The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics
A Symposium at the University of Turku, August 14-15, 1999

Epic scholars from twelve countries assembled in Turku for an international symposium on oral and traditional epics on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the (New) Kalevala. Altogether 27 papers were presented during two days. Their variety of interests and analytic angles gave the symposium audience, which included the participants in the 5th Folklore Fellows’ Summer School, a good chance to get an insight into some current research problems. The rendezvous of researchers on living epic traditions with those studying the written codifications of traditional epics created some interesting discussions on the process of textualisation, identity construction and the role of history and myth in epics. The topics of the first day focused on the Kalevala and affiliated traditional epics from Homer to Longfellow and on the classical theoretical issues of epic research exemplified through Old Norse, Turkic and African epics. The sessions of the second day were arranged as panels with 4-7 participants in each. The panel papers covered, regionally speaking, the epic traditions of the Eastern Baltic Sea Region, Nordic countries, Southeast Europe, India and Iran. The globality of comparative epic research and the need for more interaction between fieldworkers and text-analysts dominated most of the discussions concluding the panels.

Singers, editors, compilers or – all in one

In his opening lecture on Elias Lönnrot’s five tellings of the Kalevala story (two unpublished and three published versions, 1835, 1849, 1862), Lauri Honko emphasised the continuity of the textualisation process of this traditional epic. The five tellings are actually more akin to the life of an oral than a literary work in the sense that oral works will never become complete, whereas a literary work, once fixed and published, does not change anymore. Seeing Elias Lönnrot not only as a collector, a scribe and a compiler but as a singer with a mental text of an epic in his mind, Honko opened up a more creative perspective on textualisation. During his collecting trips Lönnrot became acquainted with dozens of singing styles and hundreds of interpretations of particular poems. The storylines, descriptions of events, repeatable expressions, phrases and formulas familiar to the singers were the ground for individual mental texts. Elias Lönnrot’s mental text for the Kalevala was developed in interaction with the epic registers of different regions. His good command of the poems and the intimate knowledge of the epic visions of the best singers encouraged Lönnrot to make his own interpretation of the broad variety of epic texts. Focusing on the five Kalevalas as five performances, Honko stressed the importance of their comparison from the point of view of Elias Lönnrot’s emerging mental text.

Interesting points of comparison for the textualisation of the Kalevala were surveyed in the panel concentrating on the traditional epics of the Eastern Baltic Sea Region. The papers dealt with the sources of epic textualisation, the poetic means manifest in the texture of epics and the singer’s view on the poems. Quite different from the textualisation of the Kalevala was, for example, the case of the Latvian national epic Lacplesis (“The Bear Slayer” 1888) created by Andrejs Pumpurs on the basis of aetiological tales, folktales, local legends, wedding songs and other items of folklore. Strong national Romantic rhetoric and artistic metrical devices characterise the epic, as Lauri Harvilahti pointed out. He continued by illustrating the other side of the epic – its pantheistic, mythological atmosphere of natural philosophy. By the end of the 19th century The Bear Slayer already held a similar significance for the Latvians as the Kalevala did for the Finns and the Kalevipoeg for the Estonians. Harvilahti viewed the position of the The Bear Slayer in its socio-historic context and pointed to its political connotations, also manifest in recent years.

Ülo Valk deliberated the genesis of the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg (1857). He analysed the problems of the generic transformation of oral prose legends into a long epic narrative in verse form. Friedrich R. Kreutzwald (1803-82) finished the work started by Friedrich R. Faehlmann (1798-1850), who outlined the basic events of the epic on the basis of the legends on Kalevipoeg. Kreutzwald’s idea of composing the whole epic in Estonian in the metre of old folksongs caused heated discussion in its day. Whereas Elias Lönnrot was strict in using original lines or in keeping within the range of “possible lines”, Kreutzwald changed the whole system of genres. Kreutzwald’s solution tied in with the Romantic nationalistic atmosphere and its demands for a national epic. This can also be seen in the transformation of the character of Kalevipoeg from a mythical giant to a quasi-historical king and a national hero.

The Setu epic Peko and its exceptional process of creation was the topic of Paul Hagu. In 1927, the folklore collector and enthusiast Paulopriit Voolaine sent a letter to the talented Setu folk singer Anne Vabarna. His idea was that she would give the Peko epic its actual wording – along the plot outlined by him. In his paper Paul Hagu focused on the relation of the Setu lyro-epic and imrovisational folk song tradition and Anne Vabarna’s oral tekstualisation of the epic. The traditional backgrounf of both Kalevipoeg and Peko was also taken up by Madis Arukask, who analysed the changes in the structure of oral poetry in his survey on certain restructured Estonian and Setu oral poems. He pointed out the lack of purely epic songs in the oral singing tradition of the past few centuries in Estonia and Setumaa. The former mythical and epic themes had been fragmented and distorted in a lyro-epic tradition. This forced the compilers of the epic storylines (Kreutzwald and Voolaine) to make changes in the concepts of time and space as well as to restructure the characters and messages of the lyro-epic songs.

