The Aeneid Turned Inside Out

(Eneida navyvarat)

Eneida navyvarat [The Aeneid Turned Inside Out] is a Belarusian burlesque poem dating from the 1820s. Its plot is based on Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic written between 29 and 19 BC. 

Still image from the Belarusian film “Eneida navyvarat” (1910s). Source:

Eneida navyvarat continues the tradition of travesties or mock epics, which are as old as the epic genre itself. If the original epics were written to glorify distant events of the past, thereby fulfilling the need to service the ideology of a nation-state, travesties were directed at subverting this classicist project by placing gods and epic heroes in a quotidian environment and linguistic milieu.

The genre of travesties came to the Slavic lands via the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century West European literary tradition, namely Paul Scarron’s Virgile Travesti (1648–1653) and Alloys Blumauer’s Abenteuer des frommen Helden Æneas (1784–1788). The two direct Slavic literary sources for this Belarusian burlesque are the Russian travesty by Nikolai Osipov and Alexander Kotelnitsky titled Vergilieva Eneida, vyvorochennaia naiznanku [Vergil’s Aeneid Turned Inside Out] (1791–1796) and Ivan Kotliarevs′kyi’s Eneida. Na malorossiiskii iazyk perelitsovannaia I. Kotliarevskim [The Aeneid. Transposed into the Little Russian Language by I. Kotliarevs′kyi] (1798, 1808).

Written by an anonymous author and imitative in nature, Eneida navyvarat is considered today to be a founding text of the Belarusian national literary tradition. It was one of the first secular works written in the Belarusian vernacular to be widely circulated among the readers of that time on the territory that is known today as the independent Republic of Belarus. Unlike Ivan Kotliarevs′kyi’s Ukrainian Eneida, which gave birth to a wave of literary imitations (a phenomenon known as kotliarevshchyna in Ukraine), Eneida navyvarat yielded no known successors, with the exception of another anonymous burlesque text known as Taras na Parnase [Taras on Parnasus] (1850s). Yet, for generations of Belarusian writers and researchers, Eneida navyvarat has special value as one of the first articulations of national consciousness to impact the development of Belarusian literary language and tradition. This text can also be of interest to a comparativist studying the development of the burlesque genre and its East Slavic iterations in the context of national and local literatures.

A fragment of Eneida navyvarat was first published under the title The Aeneid Turned Inside Out in the Belarusian Peasant Dialect in the Saint Petersburg journal Maiak, in 1845. Its longer redaction appeared in 1890 in a newspaper titled Smolenskiy vestnik. Both times, the poem was published anonymously, with no one stepping forward to claim its authorship.

The plot of the poem revolves around the adventures of Aeneas, the son of Venus, who flees the city of Troy and overcomes the obstacles set up for him by Juno. The comic element of the poem is achieved through the transposition of the famous epic plot into the quotidian context of local Belarusian petty gentry and peasant life. The multitude of ethnographic detail, be it descriptions of costumes, food, or mores, are transmitted in a colorful vernacular, which enhances the comic effect. Even more interesting is the separation of the poem’s characters into nobles and serfs, reflecting the realities of that time. For example, the specific term barshchina (the Russian version of corvée labor) is mentioned when the noble Juno comes to the landowner Aeolus and asks him to summon his serfs—the winds Boreas, Zephyrus, Notos, and Eurus—to create a storm that will kill Aeneas. A type of economic exchange—both monetary and the barter of vodka—is exemplified in the episode where Aeneas bribes Neptune to assuage the storm. One more facet of the neo-feudal socio-economic system is represented when the Trojans arrive at Carthage. Dido meets them in an unwelcoming way, asking to see their passports to check if they are runway serfs. The Trojans explain their situation and ask Dido to enslave all of them, including the noble Aeneas. Thus, Eneida navyvarat not only includes such imperial Russian realities of the early nineteenth century as serfdom, but also actively uses class oppositions as a vehicle for satire.

In Belarusian literary criticism, the poem is frequently discussed from two perspectives: the ethnographic and textological. The local flavor of the poem is transmitted through the use of language, incorporation of local toponyms, and an abundance of ethnographic detail. The poem is written in a northeastern Belarusian dialect. While the text of the poem contains a few borrowings from Russian and Polish, it features almost none from Ukrainian (Blinava). The names of the Graeco-Roman epic characters are phonetically adapted to Belarusian, although their orthography varies depending on the redaction of the poem.

