The Albanian word besa is usually translated in English as faith, trust or oath of peace, but its truer meaning is to keep the promise. The word first gained prominence in the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini an assembly of customary codes and traditions made by this 15th century chieftain that, over many generations before and since, was inherited and transmitted verbally. Many of the Kanuns rules which governed everything from marriage and pasture rights to hospitality and the gjakmarrjë (blood-feud) are respected even today among the extended families of mountainous northern Albania.
In the Kanun, the besa is described as the highest authority. It is closely related to the notion of honour, so essential to personal and familial standing as to be virtually a cult; it lies so near to the heart of Albanians as to be referred to in documents as an example of Albanianism.
The man of besa connotes a man of respect and honour, someone to whom you can trust your life and family. His opposite is besëçartur (the man who breaks besa) with a sense not merely of unreliability, but even of craziness and banishment from the community. A man unable to save his besa is worth nothing.
Besa also draws on biblical notions of the word as the foundation of human society: In the beginning was the word. From medieval times, Albanian society was ruled by the word or promise given. All human relationships in family, community, village or ethnic area were governed by the promise, and the responsibilities it entailed. Besa is the moral testament of Albanians since the appearance of its earliest national and social mythologies.
The Kanun says: what is promised, must be done.
The song-cycles, language, folklore and literature of Albania are replete with stories about and references to besa. One ballad describes the result of a besas violation: a woman is chosen for sacrifice by having her body entombed in the structure of a castle in order to ensure its impregnability. Rozafa castle near Shkodër is associated with this story.
There are also many old sayings:
- Besa e shqiptarit nuk shitet pazarit (besa can not be sold or bought in a bazaar)
- Shiptari kur jep fjalen therr djalin (an Albanian can sacrifice his own son for besa)
- Shqiptaret vdesin dhe besen nuk e shkelin (Albanians would die rather than break besa)
Besa e shqiptarit si purteka e arit, etj (the Albanians besa is worth more than gold)
The writer Fatos Lubonja, noting that the novel echoes a Byzantine myth that carries a moral warning against exogamy (marrying out), argues that Ismail Kadare adapts the tale in a way that depicts the besa as a superior institution that Albanians needed in order to keep themselves united against invaders.
In the ballad, the daughter of the family is married in a distant country, in a promise of friendship that would enable her seven brothers to fight the Turkish foe. The youngest brother, Kostandin, had promised to bring her home to see their mother, but he and his six brothers die in battle.
The mother cries at Kostandins grave, condemning him to eternal unrest for breaking the besa. On the night he had promised to retrieve his sister, he rises from the grave and travels to her. She is unaware he is dead. They ride across mountains on a single horse to reach home. He leaves her at the door and returns to his grave. Mother and daughter embrace, but when the daughter says that Kostandin has brought her home, they die together in agony.