The richness of texture in epic poetry, especially parallelism, was examined by Elina Rahimova and Seppo Suhonen. Their materials, however, were different. Suhonen analysed the linguistic features of the Setu epic Peko, providing a taxonomy of the different forms of parallelism found in the epic. Rahimova’s material was the 73 variants of the “Päivölä Feast”, one of the Lemminkäinen poems recorded in Archangel Karelia at around the turn of the century. Her quantitative analysis focused on the syntactic parallelism of the opening lines and two episodes. The analysis accounted for the performers’ individual repertoires and the use of the expressive means within their tradition systems.

Most of the commentators on traditional epics have come from outside the communities which produced the oral poems. Attempts to link the text of published epics back to the tradition communities maintaining the poetic vernacular have been few. In the case of the Kalevala, however, it is known that many collectors started to read poems from the Kalevala to the singers to help them remember their own songs. Though the method is well-known, there are only few documents about the results. Senni Timonen drew in her presentation an interesting profile of the collaboration of a collector and a singer. Adolf Neovius collected a series of poems from a well-known Ingrian singer, Larin Paraske, in the summer of 1891. In small installments he read her the whole Kalevala. It is possible to follow the dialogue between the singer and Lönnrot’s Kalevala from the detailed notes by Neovius on the singer’s reactions to the epic text. Timonen discussed Lönnrot’s and Paraske’s different rules of composition on the levels of an epic cycle and a single line. She paid attention to Paraske’s critique and comments on the Kalevala but found that, later on, the work with the Kalevala had certain stylistic and structural repercussions in Paraske’s own poetry.

From field research to theory and approximations

One of the inspiring topics of the symposium was the idea of comparison between field research on oral epics and the textual research on traditional epics. The researchers of non-European oral epics reported on the empirical work being done within living traditions in their natural contexts. John William Johnson’s field research on Somalian epics gave him a new view on the oral-formulaic theory which, according to him, explains only one part of oral composition. On the basis of observed variation in the performance of oral epics he felt it was necessary to expand the theory of oral poetic composition into regions previously both ignored and denied. In the case of the Somalian singers the three forms of composition – free style, oral-formulaic, and verbatim memorisation – are all utilised. Versatile documentation and fieldwork have also made it possible to account for the musical elements in the performance of epics. Experiments in the field have shown the limitations of the oral formulaic thesis and opened up new ways to the reconstruction and evaluation of old folklore texts, including epics.

John Miles Foley underlined the importance of awareness of the oral traditional background in reading a traditional epic such as Homer’s Odyssey. Comparative analysis and the knowledge gained from the South Slavic field on epic poetry were his guidelines in reconstructing the possible variants of a Return song. The focus of Foley’s paper was on the trajectory from structure to meaning and from the mode of composition to the mode of reception. Taking analogues from South Slavic epic traditions, Foley sought answers to questions like: Why does the Odyssey story not follow an orderly chronological path? Why does Penelope delay so long in recognising Odysseus and acknowledging his return? Where does the Odyssey end? With the help of the South Slavic epic examples Foley showed how the traditional morphology can restore multiformity and variability in one single textual artefact and thicken the corpus of ancient Greek epic. The empirical observations make us see the built-in implications behind the signs – as in the case of the Return song.

Dell Hymes brought up the ethnopoetic aspects of old folklore texts. His basic argument was that epic poetry can indeed be found in Native American narratives both by way of content and by way of being constituted of lines and relations among lines. Analysing A. L. Kroeber’s manuscripts and fieldnotes he looked at not only the epic content but also the epic form, for example, in the great Mohave narrative. Kroeber’s fieldnotes make it possible to detect the form and suggest lineaments and approximations. Similar lineaments of poetic form can be found among certain other Native American groups, too. Drawing on old folklore texts Hymes traced various shifts of code, style and context and – the poetic system of a community. In so doing he made the neglected poetics of prose visible.

