Mikhail Alekseevsky

(The State Republican Center of Russian Folklore, Moscow, Russia)

Funeral laments in the contemporary Russian North:
the mechanism of tradition's decline

Abstract of the report on the international conference
«Les lamentations dans le contexte euroméditerranéen»
19-21.09.2007, Université Paris IV-Sorbonne, Paris)

        Many researchers of Russian laments observe that different regions of Russia vary in the degree to which the traditions of performing ritual laments are developed. To the greatest degree this tradition is developed in the Russian North, where in the XIX century the most elaborate forms of folk epic poetry (bylinas, historical songs) are found. Nowadays tradition of performing ritual laments in the Russian North is in decline. Russian peasants ceased to perform wedding and recruit laments in the middle of the XX century; however funeral laments are still being performed in many areas. At the same time, most contemporary peasant women in Russia are not able to perform any ritual laments. They just observe how they are being performed by older women, who are considered to be the rural experts on traditional customs and rituals.
         In 2001 the author of the report started special field research, collecting and studying funeral laments in the Russian North. In 2004 he created the special field questionnaire on the issue and used it in his research. Field-work recordings of funeral laments were collected in 2001-2007 in Kargopol and Nyandoma districts of Arkhangelsk region, in Pudozh and Medvezhegorsk districts of the Karelia Republic, in Vytegorsk district of Vologda region.
        By collecting data, the author aspired not only to record the texts of laments, but also to elucidate the context of its performing in contemporary rituals. The field-work recordings demonstrate that few women are able to perform ritual laments, but nearly every peasant in the Russian North took part in ritual of mourning as an observer. Peasants' narratives about performing laments can be consider a valuable material for exploring a contemporary tradition. On the base of these recordings the author of the report analyzes the mechanism of lament tradition's dissociation in the Russian North, which appears to be more complex than assumed.
     The researchers who study the fading of traditional folklore genres observe that, traditionally, the ritual text first lose s its meaning but saves its form. People continue to perform the text, but cannot understand its meaning. Then the text disappears and people stop performing it altogether. Lament tradition's dissociation develops in a different way. The meaning of funeral laments remains important and clear for peasants. It is quite natural, considering the importance of the questions of death and posthumous existence for any person. At the same time, the archaic form of traditional funeral lament begins to dissociate.
      On the one hand, the funeral lament can be replaced with prose monologues that addressed to the dead man.  Such monologue s and folk funeral lament have the same meaning, but the form is different. On the other hand, traditional funeral laments are undergoing "secondary mythologization" (in S.S. Averintsev's term). Peasants who are not able to perform ritual laments by themselves start to perceive this skill as "a magic knowledge". Older women, who can perform ritual laments, are then perceived as "magical specialists" (not unlike folk healers).  Many modern peasants consider ritual laments to be sacred magical texts, which can not be performed by ordinary people. They believe an older woman who is able to lament ha s to communicate these magic texts to another woman before her death, which is a traditional way to ensure the transfer of the magic power for Russian folk healers.
    Another indication of the lament tradition's dissociation is the existence of the ritual laments in written form, which was absolutely impossible in the past, because a traditional lament is an oral improvisation that is created at the moment of performance. Nowadays some older women write down traditional laments in special writing-book where they used to write down favorite folk songs and necessary verbal charms.
    Thus, in the contemporary Russian North, the lament tradition's dissociation is continuing (while a different process, the reactualization of some other folklore genres, for example, verbal charms, also takes place). At the same time the value of laments in modern peasant culture increases. Ritual laments are being perceived not as «a vestige of the past», but as sacred texts infused with magic value.  

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