[The commentary below is 1992 by J. A. V. Haney and is reproduced here with his permission. Note the following: In its original version, the commentary includes frequent citations of the Old Russian text in Cyrillic. In cases where Prof. Haney also provides the transliteration, I include only the latter; I have added Italics. Where he provides only the Cyrillic, I have substituted transliteration. Some of the commentary is specific to issues regarding the Old Russian original, but I have not attempted to edit out such material. Most of the notes contain very helpful information for understanding allusions in the text, even if one is reading only the translation.  The commentaries generally have two sections, the first dealing with more general issues, and the second referring to specific lines for the same strophes.  In most cases, the commentaries group together several strophes (e.g., I-II, instead of I and then, separately, II).   At the end of the commentary for each group is a back arrow, on which one may click to return to the text of the tale at the strophe beginning that group.  In one or two cases, if I have been able to single out a commentary for a single strophe within a group, I have provided the direct links to and from that strophe.  I have not yet numnbered the lines of the text; so a certain amount of hunting will be necessary for the reader who wishes to match specific line commentary to the precise place in the text to which it pertains.   Notes to the commentary, containing only source citations and   numbered 1-8, are at the end here.]


This Commentary necessarily comprises a complex array of literary, historical, textual and linguistic information relating to a work probably composed in the twelfth century and copied out as we know it in the fifteenth, then presented in its first modern edition nearly two centuries ago. It has been discussed enigmatically ever since.

Both the translation of the poem and its original text have been divided in this edition into strophes marked by Roman numerals. These strophes are not divisions marked in any of the sources for the poem but instead represent the supposition that the poem is constructed with alternating passages: some in the Igor poet's own time (the even-numbered strophes) and the others in a style used by the poet to evoke more ancient times (the odd-numbered strophes).

The Commentary is divided into sections which discuss clusters of related strophes. Each section of the Commentary is structured to offer general summary and discussion first, followed in most cases by more specific line glosses.

Any lineation of the text is a matter of hypothesis. The manuscript source for the first edition of the work and for the copy made for the Empress Catherine II, our only surviving sources for the Slovo knew no such divisions. It was apparently written in "run-on" fashion, without divisions of words, let alone such phenomena as strophes or stanzas. We can be rather certain, in fact, that the scribe who laboriously copied out the tale, probably in the early fifteenth century, did not know that it was a poem, so different were its language and prosodic principles from the standard of his own time. In this text the lineation of the Old Russian is determined by differing kinds of stress, the system of which I have explained briefly in the Introduction and at greater length elsewhere (Haney, 1982 and 1988).

The apparatus of the present edition has another minor complication: the lineation for words in the English translation does not always precisely match the lineation for the words in the original which they translate. Glosses are keyed only to the lineation of the Old Russian, in the hope that the related passage in the English text can be found easily nearby if not always in the same line. There are several kinds of information included in these glosses. Probably the most important are the textological data that attempt to explain emendations of the editio princeps. The bulk of these either address cruces or correct editorial errors. Another kind of gloss provides contextual information for the reader not familiar with the history of Kievan Rus or, perhaps, with medieval poetics in general. Where possible, the glosses also give alternative interpretations to parts of the poem where our understanding of the Old Russian text allows the possibility of multiple readings. It is hoped that the Genealogical Table and the Map [Note: these are not yet available but will be provided separately—DW] at the end of this edition will prove helpful with references in this commentary to the many princes and localities of the poem. The Selected Bibliography offers a starting point for the study of scholarship in English, Russian, and other languages.

Let me here offer a partial explanation of the transliteration system used for the present text. In general, it will be familiar to anyone with an acquaintance of Russian. Thus "kh" represents a sound similar to Scottish ch in loch, "zh" the sound in azure, "ch" the sound in chance. The pronunciation of the cluster "shch" varies in modern Russian, but the frequent "fresh cheese" is closer to the Old Russian than any of the alternatives. In Old Russian the "hard" and "soft" signs, or "jers," represented vowels. But precisely in the twelfth century these two vowels lost their independent phonemic status. The Fall of the Jers is as significant as the Germanic vowel shifting and a great source of examination questions for hapless philologists from Seattle to Vladivostok or Pysht. These letters continued to be written, albeit in occasionally peculiar positions, into the modern era. In part, as "hard" and "soft" signs they are part of contemporary Russian. In the Old Russian text they were not by 1185 pronounced finally in a "word," but that they had assumed their ultimate roles within the word is less clear.

The letter "i" represents the i [desiatoe] of old Russian, but it also appears as the first part of the digraphs for the original iotacized vowels: Jaroslav, Svjatoslav, Rjurik, etc. The two letters "e" represented two different vowels in Old Russian […]. The first of these was likely pronounced like "ye" in yet. The second is more problematic. It was probably longer than the first and may even have been a diphthong in some dialects. Its subsequent history in the Slavic languages is very tortured but in standard Russian it has fallen together with the first "e."

In the Commentary, transliteration assumes a somewhat different role from that in the translation itself. Modern usage obscures history and has unfortunately afforded the opportunity for nationalism to raise its ugiy head. The English word "Russian" is totally anachronistic when applied to Eastern Europe in the twelfth century. It is appropriately used only with reference to the state that succeeded Muscovite Rus, perhaps from Peter the Great's time. The people who now call themselves Ukrainians or Belorussians are often deeply offended by references to them as "Russians." They are not Russians, but with the Russians (at one time called the "Great Russians"), they make up one of the three great branches of the Slavic language family--the East Slavic. In the twelfth century the East Slavs, the ancestors of the Russians, Belorussians and Ukrainians, spoke more or less a common language and, notwithstanding a few idiosyncracies, it is the language reflected in the Slovo. It is not Ukrainian, not Belorussian, not Russian, but Old Russian. It is the now extinct East Slavic language. The modern Russian word for this language is drevnerusskii, which obscures the fact that a ""soft" sign has been omitted--perfectly in accord with the history of the vowel—drevnerus’skyi is more exact. I have decided (against good advice) not to use that 'soft' sign in references both to the language and to the land where that language was used in the twelfth century. For many readers it will not matter, and to those for whom it is important to make the distinction, I apologize for not making it here. We thus print "Russian" and "Rus" rather than "Rus'sian" and "Rus'". Old Russian is the language in which the Slovo was written, and it depicts incidents that took place in a land called Rus. (The 'Old' of Old Russian is merely to remind the reader that it is an historical term.) After some debate I have decided not to preserve the final "jer" or "soft" sign in the name of the prince whose escapades gave rise to the work: "Igor" rather than "Igor’". That palatalized, "soft" r is important to Slavs, but the English reader will find such notations confusing at best. But let us now, as the old Russian scribe would often remind himself, return to our place.

It must be remembered that in all likelihood the Slovo was intended for oral recitation, whether it was first written down or whether even orally composed and then committed to parchment The anonymous poet could assume from his twelfth-century audience a familiarity not only with the Kievan Rus of the late twelfth century, with its peculiar flora and fauna, but also a familiarity with the political events of the time, be they the local squabbles of the descendants of Oleg (the Ol'govichi) who were ruling in Kiev and in the surrounding principalities, or the princes of other, more remote areas, including areas outside the boundaries of Rus at that time. The listener knew that the princes of the Kievan area were weak and but dimly shared in the glory of the "golden age" that ended with the death of Vladimir II Monomakh (in 1125). That listener also presumably knew the story of the Rus land and people from the dim and distant tenth century. A poet's sly hints and allusions, his irony and his metaphors, however recondite they seem to the twentieth~century reader, were immediately intelligible and, one may assume, enjoyed.


The first two strophes of the poem set forth the poet's aims for the work as a whole. He spells out in elaborate detail precisely which prince is the subject of his discourse and then in two rhetorical statements suggests that the ostensible subject, Igor Sviatoslavich, is also something less than the subject--perhaps merely an object--in a poem that is much concerned with the style and function of poetry. Whatever the poet meant by the starymi slovesy (ancient words or utterances), there is little doubt that he was juxtaposing old tales to the much more concrete tales of military ventures common in his own time. From what follows it is clear that the traditional phrases, formulae, and themes were appropriate to a heroic style much admired and perhaps perfected by Boian. This ancient style, the poet seems to suggest here and throughout the poem, is entirely out of keeping with the late twelfth century world of Igor Sviatoslavich.

Though the poet could likely have assumed that his audience would know the genealogies of the princes who figure in the Slovo the modern reader needs an introduction, at least to the more important figures, with help from the genealogical table at the end of this text, to assist in sorting out the myriad princes and their various relationships. All claimed descent from Prince, later Saint, Vladimir I, who ruled in Kiev from 980 into 1015 and made Christianity the state religion. Vladimir's reign divides the pagan and Christian eras, the 'two ends of time' recognized by the poet and given such thematic importance.

Igor Sviatoslavich was born in 1151. He was the eldest son of Prince Sviatoslav Olgovich (son of Oleg), and he was prince in Novgorod-Seversk from 1179 until 1198 when he succeeded his cousin Iaroslav Vsevolodovich as prince in Chernigov. Igor ruled in Chernigov until his death in 1202. The poem makes no mention of Igor's father, but it is much concerned with his grandfather, Oleg Sviatoslavich. This Oleg was a rival to Prince Vladimir Monomakh, who ruled in Kiev 1113-1125, but he was ultimately unsuccessful in attempts to supplant Monomakh as grand prince. Oleg was later prince of Tmutorokan and spent time on the Isle of Rhodes in exile. He was known as Gorislavich, 'Son of Woe,' on account of his constant struggles with his cousins for power. The descendants of Monomakh were from 1113 until the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century the real rulers of Rus, while the descendants of Oleg (including Igor, his brother Vsevolod and his various cousins such as Sviatoslav of Kiev and Iaroslav of Chernigov) ruled less important territories and were subject to the whims of the princes of the Monomakh line.

