The Journeys of Otok: A Mategosan Folk Cycle

I.
Once there was a boy who wandered in the forest. Robbers had killed his parents and the boy would have perished of hunger and thirst had not a pine-marten taken pity upon him and whispered to him which berries were good to eat and where a spring was to be found that he might drink of it.

The pine-marten asked the boy what his name was, but the boy replied, “I know not – I cannot remember what my mother and my father called me.”

The pine-marten replied, “Since I have taken you in, I shall give you a name. Remember it, boy, for it tells you of your fate! You are named Otok Kestena!” (Island of Chestnut Trees) “You will use the name Otok with one and with all, but Kestena keep you secret, that none else but you or I will know of your place of refuge!”

The boy understood the pine-marten and promised always to keep the secret of the chestnut trees. Islands in the world, there were many of those: but islands covered with chestnut trees none knew of, they were as secret as Otok’s second name.

Otok followed the ways of the pine-marten in the forest and grew happily enough. When the boy was old enough to be a man, the pine-marten said to him, “See now! You are strong in your youth and I am now old in my age, such is the way of the world! As I prepare to lay myself down, you must make ready to bring yourself up! Seek you a wife, find people who will follow you, and make your way to the land of your fate and there you shall be a ruler, happy and prosperous!”

Otok asked the pine-marten, “Old friend and forest-father! How do I know such things are true and not dreams?”

The pine-marten replied, “Ah! when you were a new babe and I was in my youth, I saw the three Royenitzes who spoke of your fate as you slept one night. I listened as the first said that you were to be an orphan wanderer. The second then said that you would only have one true refuge, an island covered with chestnut trees. The third said only if you found a people who would leave their prosperous lands to join you in your undiscovered refuge would you know happiness. So I remembered these things and watched over you. Lucky are you, Otok, to be a man that knows his fate!”

Otok gave great and humble thanks to the pine-marten and laughed and wept with his forest-father for three more days as the pine-marten passed from the world. A good burial gave Otok to the pine-marten, deep in the ground where the wolf would not dig. Otok mourned the pine-marten and, having completed his mourning, went to seek his wife, his people, and his land.

II.
Otok wandered alone in the forest. All his life he had lived in the forest and did not know where the lands of humans were. One day, he happened to see a wolf licking a wound on its back leg. Though the wolf was stronger than he, Otok stepped to where the wolf could see him. The wolf was ready to pounce upon Otok, but Otok held up his hand in peace and said, “Wolf! Slay me not! I know your secret weakness, and should you slay me, I shall shout it aloud with my dying breath, that all the forest may hear of it! Spare me, and I shall aid you in battle. What say you, O Wolf?”

Wolf said to Otok, “It is better to have a stranger befriended than a whole world know of my weakness. I shall spare you, man, but tell me your name, that I may know you from other men, with whom I share no alliance.”

“Otok is my name, and one day, I shall ask you to guide me to where the other men are.”

Wolf said, “Otok is such a short name. Surely, there is more in your name, will you tell it to me?”

“Otok is my name. It is short, yes, but it will suit me well should there be no more name. If you have more to name me with, I would hear it now.”

The wolf obliged his ally. “Here is a secret for you, Otok – add Zaton (cove) to your name, for I once heard the sun whisper that the most beautiful of all human maidens lived by a cove by the sea, and there you should seek your wife.”

Otok thanked the wolf and wandered more in the forest. One day, he saw a lion tending to a wound on its belly. Though the lion was stronger than he, Otok stepped to where the lion could see him. The lion was ready to pounce upon Otok, but Otok held up his hand in peace and said, “Lion! Slay me not! I know your secret weakness, and should you slay me, I shall shout it aloud with my dying breath, that all the forest may hear of it! Spare me, and I shall aid you in battle. What say you, O Lion?”

Lion said to Otok, “It is better to have a stranger befriended than a whole world know of my weakness. I shall spare you, man, but tell me your name, that I may know you from other men, with whom I share no alliance.”

“Otok is my name, and one day, I shall ask you to guide me to where the other men are.”

Lion said, “Otok is such a short name. Surely, there is more in your name, will you tell it to me?”

“Otok is my name. It is short, yes, but it will suit me well should there be no more name. If you have more to name me with, I would hear it now.”

The lion obliged his ally. “Here is a secret for you, Otok – add Hrast (oak) to your name for once I heard the wind whisper that the hardest-working men he ever saw lived among the oak trees, and there you should seek your kinsmen!”

Otok thanked the lion and wandered more in the forest. One day, he saw a giant eagle nursing a wound on its wing. Though the eagle was stronger than he, Otok stepped to where the eagle could see him. The great eagle was ready to pounce upon Otok, but Otok held up his hand in peace and said, “Eagle! Slay me not! I know your secret weakness, and should you slay me, I shall shout it aloud with my dying breath, that all the forest may hear of it! Spare me, and I shall aid you in battle. What say you, O Eagle?”

