Mentifacts (Oral Folklore)
The two basic divisions in oral lore for this class are:
prose versus poetry and true versus false. Note that since this lore is oral,
it is hard to determine what is prose and what is poetry. We can’t just look
at how it is written. Of course, we have transcribed versions, but the people
who told or sang this material did not write it down. Folklorists did and
they may have been influenced by their own prejudices. Thus, for our purposes,
oral lore defined as poetry has a line structure with a prescribed meter,
which prose does not have. The poetic genres are also generally sung. True
and false do not refer to what we deem is objective truth, in the sense of
facts that are scientifically proven or historically valid. However, in the
opinions of those who tell the story, this material is factual. For example,
we do not believe the myths of ancient Egypt, but since the Egyptians believed
them, we must classify them as true.
The genres we will discuss can be classified in a chart
based on these two distinctions:
Although myth is both a prose and poetic genre, we will
discuss it here, because of its close relationship to ritual, epic and lament.
According to the specialist George Bascom, myths are defined as the sacred
truths of a people. They are the stories of gods. They provide answers to
supernatural questions humans ask about the universe. The most important thing
to remember about myth is that it is not a falsehood. This usage of the word
evolved after our culture became Christian and used the word myth to indicate
non-Christian beliefs, i.e., as in the Greek gods. In fact, myth is actually
the highest of all truths.
Just because myth is a sacred truth, does not mean that
myth is unchanging, as we will discuss in class. Russia, like many other European
countries, had an agrarian religion that was replaced by Orthodox Christianity
(but many features of which were retained), as well as by Buddhism, Islam
Pre-Christian Agrarian Religion:
There are very few complete descriptions of the pre-Christian
religion of the Russians. As you know, they were converted to Christianity
in 988, and little has survived from that period, since most people were illiterate.
We can only piece things together from archeological remnants and secondary
sources. Basically we know that the Indo-European peoples, including the
Russians, were animists, who worshipped the forces of nature. Their rituals
were designed to influence the gods of these forces and to improve the fertility
of humans, plants and animals to ensure survival.
The foremost expert on Russian pre-Christian religion
was Rybakov, who wrote two books on Slavic and Russian paganism. In his books,
he concludes that there were three pantheons of gods in the Russian area.
The basic religious belief was based on dualism--light versus dark, male versus
female, etc. These pantheons varied depending on the region, but this description
gives you a basic synopsis of the religion.
The earliest pantheon in the Russian area, probably during
the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer period, consisted of two female goddesses,
the Rozhanitsy, who were mother and daughter. The mother was the child of
an elk or deer. They were depicted as horned women or women riding a deer
or a horse holding deer’s antlers in their hands. The mother had a consort,
Rod, the god of growth, depicted as a stag or male elk, who was the father
of the daughter. As James Frazer has shown in The Golden Bough, such gods
were a symbol of the agricultural year. Like the plants and animals who die
in the winter and are reborn in the spring, the god died and then resurrected
each year. Human rituals are a performance which mimics this cycle. If these
rituals were not performed, the earth and the sun would die permanently. Rod
probably developed into the agriculture god (See pantheon 2), when it became
more significant in Russian culture. Rod is also the son of the goddess, so
he is her child as well as the father of her child.
The second pantheon was introduced during the agricultural
period. It was led by the earth goddess Mokosh, a.k.a. mat’ syraia zemlia
or moist mother earth. She was depicted as a gigantic horned woman, and Volos
(or Veles), the god of livestock and agriculture, who was shown as a man with
a sheep. The third god of the pantheon was Perun, the sky god, who had a
horse drawn chariot and was accompanied by wolves. He could throw lightning
bolts and cause storms and was the consort of Mokosh. He eventually became
the most powerful god, but was never popular with the average person. He was
mainly a god of the nobility.
The third pantheon was imported from Iran and it intermingled
with the second pantheon, becoming one pantheon ruled by Perun (for the nobles)
or by Mokosh and Volos (for the peasants). The Iranians worshipped the sun,
and thus, all of these gods represented aspects of the sun: Dazhbog, the dawn;
Stribog, fire; Svarog, sunlight; Smargel, sunset. These gods were symbolized
by animals, such as horses, boars, stags, and by the hunt.
