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Dubrovnik legends and tales

The wretched woman of Lopud (the legend of Šunj)

The night was dark, the sky was covered in clouds, and the sea was restless...

Everyone that knows Dubrovnik, has also heard of the island of Lopud, and whoever knows Lopud, knows about Šunj as well. Šunj is a beautiful bay with a long sandy beach, surrounded by Mediterranean vegetation, located at the south-eastern side of the island of Lopud.

Island Lopud panorama

Wide-open sea and the island of Saint Andrew are the only view from here. Šunj can be reached either by sea or by a goat's path that leads through thick brush. The path heads to the very top of the hill overlooking the bay, where the Church Our Lady of Šunj is located. There is a historical note attached to the etymology of the name Šunj itself.

In the Church of Our Lady of Šunj, built at the beginning of the 12th century, there is a painting of a snake devouring a naked child halfway. This is a votive church by the Visconti family from Milan, probably the crusader Visconti mentioned by Torquato Tasso in his epic La Gerusalemme liberata. The story goes that Oton was saved in Šunj after a shipwreck following his return from Palestine. He had the church built as a pledge, in which the frescoes depict a large snake (biscione in Italian) devouring a naked child halfway. The word "biscione" was transformed into the vernacular use of the word "šunj", by which the church and the site are known up to this day.

The story we are about to recount speaks of times long past when the island of Lopud was inhabited mostly by fishermen and labourers, and by the Dubrovnik aristocracy resting in their summer mansions and beautiful gardens. At the time, Šunj looked a little different than it does today. Instead of the thick brush that now surrounds the beach at Šunj, there were olive, carob and fig trees. At the bottom of the bay, as the story goes, there was a small, isolated stone fisherman's house, which was shared by three brothers and their sister Maria. Their parents had died, and they now worked the land, fished and looked after their sister as if she were the greatest treasure in the world. Niko and Cvijeta, brother and sister, lived not far off. Cvijeta and Maria were the best of friends. Niko was both a friend, and a fishing companion to Maria's brothers.

Then, one night there was a terrible storm, while Maria's brothers and Niko were occupied with some business in Ston. Maria and Cvijeta were alone in the stone house in Šunj, when calls for help could be heard over the noise of the waves and the howling wind. They knew right away that someone was in trouble, and that someone shipwrecked was in need of help. As true fishermen's daughters, they were not afraid of the sea, and so they pushed the beached boat into the water and set off into the storm towards the calls of distress. Soon, after great efforts, they pulled a youth out of the sea. The clothes revealed his nobility. They offered him help, took him into the house and placed him in bed. The next day, it was discovered that the young man that the girls had saved was called Ivan, a son of one of the most prestigious Dubrovnik lords. He had been on his way to Lopud with his serfs when the storm caught them. It took a few days for the young lord to recover, and Maria took the utmost care of him. And, the outcome was what could only be expected when two young people happen to meet. Ivan fell in love with Maria, as did she with him. Maria knew that their love was hopeless, for any love between an ordinary fisherman's daughter and a lord was unheard of in those days, and marriage was impossible.

However, Ivan thought that his parents would not deny him marriage to the girl he loved, being an only son of parents who loved him dearly and who had never as yet refused any request of his. But, he proved to be wrong. His father refused to even consider the idea of Ivan marrying Maria. All pleadings were fruitless. When Ivan saw that he could not convince his father to bless his marriage to Maria, he decided to abandon everything and to enter a monastery. In those days, there was a monastery on almost every island in the Dubrovnik region. The harshest one was found on the island of Saint Andrew. Ivan chose to go precisely there, perhaps because Šunj, the place where he had avoided death and where his love was born, could be seen from Saint Andrew. Soon, Maria and Ivan began to meet in secret. As it was not always possible for them to get to a boat, and as they were afraid of being noticed, they came upon an unusual idea. Every evening when night fell, Maria would swim across to Saint Andrew, and Ivan would light a fire on shore to guide her through the dark.

The lovers continued to meet this way until one night when Niko, Cvijeta's brother, discovered them. He had been in love with Maria for a long time, but when he had proposed marriage, she turned him down on the pretense that she could not leave her brothers. He was suspicious of this, as whisperings of the forbidden love between the young lord and Maria spread throughout Lopud. Therefore, he hid himself a few nights until he discovered Maria's secret, which he then told to her brothers. Maria's brothers were in despair, for this was a great shame to them. They decided to punish her cruelly. They waited for nightfall and the time for when Maria would set out towards Saint Andrew.