Great Eagle said to Otok, “It is better to have a stranger befriended than a whole world know of my weakness. I shall spare you, man, but tell me your name, that I may know you from other men, with whom I share no alliance.”

“Otok is my name, and one day, I shall ask you to guide me to where the other men are.”

Great Eagle said, “Otok is such a short name. Surely, there is more in your name, will you tell it to me?”

“Otok is my name. It is short, yes, but it will suit me well should there be no more name. If you have more to name me with, I would hear it now.”

The eagle shook its head. “No, Otok! Others may give you more names, but I shall not give a name to you until you have proven your worth to me in battle.”

Otok understood without complaint and said, “So be it, Great Eagle. When I have helped you in battle, you shall give me more to my name.”

III.
Otok traveled on in the forest and one day saw Wolf, Lion, and Great Eagle readying themselves to fight each other. Between and before them was a dead ox-bull. Otok could see that each of the three wanted to claim first share of the prize. Otok could also see that each of the three feared that the other two would join forces and drive him away. Otok could further see that each of the three wondered which of the other two would be the weaker partner, the better choice of ally to defeat the third with. For always the strongest seeks a weak ally against a third power, that the weak ally may be subjugated when the third power is no more.

Otok stepped to where all three would see him, and declared, “I am here to help my ally in battle!”

At the same time, Wolf, Lion, and Great Eagle all said, “Good!” Then, at the same time, Wolf, Lion, and Great Eagle knew that Otok was an ally to them all. And one who is an ally to all is one who can be trusted to make a just peace, for it is in justice that alliances are preserved. Weaker than all three of the others in strength and weapons, in his knowledge and bargaining, Otok was stronger than all three combined.

Otok mediated between Wolf, Lion, and Eagle and brought them to agreement on a fair division of the meat and bones of the dead ox-bull. Otok asked for no meat or bones for himself, such was his wisdom, for there can be no justice when the judge takes part in the spoils.

Happy were Wolf, Lion, and Great Eagle to not have a battle, for each secretly feared that his secret wound would prove his undoing. Wolf departed with his portion. Lion departed with his portion. As Great Eagle made ready to feast upon his portion, Otok reminded him, “O Great Eagle! Did I not help you in battle, or do I yet owe you that service?”

Great Eagle nodded. “Indeed, Otok, you have helped me in battle, and I have not forgotten my pledge to you. Now hear me well, for I shall name you Govornik (speaker). You win battles with words, and so it shall be. Never will you bear arms, for in that day you bear arms, you shall die. Think much, and speak the words born of mature thoughts. Far and wide have I flown and I have seen troubles among men. Wars and battles are coming to the men of these lands.”

Great Eagle continued. “Here is a riddle I have heard the moon whisper as it passes over the lands of men and gives them dreams. ‘Earth, sea, sky – each realm has its champion, and each realm does battle with the other. Fight one and be crushed, befriend all three and prosper.’ Remember those words, Otok Govornik, and think on them, my friend. But tell me one thing, friend, who tutored you in your ways?”

Otok replied, “My forest-father, the pine-marten.”

Great Eagle nodded. “Lucky you were to have a pine-marten for your guide and tutor. Had the wolf tutored you, you would have been taught to bite, but you have no jaws. Had the lion tutored you, you would have been taught to maul, but you have no claws. Had I tutored you, you would have been taught to fly, but you have no wings. The pine-marten taught you to be clever, and look, you have words! So I say lucky you were to have a pine-marten teach you.”

Otok humbly thanked Great Eagle for all his words and left the forest that day, to walk in the lands of men.

IV.
Otok followed the setting sun and arrived at the seashore. He followed the seashore until he came to a beautiful cove. There, in the beautiful cove, he saw a beautiful maiden. Otok called to the maiden, “My name is Otok and I am not yet betrothed. Have you yet been promised to another?”

The maiden replied. “I am called Pučina (open sea) and I am promised to the one who is friend to the sun, the wind, and the moon. Prove that you are that man, and I shall be your wife.”

Otok said, “I shall prove my three friendships and shall be your husband.” With that, Otok set out to prove his friendships with the sun, the wind, and the moon.

A year later, Otok returned with a sack of grain, a barrel of fish, and a bucket of dried mushrooms. Pučina asked, “Tell me, Otok, what have you brought me?”

Otok said, “Fair Pučina, I will tell you. A year I have spent making friends with the sun, the wind, and the moon, and these are their gifts to me, as proof of that friendship. Would I have grain enough to spare had not the sun smiled upon me and helped me to grow my crops? Would I have fish enough to spare had not the wind guided my boat in the waters? Would I have mushrooms enough to spare had not the moon caused them to grow and shone its light to guide me to where they were?”