The most important thing about these pantheons is that,
unlike in western Christian countries, the Russians preserved their ancient
system much longer and in a much more complete way. Thus, even into the 20th
century, ancient rituals are performed, even if the people might not have
known why they were performed that way. In addition, as late as the 16th century,
people still actively referred performed rituals which were designed to influence
these gods. This longstanding influence of and belief in pre-Christian religion
was called dvoeverie, or double faith.
Calendar and Religion:
We have said that the main function of folklore is to
determine categories and boundaries, the unwritten rules of a culture. The
most significant boundary for an agricultural people is the calendar. As noted
above, the basic premise in Indo-European pre-Christian religion was that
the crops, which were symbolized by the dying and resurrected god, died in
the winter and were reborn in the spring. The calendar rituals reflected this
belief and were designed to help the crops be reborn and for new animals (and
children, of course) to be born each year.
The major agrarian holidays, as you may have already
noticed, are at the same time as our major Christian holidays. The church,
in many cases, purposely assigned major holidays to these times so as to
replace paganism with new religion. Thus, Christ’s birth was at the time
of year traditionally associated with the death of the old god of the fields
and his rebirth. You may know that the Seventh Day Adventists do not celebrate
Christmas in the winter, but in the summer. They have rejected the older pagan
associations of the solstice and plotted Christ’s birth according to the
stars described in the Bible.
Most holidays, even modern ones, cluster around the ancient
holidays at the points of transition from one season to another. This calendar,
even though we have lost our understanding of its meaning, provides a pattern,
a set of boundaries that still hold great significance for us.
Types of Calendars:
The earliest calendar was the lunar calendar, which had
13 months of 28 days each. The extra days in the year carried over until the
next year. As a result, there was no definite season associated with months.
Islam and Judaism still use this calendar. The New Year began at the spring
equinox in this calendar.
The solar calendar was developed by the Romans and adopted
by most European cultures. The shift from the lunar to the solar calendar
is generally associated with the shift to a system in which male sun gods
were more important than the female goddesses of the earth and moon. This
calendar had 9 months of 41 or 45 days each. June, July and August were added
later and named for Roman emperors. It is called the Julian calendar, since
Julius Caesar prescribed it. It was the first calendar with a leap year to
account for the extra portion of a day each year. However, it was in error
in terms of the number of days per year. As a result, this calendar, which
is still used by the Orthodox church in Russia is different from ours by 12
days. As a result, Christmas in Russia is after New Year’s.
The Gregorian calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory in the
1500’s, attempted to fix the errors in the Julian calendar. Thus, there was
one year that was 12 days shorter than usual and in some cases, only 12 days
Very often, secular and religious calendars do not coincide.
For example, before Peter the Great standardized the Russian calendar, there
were three New Year’s holidays. The folk holiday was March 1, the church New
Year was September 1 and the civil New Year was January 1. Much like we have
our New Year celebration in January, but the fiscal year begins on July 1
and the tax year begins on April 15.
Chthonic versus Ouranic religions:
As Russia moved from the first through the third pagan
pantheons and finally, to Christianity, it moved from having a chthonic religion
to an ouranic one. Chthonic systems are generally characterized by: unstructured
rituals; ecstatic and trance states as part of ritual; a belief in reincarnation;
non-prescriptive in terms of personal life and morals; the gods are close
to man, so that we can interact with and influence them; the earth is a positive
force; emphasis on an earth goddess, not on a sky god. Ouranic systems are
generally characterized by: structured rituals; rituals are based on reason,
not on ecstatic states; a belief in an afterlife; prescriptive in terms of
personal life and morals; the gods are far away from man; the earth is an
evil and dangerous force; emphasis on a sky god, not on a earth goddess.