Clive Tolley took a critical point of view to the oral-formulaic theory in the context of old Norse poetry. In Iceland, literary work including the recording of oral poetry is believed to date from the latter half of the 12th century, when the singers themselves became literate or dictated or taught their poems to literate men. The situation was quite different from modern times, when outsiders have usually been the recorders of traditional oral literature. The old Norse poetry falls into two types: first, the Eddic poetry, the largest collection being the Codex Regius (c. 1270). Most of the poems are believed to originate from earlier oral versions, having an alliterative metre, being anonymous and undated. Second, there is a rich tradition of court poetry composed by poets, skálds of the kings. This Skáldic poetry is more complex in metre and its method of transmission was intended to be memorisation. The oldest poems date back to around the 9th century. Tolley suggested that the more humble Eddic verse was affected by the Skáldic traditions’ becoming more fixed in form. The old Norse tradition, where the artistic situations were more akin to those of a literate than an unlettered society, made Tolley warn against wild assumptions based on interpretations of the nature of oral poetry in other societies. He stressed the extent and ways in which epic performances vary in different cultures.

Singer, performance and community

The special position of Scandinavian oral narrative poetry was also in the focus of Margaretha Mellberg’s paper. The Faroese ballad dance was revived in the beginning of the 19th century and has been a living tradition at festivals ever since. The ballad dance is epic in character, the typical features being rhymes and stanzas, formulas at the beginning of each stanza, repetition and a shortage of improvisation. From the perspective of performance Mellberg compared the Faroese ballad dance with other forms of oral expression, especially contemporary legend. The themes of the comparisons included detailed versus minimalistic, true versus fictional and competitive amateur versus professional academic performer. By means of her comparison she wanted to stress the inseparability of the mode of performance from the message of a text, song or dance. Her thesis was that the form carries both the message of the text and the message of the oral performance.

The hierarchical order of society was one of the dominant perspectives in the papers on epic performance. Minna Skafte Jensen discussed the performance in and of Homer. In the Iliad and Odyssey, three kinds of formalised verbal communication can be found: singing, storytelling and giving speeches. The descriptions of these different modes in the poems show the poet’s understanding of oral performance. A careful analysis of the social dimension of communication gives a clear picture of the social relations between the narrator and his audience. The storyteller and the speaker are usually of the same status as their audience. In the case of storytelling the typical situation is, however, a dependence between the storyteller and the audience – the stories being a means of earning help from others. The professional singers are generally of lower status than their audience or the head of the audience. Answering the question how the Iliad and the Odyssey may have been performed, Skafte Jensen suggested that the written Iliad and Odyssey be discarded as anomalies. Instead, she proposed a picture of ancient Greek epics in which the oral singers were entertaining their audiences with a wide selection of songs with known mental storylines.

Local social hierarchy was one of the analytic keys for Anna-Leena Siikala, too, who discussed the praxis of Kalevalaic runo-singing. In various performance arenas the performative power of runo-singing was manipulated by the singer’s body. In the festive public performance the power of heroic poems was embodied in two elderly men, the singer and his accompanist. The dignity of the songs was emphasised by the slow movements of the male bodies, swaying to the rhythm of the singing, their knees touching and hand in hand. In the public arena the hierarchical order of society in which old age and masculinity were important was put on stage. Siikala also pointed to other strategies of performance which existed in private and secret arenas. The habitus of a seer who did not want to sing to the collectors was quite different from that of the performing seer. The private arenas, where singing practices were connected to male company, drinking and relaxing also show a different mode of a runo-singer. In South Karelia and Ingria the runo-singing was performed by groups of women. The young female singers expressed their subjective ideas, emotions and hopes while singing and dancing in circles and chains or walking in rows. Siikala’s examples showed concretely how the praxis of runo-singing, its institutional context and the modes of performance varied from one cultural area to another.

The private and public arenas of performance could also be found in Sabir Badalkhan’s presentation on the roles of composer and performer of the Balochi epic, sheyr. The composer of a sheyr is called shaair and the performer-singer pahlawaan. The composing and performing of the Balochi epic are tied to the social status of the person in question. The shaair, who belongs to the upper class, considers the singing accompanied with instruments in public as being below his status. On the other hand, the pahlawaan, who belonged to the low class of the Ludi, is not expected to compose poems but to perform those composed by others. The performer had no right to modify or improvise during the performance. Working for ten years in different parts of Balochistan, Badalkhan recorded and analysed several versions of famous poems from certain epic cycles. Focusing his analysis on the different performances of the same poems by a single sheyr, Badalkhan wanted to study the level of truth in the required verbatim reproduction of a sheyr and the reactions of the audience when they feel that the minstrel is making alterations.

