Literature and folk poetry

One of the key priorities of the founders of the Finnish Literature Society in the 1830s was to expand the scope of the literature. There was a need for Finnish-language poetry. The problem was that Finnish did not immediately lend itself to literary poetic expression in the hands of inexperienced users. To assist them, writers looked to the country’s “unwritten literature”, its folklore, and the people of the countryside, who knew Finnish much better than the upper class. The first realiser of these ideas was Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Kalevala (1835, 1849) and the Kanteletar (1840). Another pioneer folklorist and writer was Eero Salmelainen, whose anthology of folk tales in the 1860s stood as a model for future Finnish prose writers.

By collecting and publishing folklore material the Society was instrumental in building a Finnish-language Finland and a national identity. Folklore continued to play an important part in this work long after the academic study of folklore, or folkloristics, had emerged. Kaarle Krohn, the first professor of folkloristics at Helsinki University, a founder of the Folklore Fellows and Chairman of the Society 1917-34, was the organiser of the publication of Kalevala-metre folk poetry in the form of a scientific edition. A total of 33 volumes of Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (The Ancient Poems of the Finnish People) appeared over a period of 40 years. The 85,000 items that were published represent around half of the material in Kalevala metre in the Society’s collections.

In 1997 the Society published a supplementary volume “SKVR XV”, which consists of 1,300 songs recorded by some early collectors and material censored by previous editors. The planning of an index of Kalevala-metre poetry has also been started.

It was only after Krohn’s death in 1934 that the Society’s folklore collections were formed into a research institution known as the Folklore Archive. The first Director, Martti Haavio, later professor and a member of the Finnish Academy, organised a major competitive collection on the theme of narrative tradition. A network of amateur collectors was recruited, and with the help of some thousand people in the field, the Archive’s collections grew rapidly, and increasing precision and detail were brought to the concepts of the oral and regional tradition of the rural Finland.

Folklore and oral history

The recording of free-form life histories in 1964 was started by collecting material surrounding the lives of those evacuated from the parts of Karelia ceded to the former Soviet Union after World War II. Soon after, in 1965, a collection of material associated with the events of the 1918 Civil War was organised. This opened up the way for material that began to be referred to within the Archive as ethno-historical tradition, or oral history.

A new collection idea emerged at the end of the 1960s. A competitive recording of tradition associated with forestry work in 1969 was a great success. Questionnaires were sent out with pay-packets to forestry workers and pensioners. A new generation of researchers realised the opportunities that existed for documenting the life and times of people in different professions and trades, and in different sub-cultures within Finnish society. The Folklore Archive and its partners, trade unions and other organizations, shared a proportion of the costs of these projects. New collections were steadily followed by further projects: e.g. building workers (1970), timber buyers and sellers (1972), postmen (1972), workers of the state alcohol monopoly (1975), shoemakers and tailors (1976), hunters (1977), electricians (1977), plumbers (1079), miners (1979), pharmacists (1980), judges (1981), journalists (1982), janitors and building managers (1983), engineers (1984), librarians (1984), social workers (1985), forestry officers (1985), school children (1986), steel workers (1986), invalids (1988), the police (1988), the unemployed (1993), non-commissioned officers (1995), and farmers (1997).

Some competition-style documentary projects are focused on special groups and communities. These have included life in tuberculosis and rheumatism sanatoria (1971, 1990), life in the trenches during the war (1973), life as a blind person (1978), and cancer patients (1994). Individual topics covering the entire population have included projects on alcohol (1977), the telephone (1977), the coming of radio and television (1982), the Finnish sauna (1992) and the coming of computers (1995).

The most recent addition has been the introduction of life history competitions. One of the first of these, in 1978, focused on the inhabitants of the town of Vantaa, which is part of Greater Helsinki. Many people living in Vantaa originally came from eastern and northern Finland, because jobs began to be concentrated in the south of the country from the 1960s onwards. Life history projects on white collar workers (1987), women (1990) and men (1992) have generated some of the largest volumes of material so far. In recent years collection has also continued with the impressions and experiences of evacuees returning to visit their old homes lost in Karelia. Inquiries by scholars about such things as twins, old people, and celebrations and festivities are also regularly channelled to the Archive’s network of field assistants.

Following three decades of folk tradition and life history collection, the Archive’s manuscripts have grown by around 300,000 pages, and over 18,000 people have contributed material. Some 25 sample collections of this material have been published in popular book form. Historians have become increasingly interested in the ordinary person’s perspective on events; and sociologists have begun to pay greater attention to “soft” data of the sort that has been collected by the Archive. This has opened up new potential uses for the Archive’s resources, and the behavioural sciences. The newer material allows the researcher to plumb the depths of Finnish life on a deeper and broader basis than through traditional folklore genres alone.