Pučina smiled and said, “That is good, Otok, you are indeed a friend to sun, wind, and moon. You shall prosper without conquering and your people shall know peace. Tell me now more of your name, that I may know you more.”

Otok said, “Wolf gave me the name Zaton, and it is here in the cove that I find you. Lion gave me the name Hrast, and it is among the oak trees that I will seek my people. Great Eagle gave me the name Govornik, and it is only with words, not arms, that I make my way in the world.”

Pučina asked, “Have you any other names?”

Otok said, “One other name, the pine-marten gave me. But this is a name that I must keep secret. Forest-father he was to me, and I promised him that I would keep it a secret, for my fate is in it. But the day my fate is made certain, you will know that name without my speaking it to you, for you are a woman and you will know of things that men must be told.”

Pučina nodded and smiled, “Well have you spoken, husband Otok, and we will learn to love each other in the years to come.”

V.
Otok followed the edge of the cove to where there was a river. He then followed the river upstream to a wood of oak trees. In that wood were several villages. The people of the villages worked very hard and were always ready to aid one another, just as Lion had said he had heard whispered by the wind.

But Otok did not make his home in that wood of oak trees: he did visit each village and he and his wife Pučina made good friends of the people, but Otok did not take up a dwelling there.

Instead, Otok traveled on in the lands surrounding the wood of oak trees. To the south, Otok saw an army that marched under banners of wolves. They would dig deep into the earth each night before sleeping, that their camp would be surrounded by ditches and mounds. The men of the army saw Otok and demanded that Otok tell them of the lands to the north.

Otok said, “To the north is a river. South of the river are plains where you can grow bountiful crops. Though a people lives there, if you promise them safety when they depart, they shall give that land to you, that you may farm it and soldier no more. Let them depart in peace and you shall have the land without war.”

The leader of the army under the banners of wolves said, “So it shall be! If we can gain the land without war, it is a good thing that our blood be not shed.”

Otok departed and then sailed on the seas to the west. There, he saw a navy that sailed under the banners of lions. They would unfurl their sails and move swiftly here and there, that they might claim the whole of the sea as their own. The men of the navy saw Otok and demanded that Otok tell them of the lands to the west.

Otok said, “To the west is a river. Along the river are mighty oaks, excellent timber for mighty ships. Though a people lives there, if you promise them safety when they depart, they shall give those oaks to you, that you may build merchant ships and bring prosperity through trade, that you have commerce instead of war. Let them depart in peace, and you shall have the timber without war.”

The leader of the navy under the banners of lions said, “So it shall be! If we can gain the timbers without war, it is a good thing that our blood be not shed.”

Otok departed and then went to the mountains to the north. There, he saw great castles with high towers under the banners of eagles. They would build the tall towers to survey the land around and establish their rule. The men of the castles saw Otok and demanded that Otok tell them of the lands to the south.

Otok said, “To the south is the river. On the north bank are rolling hills, which offer magnificent views of the surrounding lands. No enemy from the sea or land would be able to pass unmolested from castles in those hills. Though a people lives there, if you promise them safety when they depart, they shall give those hills to you, that you may build mighty castles in them and establish the borders to your lands so that none make war upon you. Let them depart in peace, and you shall have castles without war.”

The leader of the castles with the high towers under the banners of eagles said, “So it shall be! If we can set our borders in the hills without war, it is a good thing that our blood be not shed.”

Otok then returned to the villages in the oak woods. He called to their elders to come to him to learn of what he had discovered in his travels. The elders gathered before Otok and Otok told them of the great forces to the south, west, and north that were converging upon the oak woods by the river. He told them of the army that marched under the banners of wolves that would make war to win the plains. He told them of the navy that sailed under the banners of lions that would make war to win the timbers. He told them of the castles with high towers under the banners of eagles that would make war to gain the hills. A great and terrible war approached their lands.

The elders asked, “How will we escape the war? We wish only to live in peace and to work to feed our families. We can defend against bandits, but how do we survive such a terrible war?”

Otok said, “I know a way, but you will follow me to a secret place I have not yet been to. You will know that I shall arrive there because it is my fate to take a people in prosperous lands to such an undiscovered place, where they will live in happiness. Lucky am I to know my fate, and lucky are you to be joined to it, if you but give your consent to follow me.”

The elders said, “That is well and good, your story is entertaining. But what tokens do we have of its truth?”

Then the wife of Otok, beautiful Pučina, stepped forward and said, “That I stand before you as the wife of Otok is part of that proof. He befriended sun and wind and moon to gain my hand, and now we are married and we learn to love each other.”

The elders said, “So that is a proof, a witness to your fate. What other proof have you for us?”