Epic heroes at the crossroads of history, myth and social context

The rich variety of epic heroes and heroines was touched upon in many papers at the symposium. The hero’s position in the construction of the national epic tradition was in the focus of the paper by Elena Agoston-Nikolova. The German Romantic ideas and the nationalistic movements in Europe in the 19th century aroused a literary interest in oral traditions among the liberation movements of the South Slavs. This meant that a number of regional differences were neglected as marginal, oriental or primitive. The ritual and calendar-oriented local traditions were compressed into national traditions. Many changes also took place in the epic contents: the male hero personages became national and the concept of the enemy was introduced. The old epic heroes were substituted with impersonal ethnic denominations and the epic song became susceptible to political manipulation. In the traditional language of folklore the categories of hero and antihero are not recognised in the same way as in the literary language.

The hero’s position in the epic was also the subject of Karl Reichl, who guided the audience to the epic world of the Turkic people. The identification of tribal and ethnic roots and the celebration of the heroic past are two of the important functions of the epic poetry in Central Asia. The tribal history is connected to the heroic epic through a genre denoted by the term shajara’genealogy’. Reichl analysed in detail the Edige epic comparing its various renderings and studying the development and transformation of a common heritage in different local traditions. The hero of the epic is a historical figure Edige, who was a powerful leader of the Golden Horde at the end of the 14th and the beginning of the 15th century. Reichl stressed the distinction between a historical epic and an epic with a “historical nucleus”, the latter being the case in the Edige epic. Reichl’s argument was that while the epic storyline focuses on personal conflicts and war-like actions, the underlying concern of the epic is with ethnogenesis and cultural values.

The Iranian national epic Shahname “the Book of Kings” was dealt with in the papers of Mehri Bagheri, Jaan Puhvel and Ulrich Marzolph. Mehri Bagheri saw the Iranian heroic myths as interrelated parts of one long and continuous epic cycle about the legendary kings. For Bagheri, the inherent mythical structure and contents of this epic are similar to the structure and contents of those Iranian religious myths which tell about the beginning, duration and the end of the world. Bagheri interprets the Shahname as the heroic version of Iranian cosmology and eschatology. She searches for the themes and patterns which are designed upon the main outlines and essential features of the Iranian mythico-religious ideology. The basis of her interpretation is the idea that the essential concepts of the mythical worldview were also determining factors in the original formation and arrangement of the Iranian epic. So the dualism of Iran and Turan or the continuous wars and antagonism between the pesdadi kings and devs can be seen as transpositions/transitions from the concept of two principles and their permanent confrontation in the mythical worldview.

The Shahname as a chronicle epic was scrutinised by Jaan Puhvel. He moved on the borderline of history and myth. The neo-comparatism of the 20th century broke down the wall that separated Vedic and Avestan philologies from the study of later epics. Puhvel analysed the Shahname in the context of four-dimensional Indo-Iranian material: Vedic, Avestan, Epic Indian and Epic Iranian. The parallels in the Avesta on one hand and in the Vedas and the Mahabharata on the other can illuminate the relations of the historical and mythical elements in the epic cycle of Shahname. The position of Abolgasem Firdousi (939-1020 B.C.) as a compiler of the epic is also seen more clearly in this context. Puhvel saw the historical cyclicity in Iranian history from legendary times up to the repudiation of the Pahlavis in 1979 but warned against seeing historical characters in the early part of the Shahname genealogy. “Let myth be myth!”, was heard from the platform.

Ulrich Marzolph’s perspectives on the Shahname were twofold: first, he wanted to see the epic in relation to the oral tradition from which it results. The Book of Kings compiled by Firdousi became a national monument after his death. In his analysis Marzolph followed the complex relations of oral and written versions. Although the written version was and is a unifying factor, the oral versions affected the learned tradition. Recitations in the coffee houses, popular literature and the multiepisodic canvases on the walls are proofs of the popularity that the Shahname enjoys even today. These forms of the Shahname tell about different interpretations of the epic content. Who are the heroes in the Book of Kings and who are the heroes in popular literature? The second perspective from which Marzolph looked at the epic was its social context, its ideological implications and the exploitations it has experienced since its compilation. The monuments and festivities in honour of Firdousi are one side of the ideological construction, the instrumental use of the epic, for example, in schoolbooks the other.

