Portrait of the Poet as a Young Werewolf: A Bulgarian Lyric Lycanthrope


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“Empires dissolve and peoples disappear, song passes not away” – William Watson

The dogged pursuit of poetry.

The dogged pursuit of poetry.

Pour yourself a glass of rakia, toss yourself a shopska salad, and hear tell of the Golden Age of Bulgaria, where men were men, women were women, kings were scholars, and werewolves wrote poetry.  In the dark old days of the 7th Century A.D., the nomadic Bulgars swept out of Central Asia, establishing a khanate in the Pontic-Caspian steppe that would be the core around which the First Bulgarian Empire was formed.  By the late 9th Century A.D., Greater Bulgaria extended across the Balkans from the Danube to the Black Sea and from the Dnieper to the Adriatic, and the crushing defeats Prince Simeon I handed to Byzantium, as well as the Magyars and Serbs, led to his being declared Emperor of the Bulgarian Empire, reckoned as a political powerhouse that both the Byzantines and Catholic Church were careful to negotiate with.  But Emperor Simeon was about more than knocking heads.  He built his capital Preslav in the Byzantine style to rival Constantinople and gathered together the greatest minds of Medieval Bulgaria.  You see, before Simeon became heir to the throne of Bulgaria, he was being groomed as its next archbishop, with the finest classical education money could buy at the University of Constantinople.  During Simeon’s reign (893-927 A.D.), Bulgaria was the literary and spiritual center of Slavic Europe.  Scholarship, philosophy, theology and the arts flourished under his patronage.  Simeon had four male heirs.  Michael (by an unknown first wife, later excluded from the succession), Peter (who would rule the Bulgarian Empire from 927-969 A.D after Simeon’s death), Ivan (who after an unsuccessful rebellion against Peter, fled to Byzantium), and Boyan (whose name has been variously translated as Bajan, Bojan, or Benjamin) about whom scholars know virtually nothing save two facts: (1) He was an extraordinarily gifted poet, and (2) He was a sorcerer-werewolf.

It is remarkable that at a time when Bulgaria was the center of the Balkan universe, rivalling Byzantium, militarily obstructing Arab invasions into Eastern Europe, and producing an impressive literary output that records of Boyan are quite nearly nonexistent.  For many years, the sole mention of Boyan was thought to have been in the historical musings of Liudprand of Cremona’s Antapodosis.  Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona (920-972 A.D.) was a historian and diplomat, frequently serving as Rome’s ambassador to Constantinople, and was roughly contemporary with Simeon’s offspring.  While he wrote his notes on the state of things in Peter’s Bulgaria, he could not fail to mention the strange princeling Tsarevic Boyan Simenovic (referring to him as “Bojan”).

According to common report their king Simeon was a demi-Grec, that is, half a Greek, and in his boyhood was taught at Byzantium the rhetoric of Demosthenes and the logic of Aristotle. Later on, people say, he abandoned his literary studies and assumed the dress of a monk. But he soon left the calm retreat of a monastery for the storms of this world, and beguiled by desire of kingship preferred to follow in the footsteps of the apostate Julian rather than in those of Saint Peter, the holy keeper of the keys of heaven. He had two sons, one called Bojan, the other Peter, this latter being still alive and now ruling over the Bulgarians. It is said that Bojan was such an adept in the art of magic that he could suddenly turn himself before men’s eyes into a wolf or any other beast you pleased (Liudprand, 1930, p123-124).

