Verses from the tundra

The Great Bear

April 12, 1996

The collapse of the Soviet Union broke barriers not only between nations but also inside Russia. The silence around the small Finno-Ugrian peoples of north Russia and Siberia has been replaced by attempts at dialogue between them and the world beyond the Russian borders. The minorities speaking Uralic languages in Russia consist of populations from some tens of thousands, such as the Samoyeds and Ob-Ugrians in Siberia, to several hundreds of thousands, even a million, such as the Mordvins, the Mari and the Udmurts of the Volga and Kama region. The Russian revolution cut their research and cultural contacts with their better-known relatives, the Hungarians, the Estonians and the Finns for 70 years.

Today a new wave of linguistic and cultural consciousness is uniting these peoples. The Great Bear is therefore a topical book published at a historic moment of ethnic awakening. It is also a major work in the field of comparative folklore studies. This thematically organised anthology of oral poetry is supplemented by an introduction initiating the reader in the languages and history of the Uralic peoples. The expert knowledge of Michael Branch means that special attention is paid to the identity processes that form the basis for the interest in oral poetry among the different Finno-Ugrian groups.

Lauri Honko was responsible for the theoretical framework of the book as well as for the parts describing epic and ritual poetry. Honko's general entries not only help to understand the traditions of the Uralic people but offer also three alternative approaches - phenomenological, ecological and traditional-historical - for comparative studies in oral poetry. The extensive bibliographical references to the main works in Uralic folklore, belief and ritual enhance the usefulness of his introduction. Senni Timonen creates a varied picture of lyric songs revealing the emotions and experiences of individuals. The woman's world in particular was full of distress and sorrow in the bare northern agrarian villages where hunger and death were common visitors, even though love's passion gave hope and warmth to life.

The peoples who speak Uralic languages are different socially and culturally: the world of the northern hunters and reindeer herders is a far cry from the stable agrarian villages of the more southerly peoples. The thematic order of the anthology partly follows the cultural profile of the areas, for instance their songs. These are grouped by themes connected to different modes of livelihood, festivities and social events. Cosmological knowledge, experiences of love, self, sicknesses and death seem to be in common. Each section contains texts selected to represent the cultural variation of poetry. The poems are published in their original language and in English; the translator, Keith Bosley, has taken great pains to give beautiful expression to texts representing alien, even exotic modes of thought.

The Great Bear opens up the world view of the northern Eurasian peoples. In these oral cultures the poetry not only expresses the creative imagination and phantasy, it also preserves the mythical knowledge and oral expressions connected to rituals. The title of the book refers to a Khanty song connected with animal ceremonialism, also known among the Baltic Finns and the North American Indians. Such close relationships with nature are a prominent feature of Finno-Ugrian oral poetry.

The richness of the poetry makes The Great Bear a book full of surprises. At the same time it is a comprehensive overview and a convincing examination of numerous important details, always maintaining a high standard of scholarship. It is also a beautiful and poetic book which may interest readers who simply want to know more about the thoughts, feelings and lives of the northern Eurasian peoples.

Anna-Leena Siikala is professor of folklore studies, University of Joensuu, Finland.

The Great Bear: A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages

Author - Lauri Honko, Senni Timonen and Michael Branch
ISBN - 0 19 5210921
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £70.00
Pages - 787
Translator - Poems translated by Keith Bosley

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