Matija Murko on the first Slavic Sanskritist Majewski

Dr. Nina Petek

Among the Slavs that significantly influenced the beginnings of the formation of the scientific research of Indian literature and languages in Slavic countries, Murko emphasized the Pole Walenty Skorochód-Majewski, an archivist of the Kingdom of Poland, and his work O Slovenima i braći, which was published in 1816 in Warsaw. Murko[1] commented that the title of the work makes it hard to anticipate that the work is, virtually in its entirety, dedicated to the study of Sanskrit and Indian literature. Murko valued highly Majewski’s efforts; he described him as a person “deserving of the glory of being the first Slavic Sanskritist”,[2] since Majewski’s work established firm foundations for the further scientific research of the linguistic and literary worlds of India. Namely, Majewski did not merely string together cognates in a superficial manner, but also composed a grammar of Sanskrit, relying especially on the work of Johann Philipp Wesdin Bartholomeo, an Austrian missionary and orientalist of Croatian origins. Majewski even translated two books of the epic Rāmāyaṇa, together with a list of Sanskrit words to make reading easier.[3] In addition to this, he also translated the work Brahmavaivartapurāṇa with the added Latin translation of Adolphus Fridericus Stenzler.[4]

Walenty Skorochód-Majewski (1764–1835)

Majewski’s work was characterized by a passion for seeking comparisons between Indian and Slavic gods, beliefs and customs. In addition, his tireless search for sources – namely, he acquired all the works on the languages of Indians and Persians,[5] among others also the discussions of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, reviews of Schlegel’s work Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, and Bartholomeo’s Sanskrit grammar – eventually led to the theory of “the origin of Slavs on Ganges”.[6] Between 1813 and 1815 he gave many lectures on Sanskrit and Indian literature, with the common thread of Slavs and Indians originating from the same tribe. In his desire to prove the Indian ancestry of Slavs, he sacrificed all of his possessions,[7] and his studies contributed to intensifying the research on Slavic identity and nationality[8], especially in Poland. This, as Murko wrote, was not surprising, since Poles, after losing their country, idealized their history and national past[9] and leaned on the romantic image of the noble ur-nation of Slavs.

In his study, Murko added that despite the importance of Majewski’s research, the nature of the reception of India in his works was typical of Europe, namely that “in the romantic spirit, he desired to create an impression of a dark Slavic antiquity and ancient Slavic national culture”,[10] especially on the basis of linguistic relatedness. But the latter does not diminish the value and significance of his research. Namely, Murko did not only describe him as the first Pole, but also the first Slav who “included in his studies the farthest nations for his purposes”.[11]


Herling, Bradley L. The German Gita: Hermeneutics and Discipline in the German Reception of Indian Thought. London: Routledge, 2016.

Murko, Matija. »Prvi uspoređivači sanskrita sa slovenskim jezicima.« CXXXII. knjiga Rada jugoslavenske akademije znanosti i umjetnosti, str. 103–115.

Petek, Nina. Bhagavadgita: onkraj vezi, tostran svobode. Maribor: Založba Pivec, 2022. Sharpe, Eric J. The Universal Gita: Western Images of the Bhagavad Gita a Bicentenary Survey. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1985.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Ibid., 107.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 108.

[5] Ibid., 107.

[6] Ibid., 108.

[7] Ibid., 107.

[8] Ibid., 108. Majewski’s research also influenced the intellectuals in Prague, where some of his theories were also negatively received. Josef Dobrovsky was especially critical of Majewski, negating his hypotheses of the common origin of Slavs and Indians. But Dobrovsky, in Murko’s words, “had no romantic sensibilities” (ibid., 106).

[9] Ibid., 105.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 105, 106.

Davorin Trstenjak

Dr. Jan Ciglenečki

As part of the project “Matija Murko and his collaborators”, Dr. Jan Ciglenečki (Department of Philosophy, FF UL) studies Matija Murko’s views on the so-called autochthonist theories, according to which Slavs were the first inhabitants of their present-day homeland. Murko thus began his discussion “Prvi uspoređivači sanskrita sa slovenskim jezicima” (1896) by remarking that the development of Indo-Germanic linguistics met with a strong response among Slavs, who began to develop romantic notions about the ancient origin of Slavs in ancient India, based on the linguistic similarities between Slavic languages and Sanskrit.

In Slovene lands, certain amateur linguists associated the assumption of Slavic antiquity with the patriotic theory that Slovenes are autochthonous on their current territory. This theory gained a great national awakening potential at the time of cultural tensions between Germans and Slovenes. The most prominent advocate of this pseudo-scientific theory was the belletrist, mythologist, etymologist, historian, liberal Catholic publicist, and the founder and first president of the Slovene Writers’ Association, Davorin Trstenjak (1817–1890), who Murko mentioned with respect multiple times in his memoirs. In the Manuscript collection of the National and University Library, there are 21 letters from Trstenjak to Murko.

Davorin Trstenjak (1817–1890)

An interesting analogy to Murko’s study of Homeric epic poetry are Trstenjak’s interpretations of the High German epic “Parzival”, composed by the Bavarian minnesänger Wolfram von Eschenbach at the beginning of the 13th century. In this poem, considered to be one of the greatest monuments of German literature, historically well-known places in what is today Slovenian Styria are mentioned in key parts, which particularly attracted Trstenjak’s attention.

The decisive turn on the spiritual path of the main character Parzival occurs when he visits the hermit Trevrizent on a Good Friday, and the hermit teaches him about his origins and the mysteries of the Holy Grail. In a long conversation with Parzival, Trevrizent reminisces about his knightly travels, which led him across three continents in the service of love (minnedienst). Although we learn little of his sojourns in Africa and Asia, the final leg of his journey is described in unusual detail. The latter led Trevrizent to Sevilla, where he met Parzival’s father Gahmuret, and then through Friuli to Aquileia. From there, he continued his journey to Celje and then Hajdina near Ptuj via Rogatec, where the description of the journey ends.

Concerning the toponyms associated with Southern Styria in Wolfram’s work, the river Drava (Trâ) and the stream Grajena (Greian) are mentioned among the watercourses, and Celje (Zilje), Rogatec (Rôhas), and Hajdina (Gandîne) among the place names. The explicit mention of the land of Styria can be added to these geographic designations. However, they are not the only testimony to the links with places in Southern Styria; there are also the personal names of certain protagonists with important roles in Wolfram’s poem. These are primarily, Gandîn, Parzival’s grandfather, who was named after the town Gandîne (Hajdina), and Parzival’s aunt  Lammîre, who Wolfram describes as “the mistress of Styria”. In this context, Ither or “the Red Knight”, popular in Styria because of his intimate relationship with Lammîre, must also be mentioned.

The unexpected mentions of Styrian places and the literary characters associated with them stirred Trstenjak’s imagination. He vehemently interpreted certain places and characters through the lens of autochthonist theories and attempted to explain them on mythological and etymological grounds that were supposed to confirm their indisputably Slavic origins.

The personal name Gandin, used by Wolfram for Parzival’s grandfather, Trstenjak thus explained as an Old Slavic solar god and bard. The town Gandîne, said by Wolfram to be located on the confluence of the stream Grajena and the river Drava, is on the basis of this very information not placed in present-day Hajdina by Trstenjak, but rather on the left (northern) bank of Drava, close to contemporary Budina, a small village east of Ptuj. It was at this place, Trstenjak assumed, that the natives worshipped a sacred bowl, called the Holy Grail by Romance nations. Furthermore, his interpretation of the character Lammîre, Parzival’s aunt, described by Wolfram as “the mistress of Styria”, is also interesting, since Trstenjak associates her with the folk tradition of Lama Baba. His theories thus represent the first known interpretation of the parts of Wolfram’s epic that refer to the region of Southern Styria. Further research will clarify how Trstenjak’s scientifically naive, but nevertheless pioneering attempts at explanations influenced researchers after him.

Matija Murko and Homeric Scholarship

Dr. Blaž Zabel

It is less known that M. Murko was not particularly fond of Homer and wary of classical studies. In his memoires, he remembered how disappointed he was when he first read Homer as a high school student (Murko 1951a:29), which perhaps influenced his later conviction that classical philology was unjustifiably valued above other national philologies. As a student at the Vienna University, he insisted that his doctoral exam (rigorosum) in “Germanistik” included Slavic philology instead of then mandatory classical philology, for which he went as far as to change the University rules (Murko 1951a:49).[1] In his later academic career too, he objected to the prevalence of classics in the linguistic departments (see Gantar 2020). At the University of Leipzig, for example, he opposed the suggested appointment of Paul Kretschmer[2] to the chair of comparative philology, which resulted in a long-lasting dispute with the rector of the university, Erich Bethe(Murko 1951a:165–6). All these episodes paint a picture of a man who wholeheartedly cherished Slavic philology and objected to the privileged position of classical studies in academia.

Nevertheless, being averse does not equal being ignorant. M. Murko knew ancient Greek and Latin well, read ancient literature, studied the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, as I show here, was relatively well acquainted with concurrent Homeric scholarship—at least for someone not working in the field. This becomes clear when M. Murko’s personal papers archived in Ljubljana, containing around 30 folios of notes about Homeric epic and Homeric scholarship, are inspected.[1] The notes are hard to read, written in a highly cryptic handwriting, and the collection is clearly fragmentary,[2] but it is clear that they are personal study notes on Homer and Homeric scholarship. Some of the folios also include transcriptions of specific verses from Homer and two folios contain a comparison of the number of verses from the Iliad and the Odyssey with what are presumably (no titles are given) a number of verses from several South Slavic epic poems.[3]

Classicist Milman Parry (1902–1935) revolutionized the theories of Homeric studies.

The existent study notes were taken from several publications on Homer. The most extensive collection (10 folios in Ms 1392, III. 7.) is about Erich Bethe’s Homer, Dichtung und Sage (1929), one of the most influential contributions to the so-called “analysis school” of Homeric scholarship (Tsagalis 2020:130). In Homer, Dichtung und Sage Bethe advanced Gottfried Hermann’s argument that at the kernel of the Iliad lies an original poem about the wrath of Achilles by adding to it the idea that the poem must have been heavily expanded by a sixth century redactor. He also argued that ancient Greek folksongs must have been incorporated into the Iliad in the process. The 10 folios reveal that M. Murko devoted utmost attention to this book, outlining Bethe’s argument page by page.

In another batch of personal notes, probably from an earlier period (Ms 1392, III. 4.), one can find notes on another representative of the analysis school, Georg Finsler, and his book Homer. M. Murko read at least the first part which was subtitled “Der Dichter und Sein Welt” and was published in 1914. In it, Finsler argued that Homer was the author of the Iliad only, and that the poem was later reworked. Another book M. Murko took study notes from was Engelbert Drerup’s Homer (1915), a well-known contribution to the “unitarian school,” in which the author criticized the analytic approach and argued for unity of the two Homeric epics (see West 2011). The two scholars were clearly in academic dialogue, because Drerup considered M. Murko’s phonographic recording[1] of South Slavic epic (see Drerup 1920:265–70; 1921:48–57), and M. Murko occasionally responded to Drerup’s research in his own publications (e.g. Murko 1919:280, 283–4, 292, 296). Finally, M. Murko took notes from Thaddaeus Zielinski’s substantial article “Die Behandlung gleichzeitiger Ereignisse im antiken Epos” (1901), in which the author presented the so-called “Zielinski’s law.” As is well known, the applicability of Zielinski’s law, which “states that Homeric narrative always moves forward and so cannot depict two simultaneous actions,” has been heatedly discussed in oral literature research (Scodel 2008:107; cf. de Jong 2017; Danek 1998).

Albert Lord (1912–1991), a professor of Comparative Literature, conducted extensive fieldwork on oral tradition in the former Yugoslavia.

These study notes were probably taken as part of M. Murko’s preparation for the research of South Slavic oral traditions, where he regularly compared South Slavic epic with Homer and even speculated about the oral social context of Homeric society. Such comparisons featured prominently in “Neues über südslavische Volksepik” (1919), in which he mentioned both Drerup and Bethe, La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle (1929),[1] and Tragom srpsko-hrvatske narodne epike: putovanja u godinama 1930 do 1932 (1951), but appeared also in other publications, such as “Die serbokroatische Volkspoesie in der deutschen Literatur” (1906) or “Kod Meštrovića i njegovih—Ivan Meštrović kao pjevač epskih narodnih pjesama” (1933).

[1] A good half of La poésie populaire épique en Yougoslavie au début du XXe siècle (1929) is in fact a revised translation of “Neues über südslavische Volksepik” (1919).

[2] M. Murko’s recordings from his early expeditions (1912–1913) were published on Compact Discs. See M. Murko 2017.

[3] Murko, Matija. Personal papers. Ms 1392. National and University Library, Manuscript Collection, Ljubljana, Slovenia. The materials about Homer are located under III. 4., “Concepts and excerpts,” and III. 7., “Materials about Homer.”

[5] Since most of the notes were numbered by M. Murko himself, it can be concluded that only a few folios were preserved.

[6] M. Murko also compared the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey with particular guslar performances in his publications (see Murko 1929a:14–5).

[7] Interestingly, this story closely resembles Friedrich August Wolf’s insistence that he be matriculated as a ‘Student of Philology,’ then an inexistent faculty.

[8] Paul Kretschmer (1866–1956) was at the time widely known for his work on pre-Greek elements in ancient Greek.