The idea of launching studies on the epics to be found along the Silk Roads was born in France and Finland almost simultaneously in 1989-90. The national Unesco commissions of both countries supported the initiative, other countries showed interest and Unesco officials in Paris helped to integrate the plan with the Unesco project “Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue”. In November 1992, Walther Heissig (Bonn), Nicole Revel (Paris) and Lauri Honko (Turku) visited Unesco to explore the potential for a series of conferences under the auspices of Unesco. It was decided that Finland would arrange, in June l993, the first workshop, small in size but European-Asian in its recruitment of scholars. Unesco and the Finnish Ministry of Education provided financial support which made the organizing of the workshop possible at such short notice. The Oral Epics Project, a Finnish group of researchers at the University of Turku led by the present writer and sponsored by the Academy of Finland and the Kordelin Foundation, undertook the practical arrangements.

Thirteen scholars were invited to participate in the workshop which convened at Turku University on June 3-7, l993. The four Asian scholars came from China (Liu Kuili and Wang Mingming, Beijing) and India (Viveka Rai and Chinnappa Gowda, Mangalore). The four European participants were from France (Nicole Revel), Germany (Walther Heissig) and Russia (Alla Alieva and Sergei Nekljudov, Moscow). The Russian delegation was present through its papers only, because its trip had to be cancelled due to visa difficulties. The host country was represented by Harry Halén and Petteri Koskikallio from Helsinki and Lotte Tarkka, Lauri Harvilahti and Lauri Honko from the Oral Epics Project in Turku. Most of the participants gave two papers, one for the closed workshop session and the other at a conclusive minisymposium which was open to the public.

The scholarly interests were twofold. Firstly, we wanted to emphasize the importance of fieldwork and the documentation of living oral epic traditions which still are remarkably rich along the Silk Roads, both the Desert Route and the Maritime Route. Secondly, the focus was on the process of textualization, starting from the mental text in the singer’s mind, becoming empirically observable in the performance and ending in the written codification, editing and publishing of the epic text.

The scholars expressed their support for all initiatives aiming at modern documentation and archiving of invaluable oral epic materials on an international basis. The materials are needed badly, partly because they are in danger of disappearance in many places, partly because modern audiovisual documentation of epic singing and its social context is necessary in view of the nature of the problems posed by recent research. We want to know more about the learning and producing of long oral epics, their various modes of performance, their ideology and meaning, their relations to ethnic, regional or religious groupings and identities. Finally, we want to know how a dynamic, variable oral story, most alive in a dramatic performance, recitation and dance, can be put into bookform. What are the principles of documentation, codification in writing, comparing variants and editing a master version for an oral epic which ceaselessly continues to vary?

This scope of interest is too wide to be sufficiently covered by one workshop; it would require a series of conferences. Another thing too broad for a small group of scholars is the systematic mapping and comparing of all epics along the Silk Roads. Their number alone is large enough to prompt a separate inventory project. Despite common trends in the making of epics, the performance traditions and social contexts of epics bestow them with remarkable individuality and make, in turn, quick generalizations rather risky.

The Mongolian situation: not unique

The striking fact about the epics along the Silk Roads is that there are so many of them still alive, often almost unknown and undocumented, and certainly in danger of extinction. In Mongolia alone, about 350 epics have been recorded, of which roughly a third have been published. They were all performed by persons aged between 50 and 75, professional singers or persons who remembered the texts. In the younger agegroups the interest and ability to perform is becoming rare indeed. Considering that the normal age for learning epics is between ten and twenty, a dramatic decline may be expected as the old generation of performers passes away. What is going to be lost is not only the epics but oral history at large. An example of the power of oral memory is the ability of Mongolian singers to recount the line of inheritance of each epic by citing 10-12 predecessors. This genealogy of epic singing thus reaches back nearly 200 years in history.

As Walther Heissig pointed out, “a territory like Mongolia, situated between all possible influences from all the Silk Roads, tracks and extensions, must be a bonanza of motifs, myths, literary plots and transformations. Under the present circumstances, however, there is not much time left to record the great volume of oral literature still to be found there, before the impact of modern technical civilization makes these basic memories obsolete.” Mongolia is not the only example. That is why the scholars of the workshop referred to Unesco’s recent (1989) Recommendation for the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore expressing the hope that oral epics would be one of the first targets of rescue action by way of fieldwork, proper documentation techniques and archiving of the most important materials. The price of this action would be low compared with the values at risk.

Oral epics in cultural focus

That the Silk Roads really are roads of dialogue may be substantiated by the distribution and development of oral and semiliterary epics. When they spread from one ethnic or linguistic group to another, they interact with local traditions and ideologies. They become adapted to particular tradition-ecological milieux and often develop new topics and motifs, unknown in the donor culture. Thus, for example, when the Geser epic spread to Mongolia from Tibet, several new chapters or sub-epics were developed. According to Sergei Nekljudov, of the twelve chapters of the Mongolian Geser epic only five can be identified, and yet in modified form, in the original Tibetan Geser tradition.

This observation reminds us of two things, namely, that the owners of a great epic may be many different nations and that the charm of epic narration may not revealed to foreigners. A critical western observer once wrote: “I have skimmed through some of the epics, the aesthetic side of which, as always, disappoints me, whatever the value for linguistics and general social history. To my mind (brought up on the Nibelungenlied and Homer and of course the splendid Kalevala) hyperbole of the sort which prevails in Mongol hero-tales and those of south-west Asia, virtually destroys human interest.” And yet, as Harry Halén pointed out, “the Mongols themselves, for whom the epics are meant, certainly enjoy them as much as present-day youths enjoy the unbelievable deeds of action-film heroes”. In other words, understanding epics easily becomes a test in intercultural translation, a work of comprehending the Other.

