Daniel Skobla
The Roots of Common Balkan Identity.
The Foundation of Mututality


1) There can be defined two different extreme theoretical position on the origin of nations. The first one, which might be called ‘modernist’, maintains that nations were uniquely the product of the 19th century transformations of society. The second one ‘primordialist’ holds that ethnicity is a kind of kinship in which the core of the nation is eternally present and ready to emerge under the right historical conditions. The reasonable compromise between them is presented by the third ‘middle of the road’ position (for example Anthony D. Smith). It claims that before there were nations, there were ethnies - communities with a common myth of descent, a shared history, shared culture, a sense of solidarity and connection with a specific territory. This position emphasises that ethnies provided a durable sense of identity between pre-modern and modern communities.

The academic dispute about the origins of nations is closely connected with the perspective on the roots of historical myths and national ‘mythology’. I understand the myths, as an integral part of collective ethnic identities. I perceive historical mythology, particularly the myths of national origin in rather functionalist terms. I contend that it is inevitable for the nation, in order to sustain the common identity to produce such narratives. Using the words of Anthony Smith, "the durability and special quality of ‘nation’ are in myths, memories, values, and symbols… there can be no identity without memory, no collective purpose without myth, and common destiny is necessary element of the very concept of a nation".

Yet instead of an immediate argument over the definitions of myth and the nature of myth (which poses such questions as: are myths narratives that present real histories of origin or are the myths fiction, are events in myths real or not, etc.…?) I propose to introduced here an approach according to which, based on comparative analysis, we can formulate the fundamental elements in structure of all ‘national’ myths.

2) I present here the example of the analytical deconstruction of mythological narratives. In Anthony Smith’s model for the creation of nations, a people goes through four periods. The first period is when tribes ‘coalesce’ and is linked with ancestry and foundation myths. The second period is that of ‘ethnic consolidation’, often linked with blossoming of culture, military heroes, saints. The third period is of division, often seen as decline. The old order toughens around the upper classes; the community ossifies and decays, and is sometimes conquered and exiled. Within this period nationalist movements appear, breaking with the past, rewriting history and so forth. The fourth period, when people finally become a modern nation, is associated with the drawing up of a constitution, the provision of social welfare and economic reforms. On the basis of this model it appears clear that the various nations, regardless of what is the content have a similar structure of mythological narrative. This allows me to formulate a tentative opinion: the myths of origins are not real histories but rather an ‘invention’ and specific artefact of humankind.

For the purposes of comparison (which might stimulate a discussion about the myths of origin in the Slavic world and the Balkans) I provide the short outline of mythological narrative which forms the basis of the Slovak national identity: the first stage of the myth (according to Smith’s model), the foundation myth, refers to Slavs, not Slovaks, coming into area which had been previously abandoned by Germanic tribes, and previous to that, Celtic tribes. Mentioned is often also Roman civilisation in ‘Slovakia’ reaching as far as Trencin in north of Slovakia (Marcus Aurelius around 130 AD settled there) and of pre-Slavonic Christian communities in South ‘Slovakia’. The foundation myth concerns the Frankish merchant, probably arm dealer Samo. He probably wielded power over what later became the Habsburg monarchy. The Slavs elected him king because they needed his help in fighting the Avars. The event that the Slavs elected Samo demonstrates that the Slavs are by nature democrats…

The second stage according to Smith’s model comprises the Great Moravian Empire (9th century) and the arrival of the Saloniki brothers Cyril and Methodius. This second period functions in the Slovak myth exactly as Smith maintains that it should. It is period of flowering of ethnic culture and it is represented by introduction of written scripture and creation of original work which they are said to have composed in Great Moravia. The heroic war histories and heroes consist in the wars with German tribes. True to Smith’s model, Great Moravia has been recalled as the ‘golden age’ of the Slovaks since the beginnings of the National Awakening in 19th century. The third period ‘seen as decline’ was, indeed, a period after the destruction of the Great Moravia. This third period lasted, so to speak, from the beginning of the 10th century until the creation of Czechoslovakia (or alternatively independent Slovak Republic). In reference to this period it is often mentioned a ‘one-thousand–years- oppression of the Slovaks’ under the Hungarian rule. In Anthony Smith’s 4th period, events of the 3rd period took on mythic character and the ethnical community transforms into a modern nation with its power centers and modern administrative structures.

I am encouraging every participant of this seminar in a similar way to deconstruct his/her particular national ‘myth of origin’. I believe that we will find obvious similarities in the structure among these narratives.

3) It is indisputable that there is something like genuine traditional culture common to particular ethic groups. There are traditional customs, languages, folklore, songs, stories, life-styles. It is also obvious that the ethic communities that intervened with each other often in history living on the same territory in some way or another influenced their cultures. Yet, continuing in my rather sceptical and ‘deconstructing’ attitude towards the eternity of nations, I point out to the question to what extent are ‘traditional customs’ really traditional and to what extent are modern ‘inventions’. I just humbly indicate to the famous work of British historian Eric Hobsbawm, who in his book (‘Invention of tradition’) in a meticulous manner, deconstructed many of ‘old’ traditions in Scotland. Just for example, Hobsbawm find out that Scottish ‘tradition’ of producing and wearing kilt is not so much ancient but it is a new invention of the late of 19th century textile industry in English Birmingham.

My another remark on the topic of this week could be called ‘the question of the context’. There is no doubt that by the means of comparative ethnographic and linguistical analysis we can find many astonishing similarities in traditions and folk culture among the Balkan countries and regions. Yet, in my opinion, to certain extent (if we decisively want) we can find the similarities everywhere, in every aspect of human culture and between different countries or regions of the world. Everything depends on the context we choose. Therefore, we must be aware that the result of our looking up for the roots of the common Balkan identity and the foundations of commonality might create another myth – myth of mutuality. It is positive and non-nationalist myth whereby all ethnic cultures of the region deserve the same respect and whereby all nations in the same positive way contributed to the building of the regional history (and in the same way will hopefully contribute to peaceful future of the Balkan). However, this is a political enterprise and we should keep in mind an academic tenability of such accomplishment.


Wroc³aw, 10.07.2000