Studies in the field

Many of today’s scholars acquired their first experience of interviewing, audio and video recording while working in Archive teams. A series of interviews with folk narrators in three selected communities across Finland was started in the 1960s, and local studies were carried out in at least eight communities over the years that followed. A comparative study of tradition areas based on this material, which was one of the ideas behind the project, has not materialised, however. Two monographs in English, based on the work of the first stage of the narrator studies, have appeared (Anna-Leena Siikala’s Interpreting Oral Narrative, FFC 245, 1990; and Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj’s Narrative and Narrating: Variation in Juho Oksanen’s Storytelling, FFC 261, 1996).

In addition to these narrator interviews, collection work was also carried out in the 1960s and 1970s on a variety of other topics. These included the repertoires of Karelian storytellers, gypsy songs and customs, cheap Jacks at the markets, folk music and folk dance performances, and children’s schoolyard games. During the past few years field groups have been able to tape and video in communities in Russian North Karelia, Olonets Karelia, and Ingria.

New archiving system

To simplify the management of the collections, new computer software was commissioned and installed by the Society in 1992. Since that year, all manuscripts, photographs, audio and video tapes deposited with the Archive have been registered in the information system. Introducing the system and processing all new acquisitions will tie up a significant part of the personnel. It could be years before the system really comes into its own as an information resource. The question of how to feed in data on the old collections as well is still unsolved.

The new archiving system is only one tool in helping us to manage the mass of information. It will certainly stay as the main information technology system. Recently, a few test projects on the digitalisation of folklore texts, e.g. songs published in the “SKVR” series and proverbs, have been conducted. Proverbs, especially the general proverbs of Northern Europe, are being studied by an Estonian-Finnish group. There is also a need to build data communication links with other archives in Finland and elsewhere.

Current folklore publications

A large proportion of the folklore publications included in the Society’s programme are produced either entirely, or partly by the Folklore Archive’s researchers. The range of publications stretches from doctoral theses and other academic studies to books of general interest intended for the ordinary public, and illustrated children’s books. In addition to books on Finnish subjects, the publication programme includes books on the folklore and folk life of other peoples. In 1996-97 the Society published in Finnish nine doctoral theses on folklore, comparative religion or ethnology.

A number of long-term studies and collaborative books have been published in the 1990s. They include:

Anneli Asplund, Balladeja ja arkkiveisuja (Finnish Ballads, 1993);
Lauri Honko, Senni Timonen, Michael Branch & Keith Bosley, The Great Bear: A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages (1993);
Matti Sarmela, Suomen perinneatlas (Atlas of Finnish Folk Culture 2. Folklore, 1994);
Pirkko-Liisa Rausmaa, Suomalaiset kansansadut 1-5 (Finnish Folktales 1-5, 1988- 96);
Matti Kuusi & Senni Timonen, Runoja Henrik Florinuksen, Kristfrid Gananderin, Elias Lönnrotin ja Volmari Porkan kokoelmista (Oral poetry from the collections of Henrik Florinus, Kristfrid Ganander, Elias Lönnrot and Volmari Porkka, SKVR XV, 1997).

Studia Fennica Folkloristica:

  1. Folklore Processed: In Honour of Lauri Honko on his 60th Birthday 6th March 1992 (Edited by Reimund Kvideland, Gun Herranen, Pekka Laaksonen, Anna-Leena Siikala & Nils Storå, 1992);
  2. Songs beyond the Kalevala: Transformations of Oral Poetry (Edited by Anna-Leena Siikala & Sinikka Vakimo, 1994);
  3. Matti Kuusi, Mind and Form in Folklore: Selected Articles (Edited by Henni Ilomäki, 1994);
  4. Gender and Folklore (Edited by Satu Apo and Aili Nenola, to be published in 1998).

Studia Fennica Ethnologica:

  1. Pioneers: The History of Finnish Ethnology (Edited by Matti Räsänen, 1992);
  2. Everyday Life and Ethnicity: Urban Families in Loviisa and Võru 1988-91 (Edited by Anna Kirveennummi, Matti Räsänen and Timo J. Virtanen, 1994);
  3. Encountering Ethnicities: Ethnological Aspects on Ethnicity, Identity and Migration (Edited by Teppo Korhonen, 1995);
  4. Ilmar Talve, Finnish Folk Culture (1997).

An English manuscript of The Type and Motif Index of Finnish Belief Legends and Memorates (edited by Marjatta Jauhiainen) is ready for publication in the FF Communications series.

Urpo Vento
Secretary General
Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki

(FFN 15, April 1998: 5-7)

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