Lessons From the Autopsy of a Devoured Slav Shepherd

"When every village has internet, TV, and every child listens to popular music, I think that this old world is vanishing," Kalezic-Radonjic told BIRN.

Kalezic-Radonjic is the author of a recent 18-month forensic analysis of The Devoured Shepherd, sifting through the dozens of recorded versions to trace its origins and publishing her findings in Context, an academic journal specialising in Macedonian literature.

Her curiosity was sparked by a throwaway remark in a colleague's paper - that while the lyrics of The Devoured Shepherd were macabre the melody was a jolly waltz.

But, while the strange juxtaposition of words and music was her starting point, by the end of her investigation Kalezic-Radonjic realised that, with the song's extinction, the world was losing much more than a jaunty tune.

Celebration or warning?

Folk dancers in kolo. Photo: Flickr/Ali Eminov

Far from a mere medieval horror story, the lyric is evidence of ancient religious beliefs, the legacy of which persists to this day. And although the story of three women eating a sleeping boy's heart is seen as a coded warning about the perils of unchecked feminine power, its roots are in fact in the celebration of female energy.

One of the clues to the song's origins, Kalezic-Radonjic found, was the circumstances in which it was traditionally sung: in Bulgaria, at baptisms; in Bosnia, during harvests in the form of a traditional kolo folk dance; in Croatia, at children's bedtimes and on the eve of the feast of John the Baptist.

"This song was actually about a joyful event, about the stubborn persistence of life, which is renewed after death," she wrote in Context.

But how did a song that started out as a celebration of life...

Continue reading on: