byliny (bĭlēˈnē) [Rus.,=what has happened], Russian scholarly term first applied in the 1840s to a great body of narrative and heroic poems. They are called by the folk stariny [Rus.,=what is old]. Most byliny are loosely connected with historical events dating from the 11th to the 16th cent., particularly the era of the tatar yoke and have been handed down by word of mouth by folk reciters. The poems were first collected and studied in the late 18th cent. The largest of the byliny cycles is that from Kiev concerning Prince Vladimir, the Little Sun, and the warrior Ilya of Murom. Of importance also is the Novgorod cycle, concerning the adventures of the merchant prince Sadko and Vasily Buslayevich. A third cycle of Older Heroes relates tales of the strong plowman Mikula. The characters of the byliny all possess hyperbolic powers. Though modified by elements of Scandinavian, Byzantine, and Central Asian folk tales, byliny are strikingly Russian and have had an enriching influence on Russian literature, music, and art.


See N. K. Chadwick, Russian Heroic Poetry (1932, repr. 1964); F. J. Oinas and S. Soudakoff, ed., The Study of Russian Folklore (1975).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



epic folk songs in ancient Rus’ which reflect the historical reality of the period primarily from the 11th through the 16th century. In the process of many centuries of development the byliny underwent changes; they incorporated historical events of later times and sometimes drew on events of an earlier epoch. Rich stores of byliny were discovered in the Trans-Onega, Pinega, Mezen’, and Pechora regions and along the shores of the White Sea. Since the end of the 18th century byliny have attracted the attention of writers and scholars as highly artistic monuments of folk creativity.

At the center of the byliny are the figures of the bogatyri, who are endowed with lofty moral qualities and who are self-sacrificingly devoted to the homeland. In the figure of the favorite bogatyr’, Il’ia Muromets, the people created a poetic biography of a peasant’s son having calm self-confidence and strength that is alien to any affectation. He stands at the head of the bogatyri’s outpost, which bars the way to any foes (this theme took shape during the time of the Mongol invasion). Equally poetic are the figures of the other bogatyri protecting their native land—Dobrynia Nikitich and Alesha Popovich. The theme of defending the homeland is naturally merged in the byliny with the theme of the people’s life and work. Thus, the first great deed that Il’ia Muromets accomplishes after being restored to life is rooting out stumps and clearing fields for plowing. The age-old dream of working people concerning easy tillage and work that ensures prosperity is reflected in the bylina about the Volga and Mikula Selianinovich.

Simultaneously, byliny arose bearing the imprint of the people’s everyday social and family life (for the most part, those of Novgorod). The most important of these are Sadko and Vasilii Buslaev, which have preserved sketches of the medieval city’s daily life. A special group of byliny represents the life of the skomorokhi (itinerant performers—Vavila and the Skomorokhi, A Fable, The Birds, About the Big Ox). The artistry of the folk skaziteli (bylina narrators), who transmitted the byliny orally from generation to generation, increased the diversity and richness of the bylina characters.

The greatness of the characters, which is a reflection of the spiritual resources of the people and their moral ideals, and the patriotic content of the byliny were highly prized by Russian writers, composers, and artists of the 19th century and early 20th (by N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, V. M. Vasnetsov, I. E. Repin, and others).

The poetic system of the byliny is rich and varied. In order to characterize a bylina figure, the people often employed hyperbole. A “triple quality” of narration is one of the principal devices for depicting heroic deeds and serves to underscore their importance. Characteristic for the poetics of the byliny are fixed epithets, comparisons, and parallelisms. The verse is marked by a precise and rich rhythm and by a uniform number of stresses per line. By the middle of the 20th century byliny had almost disappeared from the oral repertoire of the people, and they continue their literary life now only in books.

During the period of the 1760’s, 1770’s, and 1780’s the first collection of byliny of scholarly signifiance was compiled (Kirsha Danilov, Ancient Russian Poems, published in 1804). Collectors of byliny during the 19th and 20th centuries included P. V. Kireevskii, P. N. Rybnikov, A. F. Gil’ferding, A. V. Markov, A. D. Grigor’ev, and N. E. On-chukov. The study of the byliny was begun by V. G. Be-linsky (in his articles in 1841) and was continued by the democratic critics of the 1860’s. The links between the byliny and historical reality formed the basis for the works of the so-called historical school, headed by V. F. Miller. The foundations of the present-day understanding of the byliny were laid at the beginning of the 20th century by M. Gorky in his articles on literature and folklore. He regarded the byliny as the epic poetry of the working people, underscoring their collective principle, realistic basis, and high artistic merit.

Danilov, Kirsha. Drevnie rossiiskie stikhotvoreniia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1958.
Pesni, 2nd ed., vols. 1-3. Collected by P. N. Rybnikov. Moscow, 1909-10.
Pesni, 2nd ed. Collected by P. V. Kireevskii. Part 1, issue 1-4, Moscow, 1868-79; parts 2-3, issues 5-10, Moscow, 1864-70.
Gil’ferding, A. F. Onezhskie byliny, zapisannye letom 1871 goda, 4th ed., vols. 1-3. Moscow-Leningrad, 1949-51.
Markov, A. V. Belomorskie byliny. Moscow, 1901.
Byliny novoi i nedavnei zapisi iz raznykh mestnostei Rossii. Edited by V. F. Miller. Moscow, 1908.
Byliny Severa. Recorded by A. M. Astakhova. Vol. 1, Moscow-Leningrad, 1938; vol. 2, Moscow-Leningrad, 1951.
Kriukova, M. S. Byliny, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1939-41. (Gos. literaturnyi muzei: Letopisi, books 6, 8.)
Byliny pudozhskogo kraia. Texts prepared by G. N. Parilova and A. D. Soimonov. Petrozavodsk, 1941.
Onezhskie byliny. Edited by Iu. M. Sokolov and V. I. Chicherov. Moscow, 1948. (Gos. literaturnyi muzei: Letopisi, book 13.)
Ukhov, P. D. Byliny. Moscow, 1957.
Propp, V. Ia., and B. N. Putilov. Byliny, vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1958.

Belinsky, V. G. Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 5. Moscow, 1954.
Dobroliubov, N. A. “O stepeni uchastiia narodnosti v razvitii russkoi literatury.” Soch., vol. 1. Moscow, 1962.
Veselovskii, A. N. Iuzhnorusskie byliny.[Vols.] 1-2, St. Petersburg, 1881; [Vols.] 3-11, St. Petersburg, 1884.
M. Gor’kii o literature. Moscow, 1955.
Likhachev, D. S. Vozniknovenie russkoi literatury. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.
Astakhova, A. M. Russkii bylinnyi epos na Severe. Petrozavodsk, 1948.
Astakhova, A. M. Byliny: Itogi i problemy izucheniia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Propp, V. Ia. Russkii geroicheskii epos. Moscow, 1958.
Zhdanov, I. N. Russkii bylinnyi epos. St. Petersburg, 1895.
Skaftymov, A. P. Poetika i genezis bylin: Ocherki. Saratov, 1924.
Skaftymov, A. P. Stat’i o russkoi literature. Saratov, 1958.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Byliny. Letopisi (Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Akademii nauk SSSR, 1963), 316-36; V.T.
On occasion, the associations and linkages made are somewhat far-fetched (the idea that the 'criminal' content of old Russian byliny make them a distant precursor of the Russian detective story would need more substantiation than is provided, for example).
It is followed by papers such as Roderick Beaton's account of Greek ballads and the (indirect) evidence for their medieval roots; Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia's explication of Russian byliny and ballads; and Manuel da Costa Fontess study of Portuguese epic ballads.
[27] But other tales, like some oral epics (byliny) or popular ballads of Cossack rebels and the sixteenth-century Siberian conquistador Ermak, presented a somewhat more ambivalent vision in which the frontier was associated with freedom and wide-open spaces but also with state violence, heretics, infidels, and bandits.
Brought up in the country, she heard firsthand byliny (epic ballads) about characters like Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich, the idiosyncratic singing of the peasant performers m aking a strong impression upon her.
Latynin's enchanting prose unfolds in an eccentric fashion, doubles back on itself, yet still enthralls like the lays of an ancient minstrel, whisking the reader to a land far, far away and to the time of folk epics and byliny, not with gargoyles caught in a textual grotesque but with a rich, prehistoric landscape of supernatural beings and myths.
Grigor'ev, Arkhangel'skie byliny i istoricheskie pesni [Epic Poems and Historical Songs from Arkhangel], 2 vols, (Moscow, 1904), i, 96.
bylinaplural byliny Russian, adaptation of Old Russian bylina, a word occurring only in The Song of Igor's Campaign and taken to mean "tale of a past event"
It can seem at times that the maternal grandmother brings a redemption of bliny and byliny, of sweet pancakes and heroic tales: "I had been as if asleep, hidden in a dark corner, but she appeared, awakened me, led me out into the light, wrapped everything around me into one sustained thread and wove from it all many-colored lace" (14).
Bynum also notes the occurrence of this tale in the Russian byliny, and Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition 102, notes its occurrence in The Mwindo Epic.