Now, medieval dynastic succession could be a nasty business, with lots of heir on heir violence, imprisonment, torture, and general bad manners.  And with four potential contenders for the throne of the Bulgarian Empire, one would have expected some fatal sibling rivalry.  Surprisingly, there was no outright murder.  “Symeon had left four sons. Michael, the son of his first marriage, had been confined in a monastery to secure the throne to Peter; the latter had two other brothers, John and Boyan, who was popularly supposed to be a magician” (Helmolt, 1902, p333-334).  While John (Ivan) would later try to usurp his brother Peter, and Michael was knocked out of then running even before Emperor Simeon reached his expiration date, there is absolutely no mention of Boyan having any interest whatsoever in kingship, as he had more pressing thamaturgical and lycanthropic concerns, and in fact he completely disappears from the historical scene.  This is no doubt a prudent move if one is a sensitive werewolf and wishes to avoid torch-wielding mobs, hit squads armed with silver, or being burned at the stake.  Modern historians, lacking information, have tended to assume that Boyan was either a tad touched in the head, or engaged in the medieval Bulgarian equivalent of “tuning in and dropping out”.

The fourth son, Benjamin (or Bajan) had his own private form of revolt. According to Liutprand (a western imperial envoy to Constantinople in the second half of the tenth century), Bajan studied magic and possessed the power to transform himself suddenly into a wolf or other strange animal. Unfortunately nothing further is known about this talented young man; the reference just noted contains all the information about him preserved in our sources. Lycanthropy seems to have been a not uncommon form of mental illness in the Middle Ages described as such by both Arab and Italian doctors who could not agree whether it was a form of mania or melancholy. Whether Bajan was struck with this form of insanity or achieved his transformations, as our source states, through magic practices, possibly through hallucinogens (a means which can be documented for seventeenth-century European werewolves), is unknown (Fine, 1983, p163).

Slavic werewolves tend to have a close association with sorcery, that is, there is a good deal less mindless, animalistic rending and tearing of human flesh involved, and more of an impressive mastery of witchcraft that allows an adept practitioner to metamorphasize at will.  Close as it is to Transylvania and for the sake of efficiency, the Bulgarians leaned towards lumping sorcerers, werewolves, and vampires together, often comingling the entire range of monstrous behaviors in the same person as “In some points a similarity may be said to exist between them, both being destructive forces, of an evil and self-seeking character. Those afflicted become subject to trance-like states and hysterical phenomena. A certain kind of vampire (which is really a blood-sucking ghost) is said to have the power of assuming animal shape, and Bulgarian vampires appear to be especially gifted with this peculiarity” (Hamel, 1915, p53).  Boyan apparently distinguished himself, not just sorcerously and lycanthropically, but lyrically.

Church lyric-writers are all anonymous authors of troparions in honor of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the seven martyrs, St. Clement, etc. The chroniclers and historians give the intimation for an epical productiveness: such an intimation is warranted by the recorded legend given in the chronicle of Luitpand and Peretz, which has been reproduced by various historians. It presents Boyan, the youngest son of Simeon, such a subtle magician that with a single glance he could turn a man into a wolf or another animal. It was supposed he performed this miracle not with a reed-pipe as Orpheus used to do, but with his muse, for he was believed to be a poet, such as was the Russian bard (the author of the Sermon to the Igorev Regiment, where similar miracles are met with) (Mishev, 1919, p97).

While Boyan is sparsely mentioned in the historical record, as either author or werewolf, his poetic genius was celebrated in the 12th Century Old Slavic epic poem, “The Tale of the Armament of Igor” (detailing the failed raid of Novgorod’s Prince Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave on Polotsk), which makes several literary references not only to his wordsmithing, but also to his lupine and magical proclivities.

Or, to begin this song in accordance with the ballads of this time, and not like the invention of Boyan? For the wise Boyan when he wished to make a song for any man, in his thought used to fly in the trees, race like a grey wolf on earth, soar like a dusky eagle beneath the clouds. He used to recall the words and the dissensions of the early times. Then he released falcons on a flock of swans; whichever falcon first arrived, its swan sang a song,—to the elder Yaroslav, to Mstislav the Brave who slew Redelya in front of the Kasog hosts, or to Roman Svyatoslavic the Handsome. Yet, Boyan, my brothers, did not let loose ten falcons on a flock of swans, but laid his own wizard fingers on the living strings, which then themselves throbbed out praise for the princes (“Tale of the Armament of Igor”, II:8-28)

