Professor Lauri Honko, Director of the Kalevala Institute, died on 15 July 2002. The news came as a sad shock to participants in the international Folklore Fellows’ Summer School gathered at the Lammi Research Station, where he was shortly expected to deliver a paper. The messages of condolence that flowed in from all over the world as the news spread demonstrated that his passing was a major loss both to Finnish and to international cultural research. The week was made all the gloomier by the news of the death, only four days later, of another distinguished Finnish folklorist, Emeritus Professor Leea Virtanen of the University of Helsinki. Both were leading Finnish members of the Folklore Fellows’ Network. His active work to revive and organise the Network was a logical consequence of Lauri Honko’s geographical and theoretical interests and of his high position in many learned international organisations. The foremost forum for folklorists, the International Society for Folk-Narrative Research, elected him Secretary General for the period 1974–89; he held leading posts in the International Association for the History of Religions for many years and had a reputation for being the organiser of splendid congresses and seminars.
The close tie between folkloristics and the comparative study of religions is one of the distinguishing features of Finnish folklore research. It originally sprang from a need to gain an understanding of the mythical elements of the national epic, the Kalevala, and poetry in the archaic Kalevalaic metre, and their connection with unwritten ethnic religion. Even as a student, Lauri Honko was already addressing these two research fields, regarded elsewhere as two separate disciplines. He further inherited the folkloristic research legacy of Kaarle Krohn and the comparative study of religions of Uno Harva (Holmberg) from his teacher at the University of Helsinki, Martti Haavio: Professor of folkloristics, highly esteemed poet and later Academician. Although Harva was known in Finnish cultural circles for his Finnish sympathies, his research orientation was broadly comparative, theoretically and methodologically enlightened. What is more, he sought to foster internationalism in practice by sending his pupils, among them Elli-Kaija Köngäs-Maranda and Lauri Honko, to study and work in the United States. Following in the footsteps of Kaarle Krohn, Uno Harva and Martti Haavio, Finnish folkloristics adopted the custom of publishing major works in Finnish, other Nordic and world languages. Not only was Lauri Honko Martti Haavio’s most illustrious student; he also served as his assistant. The mutual respect of teacher and student is evident from the fact that, for example, many of the research themes, myths, rites, laments, etc., and functionalistic and tradition-ecological thinking had already been raised by Haavio. Lauri Honko took over from Martti Haavio as Editor of the Folklore Fellows’ Communications series in 1969. He nevertheless made his university career at the University of Turku, which introduced both folkloristics and comparative religion in the 1960s.
Honko’s dissertation, Krankheitsprojektile. Untersuchung über eine urtümliche Krankheitserklärung (FFC 178, 1959), earning him a Doctorate from the University of Helsinki in 1959 was a comparative study of folk belief that laid the foundations for his lasting interest in folk medicine. It addressed problems not only of folklore but of comparative religion, too, and he was accordingly appointed Docent in the two subjects at the University of Turku in 1961, interest in the subject having waned since the days of Uno Harva. The same university was later to install him as Professor of Folkloristics and Comparative Religion in 1963. The two years in between these two appointments added significantly to his research profile, since he spent them as a visiting professor at the University of California and returned with both new ideas and close contacts with US scholars of benefit to all the Nordic countries.
In preparing for his professorship, Honko turned to the belief tradition of the Ingrians living in the St Petersburg region south of the Gulf of Finland. He drew on both archive sources and fieldwork conducted among refugees in Sweden. The result was the broad monograph Geisterglaube in Ingermanland I (FFC 185) published in 1962 and marking his international breakthrough, since it had a strong impact on the development of folk religion research. It was a work focusing on the process by which religious experiences are generated and the contexts in which tradition is actualised, and it introduced new methods of use in research. Like Kaarle Krohn, Lauri Honko gave his reader a clear methodological model that was easy to follow. In concentrating on the people bearing traditions and the contexts of experience narratives, he placed himself among the pioneers of the “new folkloristics” originating in the United States. Here in the North the work introduced a perspective that emphasised the empirical study of living tradition and subsequently led to a mighty wave of field research. He activated folkloristics based on fieldwork by, among other things, helping to organise the fieldwork course for Nordic folklorists and ethnologists held at Vöyri in 1965. The course was to be a major shared experience for an entire generation of researchers and laid the foundations for even closer Nordic cooperation.
Introducing two disciplines simultaneously at the University of Turku in the 1960s demanded considerable energy, especially since the young Professor was also teaching in Helsinki. As a university lecturer, Lauri Honko was concerned with training in methodology and with the motivation and theoretical competence of his students. The joint postgraduate seminar in folkloristics led by him for the two universities addressed various topical research trends and discussed their premises. The students who attended it recall it as a lively discussion forum, and it planted new research models in Finnish folkloristics. Honko also encouraged women to dedicate themselves to a career in research, which was by no means common in the university world of the 1960s.
Comparative religion never ceased to fascinate Lauri Honko. In the 1960s he published not only notable articles but also two weighty works on research into Finno-Ugrian religions: Finnische Mythologie (H. W. Haussig [ed.], Wörterbuch der Mythologie II. Stuttgart, 1964) and “De finsk-ugriske folks religioner” (J. P. Asmussen and J. Laessøe [eds.], Illustreret Religionshistorie I. København, 1968). The subject was felt to be more interesting than ever in the increasingly international world of the 1960s. As a result of the strivings of Honko and his colleagues, comparative religion became accepted in Finland as a discipline in its own right: the University of Helsinki followed Turku’s example in establishing a chair in the subject. To satisfy the needs of the new branch of scholarship, he published a book called The Science of Religion: Studies in Methodology (Mouton de Gruyter, 1979).
