laments in the contemporary Russian North:
the mechanism of tradition's decline
Abstract of the report on the
«Les lamentations dans le contexte
(19-21.09.2007, Université 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
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.