According to James Frazer, many cultures have made this
change and along the way, they preserved many of their agrarian beliefs after
they became Christian or even secular. This retention of ancient beliefs is
not only found in the calendar and holidays, but in other places as well,
such as in our attitude toward what numbers are lucky or unlucky (we’ll talk
about this in class). We have preserved these beliefs in four ways:
1) secularization of religious elements. We keep the
names or practices, but lose the religious significance. This is true of
our names for the planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Venus, etc.); cities and towns
like Athens from Athena or Rome from Romulus; months like March from Mars
and January from Janus; and days of the week like Saturday from Saturn, Friday
from Frigga (a Norse goddess), Thursday from Thor.
2) transfer to Christianity. We take pagan elements and
incorporate them into Christianity. One example is Saint Christopher, who
was originally a pagan figure, namely Heracles. Many of these saints, including
Christopher, have been decanonized because of this history.
3) transfer to paganism. Christian saints which already
exist take on the attributes of pagan gods. For example, there is a cult in
Venice in which St. Peter is called the rainmaker, since Venice had a god
which brought rain. St. Elijah in Russia took on many of the qualities of
the sky god Perun, such a riding in a chariot and throwing thunder bolts.
A similar example is the use of the fish symbol for Christ, which was originally
a symbol for the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite.
4) mythological inversion. The church takes a non-Christian
personage and uses it to explain a Christian doctrine. For example, there
is one god, who is good and loving. Then where does evil come from? The theologians
say it comes from our free will to disobey god. The average person cannot
understand this sophisticated idea. Thus, the church personified Lucifer as
Dionysus, as a satyr, and said that evil was from him. Thus, the Christian
ideal of chastity, purity and goodness was opposed to the god of wine, earth
and sex, which were evil. This helped the common people to understand Christian
doctrine and also to turn away from agrarian beliefs.
While Frazer wrote an excellent analysis of agrarian
ritual and the dying and resurrected god, he has two major flaws. The first
is that he says that man goes through three stages: 1) man in his early stages
believes in magic and is superstitious and savage, i.e. the chthonic period
; 2) man in his second stage gets an organized religious system which developed
from the magical one, i.e. the ouranic period; 3) man in his most rational
stage eliminates religion and superstition altogether. Science replaces religion.
This is clearly not the case. Very often all three stages exist at once.
The second flaw is that he focuses only on Indo-European
cultures and tried to claim his conclusions were true for others. Yet other
cultures do not share the same belief in the dying and resurrected god or
this pattern of transition from chthonic to ouranic religion.
Epic is an unusual genre, because it only exists in certain
cultures and does not last for a particularly long time. All cultures have
tales, lyric songs and myths, but epic is only created under certain circumstances.
When those circumstances change, epic dies out. Thus, we will study these
circumstances by asking the following questions: What are the characteristics
of epic? Who tells it? When? Where? to Whom? Why are the stories told and
retold to same audiences? Why do epics exist only in certain places at certain
times? In addition, there is no prose version of this genre, as there are
for all for the other types, so that makes it even more special.
Because epic is so rare, it has been extensively studied.
It is viewed as the standard for greatness in a culture’s literature. Basically,
this is true because the Greeks had epic and the Greeks had the world’s greatest
culture, so for a culture to be great, it must have epic. As a result, epics
tend are the a source of great pride, e.g., Beowulf in England, The Song of
Roland in France, The Niebelungenlied in Germany, the Sagas in Norway and
Iceland, the Iliad and Odyssey in Greece. Note that all epics glorify the
“golden age” of their culture and the noble heroes of that age.
The important thing to remember about epic is the people
who sing and listen to epic believe it. To them, it is an historical account.
The question remains how can one believe that heroes going to the other world,
fighting dragons or giants, flying through the air, or killing huge monsters
with silken whips is factual? Many people have attempted to reconstruct the
original “historical” story by throwing away all of the “untrue” stuff and
looking only at the details which recur in each version of an epic. As you
know from reading Oinas, he says that this magical material is symbolic, i.e.,
if a Tatar can breath fire, he is really evil. An alternate reason may be
that the details have been lost and were filled in with fairy tale stuff
to make a better story. A question to consider for in class discussion is:
why do you think this “historical” material includes such fantastic details?
