Singing and Crying at the Same Time

Pirkko Fihlman has been teaching lament courses since 1998 that have included social- workers, therapists and teachers. Pirkko is a founder and president of the organization called Äänellä Itkijät ry (“Melodically Weepers”).

Pirkko, what exactly do you teach?
Laments are a very ancient tradition and can still be found all over the world. Once James Wilce, who wrote about laments from all over the world (Crying Shame, 2008), came to my course, because he wanted to know himself how it feels. Lament singing is much older than the Kalevala, our famous Finnish folk epic. I think that in the days before Christianity, when there was this early nature faith, it was mainly the shamans who used this lamenting to interact with the other world. But when people started to settle, they started farming and keeping animals, this lament became a task of the women, because they were very near life, growing things, having children, taking care of the dead, and all these…

…transitional moments?
Yes, in Karelia, where traditions were kept for the longest time, laments were also used when a girl got married and had to leave home, or when the men went to war. So they had these laments to protect them, to give advice on how to behave in that other place.

How was this tradition kept?
The girls learned to lament from the older women. It was as important as learning how to weave. You had to learn the specific lament language. Lamenters never use a plain expression of things but always make things beautiful and touching. For instance you wouldn’t say child, but you would use “my little pictured one”, or “my little carried one”. Instead of daughter “long tailed duck” (alli) was often used, or “chicken berry” (kanamarja). Mother could be “dear woman my carrier for eight months”. Husband might have been “fruit of the foreign ones”. And then you would describe grief for instance as “my middle-insides (heart) have turned black, blacker than the blackest oven”. Not all laments were used for rituals; they could also be used when, for example, the young bride went to the new family, and she couldn’t express her feelings to the family, because they would think she was ungrateful. Then she could go to the woods to pick berries and she could cry to the trees. In that way she could get over her grief and start feeling better in order to come back happy again. Those can be described as non-ritual laments and could be about the lamenter’s own life or that of other children, relatives or laments to express gratitude.

So the lament is a way of renewing energy? To get rid of grief?
… to channel energies. My mother, for example, when she was five years old, she watched her grandmother lamenting in the valley, and the echo answered her. But my mother didn’t lament at all, because when she was young, the war came to Finland, and she had to move from Karelia. So, after the war, the refugees tried to keep the Orthodox traditions alive but at the same time they wanted to assimilate. Because all the Karelian people from the same village were taken to the same area in Finland, the laments that they started again with were about the home that they had left in Karelia. So they were lamenting the war that caused these feelings.

I have seen these pictures of women lamenting, holding some sort of embroidered cloth, what was that for?
This embroidery has a century-old history in the tradition of the Karelian people. Initially patterns had magical meanings and were embroidered with copper-bronze spiral wire on woolen fabric. Later on the magical flavor was lost and the embroideries begun to be made by usual silk and cotton yarns on simple linen fabric. Till the beginning of 20th century, in the conditions of patriarchal economy, embroidery was a mass occupation and was a mandatory skill for each woman. These cloths were integral attributes of the wedding and funeral rituals. Karelian embroidery is characterised by laconic geometrical patterns (tradition says that they protect you against witchcraft). The images were schematic and often expressed life, like a tree of life, and bird figures.

Shawls, they look like shawls. But why were they just hanging over something?
Yes, they said that they collect holiness. These cloths were given when a child was born. They put these cloths in the hands of the dead so that it would be like a bridge to heaven for him, and hanged these on the trees near the grave. And when the horse was driving the hearse they put it on the horse’s sides. It would protect the horse. So they were also meant to accompany people in transitional situations, like the laments. I actually have one on my head when I am lamenting.

What about the leading lament singers, how did they become leaders?
Well, they were the ones with the most experience, as the ritual leaders of the laments they had the power to throw out sickness and to heal people and treat them …

So they were nearly shamans.
That’s right, yes. The lamenter is a kind of intermediary between the community and the other world. For the lamenter there are three worlds, one of the living, one of the dead ancestors, and one of the divine powers.

I have listened also to spells that were recorded in Karelia. Where does the lament stop and a spell start? Can the lament do magic?
Well, I think they work together. If you do the lament you can also know how to do spells. My grandmother gave me an important message, that when you do a lament, you have to find the right audience and the right place, because if you do it in the wrong place, for the wrong people, it is a curse. In lament singing body movement is very important, and also breathing. Every lament singer has her own voice and her own melody which just comes from a very deep sort of well, it comes from the whole body. And when you start to give words to the feeling, then you start to feel that you are lamenting the deepest feelings in the words. You start to express yourself, even if you don’t remember what you said, but they’re just coming from somewhere deep inside and the tears are accompanying them.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Any Day Now, pages 30-36