The night was dark, the sky was covered in clouds, and the sea was restless, but love was stronger than any danger. Maria set out, and her brothers followed by boat, but not towards Saint Andrew, but towards the open sea. They lit a fire on the boat. The unfortunate Maria saw the fire and thinking it to be the fire lit by her Ivan on Saint Andrew, started swimming in that direction. She swam and swam, but she just could not reach it. She became more and more tired, and it became harder for her to lift her arms and cut through the waves that had become ever larger. The fire began to fade more and more into the distance. All of a sudden, a lightning flash revealed the figures of four men in a boat to Maria. She recognized her brothers and Niko. She knew she had been deceived. She had no more strength left. She gave one desperate shriek, and then her shriek was lost in the depths of the sea.

Ivan waited for Maria for two nights. On the third morning, the sea cast her lifeless body on the shores of Saint Andrew. She was buried here at the same place. For Ivan, the monastery doors closed behind him forever. Today, the house in Šunj and the monastery on Saint Andrew are no more. Everything has been overgrown with thick brush, but the people still remember the story of wretched Maria and her star-crossed love.

In an ancient Greek myth, Leander from Abid in the Hellespont fell in love with Hero, who lived on the opposite shore in the city of Seste. Each night, he would swim to meet his lover, guided by the light placed by Hero at the top of the tower. One night, however, the light went out. Leander lost his orientation and drowned from exhaustion. The waves washed his dead body ashore beneath the tower in the morning. When Hero saw him, she cast herself in sorrow off the tower onto the shore, where her dead body was found next to her loved one. Accordingly, the legend of the wretched woman of Lopud is only the Dubrovnik version of this Greek myth, with Maria being our female version of Leander.

This event, which describes the story of Maria of Lopud, or as is more frequently mentioned, the wretched woman, is also supported by documents, which only adds a special charm to the legend. There is proof that in 1483, the Prior of the Benedictine monastery on Saint Andrew was accused of a love affair with a married woman on Lopud. A pilgrim, Jan Lobkovic, heard something of this tale in 1493 when he was on Lopud, as the story of a love affair between a priest on Saint Andrew and Maria of Lopud had already been ingrained as tradition.

This theme had been sung by many poets (Ovid in Heroidi, Musajos (5th century) in the poem The Love of Hero and Leander). We come across it in Gundulić (Osman. VII, 57-76), Schiller, Hölderlin, Gillparzer (Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen). In ancient times, this legend was portrayed frequently in art (wall paintings in Pompei, mosaics in different places, and so on), and in the music of Monteverdi.

The story of the wretched woman of Lopud was written by an Italian novelist, G.P. Straparoli, in the 16th century, so it became widespread in many European languages. Straparoli chose Lopud as the setting for his novel, where Mara lived, originally coming from Split. The enamored priest is called Teodor and lives on a nearby island, but Straparoli does not say that it is called Saint Andrew.

This theme is famous in our common tradition (national songs: "The Death of Boro Klišanin", "Mladen and Grozdana", "Young Breda"). However, it is little known that Antun Rocci-Ročić, who signed himself as the Illyr of Dubrovnik, wrote the "The Tears of Teramon Over the Body of Moertve Gljubavnize" in November or December of 1839 on the request of Stanka Vraza, which is in fact - the end of the legend of the wretched woman of Lopud as an integral text of Rocci's original states.

Fran Ilešeć wrote about this annex to The Wretched Woman of Lopud. He believes that Rocci found his motive in the story The Female Leander on the Island of Lopud in Dalmatia, which was published a little earlier on (June 1839) in Gajo's "Danici" (no.22). Ivan Trnski used this theme as well; he is in Dubrovnik, on his journey to Kotor, he relayed the request of Stanko Vraza to Rocci. Even though Trnski and Rocci must have discussed this story during their meeting, it seems that each one used various sources for their own versions. Rocci calls the youth Teramon, as is the youth in Periegesis orae Ragusane, written by Jurje Ferić. Trnski calls him Todor, as is the case with Straparoli. This theme has also been used by our authors P. Preradović, L. Botić, and Šegvić.

Source: "Dubrovnik - between history and legend"

Writen by: Dr. Marko Margaritoni

Last update: 2.2.2023