The reason why epic is not widespread is that it is
created only after a culture has lost a war and has been overrun by enemies.
Thus, Russian epic appeared after they were defeated by Tatars; Turkish epic
after they were defeated by the Iranians; Serbian epic after they were defeated
by the Turks; German epic after they were defeated by the Huns, etc. Since
it talks about such awful topics, epic is characterized by tragedy; it has
a overall feeling of sadness. However, in these epics, the heroes almost never
lose to their enemies. But in reality, they did lose; the Tatars did take
over Russia. Another question to consider is: Why did they sing about battles
In Russia wandering male minstrels of the peasant class,
called skomorokh, sang epic. Epic singing was a profession, which required
training. The average person did not just pick up a dombra (the string instrument
used to accompany epic singing) and begin singing these songs. They were reserved
for a certain group and have a ritual quality about them. In Russia, epics
were traditionally sung at yearly cycle rituals and at weddings. The minstrels
were originally accorded a great deal of respect and would precede the priest
in processions on religious holidays, such as Easter. During the 18th century
in Russia, the church and government began a systematic attack on epic singers.
These attacks resulted in the decline of the profession, and many of the
singers fled to the north. As a result, in the 19th century, collectors found
the epic tradition well preserved in Siberia. The songs you have read were
all collected from that area in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Russian epic singers were all blind. They were apprenticed
at a young age to a master minstrel, who would train them. This system was
an effective way to cope with sons who could not contribute to the family
because of their blindness. Not all blind boys were accepted. Each year, as
the minstrel made his rounds, he would check on their progress to see whether
they had talent. If so, he took the boys when he left a village.
The same minstrel arrived in a village at the same time
each year, for example for the winter solstice ritual. Usually he stayed with
an important village official, since minstrels were greatly respected and
had to be treated with ceremony. Until he was required to perform, he would
meet with the people he knew and found out the news in the village.
He had to be officially invited by the official with
whom he was staying before he would sing. Even then, he did not sing immediately.
He requested food and drink before he began. Until they arrived, he would
not begin. In some cases, he might also request a cigarette or delay singing
in some other way. In many cases, his apprentices accompanied him. They usually
played warm-up material, so that the audience was receptive when he began.
These performances were generally from 4-6 hours long.
The epic was only a small part of the entire performance. The performance
1) instrumental introduction;
2) four introductory songs, generally lyric songs of
various types. They were often funny or obscene songs to establish a rapport
with the audience;
3) the epic song;
4) a concluding song in which he blesses himself and
There are two important things to remember about a minstrel’s
performance: 1) he does not chose the songs he is to sing. The audience does.
Thus, he must have a large repertoire. If he does not, the audience will be
displeased, since he cannot sing the song they requested, and he may lose
his following. 2) the epic itself does not last for 4 hours. If he sang it
straight through, it would probably be an hour long or so. However, minstrels
respond to their audience. If the audience particularly enjoys Dobrynya’s
fight with the dragon, then that section is expanded according and can take
up to an hour by itself. In addition, the minstrel always includes asides,
sung in verse, to people in the audience. For example, if Vanya has been having
an affair or stealing people’s vegetables, the minstrel includes a section
addressed specifically to Vanya. In effect, he incorporates the daily concerns
to the audience into the song, by including verses about how Dobrynya was
punished for an affair or how Dobryna punished a thief who stole his neighbor’s
property. In some cases, these asides are actual songs, but with different
verse structure, which apply to the situation; in some cases he adds episodes
to the epic itself. They also incorporate personalized greetings for newcomers
or say goodbye to those leaving. As a result, an epic is never exactly the
same, since the minstrel varies it depending on what has happened in the
village since he last visited.
The audience is generally limited to adults. In some
epic traditions, such as the Turkish one, it is limited to adult men.
Each epic tradition has a different verse structure.