Otok replied, “I was named Zaton by friend Wolf, and it was in a cove that I found my wife. I was named Hrast by friend Lion, and it was in the woods of oak trees that I found you, who I ask to be my people. I was named Govornik by friend Great Eagle, and it is with words that I bring peace to those who listen. I have been given the riddle from Great Eagle: ‘Earth, sea, sky – each realm has its champion, and each realm does battle with the other. Fight one and be crushed, befriend all three and prosper.’ So we see that the wolf-banners of the earth, the lion-banners of the sea, and the eagle-banners of the sky are ready to battle. While none of them may we fight, we prosper in the peace we bring to them.”

The elders said, “So it is. We are convinced and shall follow you from our lands of prosperity to the undiscovered island of your fate.”

VI.
With the people of the oak woods following him, Otok returned to the cove where he had met Pučina. There, they stood on the edge of the land that they could walk no more as the sea they could not sail wet their feet and the wind howled cold and bitter through the mountains, chilling their bones.

Otok addressed them all: “Otok is my name, and it is to an island that we will travel and find our refuge. I have been given names by Wolf, Lion, and Great Eagle, but greatest of all is the name given me by my forest-father, the pine-marten. Alone I know my secret, but you shall all know of it when we arrive at our place of refuge. Pučina shall be the first to know and, through her, you will know as she knows, for she is mother to you, and mothers can teach lessons without speaking.”

An elder asked, “How shall we travel to the island that is undiscovered?”

Otok replied, “I cannot guide you there, but I have made friends of the sun, the wind, and the moon. They will help us arrive to the island of refuge.”

The people settled in the cove and awaited for Otok to bring them to the island of refuge.

One day, an old ship drifted into the cove. A single man stood at the rudder. He was older than the ship and looked to be weary of the world. He called down to the people of Otok to bring him safely to shore, and this they gladly did. On the shore, Otok asked him, “How did you come to be among us?”

The old sailor replied, “I awoke this morning and saw in the sun a promise. So I set my bearing to where the sun rises and traveled to this point. I am old and seek a place where I may rest my bones, and the sea is no place for resting.”

Otok said to him, “Let us use your boat that my friend the sun guided to us and we shall take you to a place of refuge, where you may rest your bones.”

The old sailor said, “Well and good is to be in the company of a friend of the sun! I shall join with you and your people this day.” At that moment, the people of Otok set about to prepare the ship for a voyage.

When the ship was ready, the people of Otok boarded the ship and made ready to sail. As they sails were unfurled, the winds ceased to dodge here and there among the rocks and caves. The winds made an end of their constant squabbling around the shores and with unanimity, made as one and gave a direction constant and true to the ship bearing the people of Otok. Through waves and mists, the ship continued on its unerring path. The people sang praise to the friend of the wind, and that it was well and good to be in his company.

One day, an island covered in chestnut trees lay before Otok. When Pučina saw it, she knew at once the secret name the pine-marten had given to Otok. When Pučina turned to face the people of Otok with a smile on her fair face, the people learned from their mother that this was the place of refuge. At night, the wind gave a great gift to its friend Otok as it caressed the tides to gently land the ship on the shores of the isle of refuge, the isle of the chestnut trees, the Island of Mategosa.

1 thought on “The Journeys of Otok: A Mategosan Folk Cycle

  1. deanwebb Post author

    Historical notes:
    This version is most likely from the mid-16th century or slightly later, owing to several key references. The wolf (Turk), lion (Venice), and eagle (Holy Roman Empire) symbolism is clear enough, but the matter of the three partitioning the carcass of an ox-bull is a likely reference to the collapse of Hungary after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. Some scholars would have us consider that the ox-bull is itself a pun on the name of King Mattias Corvinus of Hungary – Corvinus being similar to the Croatian word for cow :”krava” – but such a negative association for a popular monarch is doubtful.

    Although the story itself is dated to the mid-16th century, elements hearken back to earlier days, even pre-Christian Slavic lore. While the Earth-Sea-Sky riddle again connects back to Turk-Venice-Habsburg tensions, the sun-wind-moon triad and reference to the Slavic fates, the Royenitzes do not have any contemporary parallels. Likewise, the notion of the people of Mategosa being children of the island and open sea is itself a non-Christian origin idea that points towards a much more ancient origin for portions of the tale.

    As it stands, the story cycle very clearly praises the traits of Otok and his people that are most closely associated with the Mategosan self-image. Mategosans see themselves as hard workers and keepers of secrets. They also pride diplomacy over force, a wise choice for a small city-state surrounded by larger powers. That these traits arise from Otok’s association with the pine-marten, the animal symbol of Croatia, is no coincidence. As much as the pine-marten is a Croatian symbol, it is even more so a Mategosan one in that they do not survive in great numbers or brute power or hunting skill as do the wolf, lion, or eagle. The pine-marten is seen as surviving off of clever navigation of the perils of the world and while the top predators struggle with each other, the pine-marten prospers beneath their attentions.

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