion gave the fox a cross look and then asked the fatal question. "Tell me, fox. Does it stink or smell good in my cave?" The fox replied, "Most exulted majesty, please forgive me. I don't know if it stinks or smells good in your cave. I have a terrible cold (sniff) and have been sneezing all day with a stuffed nose. So you see, I can't tell you the truth and I certainly wouldn't want to tell you a lie."

The fox waited to see if the lion would jump up and tear him to pieces. Instead the lion had fallen fast asleep and was softly snoring, contented with the fox's answer.

And that's how the fox escaped the terrible fate of its friends.


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