Line Notes to Strophes I-II:

(1) Slovo o pulku Igoreve. This title, as given in the first edition, may not have been part of the twelfth-century text. The word slovo appears frequently as a genre designation in Old Russian literature, but it is difficult to know precisely what was meant by it. It seems safe to assume that a slovo was intended for oral presentation, that its themes were not primarily lyrical, but political, and above all moral and philosophical. It is close to the Greek logos and Latin sermo. It might be translated as 'discourse' and be less misleading than other possibilities: a "song" implies fixed melos and more than the metrical accompaniment which the poem was likely to have had; a "lay" suggests not only a song but also much more of a narrative structure than the Slovo seems to be. The "tale'" would suggest more fiction than is the case, while "poem" overemphasizes the formal aspects of the work, which is nonetheless a poem. In the Commentary we generally follow the convention of referring to the work as the "Slovo" without translation.

The word pulk is an ancient borrowing from Germanic. It has several meanings, including: campaign, trcop, battle, encampment, and folk--its English cognate.

(2) Ne lepo li ny biashet. There is no general agreement on the meaning of this phrase. The majority of commentators argue that the particle "li" is interrogative. Others, including Pushkin, argue that it is intensifying. I follow the latter interpretation. In English one wishes to understand the negative particle either as creating a negative quality or negating a positive quality. Thus it is literally 'not appropriate' or 'indecorous.' The tense is usually regarded as an imperfect employed as conditional, a structure not unknown in Old Russian, but the imperfect is to be expected here if the poet wishes to introduce his poem by reference to an historical tradition of which he clearly considers himself a part. He seems to be suggesting that tradition has always regarded the use of the heroic poetic tradition inappropriate in the case of Prince Igor. Why this isso will soon become clear.

The word slovesa means "words" in the modern language, but our modern sense of "words" as discrete elements grouped to form sentences would be an anachronism within a poem arising from oral tradition in a time unfamiliar with this notion [1]. In the singular it can be appropriately translated as "discourse" (line 1). In the instrumental plural (2) and in the context of oral poetry it means "with the ancient phrases." The poet is here talking of the verbal units that make up oral poetry such as that employed in earlier times.

Povest is derived from the verb "to know" and seems to have meant a story known to be true as opposed to a skazanie which though plausible was legendary in part. The phrase trudnykhu povestii (2) refers to stories difficult to relate because of the emotions they arouse in the audience. The adjective could also mean "military" at the time, and one recent version of the poem renders it "heroic."

(4) bylina -- an account of an historical event, not to be confused with the modern Russian, which refers to an epic in the popular oral tradition. Boian is the poet's predecessor. The name is apparently Turkic in origin and is known from South Slavic, Old Russian, Czech and Polish sources. In the Slovo it is either a personal name (most likely) or a Turkic name for a bard (Menges, 1979, p.80)..

Zamyshlenie, Boian's fantasizing, his verbal contrivings, are very likely the magical stuff of ancient poetry.  []


The identity of the bard Boian has been much discussed. Certainly someone named Boian received a grant of land in Kiev in the eleventh century, and the author of the early Muscovite poem written in imitation of the Slovo. the Zadonshchina, claims that Boian sang of a number of princes of Rus, the last of whom, Iaroslav the Wise, died in 1054. But Boian was also a shape-shifter, and it is curious that Liutprand in the tenth century mentions that Boianus, son of the Bulgarian tsar Simeon, could turn himself into a wolf or other animal at will. The notion that Boian was a wizard, a magus and a seer, as well as a poet, is consistent with a general Indo-European tradition at least as old as that of Orpheus. It reminds us especially of the mysterious Kyot of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival a work very nearly contemporary with the Slovo. Wolfram says that "Kyot laschantiure hiez," (Book VIII, 416). Kyot was called le chanteur, a singer or, perhaps, l'enchanteur, an enchanter.

To describe Boian's magic shape-shifting the poet uses the Russian instrumental case, which may be interpreted as "in the manner of" or "having become.’ According to the text of the poem as preserved in the first edition, Boian literally "flows through the tree (of life) like (or having become) thought." A slight emendation would instead portray Boian in the shape of a squirrel. The words for thought and squirrel would have differed by but one letter: mysliu/mys’iu. If the animal is intended, then the image is not unlike that of the Celtic deity Mortigan, the goddess of war and death (cf. Russian Maria Morevna), on whose shoulders perched a raven and a squirrel [2]. The latter scampered up and down the Tree of Life that united Heaven and Earth. We have chosen to use "squirrel" in the translation because this seems in keeping with the references to other animals in the instrumental which follow. One possibility is that the first editors (or an earlier copiest) of the poem might have been baffled by the image and changed it to "thought," based on a later reference to the Thought-Tree in strophe VII, but this kind of speculatiom is very uncertain, and both readings are plausible.

The wolf and the eagle, whom the poet associates here with Boian's arts, figure prominently in Russian oral tradition. They are often a means of transport for an adolescent to the Otherworld. The adolescent's guide through the forest that led him towards his destination was often a wise old man skilled in the wisdoms, wlsdoms that in some of the oldest Russian epic songs are specifically the magic required to shift one's shape.

The Slovo poet offers an example of Boian's verbal art with his recondite metaphor of the ten falcons hunting down the flock of swans. Both these images are enduring ones in the poem and in old Russian literature as well. The falcon generally refers to a prince. Hawking was a favorite pastime of princes in Rus (the well-known Moscow park Sokolniki, "Falconers," is the former hunting preserve of the Muscovite tsars). Keeping and hunting with raptors was an activity that was restricted to the nobility, as in England. Both falcon and swan frequently take on human shapes in Russian fairy tales. The swan, a feminine image, has a tortured reputation. In the Old Testament (Lev. 11:18) the swan is an unclean bird, while in the Agamemnon Aeschylus describes Cassandra dead with Agamemnon "like the swan [who] has dirged her last" [3]. The swan is associated with many deities in Greek tradition, including Zeus, Apollo, Leda, Orpheus and of course Aphrodite. Killing the swan was considered a sin in medieval Rus, and showing a dead swan to children was to doom them to sudden death [4]. In both bylina and fairy tale the swan was often a maiden transformed into the bird by sorcery.

According to the Zadonshchina, written sometime after 1380, Boian sang to Prince Igor I, who succeeded Oleg the Wizard as prince of Kiev in the early tenth centurv. With his many references to Boian the poet of the Zadonshchina evokes the era of a much more heroic and important Prince Igor. It is to this eariler Igor that credit is often given for first forming the federation of tribes known as Kievan Rus. He was succeeded by his son Sviatoslav I, father of (St.) Vladimir I. The Slovo mentions that Boian sang also of Iaroslav, son of Vladimir. It would not have been lost on an audience that the poet compares the deeds of princes during the heroic age of Rus (i.e. of princes Oleg, Igor, Sviatoslav and Vladimir) with the present age of internecine warfare carried Out by the descendants of Vladimir. The names in the later period are the same--Oleg, Sviatoslav, Igor, and his son Vladimir.

Igor's cousin Iaroslav, his immediate feudal superior as prince of Chernigov, will be reproached in strophe XXX for his inability to restrain his cousins, for being a "weak" prince. He is to be contrasted, the poet suggests, to another, justly revered Iaroslav, Iaroslav the Wise, who ruled 1019-1054. He succeeded to the throne in Kiev after having won a bloody civil war, 1015-1019, during which most of his brothers perished. He is regarded in Russian history as the real architect of the powerful Kievan state of the eleventh century.

Brave Mstislav, the earlier Iaroslav's brother, was prince in distant Tmutorokan (see map) when the Civil War of 1015 broke out and thus was not involved. He was killed in an "accident" while hunting with Iaroslav in 1036. Mstislav's duel with Rededia of the Kasogs, probably the Circassians, was fought in 1022. According to the chronicle, Rededia was huge and powerful. They fought without weapons, but when Mary the Mother of God interceded, Mstislav threw Rededia to the ground and killed him with a knife. The source of the knife is unclear from the legend, but it is interesting that the zasapozhniky, the skean dhu of strophe XXX (see note), is associated with hand-to-hand combat of just the sort in which Mstislav engaged.

Roman Sviatoslavich was the earlier Iaroslav's grandson. He was also a prince in Tmutorokan, and he was killed by the Polovtsians in 1079. Roman was great uncle to both Igor and his cousin Sviatoslav, who as Grand Prince of Kiev, was the titular overlord of all the princes of his day. Roman and his brother Oleg, Igor's grandfather, were at one time princes of Tmutorokan. In 1185 this principality lay outside the domains of Roman's grand-nephew Igor, but within the poem the poet will indicate that Tmutorokan is precisely Igor's goal. He wishes to establish his claim over a land he apparently regards as his patrimony.

As if to reiterate the importance of an appropriate poetic style for the telling of the tale, the poet argues in strophe four that the metaphor of the ten falcons and the flock of swans is inapt for an unheroic age. Like his near contemporary, Kyot of the Parzival (Book IX.416), he refers to magic fingers on living strings to resolve the metaphor.

Line Notes to Strophes III-V:

(5) Boian bo veshchii--the root of the word veshchii means "to know" and it is cognate with Old English witan "to know, understand, be a judge of." In other medieval Russian sources Oleg, the tenth-century prince mentioned above, was also veshchii.

(6) Rostekashetsia mysliju is found in the first edition of the poem, but we have joined many scholars in emending mysliju to mysju, a squirrel.

(7) Usobitsa has two possible meanings in the poem. It may mean wars in general or specifically internecine wars. If the latter, the poet is probably referring to the civil war that broke out in 1015 when Grand Prince Vladimir I died. Subsequent lines in this strophe suggest, however, that in this case the reference is to wars fought before and during Boian's time.

(7) Desiat [="i"] sokolov are ten falcons. The letters of the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet served as numbers until the time of Peter I 'The Great' when the Arabic system was introduced. They are still used on occasion in ecclesiastical texts.   []


The beginning of the campaign of 1185 is described in two styles in the poem: in the manner of Boian (strophes V, IX) and in the documentary style of the Igor poet's contemporaries (strophes VI, VIII). It is the presence of these two styles that accounts for the two descriptions of the eclipse of May 1, 1185 (strophes VI and IX). A further elaboration of Boian's metaphorical style occupies strophe seven. In this passage the poet again apostrophizes Boian. Using the Old Russian instrumental case, the poet consciously creates an image of Boian either acting in the manner of various natural phenomena or having magically become these phenomena.

In strophe V we learn that the campaign is to be against the Polovtsians or Cumans, but later (strophe IX) the eastern and southern border regions are all included in the command of the ancient sky-god Div. The second-person singular reference to the city of Tmutoroknn suggests that Igor, a direct descendant of Oleg of Tmutorokan, seeks to regain that territory (the peninsula of Kerch just south of the Sea of Azov).

It is noteworthy that the reference to Div and to the ancient Slavic Apollo, the god of poetry and ammal husbandry Veles or Volos, occurs in a passage in the old style. This is a feature that is consistently maintained in the poem. It suggests that the pagan gods were efficacious in those past days and that the heroes of the past indeed acted with their approval. But such cannot be the case in Christian Rus in 1185, nor can Igor's campaign enjoy the sanction of the new God.

The passage also permits the poet to record the thoughts of Igor and his younger brother Vsevolod as they begin their march. Igor notes the omen of the eclipse and utters words that suggest the poet's attitude towards the venture: "It is better to die than be taken captive." Vsevolod's speech is in keeping with the portrait the poet is to paint of him--as a warrior prince molded in the traditional style with no thought of his own gain. His battle prowess and his devotion to his elder brother's cause are glowingly described by the poet, in contradistinction to the depiction of Igor himself.

Strophe VIII in the old Russian text exhibits a fine example of the poet's use of alliteration with the repetition of the vowel "i." In the original the final lines of strophe VII show an interesting application of flexible word order to create, or re-create, Boian's couplet.

Four Vladimirs appear in the Slovo: Vladimir I (died 1015) is mentioned in line 12 and again in 203. Vladimir II, who ruled in Kiev from 1113-1125, appears in line 78. He was the great rival of Igor's grandfather Oleg, and it is his descendants who are the most powerful princes in Rus in the period depicted by the Igor tale. The third Vladimir is Igor's son, mentioned in line 256, and obliquely elsewhere. At the time of the campaign against the Polovtsians he was a youth engaged to the daughter of Konchak, Igor's opponent (see lines 244-249). Vladimir Glebovich of line 143 was prince of Pereiaslavl.

The Polovtsians or Cumans were a Turkic tribe inhabiting the North Pontic steppe. They first appear in Russian sources about 1054. Hostilities date from 1061. They disappear from Russian sources in 1235, having been forced to move to Pannonia by the advancing Tataro-Mongolian hordes.

The eclipse of line fifteen took place 1 May 1185. Igor and his troop had been underway just over a week.

It is unlikely that Igor would literally have lost his head to the Polovtsians in the event of his death in battle (strophe VI), but the metaphor was certainly based on and evokes older practice. Prince Sviatoslav I Igorevich lost his head to the Pechenegs in 972, and the Pecheneg (Patzinak) leader made a drinking cup from his skull. Russian fairy tales also note that unsuccessful candidates for initiation (boys visiting the witch Baba-Iaga) leave their heads on the palisades surrounding her hut. Peasant children in nineteenth century Russia (and their American counterparts today) carved heads from marrows, rhutabagas or pumpkins and commemorated the dead on All Saints' Eve (October 31 by either calendar). The custom is well known among the Celts as well.

Boian as nightingale in strophe VII has an interesting analogue in the Exeter Book, riddle eight:

I've one mouth but many voices;
I dissemble and often change my tune;
I declaim my deathless melodies,
I don't desist from my refrain.
Aged evening-songster, I entertain
Men in their homes by rehearsing
My whole repertoire; they sit, bowed down,
Quiet in their houses. Guess my name,
I who mimic the jester's japes
As loudly as I can, and rejoice men
With choicest songs in various voices. [5]

Also in strophe VII, the path of Troian (Tropa troiana) has at least three different interpretations. Some regard it as a reference to Troy and the Trojan wars, others as a Slavic triple-headed god, and finally some suggest the Slavic reflex of the name of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.), well known throughout the Balkans. A number of toponyms, especially in Bulgaria, preserve his name. My own feeling is that Troian was indeed an Old Russian god, perhaps the equivalent of the west Slavic Triglav (having three heads). The god might also have subsumed the emperor Trajan (as deity), and it is possible that Troian is related as well to the Old Iranian Thraetaon.

The editio princeps suggests that the word Oleg was supplied in the margins of the original manuscript, but not in the text of the passage itself. We have kept it in strophe VII (line twenty-six). Novgorod was the principal town of the province of Novgorod-Seversk, not to be confused with the northern trading city of Novgorod. Igor was prince in the former, his son in nearby Putivl.  []

Vsevolod Sviatoslavich (strophe VIII) was Igor's younger brother. He died in 1196. His heroic nickname bui tur or Fierce (Wild) Bull (Aurochs) compares him to the bos primigenius that still inhabited east-central Europe in the twelfth century. (They were still occasionally hunted by royalty into the seventeenth century in Russia.) In mythology the "fierce aurochs" may also have represented the sun god. One can see the descendants of these enormous beasts at, for instance, the zoo in Chizes (France).

The command of Div in strophe IX is to the border lands to the east of Igor's own principality, thus outside the realm of Sviatoslav of Kiev. The unknown land is terra incognita; lands along the sea of Azov are called Pomorie; and Posulie refers to the lands through which the River Sula flows. Surozh was an important trading center in the Crimea, as was Korsun. The identity of the idol of Tmutorokan remains a mystery, but many scholars identity it with a stone representation of a woman that once stood near this city. The city of Tmutorokan plays an important, though not always very clear role in the poem. Tmutoroknn was the sixth century Greek city of Germonassus, later a part of the Khazar khanate and known as Tamatarkha. A bishopric may have been established there in conjunction with St. Cyril's mission to the Khazars in about 860. In 965 Sviatoslav I Igorevich founded a Russian principality based at the city, which then became the most eastern of the Rus territories. By the end of the twelfth century the city was permanently cut off from Rus, though in the Slovo the Olgovichi apparently still hope to reclaim it. Today it is Lermontov's Taman. Why this passage should end with the vocative singular address to the statue is not at all clear. Perhaps it is intended to mark a strophe boundary.  []

Line Notes to Strophes V-IX:

(29) Veles (also Volos) has cognates in Sanskrit, Baltic, Celtic and Germanic, Greek, Latin, etc. The first root of the word, *wel-, *wer-, seems to have meant "far-seeing," "seer." The second *es- is of course that of the verb "to be." Such Indo-European peoples' gods as Varuna, Ahura, Esus, Vellaunus, and Odin (from earlier Ullinn, Ulir, *Wulthuz) are related, as is the Irish fili (caste of poets) and the English wealth. The association of this god with wealth based on cattle and sheep, with bulls, with contracts and treaties, with prophecy, and poetry are scarcely to be doubted. The proper Slavic name is Veles.

(38) Ishchuchi sebe chti, a kniaziu slavy literally means, "seeking honor for ourselves, and for our prince giory." One Soviet commentator argues that the two terms are juxtaposed in a fundamental way (Lotman, 1967, pp.100-112). "Honor" implies material reward, either for services rendered or as a gift, while "glory" is the more sought after in that it is pure, without substance.

(39-42) These lines represent a particularly difficult passage in the poem. A number of emendations have been proposed, including one to exclude the word zbi as a likely marginal notation (i.e. zri, "see"). But it might be translated as "awoke" and thus be the predicate to the subject Div. Div is apparently a remote sky god, cognate with Zeus, Jupiter, Theos, Deus, Tiuws (Anglo-Saxon, Tues-day), Dyaus (Sanslrrit), etc. There is little need to assume that it is borrowed from Iranian, where a late form of the same root gives the word for demon, derived from an earlier daeva, meaning god in Avestan.   []


Though the Polovtsians are apparently preparing for Igor's invasion (strophe X), Igor's troops happen upon a part of their forces and succeed in routing the enemy. Far from gaining a great victory, however, Igor's army acts more like a Viking raiding party. Igor is, after all, derived from Old Norse Ingvar, and reflects the ancestry of the princes. We are told that the Rus seized beautiful Polovtsian maidens and with them gold, brocades, and other treasures. The utter lack of valor and the failure to mention any battle deeds on the part of the Rus are remarkable, given the concerns and conventions of heroic poetry.

In strophe XI five clauses of three words (in the original) describe the stages in night's passing: twilight, morning star, fog, silencing of nightingales, awakening of daws. This is a minor poetic masterpiece of six very strongly stressed syllables.

Strophe XIV introduces the two Polovtsian leaders, Gza (Gzak) and Konchak, who have raced towards the Don too late to defend the small encampment who are Igor's victims in strophe XII. Igor and his men are referred to as Oleg's bold brood because he is the grandson of Oleg.

Line Notes to Strophes X-XIV:

(47) 0 russkaia zemle! Uzhe za shelomenem esi! The vocative case of the first part of the line and the second person singular of the second half-line serve as markers. They mark shifts in time, in activity, and in style. The shelomian of the second phrase likely refers to the breaks, the hilly area between the steppe and the river.

(50-55) The consonantal alliteration of p-t, often accompanied by the vowels "o" and "[jer]" has been compared to Vergil, who uses similar combinations to produce the effect of horses' hooves. The translation here uses alliteration in an attempt to imitate the sound of the original. The same consonants alliterate in the tongue-twister: Ot topota kopyt pyl po poliu letit.   []


The fateful battle begins on a Saturday following a night of slumber in the steppe. Natural omens continue to predict the disaster that will befall Igor and his men. One of the chief means the poet uses to conjure up either the passage of time or travel across great distances without describing them is to insert a digression, most frequently in Boian's style. Note that strophes XV and XIX are such passages.

Typical of the Slovo but hardly of medieval military tales in general, is the poet's lack of interest in the battle itself. He devotes strophes XV-XVII to a grand description of the approach of the battle. The second encounter of Igor with the Polovtsians ended in Igor's captivity and the destruction of his retinue and arned troops. It is in many ways an extraordinary depiction, in that the battle is barely depicted at all. We are given in strophe XX some vague temporal indications that the battle went on from morning until night. In XXII we learn it took place over three days. But our primary impressions are that there is no geography, no specificity at all. No one knows where the battle was fought, the poem offering little help on this question. As for Igor's actions, he does turn back his warriors (were they fleeing?) to help his brother, but the rest of the depiction involves only sounds: sabres crashing, lances cracking, arrows flying. No deaths are recorded, only the fates of the two brothers are important enough to be brought into the text: 'There the brothers were parted on the banks of the swift Kaiala."

In strophe XV the four suns represent the four defeated Russian princes. Apparently young Prince Vladimir Igorevich is not counted, as he is rather a guest in the Polovtsian camp as the prospective groom for Khan Konchak's daughter.

The depiction of Prince Vsevolod in strophe XVIII represents the single attempt of the poet to depict any heroic Rus activity. Some debate has taken place about the nature of the Frankish swords mentioned in strophe XVIII, but Carolingian swords found in warriors' graves of the era point to this interpretation. The Avars, whose wood-framed helmets split easily, were a steppe people who devastated South Russia and Central Europe in the sixth century and who formed an important state in the Caucasus in the twelfth. They are the modern day Avartsy, according to most scholars. As a Turkic-speaking people they may stand in the Slovo for the Turkic-speaking Polovtsians.

In strophe XIX the word "Trojan" reappears. In the Slovo references to the "Age of Troian" can be taken to signify the age of the pagan god Troian, (as with the "Seventh Age of Trojan" in strophe thirty-seven). In strophe XIX there is a suggestion that the age of paganism has ended, with the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 988-989. Mention is next made of the reign of Iaroslav the Wise (1019-1054), widely regarded as the high point of Kievan Rus culture. Finally, the period of decline, which came with the princely feuding of Igor's grandfather, Oleg, and Grand Prince Vladimir II Monomakh, is mentioned in strophe XIX.

The passing of paganism could be said to have begun with a struggle among the three sons of Sviatoslav I, during which two of them were killed and the third, Vladimir, came to the throne. During his father Sviatoslav's reign, Vladimir's grandmother, Princess Olga, travelled to Constantinople where she was baptised by the Patriarch. Christianity made important gains, especially in the many cities of the far-flung land, but Sviatoslav was a true warrior who had no time for religion and certainly not the religion of two of his chief enemies, the Greeks and the Bulgarians. When Sviatoslav was killed in 972, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Iaropolk. Iaropolk soon managed to do away with his brother, Oleg. Vladimir fled to the Scandinavians, where he raised an army and returned to fight his elder brother. In the initial stages of this campaign, Vladimir lay seige to Polotsk, an important city in the very northwestern part of the land. When he took the city in 980, he raped the prince of Polotsk's daughter, Rogneda, before her parents' eyes, then killed them both and married Rogneda. He was never to be forgiven by the princely family of Polotsk, even when he sent his and Rogneda's son to rule there. This is the source of the eventual enmity between Vseslav of Polotsk and the remainder of the Rus princes that figures prominently later in the Slovo.

Having taken Polotsk, Vladimir then beseiged Kiev, where laropolk ruled. A short time later Vladimir tcok the city and killed his brother. Following perfectly good contemporary practice, he married Iaropolk's widow, who was pregnant at the time.

From 980 Vladimir ruled the Rus lands unchallenged. In 988-989, to some extent as part of a political ploy, he married the sister of the Emperor of Byzantium, but apparently had to agree to "baptise Rus" to seal the bargain. The prince of newly Christian Rus destroyed the idols and built churches. His reign is thus considered a watershed. When Vladimir, later St. Vladimir, died in 1015, he was succeeded by his step-son, Sviatopolk, whose father had been Vladimir's brother, Iaropolk.

Civil War broke out almost immediately. It is not entirely clear who was responsible, but the upshot was that Sviatopolk was driven out, princes Boris, Gleb, Sviatoslav, Pozdvizd, and perhaps others were killed, and Iaroslav the Wise became Grand Prince in 1019. It is a curious fact that Boris and Gleb, Russia's two first saints, are not mentioned in the Slovo. They were, after all, princes and warriors, but then tradition has it that they were also subservient to their elder brother, who was in fact their cousin.

Iaroslav the Wise ruled from 1019-1054. His death was also the occasion of renewed strife among his three sons: Sviatoslav, Iziaslav, and Vsevolod. Open warfare broke out in the 1070's. At the battle of Nezhatina Niva in 1078 Prince Iziaslav was killed. He was supported by his son Sviatopolk, his younger brother Vsevolod, and the latter's son, Vladimir Monomakh (so called because he was the grandson of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus of Byzantium).

Boris Viacheslavich (strophe XIX) was also killed in the battle of Nezhatina Niva. He was an ally of Oleg Sviatoslavich and was Vsevolod's nephew. The crucial encounter at Nezhatina Niva thus pitted the two surviving sons of Iaroslav the Wise against their nephew Oleg, whose father Sviatoslav Iaroslavovich had died in 1076. The conflict between the descendants of Monomakh and the descendants of Oleg stems from these events. Oleg fled back to Tmutorokan where in 1079 he was captured by the Khazars and extled to Byzantium. By 1083 he had escaped and was soon back in Tmutorokan.

Line Notes to Strophes XV-XXII:

(62) Na retse na Kaiale. The river Kaiala/Kaialy cannot be identified with certainty. In one chronicle text the word is not declined (Kaialy). If it is a Turkic word, from qaja-, meaning cliff, it should everywhere be Kaialy. But it might also be a metaphorical river, the metaphor based on the Slavic verb kaiati, to censure, thus a river of blame or censure. Recent research suggests that by the river Kaialy is meant the small stream known as the Makatikha, a tributary of the Golaia Dolina which flows into the Sukhoi Torets (Getmanets, 1976, pp.313-19).

(63) Stribozhi vnutsi. By Stribog's grandsons are likely meant the Rus. A god of the East Slavs, Stribog's name is a compound of Indo-European *ptr~ei, patru- or "father/father's brother" (Sanskrit pitrvya-, Greek patr-os, OHG fatureo, German Vetter, Old Slavic *stryj "uncle, father's brother") and bog or 'god.' He is thus a 'pater~deus,' identified with atmospheric phenomena and perhaps the god who is twice mentioned in the Slovo as "Dazhbog," a deity who deals out wealth. Stribog is no doubt the Slavic equivalent of the Iranian Sribata, but there is no need to suggest a borrowing.

(65) Ot moria. By "sea" is perhaps meant a large lake formed by the flooding of several smaller lakes in the area of the Makatikha.

(78) Ushi zakladashe. Vladimir's stopping up of his ears may be a reference to Matthew 19:24 where the Russian translation of the Bible has "needle's ears" for the English "eye of the needle." The "ears" were in this case entrances through the walls of such fortified cities as Chernigov that needed to be guarded and closed off against hostile invaders.

(80) Ugorskymi inoknodtsi. Hungarian amblers, horses highly prized throughout Europe. The Russian is literally "those walking otherwise." They were used to transport the wounded because they rocked the litter and thus did not jolt the victim. Kievan grand princes were not infrequently buried in St. Sophia's Cathedral. The sarcophagus of Iaroslav the Wise can still be seen there.

(81) Pri Olze Gorislavlichi. Oleg Son of Woe was the grandfather of Igor, Vsevolod, and Sviatoslav. The nickname comments on his constant struggles to gain the throne of Kiev for himself. (See the discussion of strophes I and II, above.)

(81) Dazhbog, Dazhbozhia vnuka. Dazhbog's grandson. Two etymologies have been proposed for this god's name: from the Slavic word dati, "to give," thus a "providing god," a giver of wealth; or from a hypothetical *dag- cognate with Lithuanian daga (heat), Prussian dagis (summer), Gothic dags (day- also cognate), or perhaps with Celtic Dagda, (the good god, god of all). The Slavic god was undoubtedly connected with the cult of the sun.

(87) Chto mi shiumit, chto mi zvenit. (What sounds do I hear? What rings to me...?) This is the only line in which the first person pronoun appears clearly in reference to the narrator/author.    []


The comparison of the battle field and its carnage with the wedding feast is traditional in Russian oral poetry and well known. The matchmakers are obviously the Polovtsians, with young Prince Vladimir Igorevich engaged to marry the daughter of Khan Konchak. He eventually did marry her in captivity. For a recent discussion of this imagery, see Mann, 1990.

The metaphorical depiction of the defeat is completed by the references to the ancient god Dazhbog (the giving-god or god of plenty), whose grandchildren are said to be the Rus, and to Obida, (line 91). Obida is understood by some scholars as a personification of sorrow, injury or insult. Could this alternatively be the name of a goddess of death, derived from *ob~vida, "All-Seeing"? Her swan wings and maiden form and her textual association with sadness tie Obida to the familiar image of the Northern 'valkyrja,' literally those selecting. the dead/slain. According to Germanic mythology the valkyries collect the slain warriors and transport them to Valhalla. Later tradition made them female warriors, such as the German Brunnhilde.

In strophe XXIV it is clear that the poet regards the princes' seeking self-glory and their greed as the causes of the land's weakness. This is echoed in the otherwise incongruous concern of the Rus widows for their material losses, expressed in strophe XXV.

The disunity among the Rus princes and their constant quarreling have resulted in such internal weakness that they are unable to repulse the attacks of their common enemies. The poet strongly suggests that they are too petty to rule. His suggestion is given further strength when he compares the deeds of Igor and Vsevolod to those of their cousin Sviatoslav, whose actions are depicted in the following passage as truly heroic.

Line Notes to Strophes XXIII-XXV:

(92) The form of the verb in the second clause (rekosta) is dual. The quotation is a rephrasing of a legal formula. Note that in the subsequent line 94 the verb is plural; all the princes are involved.

(97) Two further feminine mythological figures are mentioned in strophe XXV. Karna appears to be associated with retribution (Kara?, cf. Old Russian kariti "to punish"), while Zhlia was likely a goddess of the underworld, an identification supported by the existence of a type of funeral lament known as "zhelia, zhialost'." Strewing embers from a horn might suggest funereal imagery, though "Greek fire," a highly combustible substance, was used by the Byzantines in naval warfare and occasionally by the Polovtsians on land.   []


Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich of Kiev was, as mentioned, another of Oleg's grandsons. He was therefore Igor's first cousin. Sviatoslav's father, Vsevolod, was older than Igor's father (also named Sviatoslav) and thus Igor's cousin ruled in the premier southern city of Kiev. For this reason Sviatoslav was styled "Grand Prince of Kiev" or "Great Prince of Kiev." The political facts were such, however, that he ruled nothing but Kiev and was really rather insignificant on the Russian scene in 1185. But then so was Igor. Because Sviatoslav Vsevolodovich (c.1125-1194) is the senior cousin among the Ol'govichi (sons of Oleg), he is styled "father." With the exception of the Slovo. all existing sources strongly suggest that the reference to him as "awesome, great [prince of] Kiev" (groznyi velikyi kyevskii) is a matter of style or irony, rather than of substance.

Sviatoslav's position as grand prince was precarious, so much so that although his own first cousins did not openly challenge him, leaving that to the ambitious princes of the northeast, the other Olgovichi did not heed him unless it was in their interest to do so. Igor, as his junior, certainly owed him fealty and service. He apparently struck out against the pagans without consultation with Iaroslav of Chernigov, his immediate senior, or with Grand Prince Sviatoslav.

In the poem, Sviatoslav III is at first portrayed as an active, "heroic," and decisive figure, precisely the sort of man his eponymous ancestor, Sviatoslav I Igorevich, had been in the tenth century. However, Sviatoslav III's effect on the events of the poem is anything but decisive. For those who find in this depiction of Sviatoslav something akin to the passive majesty of a Hrothgar or Charlemagne, I would point out that he is not the dominant power he at first appears to be. His control over other principalities was tenuous at best and there was a higher secular authority; the head of state sat elswhere, in Byzantium. The emperor of Byzantium by 1185 presided over an empire that included no "Latins" and perhaps only nominally the Slavs of Rus, Serbia and Bulgaria, but the opinion of the Church was important. The scholarly question of the degree of dependence on Byzantium of the eastern churches subverts the point: they could not have conceived of total independence, they owed allegiance to Byzantium, to Tsargrad, the Imperial City, and hence in some measure to the emperor.

Sviatoslav, with his dream and its aftermath, is as helpless as Hrothgar when pressed to answer the question that plagues his realm: where shall I find the strength to deliver my kingdom from Grendel? The poet provides an answer that is not just heroic but philosophical. Igor's failure is shown in contrast to the success of the Rus princes when they were united. We are thus told that Sviatoslav curbs wrongdoing by threat alone, he strikes out at adversity with troops and swords, trampling hills, muddying waters. He is like the winds in his power, and as head of a united Rus army that defeated the Polovtsians in 1183-84, he had already succeeded in capturing his traditional adversary, Khan Kobiak. Igor and Vsevolod had declined to participate in that campaign. Their present campaign of 1185 thus takes place against the backdrop of the success of Sviatoslav, a success in which Igor had no share. As a proponent of this view, Sviatoslav is the closest there is to a tragic figure in the poem.

Kiev was the titular capital of the south Rus principalities, and its grand prince appropriately shows concern for the lands lying on the borders with the steppe, which were subjected to invasions, according to the chronicle, from the armies of Gzak and Konchak. Chief among these border cities was Chernigov, ruled by Sviatoslav's brother and Igor's lord, Iaroslav.

While Igor's fate would have importance in Kiev or Chernigov, it is poetic fancy that the Germans, Venetians, Greeks or Morava were at all informed of Igor's defeat, let alone even interested. Whether they had ever heard of Sviatoslav is unknown, but equally unlikely. Morava is apparently Moravia, possibly that today located in central Czechoslovakia, or it could refer to a similarly named area on the R. Morava around present-day Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia.   []


The second section of the narrative proper begins with Sviatoslav's dream. As pointed out in the introduction, it is not unlike the dream of King Arthur on the eve of his fateful battle with Mordred as we read it in the Old French La Mort le Roi Artu. Sviatoslav's dream is one of death, and it resembles descriptions of the deaths and death-dreams of other Old Rus princes. Some of the images are common to these passages, such as the black shroud and the ravens. While the general funereal imagery is obvious enough, the passage is in need of explication and emendation. The yew is traditionally associated with death. Blue wine is usually regarded as a metaphor for blood, while a pearl in a dream is an omen of tears, or occasionally of the soul. But other interpretations have been proposed. Boris Gasparov, for example, has recently suggested a textual similarity between the phrase occuring at the beginning of strophe XXIII, Tu krovavago vina ne dosta ("There the bloody wine ran short") and a passage in St John 2:3, 'They have no wine." Similarly, he compares the lines from Sviatoslav's dream, chrpaxut mi sinee vino s trudom smesheno ("They laded out to me blue wine mixed with sorrow"), with St John 2:9, which refers to the changing of water into wine. Gasparov suggests that in Sviatoslav's dream there is an inversion such that the "blue" wine is in fact meant to indicate water, as in Blue Don, blue sea, etc. In this way Gasparov includes the passage among what he considers to be the Igor poet's Biblical references, hidden in a work which, he admits, is noteworthy for its lack of the same (Gasparov, 1984, pp.50-51).

The battlefield-as-wedding-feast imagery (and not scripture) offers a better clue to the poet's idiom and intentions. In the earlier passage, the blood of the vanquished was portrayed figuratively as wine which ran short at a wedding feast and did not satisfy the pagan matchmakers (Strophe XXIII). Now the Grand Prince dreams that he too will be offered wine, the as yet unspilled blue wine in the veins of his people, who are soon to suffer from pagan attack. In other words, Sviatoslav's dream is a premonition of the destruction yet to come, not a review of the killing already accomplished. As ruler, he identifies intuitively with the suffering of his nation and sees himself covered with arrows and a great pearl, or the collective sorrow of his people.

The destruction of the Kievan order is figured in Sviatoslav's dream of his own funeral, described in terms of the established custom of burial. The corpse was traditionally taken out from the house through an opening made in the eaves or through a window. That opening was then sealed to prevent the spirit from returning to haunt the house of the deceased. Whatever sorrow he feels for Igor and the other three princes, he recognizes more strongly in the final lines of his dream that they are carrying him to his tomb, which, again, is a figure for the disintegration of Kievan rule.

The alternation of styles in the poem is seen very clearly in the change from strophe XXVII to XXVIII. The former presents Sviatoslav's dream in metaphoric and mysterious language suiting a profound prophecy about the political future. The latter strophe offers an interpretation of this dream by the boiars which misses the deepest meaning altogether while resolving the simplest correspondences correctly. For example, the two falcons are of course Igor and his brother Vsevolod. All such details dwell on the lesser theme of Igor's specific motives and failures. This is not to say that the lesser theme is unrelated to the larger one. That the ultimate aim of Igor's campaign was to regain control over Tmutorokan would certainly explain frequent references to that ancient Russian city, which Igor's family had long claimed as its patrimony. Since the middle of the eleventh century the city had been under the control of the Polovtsians. This clarification about Igor's aim could only increase Sviatoslav's alarm, since he had apparently never advanced a claim himself over the city and would scarcely have condoned its being taken by his junior.

Biblical echoes of Christ's death and resurrection are perhaps antithetically employed in strophe XXVIII, though the reference to the third day need be nothing more than a reference to the course of the battle in question (strophe XXII): "They battled throughout the day, they fought for another, on the third day towards noon, Igor's banners fell." It thus relates for the third time the fact of the captivity of the Rus princes. Igor and Vsevolod are likely the two suns or purple pillars, and Igor's son Oleg and his nephew Sviatoslav of Rylsk the two young moons. An alternative reading is that the darkening of the sun (meaning Igor) resulted in the darkening of the moons that depend on the sun for their own light. Thus the passage may refer to Igor's sons Oleg and Sviatoslav, born in 1174 and 1176 respectively. While Oleg at eleven was too young to lead even a small detachment in the campaign, Igor's defeat would have cast a shadow over his entire progeny.

Just who the Khin (Khynovi) were is unknown. A substantial number of scholars believe this to be a reference to the Hungarians; others have regarded the word as a collective for the Finns, with the characteristic popular substitution of the non-Slavic "f" by "kh". It would seem unlikely that by Khynovi are meant the ancient Huns, but then there are clearly references to the equally ancient Goths in the poem, and perhaps, too, to the Avars. Certainly the Polish twelfth-century chronicler referred to the Hungarians (an amalgam of the Onogurs with the Magyars) as the "Hunnos seu Hungaros." If one accepts the notion that the Magyars/Hungarians are meant, then the interpretation of the line would seem to be that Igor's defeat has left the steppe south of Rus and to the east of Pannonia, where the Hungarians lived, open to Polovtsian expansion. This explanation fits the facts only if one believes that Igor's defeat was more significant than it actually seems to have been.

Strophe XXIX confirms that the deeper issues implied in Sviatoslav's dream have come to pass. The passage also contains a flashback to the heroic past. The Gothic maidens are usually regarded as remnants of the Crimean Goths, whose King Vinitar in 375 defeated Bos (Bous, Booz), prince of the Antes (possibly distant ancestors of the East Slavs). Vinitar then had Bos crucified. D. S. Likhachev's recent suggestion that by these Gothic maidens are meant those of Gotland, or southwest Sweden, seems somewhat forced, especially given suggestions that the "deep blue sea" is the Slavic for the Greek Pontos Euxeinos, the Black Sea. Sharokan was Khan Konchak's grandfather. In 1106 he and Khan Boniak the Mangy had invaded Rus, but they were decisively defeated by Vladimir II Monomakh.

The reference to a pride of cheetahs, used as royal hunting animals in Rus, seems justified by a fresco of St Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev which portrays a group of three with their characteristic set-back ears. They were likely brought to Rus from India or Persia. The comparison with the Polovtsians is interesting. From the moment of Igor's defeat in the poem, his enemy is gradually transformed from pagans and the children of the devil into royal opponents, worthy of the respect they are in fact shown.  

Line Notes to Strophes XXVII-XXIX:

(115) Sypalthut mi toshchimi tuly poganykh tolkovin. "They bestrew a great pearl on me from the empty quivers of the pagan invaders." One problem lies with the identification of the actors, the pagan invaders. The word is frequently rendered as "translators" or "interpreters," but comparisons with the historical literature make this uncertain. They may have been an ethnically non-Slavic, non-Christian group living within Kievan Rus who functioned as interpreters, but in the Slovo that is clearly not their function. Why, in the same line, the predicate neguiut, "comfort," is in the present tense while the preceeding three are in the imperfect is not clear.

(117) The first edition has here "u Plesnsa naboloni besha debr Kisaniu, i ne soshliu k sinemu moriu," which makes very little sense. L. A. Dmitriev (1986) emends to "u Plesnska na boloni beshia debri Kyiane i nesoshiasia k sinemu moriu" which the editors then translate into Russinn as "At Plesensk on a low bankside opened out the ravine of Kian, and they stretched to the blue sea." A commentary suggests that the mysterious Plesensk was located in the flood plain of the right bank of the Dniepr in the Kiev area, but all the rest of the passage seems no clearer to Dmitriev than it has been to other scholars. To resolve the crux we have relied heavily on the ingenious solution of G. Perejda (1973). His reconstruction of the Slavic text is u Plesnska na boloni beshia de bry kniazi i nesoshia [mia] k sinemu moriu. According to this reading, then, the mysterious "debri Kyiane" become the four brother princes who carry Sviatoslav, obviously on his funeral bier, towards the blue sea. Perejda, whose dissertation touches not just on the Slovo but also on Beowulf, deserves a wider audience (Perejda, 1973).   []


Sviatoslav's speech is the longest "set piece" in the poem. Both its length and its central position indicate its importance, and it overshadows Igor's own fate. It is not simply an exhortation to the various princes of Rus to come to Igor's aid, or rather, to unite for collective action. It is also a lament for the Rus land whose princes are incapable of disinterested action and whose conduct is contrasted with the heroes of the Age of Boian.

Prince Sviatoslav's speech begins with the words, "Then Great Sviatoslav let drop this golden word..." (line 129), but there is no agreement as to where it ends. In their recent edition, Meshcherskij and Burykin (1985) declined to take a stand and use no ending quotation marks. My opinion is that the speech continues through strophe XXXVI.

It is characteristic of Old Rus princes to shed copious tears and Sviatoslav is no exception. He begins with the reproach to Igor and Vsevolod. Igor and Vsevolod have acted rano, "early," in that they have not waited for Sviatoslav to organize an army of all the Russian princes. Sviatoslav openly accss them of being 'glory-seekers,' acting dishonorably (nechstno). Their campaign is without the sanction of the senior prince.

There is no particular reason to believe that Sviatoslav had grey hair; it is a feature of epic literature of the time. Charlemagne was only thirty five or so when Roland was killed, yet the Chanson de Roland ends with the King saying, "How weary is my life!" and the poet concluding "He weeps, he plucks his flowing beard and white." In Beowulf it may indeed be the case that Hrothgar was an aged king when Beowulf came to his court. Nonetheless the poet takes note of Hrothgar's gray-beard (he is "eald ond unhar," line 357) when Beowulf meets him, as if to contrast the young prince's vitality with Hrothgar's weakness.

Next follows a rebuke to Sviatoslav's own brother Iaroslav, who as prince of Chernigov was the direct feudal superior of both Igor and Vsevolod. Iaroslav's forces included a number of mercenaries. Some of these were Slavs, but others were apparently of

Turkic and Iranian extraction. Iaroslav has the reputation in the chronicle of being a prince too careful to engage in battle with the Polovtsians.

It is not clear who in strophe XXX is meant to be engaging in hand-to-hand fighting without shields but with a dagger carried in the boot. Can this all be a reference to Mstislav of strophe III (1ines 8-9), the great-great-grandfather of Igor and his generation of cousins, who slew Rededia with a skene? It is a most curious coincidence.

Sviatoslav concludes his rebuke of Igor and Vsevolod, accusing them of desiring to carve up the glory of their ancestors and share the glory that is yet to be won. Strophe XXXI seems to find Sviatoslav in quite a different mood, more introspective. His problem is his lack of power, as he quite obviously recognizes. But the metaphor is difficult, and can only be resolved by resorting to emendation (see the gloss of line 140 ff., below). With the phrase "the times have been turned about" the poet's intent is clear. Henceforth, using Sviatoslav as his vehicle, he will contrast the strength of the princes of the past with the precariousness of those of his own day. The latter situation is alluded to in the mention of Rimov, destroyed by Konchak after he defeated Igor. Prince Vladimir Glebovich was fatally wounded in the town's defence.

In strophe XXXII Sviatoslav turns to the most powerful prince of Rus in 1185. Nicknamed "Big Nest" on account of his large family, Great or Grand Prince Vsevolod was a grandson of Vladimir II Monomakh and son of Iurii Dolgoruki ("Long-Arm"). Vsevolod was a prince of VIadimir-Suzdal in the northeast. Hyperbole more characteristic of epic than military tales dominates the depiction of Vsevolod. In the poem, the Kievan prince suggests that Vsevolod was very good at taking captives and selling them, but that perhaps he had flooded the market with his success. The girl slave would go for 1/20 of a grivna, the silver bar that served as the main currency of Rus. The male slave was worth even less—1/50 of a grivna.

Having begun his appeal to the princes with the most powerful, Sviatoslav then continues southward, hoping to enlist the "sons of Gleb," princes of Riazan. Riurik and David were the sons of Rostislav, grandsons of Mstislav Vladimirovich, and thus great grandsons of Vladimir Monomakh. Riurik occasionally occupied the throne in Kiev, but more frequently that of Chernigov. David sat in Smolensk. They were particularly keen fighters, especially against the Polovtsians. In historical terms Riurik was the real power in the principality of Kiev, ruling all cities and towns there except Kiev, and he ruled the capital too from time to time. But he really represented the power of the princes of Vladimir/Suzdal. David was married to a Polovtsian princess and ordinarily found it prudent to avoid conflict with the steppe nomads.

Iaroslav Osmomysl, "The Eight-Minded," was prince in Galich in what is now the Ukraine until his death in 1187. He was Prince Igor's father-in-law. Though feared by his foreign neighbors, he was not able to exert his will on his own nobility. The meaning of his nickname is unclear. The word "king" korol always refers to a Roman Catholic. Here the poet means the King of Hungary whose access to the lower Danube basin was blocked by Galich. It is not clear at whom Iaroslav might have been "shooting"-- saltan does look like the word for sultan, but Iaroslav is not known to have participated in any action against Saladin. He died in 1187 and thus did not participate in the Crusade of 1190.

Those who believe that Sviatoslav's speech ends with references to Iaroslav of Galich have argued that the Slovo could not have been written after 1 August 1187 when Iaroslav died, since he is here mentioned as very much alive. If, however, all this long address to the various princes was part of Sviatoslav's Golden Word, as I think, then there can easily be a hiatus of several years from Sviatoslav's address to its inclusion in the poem. Additionally, why should a poet be expected to quote verbatim, or to adhere to a historical convention of annual continuity? Poets since the twelfth century have not felt themselves so constrained.

In strophe XXXIII the falcon-princes Roman and Mstislav are favorably compared to their eleventh-century eponymous ancestors (strophe III) in their military prowess. Roman was son-in-law to Riurik and ruled in Volynia to the north of Galich. The identity of this Mstislav remains a mystery. He may have been a prince from the northwestern principality of Gorodno, Mstislav Vsevolodovich.

Ingvar and Vsevolod in strophe XXXIV were the sons of Iaroslav and grandsons of Iziaslav of Lutsk in Volynia. The "three sons of Mstislav" are less clear, but many commentators identity them with the three sons of Mstislav Iziaslavovich, thus cousins of Ingvar and Vsevolod. One of these is the falcon-prince Roman, mentioned above. They too ruled in the West.

In strophe XXXV we may presume that Iziaslav Vasilkovich was a prince of Polotsk, but there is no mention of him in any of the surviving sources other than the Slovo. Indeed, only Briacheslav is clearly identified. It is thus unclear when Iziaslav died and under what circumstances, but geography would suggest that he may have died fighting the Lithuanians, whose territories bordered on Polotsk. The image of the "pearly soul" was known in Kievan times from the Byyantine Chronicle of George Harmartolus or perhaps from the apocryphal Gospel of St. Thomas, the action of which takes place in Parthia (India), where the metaphor is common. Popular belief suggested that the soul exited from the hody through the "Adam's apple," which is why amulets were worn there--a cross, garlic, etc. The golden necklace or torc is a symbol of Iziaslav's princely station.

Line Notes to Strophes XXX-XXXV:

(140) One of the difficult passages in the Russian, Koli sokol v mytekh byvaet, has only recently found its interpretation, by 0. V. Tvorogov (1977), who emends to Koli sokol ‘g’ mytei byvaet: "When the falcon is of the third moult." Even without the emendation a suitable translation is "When the falcon is fully mature."

(150) The living fires (shereshiry) were most likely projectiles of a flaming substance, the so-called Greek fire. In the campaign of 1184 the Rus led by Vsevolod Big Nest captured a "besermenin," a Moslem, who knew how to use the "living fire." One of Vsevolod's allies was Gleb Rostislavich of Riazan.