Indian folk epics and their social context were studied by C. N. Ramachandran, who argued that since the caste is the most important organising principle in the Indian society, the Indian folk epics reflect complex and ambivalent drives born out of caste-hierarchy. Almost all the cult-heroes in the Indian folk narratives belong to the lower castes, as do the professional ritual singers of epics. Ramachandran saw at the heart of folk epics a clash between a forest culture and an urban culture, between the Pan-Indian religion and the local cults. He also focused on the position of the hero in oral epics. The marginalisation of the hero model can be seen in, for example, the epic Male Madeshwara from Karnataka. Rahmachandran stressed that the oral epics document the history of a particular community, its way of life and value system, its ideals and aspirations.

John B. Alphonso Karkala looked at the nature of heroic action from the comparative perspective. He saw the world’s epics as multi-foliate aesthetic expressions within the unity of genre. The value systems in each cultural sphere and the mythic and symbolic structure of the epic should be the basis of evaluation. Having compared Indian epics, he examined the heroic action of the Kalevala in the context of the shamanic cultural sphere of northern Eurasia. Central to the analysis were the power of sound, rhythm and words in controlling another human being and physical nature, the transferring of knowledge through communication in trance and the creative will of the woman. In addition to textualising studies Karkala emphasised the need for comparative critical studies of the Kalevala.

Breaking the borders

Connections between different epic traditions and their influence on literature were discussed by Osmo Pekonen, Georgij A. Levinton and David Elton Gay. Osmo Pekonen followed the navigation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf to Finland. Beowulf was composed before the 10th century. The earliest occurrence of the name of Finland in English literature is to be found in the context of the mythical sailing of the epic hero to Finna land. A political overtone was created when the German expeditionary force brought the armoured coasting vessel Beowulf before Helsinki in the spring of 1918 during the Finnish Civil War. Mysterious connections between the characters of the epic Beowulf and the Kalevala were developed by Johan Rudolf Dillström, who also translated the first fragments of the Beowulf into Finnish in the 1920s. In 1999, the first complete translation of Beowulf was published by Clive Tolley and Osmo Pekonen.

The influence of the Kalevala on the “artificial” epic Hiawatha (1855) was studied by Georgij A. Levinton, who stressed the impact of the epic scholarship of the 18th and 19th centuries. The materialisation of scholarly theories can be seen in many aspects of the Song of Hiawatha. Levinton analysed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s way of editing and compiling the epic. Longfellow changed the Indian prose narratives into verse epic, he used parallelism and combined heterogeneous stories into a single plot.

David Elton Gay examined the position of the new Kalevala (1849) as a canonical form of the Finnish epic and mythology for most English-speaking people. Many writers like W. B. Yeats, William Morris and J. R. R. Tolkien have been influenced by it. Recently it has been used by members of the Society for Creative Anachronism as a guide to medieval Finnish culture. Gay analysed the way Elias Lönnrot edited and compiled the poem about the singing competition between Old Väinämöinen and the young Joukahainen. The additions Lönnrot made to the poem are important for those approaching the epic from outside Finnish tradition. They provide a setting of motivation and place the actions in a world that – although a fantasy one – has a connection with the real world.

The last paper at the symposium introduced the audience to the Kalevala tradition among Finns living in America. Susan E. Walima compiled the ethnographic and survey data she had herself collected to highlight the distinctive elements of the Kalevala Day celebration in the San Francisco Bay Area. In her survey she focused on Finnish values as they are expressed and maintained within the immigrant nuclear family, the Finnish-American community activities and ongoing cross-cultural communication in the multicultural Bay Area milieu. The Kalevala is still highly valuable as a magnet for Finnish identity.

The brilliants are shining

If great epics are the brilliants of folklore, the Kalevala Symposium truly made them shine in a global way. The glow came from the broad variety of research traditions exposed by the participating scholars and from the epics themselves, ranging from the well-known classics of world literature to almost unknown oral masterpieces barely transcending the oral/literary interface. The epic heroes and heroines emerged both as locally designed emblems of cultural identity and as consciously forged national symbols. If the “folk” had lost some of its importance as the mystical collective creator of epic, the loss was well compensated by the importance of the tradition community in the all-important reception of epic.

The keyword was textualisation. The comparative research on epics is based on texts which either directly reflect oral performance or, in the case of tradition-oriented epic, take their inspiration and loyalties from traditional poetic rules and expressions. The cooperation between fieldworkers documenting living oral epics and textual analysts utilising old texts and archive sources set the tone of this symposium, which succeeded in bringing the singer of epics and his/her cultural world closer to the modern editors and publishers of epics. The paradox of oral performance in writing was brought one step nearer to its optimal solution.

Marjut Huuskonen
Department of Cultural Studies/Folkloristics, University of Turku

(FFN 18, November 1999: 16-21)

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