And again, later in the poem, Boyan’s artistic talents are lauded and he is referred to as “wizard Boyan, scion of Veles”, which has little meaning without the telling bit of information that the Cult of Veles was a pagan priesthood that idolized the major Slavic supernatural deity Veles, associated in mythology with dragons, cattle, magic, musicians, wealth and trickery, and usually depicted with the head of a wolf.  Still later in the poem’s subsection Reminiscence of Boyan, Boyan is further noted as a “poet of the ancient time” (“Tale of the Armament of Igor”, II:745-753), the ancient time being that of Vladamir I (980-1015 A.D.) and Yaroslav the First (1019-1054 A.D.), or roughly the turn of the 10th Century, which would be approximately correct for the later lives of the sons of Bulgaria’s Simeon.

Oh, Boyan, nightingale of the times agone! If only thou’ hadst warbled of these hosts, leaping in the tree of thought, flying up with thy mind beneath the clouds, weaving together the glories of both halves of this time, racing on the path of Troyan through the plains to the mountains. Thus might have been sung in song to Igor, [his (Oleg’s) grandson]. “Like as a storm bore hawks before it across the broad fields, the crows, in flocks run towards the mighty Don.” Or, thus might have been sung, oh wizard Boyan, scion of Veles (“Tale of the Armament of Igor”, II: 59-66)

Curiously, or perhaps tellingly, Boyan is also mentioned in relation to Vseslav Bryachislavich (1039-1101 A.D.), Prince of Polotsk (in modern day Belarus), a fearsome warrior-king who is similarly believed to have been a sorcerous werewolf (For more information on Vseslav see “Vseslav, the Sorcerous Werewolf Prince of Polotsk”).  Seems like an epidemic of lycanthropy was going around in Eastern Europe as the 11th Century got underway, but Vseslav was notably more handy with the hack and slash than the couplet and quatrain.

Prince Vseslav was a judge to his subjects, he appointed cities for the princes: but he himself at night raced like a wolf from Kiev to the Idol [or, (accepting the reading of the text unaltered)—to the Lord] of Tmutarakaii, raced, like a wolf across the path of the great Khors. To him at Polotsk they rang the bells early for matins at Saint Sophia; and he at Kiev heard the sound.  Although his wise soul were in a hardy [or precious] body, yet he often endured misfortunes. To him thou, oh wizard Boyan, didst first thoughtfully speak the refrain :—” Neither the crafty man nor the experienced, nor a bird nor a minstrel can escape God’s judgments.” (“Tale of the Armament of Igor”, II:605-611)

Alas, the works of Boyan, the sorcerous Bulgarian werewolf have been lost to us, and given the accolades later heaped upon him, it seems that we are missing the corpus of a wolfen Shakespeare, raised during the Golden Age of Bulgarian intellectual supremacy.  Boyan might even be regarded as the archetype for James Dean or Jack Kerouac, the rebel soul with the tender heart.  Or maybe it’s just easier to get dinner to come to you than chasing it about the countryside.  Robert Frost once said, “To be a poet is a condition, not a profession”, and this is equally true for lycanthropy, thus the marriage of the two could only have resulted in something monstrously beautiful.

Fine, John V. A. 1939-. The Early Medieval Balkans: a Critical Survey From the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.
Hamel, Frank. Human Animals. London: William Rider & son, 1915.
Helmolt, Hans F. 1865-1929. The History of the World; a Survey of a Man’s Record. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1902
Liudprand, Bishop of Cremona, d. ca. 972. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona …. New York,: E.P. Dutton & company, 1930.
Magnus, Leonard Arthur. The Tale of the Armament of Igor. A.D. 1185: A Russian Historical Epic. London: Oxford University Press, 1915.
Mishev, D. P. The Bulgarians In the Past: Pages From the Bulgarian Cultural History. Lausanne: Librarie centrale des nationalitʹes, 1919.


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