(152) It is likely that the noun voi, warriors, is missing from the subject, i.e., "Ne vaiu li voi zlachenymi shelomy po krovi plavashia?"

(167) The meaning of paporzi, which is what is in the first edition, is unclear. Some emend to parobtsi, "lads," others to papersi or pavorozi, in either case a part of a helmet or of armor adopted from the West. The translation "iron lads" is cognizant both of the human factor and the likely armor.

(169) Khinova, Litva, Iatviazi, Deremela. These today are known as Hungary, Lithuania, the latviagians (Balts), and the Deremela. The last are identified by Omeljan Pricak as "brodniki," nomads, though the majority of commentators still refer to them as a Baltic tribe (Pricak, 1965).

The implication at the end of strophe XXXIII is that the descendants of Oleg have, as usual, been the first into battle and are now in need of assistance.

(174) Ne khuda gnezda shestokriltsi. "Six-winged ones of no bad nest." It is true that the seraphim are in Russian tradition termed the "six winged ones," but what that might have to do with this text is unclear. The naturalist, N.V. Sharleman, states that "six-winged, apparently, are also falcons, for whom the division typical of the majority of birds (but not ostriches, kiwis and penguins) of their wing feathers into three parts is especially visible when they are soaring" (1948, p.113). The epithet certainly refers to falcons in South Slavic folklore. Why the poet is excoriating these particular princes for the manner of their gaining their possessions is in the context very unclear.

(177) Pereiaslavl was a town to the southeast of Kiev. The Sula is a tributary of the Dniepr. The Dvina is here the Western Dvina, flowing into the Baltic through Lithuania. The border city of Polotsk is located on it.

(181) The first clause of this line is very obscure. In the editio princeps we have

I skhoti iu na krovat, i rek. Two differing emendations have been proposed and widely accepted: Iskhodi iuna krov, a ti rek, which may be literally translated as "His young blood went out, and he said…" Or, I s khotiiu na krovat i rek, i. e. "With his beloved on the bed he said ...." The second version would continue the wedding feast/battlefield imagery of lines 89 and 90. The word "beloved" was either masculine or feminine, depending on context.     []


These two strophes contain some of the most striking poetry in the Slovo. They are dedicated to Prince Vseslav of Polotsk, who died in 1101, and to his descendants. Vseslav and his family appear to be the only branch of princes mentioned in the poem who are not descended from Iaroslav the Wise, the successor to St. Vladimir I. (An exception could be made for Iaroslav's brother Mstislav of Tmutorokan, whose descendants are not mentioned.) Vseslav was in fact the great-grandson of St. Vladimir and Rogneda, princess of Polotsk, whom Vladimir brutally raped. Iziaslav, the son of Vladimir and Rogneda, died before his father. In 1015 when Vladirnir died, civil war broke out among Vladimir's sons and stepsons. As the oldest offspring of Prince Vladimir's first marriage, Iziaslav would likely have succeeded his father. Unfortunately, his death before his father's meant that his children, including Vseslav, were removed from the succession (see Genealogical Table). By 1019 Iaroslav had gained power, and subsequently his descendants ruled Rus with the exception of the principality of Polotsk in the far Northwest. Vseslav did not acknowledge that the laroslavichi considered him outside the line of succession to the throne in Kiev, and in 1068 he briefly occupied the capital.

Clearly, Vseslav was a figure of great importance in Kievan Rus, despite his lack of permanent political success. A legend grew up about him that was preserved in both the written record of his time and in oral tradition. He was the subject of an epic (bylina) written down only in the late eighteenth century, "Volkh Vseslavievich." The popular tradition of Vseslav was that of a shape-shifting and brave hero who fought in the "Indian" or otherworld kingdom (in-dei-skoe, "other put place") against incredible odds, using most unlikely strategems. The literary tradition records that he was born out of sorcery and in his caul, which was considered a sign of extraordinary capacities and fortune.

The three grasps for fortune mentioned in strophe XXXVII refer to Vseslav's campaign of 1067-69 when three times he attacked Novgorod, revoking a charter granted that city by Iaroslav. He then fought the sons of Iaroslav at the Battle of the Nemga. After losing the battle, he was forced to flee, apparently to Tmutorokan, that haven of princes who lost out in Kievan political struggles. Perhaps he is the Prince Seslav whom Anna Comnena mentions in the Alexiada (Book VI.14) as having participated in a campaign against Byzantium along the lower reaches of the Danube in 1086. In Anna's account, which is dated ca. 1148, there is a possible source for Prince Igor's ironic speech. The Emperor Alexis, in near defeat from the Pechenegs and Sarmatians (Slavs led by "Seslav"?) faces the enemy alone and says, "It is better to die in manly combat than preserve life at the price of disgrace," (Book VII.l). The sentiments expressed by both Alexis and, later, Igor were hardly original in their stories, however.

Vseslav does not reappear in Russian sources until the strange entry in the Primary Chronicle about his death. It has associations with the death of Christ: "Vseslav, Prince of Polotsk, died on Wednesday, April 24, at the ninth hour of the day." On Thursday began the Russian observance of Christ's passion.

Line Notes to Strophes XXXVI-XXXVII:

(185) Most editors break this very obscure line into two: truby trubiat Gorodenskii. Iaroslave, i vsi vnutse Vseslavli, uzhe ponizit stiazi svoi…(as found in the first edition), but then "Iaroslav" would not refer to any obvious contemporary of the poet. D. S. Liknachev (1985) emends the second sentence to read Iaroslavli i vsi vnutsi Vseslavli. The word in question thus becomes a posesssive adjective and would refer to grandsons: Iaroslav's and all Vseslav's grandsons! A third reading was proposed by N. L Gagen-Torn (1972): Truby trubiat gorodenskye, iaro proslavli vsi vnutsi Vseslavli!--The trumpets of Gorodno blare, fiercely praising all Vseslav's grandsons! Though this rendering contains fewer emendations than Likhachev's and it eliminates the problem of an undesirable Iaroslav or his offspring at this juncture, it would not follow the norm of Kievan era declensions. It has the distinct advantage that it does make sense--the rest of the strophe is clearly about Vseslav and his descendants and has nothing to do with those of Iaroslav the Wise.

(192-193) The first edition's phrase S Dudutok is supposed to mean from the locality of Dudutki, but no such place is known to have existed. My late colleague Marc Szeftel first suggested that a scribal dittograph created a place rather than what originally perhaps described an activity. Szeftel's emendation is widely accepted: Vseslav sdu tok, he blew clean the threshing floor. Though the imagery comparing the battle to the harvesting of grain has biblical analogues, Indo-European epic tradition knew it as well cf. Iliad, Book XIX.215-238.

(198) Another instance of the ambiguity created by the instrumental case (see commentary to strophe III) occurs in line 198. Vseslav at midnight apparently fled Belgorod, near Kiev and the site of a royal residence, having become, or in the guise of, a wild beast. The bylina describes him as the enchanted offspring of his princess mother and a serpent who is, it turns out, also his mother's father--named Vseslav. In the bylina he is very much a shape-shifter. In the Slovo the movements of the night-dwelling, shape-shifter Vseslav are contrasted with the sun god Khors, [also Dazhbog, Svarog] whose name, it has been suggested, figures in the Russian word for good (pleasing to the sun?) tspsp’p and that for processional tspspvpd (to lead according to the sun god Khors?).

(200) Ashche i veshcha dusia v druze tele, n chiasto bedy stradashe. Should the prepositional phrase be emended to v drze tele? It would then read "Even if (his) vatic soul (was) in a brave body, he often suffered misfortunes." A proposed analogue from Old Norse skaldic poetry "eigi einhamr," having more than one covering, is not really too close. I propose an analogue from Saxo's Danorum Regum Heroumque Historia, Book I. Here Hading is accosted by a weird who tells him: "Whether you tread the fields or set your canvas to the ocean, to you the gods will be hostile, and throughout the whole earth you shall find the elements of Nature thwarting all your designs... Everything shall be tainted and mourn the fate of your presence. Shunned like a noxious itch, no plague will ever have been more vile than you. Such punishment the powers of heaven dispense. For you have killed with sacrilegious hands a sky-dweller wrapped in another body...."[8] (emphasis mine). Vseslav is a night sky dweller and, accepting the reading of the first editors, his vatic soul was in another's body.

(201) We accept the reading of the first edition, ptitsiu, without emendation. Boian speaks of the "cleverest bird" and not an "accomplished wizard," pyttsiu, a frequently proposed alternative. In a world where wizards turn to wolves and birds, the statement as it stands already means that no shape-changer can expect to avoid God's judgment by taking other corporeal forms. Too often emendation flattens the poetry of obscure passages--in the context of this poem, emending to "wizard" makes the line almost mundane. It also must be stressed that coming from Boian, a statement about "God'" need not refer to a judgment that is Christian.  []


In this last strophe of Sviatoslav's "Golden Word," the energetic and successful leader Vladimir I Sviatoslavich (ruled 885-1015) is compared to Riurik Rostislavich, the contemporary and real prince of Kiev and military commander, and his brother, whose assistance in military matters could not be assumed by Riurik. See the discussion above of Strophe XXXII.  []


A number of features of this passage seem to defy any logical explanation. Why do lances sing on the Danube? Igor is many hundreds of miles away to the east. The notion of Meshcherskij (1985) that "Danube" is merely "among the Slavs a widely dispersed epic name for a river" hardly fits the picture of exact geographical and historical reference when such names are used elsewhere in the poem. Why is Prince Igor's wife known only by her patronymic, her father's name, and not by her still unknown Chilstian name? Why does she apparently fly along the River Danube, far, far to the southwest, when her husband is in captivity far to the southeast? How is it that she then appears on the ramparts of Putivl? In her attempt to rescue her husband, why does she summon the pagan deities, not the Christian God? It is possible that the first part of this passage, or even the entire passage, was from the repertoire of the poet Boian, or at least from that tradition. If Boian was a Bulgarian, or if he sang of the Rus princes who were much occupied with Danubian affairs, such as Igor I and Sviatoslav I, the mention of that river could be expected. Iaroslavna's pagan incantation would also be consistent with the earlier time. Perhaps the passage retains features of an original presence in some earlier poem.