From 1972 onwards Lauri Honko was also the Director of the Nordic Institute of Folklore domiciled in Turku and coordinating dialogue between folklorists, organising seminars and joint publications. He was particularly concerned with the development of tradition archives and the study of cultural identity. In addition to this attempt to strengthen the Nordic academic community, the early 1970s were characterised by a growing awareness of global problems and the pressure to adopt international perspectives. In dealing, in a number of articles, with problems of development cooperation, Honko became increasingly conscious of the social consequences of research into cultures. One of the topics for examination was the role of folk medicine in the changing communities of the developing countries.
The position of Research Professor of the Academy of Finland 1975–78 gave Lauri Honko a chance to concentrate on questions of theory and method, and on fieldwork. His broad documentation of laments was a continuation of an interest that had already been aroused in the 1960s. In 1963 he had published a long article on the performance, stylistic devices, ritual contexts and metaphorical language of Karelian laments. His recording of living tradition in Tver Karelia and elsewhere nevertheless represented a completely new approach to the subject. The living contact with tradition made in the field led to an emphasis on the tradition-ecological perspective. A number of articles and the book Tradition och miljö (1981) edited with Orvar Löfgren initiated debate on the adaptation of tradition and tradition processes. Later, Honko’s interest broadened the role of the fieldworker to cover the methods of empirical cultural research and ultimately research ethics.
On transferring to the full-time post of Director of the Nordic Institute of Folklore in 1979, Lauri Honko assumed responsibility for the development and coordination of folklore research in the Nordic countries. The Nordic Institute of Folklore arranged scientific conferences and postgraduate education, set up join projects and publications and promoted collaboration between institutes and researchers. Trends in Nordic Tradition Research (Studia Fennica, 1983) edited with Pekka Laaksonen traced the history and development of Nordic folkloristics and ethnology and helped to identify underlying trends. Through its news bulletin it kept the international academic community informed of Nordic research. The globalisation of the Institute’s vistas in the 1980s and the act of taking concrete research projects out into developing countries were proof of Lauri Honko’s concern for the fate of cultural traditions in a rapidly changing world. His work for UNESCO was fruitful and led, among other things, to a declaration on the safeguarding of folklore and cultural traditions.
The 150th anniversary of the Kalevala aroused interest in the study of epic, and The Kalevala and the World’s Epics (Mouton de Gruyter, 1990) edited by Honko established a new line of thought by placing the Finnish national epic on a par with other world epics. On being reappointed a Research Professor of the Academy of Finland in the 1990s, Lauri Honko set his sights more and more firmly on comparative epic research and epic poetry theory. In 1998 he established the Kalevala Institute at the University of Turku to promote research into poetic tradition. This Institute is primarily concerned with the planning, execution and publication of studies in the world’s epics, epic and ritual poetry.
The work done by Lauri Honko in the course of his life as a builder of institutions is so vast that the scope and versatility of his scientific output is nothing short of astounding. In addition to myths, rites, laments, folk medicine, narrative tradition and epic poetry, he addressed questions of cultural identity and development. His writings on such topics as the genres and performance of folk poetry have had a major influence on folkloristic debate. Despite his emphasis on theory and method, his research was founded on sound documentation using modern technologies. His fieldwork, resulting in massive materials, in Lapland and Tver Karelia was followed by research projects conducted in developing countries: Africa, China, and above all India. Of the hundreds of titles in his oeuvre, some of the most significant are perhaps The Great Bear, A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages (with Senni Timonen, Michael Branch and Keith Bosley, Finnish Literature Society, 1993), and the three-volume opus telling about the Siri epic of India and its textualisation: The Siri Epic (I and II, Lauri Honko in collaboration with Chinnappa Gowda, Anneli Honko and Viveka Rai, FFC 265–266, 1998) and Textualising the Siri Epic (Lauri Honko, FFC 264, 1998). Among the last of the works to be published by him were Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition (Studia Fennica Folkloristica 7, 2000) and Textuality in Oral Epics (Mouton de Gruyter, 2000).
Lauri Honko took a visible role in both the Finnish and the international academic community. He was Secretary General of the Finnish Literature Society (1975–88) and the Finnish Society for the Study of Comparative Religion (1969–90) and a member of the Board of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters (1987–2002) and its chairman 1989–90. In directing the work of the scientific societies Lauri Honko paid special attention to the development of publishing. He was Editor-in-Chief of Temenos 1965–68 and 1975–90, Editor-in-Chief of Studia Fennica 1981–89, and took over from Martti Haavio at the helm of Folklore Fellows’ Communications, a series of folkloristic monographs founded in 1910 and in wide distribution. He was to hold this post for over three decades. During his period in office he further enhanced the scientific image and international visibility of the series.
His fieldwork in India and focus on the problems of oral poetry led Lauri Honko to reassess the role of the Kalevala as a traditional epic. The Kalevala Institute, of which he was Director after retiring from his post as Professor in 1996, supplied an opportunity to continue his comparative study of epic in the nearby regions of Finland. His latest topics included the genesis of the Kalevala, and the epic poetry of the Setu people of Estonia. Although many of the projects at the Kalevala Institute were interrupted by his sudden passing away, every attempt is being made to execute them according to plan. It may, however, be several years before the results of his last research projects are ready for publication.
by Anna-Leena Siikala, Academy Professor
Director of the Kalevala Institute
(FFN 24, May 2003: 3-5)