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Robert Elsie
Albanian Literature

Oral Literature  |  Legends



The Legend of Rozafat Castle

The legend of Rozafat Castle, now the ruins of a no doubt originally Illyrian fortification soaring above the town of Shkodra in northern Albania, involves one of the grimmest motifs of Balkan legendry, that of immurement. The story of a woman being walled in during the construction of a bridge or castle in order to stabilise the foundations is widespread in oral literature in Albania, the Balkans and elsewhere. Variants in Albania are also told of the castle of Turra south of Kavaja, of the castle of Petro Petroshi in Lleshan south of Elbasan, and of the fortress of Elbasan itself. The earliest version outside Albania may be that of the Bridge of Adana in southern Turkey, which was constructed in 527-565 A.D. The best known variant in the Balkans itself is that of the Bridge of Arta in northern Greece, which was constructed in 1602-1606. Other variants are known to the Romanians in the legend of the Monastery of Argesh, the Bulgarians in the legend of the Bridge of Struma, also called Kadin Most, the Bosnians in the legends of Teshanj Castle and the Bridge of Mostar, and the Serbs, who indeed have a Serbian variant for the legend of Rozafat Castle, "Grad gradili na Skadar," recorded by Vuk Karadzic (1787-1864). Also related are the Hungarian ballad of the castle of Deva and the German legend of the castle of Henneberg. The Albanian version of the legend of Rozafat Castle was first recorded by Thimi Mitko (1820-1890) in his folklore collection 'Albanike melissa / Belietta sskiypetare' (The Albanian Bee) in 1878. The immurement legend is based no doubt upon a Balkan reality. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, animals such as sheep, goats and chickens were still being sacrificed on such occasions in Albania and their remains were immured in the foundations of bridges and other buildings. The practice is still widely encountered today. Here is a prose summary of the Rozafat legend.

Fog lay over the Buna for three days and three nights, blanketing the river completely. When three days and three nights had passed, a strong wind began to blow, dissipating the mists and making Mount Valdanuz visible once again. Up on the mountain there were three brothers at work building a castle. The foundations they built during the daytime always collapsed at night, so that they could never finish the castle. One day, an old man came by and greeted the three brothers, saying, "I wish you success in your work!" "We wish you success, too, old man, though we ourselves are not doing very well. Day after day, we work and build and, at night, the foundations collapse. Do you know what we can do to make the walls stay put?" "Yes, I do," replied the old man, "but it would be a shame if I told you." "Let the shame be ours, because we are the ones who want to build the castle." The old man reflected for a while and then asked, "Are you married? Do you all have wives?" "Yes, we are married," they replied, "Each of us has a wife. But tell us what to do to build the castle." "If you really want to finish the castle, you must swear never to tell your wives what I am going to tell you now. The wife who brings you your food tomorrow must be buried alive in the wall of the castle. Only then will the foundations stay put and last forever." Thus spoke the old man and departed. But alas, the eldest brother broke his promise and revealed to his wife at home everything that had happened and told her not to approach the place where the castle was being built. The second brother broke his promise, too, and told his wife everything. Only the youngest brother kept his word and said nothing to his wife at home.

The next morning, the brothers rose early and went off to work. Their axes resounded, rocks were crushed, the walls rose and their hearts beat faster and faster... At home the mother of the three brothers knew nothing of their plot. She said to the wife of the eldest brother, "The men need bread and water and their flask of wine, daughter in law." She replied, "I'm sorry, dear mother, but I really cannot go today. I am ill." The mother then asked the second wife, who answered, "My word, dear mother, I cannot go either, for I must visit my parents today." The mother then turned to the youngest wife, saying, "My dear daughter in law, the men need bread and water and their flask of wine." She got up and said, "I would willingly go, mother, but I have my young son here and am afraid he will need weaning and will cry." "You go ahead," said the other two daughters in law, "we shall look after the boy. He won't cry."

So the youngest and best wife stood up, fetched the bread and water and the flask of wine, kissed her son good bye on both cheeks and set off. She climbed up Mount Valdanuz and approached the place where the three workers were busy. "I wish you success in your work, gentlemen!" But what was wrong? The axes stopped resounding, their hearts beat faster and faster, and their faces turned pale. When the youngest brother saw his wife coming, he hurled his axe into the valley and cursed the rocks and walls. "What is the matter, my lord," his wife asked, "why are you cursing the rocks and walls?" Her older brothers in law smiled grimly and the oldest one declared, "You were born under an unlucky star, sister in law, for we have sworn to bury you alive in the wall of the castle."

"Then may it be so, brothers in law," replied the young woman. "I have but one request to make. When you wall me in, leave a hole for my right eye, for my right hand, for my right foot and for my right breast. I have a small son. When he starts to cry, I will cheer him up with my right eye, I will comfort him with my right hand, I will rock him with my right foot and I will wean him with my right breast. Let my breast turn to stone and may the castle flourish. May my son become a great hero, the ruler of the world!"

They then seized the poor young woman and walled her into the foundations of the castle. This time the walls did not collapse, but stayed put to rise higher and higher. Even today, at the foot of the castle, the stones are still damp and mildewed from the tears of the mother weeping for her son.


[from Mitrush Kuteli (ed.) Tregime të moçme shqiptare (Tirana: Naim Frashëri, 1965, reprint 1987, 1998). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]