Nothing is known of Igor's wife other than that she was the daughter of Iaroslav the Eight-Minded of Galich. In the poem, her mysterious nature is emphasized by the poet's note that she flies zegzitseiu, "as a gull." The bird is more likely the river gull than the forest dwelling cuckoo, often proposed as a translation for the Old Russian. Among the Ukrainians of the territory that made up Prince Igor's principality the gull (Vanellus vanellus) is the "zigzichka." That Iaroslavna's Christian name was Efrosinia is a modern scholarly fiction. She was, however, the daughter of Iaroslav. Her "beaver-trimmed' sleeve" (bebrian rukav) was perhaps a fine silk weave and not made of fur at all. An Old Russian translation of the Book of Esther would support this reading.

The incantation is in itself made up of three parts, one addressed to the sun, one to the wind, and one to the water. Similar incantations were still heard in the nineteenth century in Russia, consisting precisely of the appearance of the sorceress or conjuress in an open area at dawn with up-stretched arms to pronounce her words. The triple replication is typical of Indo-European rites in general.   []


Both Grand Prince Sviatoslav's grandiloquent speech and Iaroslavna's incantation are undercut by the Igor poet's curt "And God shows to Igor the way from the Polovtsian land onto the land of Rus." In this passage the poet's bias becomes clearer. Igor is seen to flee ignominiously, meekly, with only the traitor Ovlur to aid him (Igor later gave him an estate), but with God as his guide. That this is no pagan god is made clear by his return not to the sorceress Iaroslavna, who is his wife, nor even to Sviatoslav, whose heroic deeds and summons to the princes of Rus have been of no consequence. It may seem odd to some that Igor's return should be to an icon of the Mother of God, but one needs to remember that Mary, the Mother of God, was patroness of warriors in Rus and Russia. Athena, too, was goddess of wisdom and war. Igor returns to an icon of the Mother of God to atone for his misdeeds. Neither Sviatoslav, whose heroic flourishes in his Golden Word were reminiscent of a past long dead, nor Iaroslavna, who appealed to past beliefs, is mentioned again in the poem.

The long, painful return is punctuated by two conversations: one between Igor and the River Donets, the second between the two Polovtsian khans from whom Igor has fled. The conversation with the Donets contains the historical reference to the drowning of Vladimir II Monomakh's young brother, Rostislav, in the River Stugna in 1093. Vladimir and Rostislav were, not entirely coincidentally, fleeing the Polovtsians. Conversations between rivers and princes are unusual, to say the least. In the Slovo however, natural entities often express human sympathies or are animated to such a degree that they possess human characteristics.

The conversation of the two khans touches on the betrothal of Igor's son, Vladimir, the falconet, to Konchak's daughter. Though not formally a prisoner, Vladimir is "residing" in the Polovtsian camp.   []


Just as lines in the style of Boian began the action of the poem in strophe seven, the Igor poet here returns to his predecessor for a closing passage of wisdom. Strophe forty-three emphasizes the return to Kiev of a true hero, in Boianic style, as the head of his realm. Such a conclusion is perhaps more a formal requirement than appropriate to the actual events depicted in the poem.

The strophe opens with a famous crux: rek Boian i khody na […] Sviatslavlia pesnotvortsia starago vremene, iaro slavlia Ol’gova kogania khoti. Some scholars, including Likhachev, resolve the crux by suggesting it refers to a second poet of the past, "Khodina," a name otherwise unknown and here based on an unwarranted and grammatically unlikely emendation. Without emendation the text could instead be translated as follows.

Boian told even the campaigns against [lacuna]
of Sviatoslav's songmaker of the ancient time,
fiercely praising the favorite of the Kagan Oleg.

This is the kind of crux that may never permit a completely satisfactory translation, and ours is offered as yet another.problematical hypothesis. We understand the passage as alluding to the practice of repeating the words of, and thereby praising, successive poets of the past. The only necessary emendation for such a reading would be to supply a word in the first phrase referring to Sviatoslav's opponents--the Greeks, perhaps, or even a generic noun meaning "enemies." An expanded (and prosaic) interpretation of the allusive lines above would be: "Boian even repeated campaigns against enemies, as told in an earlier time by the songmaker of Sviatoslav I, who, in turn, echoed the songmaker of Oleg the Magus."

Oleg the Magus, a semi-legendary figure from the early tenth century, is a more likely subject for the pagan Boian's songmaking than the later Oleg Sviatoslavich, the Son of Woe in our poem, or other, less important princes of that name. If Oleg the Magus and Sviatoslav I are indicated in these lines, it seems likely that the reference to "Igor" in the following lines would indicate a third pre-Christian ruler of Rus, Prince Igor I (see the Genealogical Table). The poet of the Zadonshchina in fact, says that Boian did sing of this early prince. His well known campaigns on the lower Danube and beyond, and his return to Rus might well have occasioned singing from maidens, whether they were Slavs welcoming him back or non-Slavs rejoicing at his departure from their lands.

The metaphoric lines in the style of Boian which follow the crux portray the land of Rus without a leader as a headless body. This is presumably an aphorisitic echo of poetry originally about the earliest princes. In this way the Igor poet manages to complete his poem with a correct formal flourish, but one which alludes to the earliest princes, thus conforming to the strictures about an appropriate style which opened the poem. The next strophe shifts in subject to the poet's contemporary, Igor Sviatoslavich, and reports his return briefly, with minimal fanfare.

Line Note to Strophe XLIII

(245) The title kogan/kagan/khan seems to have come into Old Russian from the Turkic Khazars, to whom the Rus paid tribute. Metropolitan Ilarion referred to Vladimir I as "kogan" in the eleventh century.   []


In Boian's time, heroes returned to the songs of maidens along the Danube, where our Prince Igor has never been. The present Prince Igor returns in the poem alone, disgraced, to an icon of the Mother of God. One recent commentator somehow argues that "Igor's defeat takes on the character of a Universal catastrophe" (Gasparov, 1984). The poem says that cities and lands rejoice, although it is not clear why. Certainly not for the return of an insignificant prince. Not because unity or peace are brought to the land of Rus. Not because Right has triumphed over Wrong. Perhaps because the proud have been humiliated and the meek shall inherit the earth.

(253) The Borichev slope connected the upper town of Kiev with the lower, which was situated along the river. Sviataia Bogoroditsia Pirogoshchiaia is literally the Holy Mother of God Pirogoshchaia, which is usually thought to refer to a church in which was displayed an icon of the Mother of God brought from a Constantinople church that was shaped something like a tower (hence, Pirogoshchiaia <Greek pyrgos, tower). An alternative explanation is that the Church of the Mother of God is the Church of the Tithes (Desiatinaia), which fell down under the weight of the population hiding from the Tatars in the destruction of Kiev in 1241. This church was in the upper town, near the royal residence. The icon, known as the pirogoriashchiaia kupina (the burning bush), preserved in a seventeenth century source as s Pirogoriasheiu kuptsem was perhaps the famous Vladimir Mother of God, brought to Kiev in the early twelfth century and venerated among pious Russians today.

(255) The opening of the final strophe is difficult to translate because the infinitive peti serves as the predicate. A literal rendition would be: "Having sung a song to the old princes, then to the young [one should] sing." This could be a comment on the poet's technique of comparing past and present and also refers to what follows, i.e. glory to Igor Sviatoslavich, etc. If, as I think, the comment is about poetic technique, then this gives a final twist to a paean to the "new" heroes: Igor, Vsevolod and Vladimir. The latter two figured but briefly in the poem, and Igor reaped little honor. Their poet here eschews the technique for which Boian was justly famous; it would have been inappropriate for princes such as Igor and his kin.

(256) The absence of the Grand Prince from the list has suggested to some scholars that Sviatoslav was dead at the time the surviving form of the poem was completed. If this is the case, then the Slovo as we have it must have been written after 1194. This same line of reasoning would conclude that because Vsevolod is mentioned, the poem must have been written before 1196, when Igor's brother died. Alternatively, the presence or absence of known characters in the poem may be unrelated to their actual life spans. As we have noted above, Iaroslav the Eight-Minded, for instance, died in 1187, though in the poem he is described as very much at the height of his powers.

(257) In translating the last line, there should perhaps be a pause after "retinue" to emphasize the contrastive nature of the conjunction a "and/but." This suggests a somewhat ironic interpretation of the return of Igor without his forces: Kniazem slava a druzhine amin, "Glory to the princes, but to the retinue, amen." The "Amen" could thus express resolution, ambivalence or both while conveying its usual meaning, "So be it." Another hypothesis is that the "Amen" was a scribal addition, thus requinng a more conventional translation: "Glory to the princes and the retinue. Amen."    []

[Back to beginning of Igor Tale text.]


  1. Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum (reprint), 1973, esp. pp. 3O-67.
  2. On Celtic religion, especially the goddess-queen Medb and her familiars, see Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain. Studies in Iconography and Tradition. London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1974, esp. p.61.
  3. Aeschylus, Agamemnon, trans. of G.M. Cookson, 1952.
  4. A N. Afanas'ev, Poeticheskie vozzreniia slavian na prirodu, Moscow, 1865, vol.1, p.542.
  5. The Exeter Book Riddles, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979, p.30.
  6. Mify narodov mira. Entsiklopediia, ed. S. A Tokarev, Moscow, 1982, vol.11, pp.523-524.
  7. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Song of Roland, Harmondsworth, 1957, p.203.
  8. Saxo Grammaticus, Danorum Regum Heroumque Historia, vol. I, Book I, pp.29-30, BAR International Series: Oxford, 1981. Translated by Eric Christiansen.