Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Communicating across the Border: What Burial Laments Can Tell Us about Old beliefs/Suheldes Ule Piiri: Mida Matuseitkud Vanadest Uskumustest Konelda Voivad

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Communicating across the Border: What Burial Laments Can Tell Us about Old beliefs/Suheldes Ule Piiri: Mida Matuseitkud Vanadest Uskumustest Konelda Voivad

Article excerpt

Introduction

In modern culture, several archaic practices have either fallen into oblivion or else been restructured beyond recognition as concerns their function, manner of performance, and meaning. Several one-time religious customs that would once have determined a large part of a person's everyday behaviour, are now discussed either in a poetic key or as artistic fictions. Thus the acute tenets of yore, together with the folklore genres (laments, invocations, folk tales, etc.) that used to ornament, comment upon, and make sense of them, as well as ways of behaving at the turning points of human life (e.g. birth, death, the rituals that accompanied changes in social status), may have dropped to the background, since the understanding of them and of the reality associated with them has transformed. The other approach characteristic of the modern person is to conceive of the archaic or the culturally different through an egocentric, unifying prism based on his or her personal habits and understandings. Probably this commonsensical feature has also found support from an Enlightenment-inspired desire to see human beings of all times as similar in all respects both psychologically and culturally. Still, not everybody is equal to the demand of seeing human beings in their spatial and temporal context the project launched by the Annales school and requiring both knowledge and the desire to know.

Undoubtedly, death and everything related to it constitutes one of such constantly changing and highly culture-specific areas. The fact that death is a phenomenon that concerns each and every one of us means that cultural questions and answers concerning the essence of death, the position of human beings and communities related to it, and the corresponding views of what happens after death, have always existed. The scientific and/or highly symbolical (and frequently not telling very much) explanations need not bear much resemblance to the religiously concrete and relatively non-mystical views that prevailed or still prevail in traditional (or archaic) cultures. Various conceptions, however, have been employed not only in situations of death, but have also determined and influenced a very broad range of other areas of human life.

The present paper focuses on the genre and practice that have accompanied death and a number of liminal rites in general--laments and lamenting. Central to the discussion are examples of the said genre and practice in Balto-Finnic and North Russian cultural areas. The corresponding traditions of other regions will be referred to as useful parallels for delineating and discussing the research hypotheses. In its various manifestations, lamenting offers opportunities for intercultural comparative research, allowing for a hypothetical modelling of death-related views and tenets that have survived till our days only in fragmentary form. From an interdisciplinary point of view, such a discussion allows to combine folkloric, archaeological, anthropological, and also psychological, knowledge.

An approach from such an angle is also relevant for the Estonian culture and its more ancient history. On the one hand, lamenting has not survived in the Estonian cultural space as a living practice. On the other hand, there is no doubt that this universal phenomenon has existed here in earlier times. (1) Lamenting has, however, been preserved up to the very recent past or even the present among the Estonians' closest linguistic relatives--the Setu and other eastern Balto-Finnic peoples, such as the Votians, Izhorians, Ingrian Finns, Karelians, and Vepsians, where an areal symbiosis is taking place with North Russian regional cultures (cf. Chistov 1982, 109 ff.) in which the Orthodox superstratum has helped conserve several archaic features. The present article is an attempt to make sense of this folkloric phenomenon in archaic cultural contexts, associating it, among other things, with some references to archaeology. …

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