Like Kotliarevs′kyi’s Ukrainian Eneida, which has been frequently described in criticism as “an encyclopedia of Cossack life”, Eneida navyvarat provides copious descriptions of local food, costume, and customs. For example, Dido and her court engage in the Belarusian folk tradition of Calling of the Spring and Koliada, the East Slavic equivalent of Twelvetide. Another characteristic of the poem is its use of local place names and landmarks, which indicates that the authorial intention of this text was, above all, directed at a local or internal audience. For example, during Zeus’ prophecy to Aeneas, the author mentions the Chizhovsky palace:

Дапрець Янеюшка да Рима,
И тама будзець ёнъ Царемъ;
Палепши Чижовских хоромъ
Поставитсь камены полаты…

[Aeneas will get to Rome
Where he will become a Tsar
And where he would build a palace of stone
Better than the Chizhovsky palace…]

The Chizhovsky palace is an actual building located in the village of Chizhovo in the Smolensk region, the birthplace of Grigorii Potemkin. By referencing the name of Catherine’s favorite and promising Aeneas a palace better than that of Potemkin, the poem channels a subversive message commensurable to the attitudes of the Belarusian gentry towards the latter (Blinava). All in all, components such as dialectal words, place names, and descriptions of local customs constitute the ethnographic dimension of literary criticism in this text.

As for the textological dimension, its ambit is three-fold, as it encompasses both a comparison of various redactions of the poem, discussion of the poem’s sources and influences, and a search for its possible author. The most notable researchers of Eneida navyvarat include Iaukhim Karski, I. Bas, Hennadz’ Kisialiou, and Mikalai Khaustovich. The early twentieth-century Belarusian philologist Iaukhim Karski attributed the poem to the Belarusian poet Vikentsii Ravinski (1786-1855); Henadz′Kisialiou, a historian of literature who devoted four of his books to uncovering the personality of the anonymous author, gravitates towards the same conclusion. Mikalai Khaustovich, in his comparative textological analysis of various redactions of the poem, argues that the poem was written prior to the 1820s as an immediate reaction to the publication of the Russian and Ukrainian travesties. He reconstructs the original versification pattern of the poem as the odic vel Derzhavin strophe and thus eliminates Vikentsii Ravinski as one of its possible authors (Khaustovich, Sproba rekanstruktsyi). While most scholars tend to agree that both the Russian and Ukrainian burlesques influenced the Belarusian text, the question of its authorship remains unresolved.

The contemporary reader might never discover the name of the original author. Yet the persistent search for it is a remarkable phenomenon in its own right and can be compared to a larger process of searching for national identity, one that Belarusian literature is still undergoing. Having been included in the national school program and translated into numerous languages, this text will continue to invite in-depth critical attention from future generations of scholars.

Aliaksandra Razor
University of California, Los Angeles

Works Cited

Bas, I. Litaraturnyia poshuki, Znakhodki, dasledavanni. Minsk: Vyd-va BDU im. U.I. Lenina, 1969.Blinava, Evelina D. “Lingvistychny analiz paemy ‘Eneida navyvarat.’” Rodnae slova no.12 2005: 31–34.
Karski Iaukhim H., and Ivan Kotliarevs’kyi. Belorusskaia Eneida na iznanku: S prilozheniem tekstasohranivshihsaia otryvkov. Har’kov: “Pechatnoe Delo,” 1908.
Khaustovich, M. V. “‘Eneida navyvarat’: sproba rekanstruktsyi.” In Pratsy Kafedry Historyi Belaruskae Litaratury Beldziarzhuniversiteta. Mensk: Kafedra gistoryi belaruskae litaratury Beldziarzhuniversiteta. Vol. 5, 2004: 28-49.
Khaustovich, M. V. Belaruskaia litaratura XVIII-XIX stahoddziaiu: Zbornik tekstau. Minsk: BDU, 2000. Print.
Khaustovich, M. V. “Veranitsyn tsi Vul’?” In XIX stagoddze: Navukova-litaraturny al’manakh. Mensk: 2000: 191–96.
Kisialiou, Henadz′· V. Razyskivaetsja klassik: Istoriko-literaturnaja dilogija. Trans. id. Minsk: Mastatskaia. Litaratura, 1989.
Kisialiou, Henadz′· V. Zahadka belaruskai “Eneidy.” Minsk: Belarus’, 1971.
Kisialiou, Henadz′· V. Zhyli-byli klasiki: Khto Napisisau Paemy “Eneida navyvarat” i “Taras na Parnase.” Minsk: “Belaruskaia navuka”, 2005.

Source: Razor, Aliaksandra. “Eneida navyvarat“. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 20 May 2016.



A fragment of the Belarusian film Eneida navyvarat (1910s):