The Caucasian Nart epic has many owners – Adyghs, Ossetes, Chechens, Balkars, Ingushs and some peoples of Dagestan and Georgia. It consists of several separate narratives constantly mixing phantastic and realistic features, hoary antiquity and everyday flesh and blood. The heroes are handled with different emphasis in different ethnic groups. Yet the Nart epic is unified, says Alla Alieva, by its common heroes and the plots attached to each of them. It creates a composite “epic biography of a hero” and a history of the epic Nart society basically leading a human life with high moral standards and laws worked out by the Caucasian mountaineers through centuries.

The close connection between epic and society guarantees that there is always at least one group which hails the epic as reflecting its own history and character and accepts it as part of its cultural identity. This quality makes epic poetry a tool of politics. First there may be an oral, living epic poetry culture, but the advent of literary culture creates “sacred texts” and eventually, in the words of Lauri Harvilahti, “a literary epos serving the purpose of national identity and integrity”, the final stage being perhaps “a collation (in a language other than the original) fabricated in accordance with the concept of culture of the ruling party”.

Occasionally, the epic concept is attached to a particular place or object which becomes the center of stories representing the fate of a nation. The Wall of Gongwu Town in Quanzhou, built in 1387, is such an object-turned-into-hero, aptly located at the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road in China. Its role was, as Wang Mingming shows, to avert foreign enemies (the most recent intruders being the Japanese), but in the l980s, when the wall was beautifully restored from ruins, the interpretation of this Chinese identity symbol changed into something else, namely, a token of friendly relations with other nations, tourism and trade. This means a return to the Golden Age of Quanzhou, the second largest port of medieval China, with all the blessings of the Silk Road. To quote an official in the City Government of Quanzhou:

    “In the past, the Wall of Congwu Town was a hero. He defended Gongwu Town from foreign invasions. To use graceful words, we think it is proper to say that the Wall has now become a friendship envoy and an international trader. It brings us foreign tourists and investments. That is the new hero’s contribution to our country’s modernization.”

Microanalysis on epic production

Much of the present interest in oral epics is focused upon the individual singer and the context of his performance. Broad comparative surveys cannot solve the enigma of the making of an epic. Instead, we need detailed processual analyses of the learning, “memory editing” and performing of living oral epics. These must be based on careful fieldwork, detailed documentation of the epic performance in different settings and on interviews with the singer. The method applied is dialogic: the singers are experts who are able to converse on theoretical analytic problems on the basis of their professional experience.

The workshop brought two examples of empirical microanalysis to the fore. One was the collection history of the Kudaman epic in the Palawan Highlands in the Philippines. Nicole Revel has for more than twenty years worked with a singer and mapped out his learning and performance career with linguistic and anthropological data. Shamans and epic bards are close colleagues in the Palawan culture: possession by spirits and epic heroes belong to both, as do the nightly seances of performance, the sacred character of their songs and the similarity of their melodies. The singer has during his long career developed the epic toward dramatization: what he learned as a basically monovocal recitation has become a multivocal play where not only spoken lines as such but also the voice, tone and intonation, i.e. the soundscape, help to create the characters.

A Finnish-Indian team has documented the Siri epic of Tulunaadu, in southern Karnataka, in the context of full-moon possession rituals and by way of interviews. The singer of the epic has given valuable information on the sacred and profane contexts of singing, his own learning and singing career and, most interestingly, his epic-production technique, which neatly corroborates certain assumptions of the so-called oral-formulaic theory. The team has been able to elucidate the relation of long epics to shorter epic poems and worksongs (Viveka Rai), differences between sung and dictated versions of the Siri epic (Chinnappa Gowda) and the dialogic field method (Lauri Honko). A videofilm “The Making of an Oral Epic” (edited for the workshop by Anneli Honko) summarized the context and documentation history of the Siri epic.

Oral and semiliterary epics

India is the motherland of epics, where parallel streams of oral and written epics have flown for centuries. The conflux of these streams has brought about changes in ideology: the classical epic story has been used in post-classical folk epics as a tool in propagating a new religious worldview and a new legitimation of ritual (Petteri Koskikallio).

Empirical research on singers and singing is not always possible. The Finnish-Karelian epic poetry in the Kalevala metre has ceased to exist as a living tradition but the archives abound in good collections of variants from numerous singers. With sufficient archive materials from a limited region it is possible to analyze the “epic universe” of singers, which is based on intertextual relations and a common worldview (Lotte Tarkka).

Finno-Ugrian and Slavic oral epics provide a point of comparison for the long oral epics found along the Silk Roads. Their situation is somewhat similar to that of the Caucasian Nart epic mentioned above. Common themes and common heroes are handled differently in separate songs in different regions. The unity of a larger epic is brought about in the mental texts of oral singers and, more profoundly, in literary editing. The Finnish Kalevala represents a semiliterary epic with an oral base: it reflects oral poetry but in the new format of an epic to be read not sung (Lauri Honko).

Considering the multinational situation of comparative research on oral epics, the members of the workshop discussed the political implications of research and expressed the hope that Unesco will find means to create an international archive for the conservation of the most valuable materials. Safe storage of, especially, audio and audiovisual documents on oral epics and a computerized archiving system to guarantee the proper availability and use of these sometimes delicate materials would be ideally placed on impartial ground under the guidance of an international scholarly board.

Lauri Honko

(FFN 7, November 1993: 2-4)

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