Thus, Russian epic is not the same as Serbian epic, which likewise differs
from Turkish and Greek epics. Russian epic has a variable line structure,
based on the number of beats or syllables per line. It ranges from 9-12 syllables.
The question of how illiterate blind peasants create
stories about great noblemen going to battle and doing other heroic deeds
has been much debated. Theorists, including Oinas, originally believed that
some written literary masterpiece had been lost, but that wandering minstrels
had heard it being sung or read and told it later on based on memory. This
theory proved to be false, as Albert Lord showed in The Singer of Tales.
He and Milman Parry conceived the idea that the Iliad
and Odyssey were not originally written, but were oral compositions. Note
that the Greek word for epic, epos, means oral. To prove their theory, they
studied the epics of the Serbs. They discovered that these men did not memorize
the songs from listening to the master minstrel. No trainee sang the epics
in the same way as their teacher. Rather, the epics were composed each time
a singer sang an epic song. The master taught them the techniques to do this.
We will discuss this theory in class and illustrate how it works using English.
It has been suggested that historical songs evolved from
epic. However, they often existed simultaneously with epic. They certainly
differed from them in several ways. 1) there was no restriction on who can
sing these songs. The average person sang them; 2) they are shorter than epic;
3) there is less fantastic content than in epic. They resemble eye-witness
accounts of historical events; 4) the heroes are usually central historical
figures. Epics, as we have seen, generally tell the stories of minor or secondary
historical figures. Historical songs are about figures such as Peter the Great,
Ivan the Terrible, etc. and not about their courtiers; 5) they are more socio-culturally
biased than epic. These songs clearly take the side of hero, whereas in epic,
there are no biased comments on the values of the heroes. Even enemies are
treated with a kind of respect in epic, which is not found in historical
songs. They are a type of patriotic songs designed to support a nation’s
The most interesting trait of ballads is that they are
neither true or false. Basically, the attitude toward the truth of these songs,
depends on the singer and the listener. A good example are traditional American
ballads like “Down by the Greenwood Siding”, in which a brother shoots his
sister, and “Poor Pearl”, in which a homicidal maniac kills a young girl.
Some people swear that these songs are true; others say that they are too
crazy to be factual. As in the case of historical songs, anyone can sing
Ballads are songs about average people, not about heroes
or kings. They deal with daily problems in a dramatic, almost melodramatic
way. For example, love ends badly and tragically, heroes come to sad ends,
etc. The concerns in ballads are more closely related to personal problems,
not to national issues (like epic) or patriotic support of a nation policies
(like historical songs).
Lyric songs are probably most widespread genre. They
include: the xorovod and other dance songs, love songs, lullabies, work songs,
humorous songs, and songs sung during yearly cycle rituals. Everyone can sing
these songs. However, the majority of them deal with women’s concerns and
were sung by women. They basically express complaints about or celebrations
of life, work, serfdom, boyfriends, husbands, parents, children, in-laws,
etc. They differ from ballads in that they are not overly melodramatic or
sad. They are more personal expressions of the concerns of daily life and
help to deal with these issues, for both the singers and the listeners. These
songs give great insight into the lives of Russian women. You read some related
to the wedding and should make a note of what they depict about Russian life
As you know, laments were sung only by married women,
just as the epics were sung only by men. They were sung at life cycle rituals
(weddings and funerals) just as the epics were sung at yearly cycle rituals
and weddings. Therefore, there seems to be a justification in comparing the
two genres. They seem to play a special role in ritual and also are related
by the fact that not everyone can sing them. They also share the following
1) they have the same verse structure: 9-12 syllables
2) laments were also composed while in performance through
the use of formulas. They were not memorized or static. As you know, laments
describe how a person died as well as the qualities of the deceased. Therefore,
they must necessarily change each time they are sung;
3) they included a description of journey to the other
4) the audience was part of the performance;
5) they were tragic, since they deal with death (just
as the epic deals with the death of a nation).
The important difference between the two genres appears to be who sings
the songs and for which ritual they are sung. We will discuss why these differences
exist in class.