The project Oral Poetry, Mythic Knowledge and Vernacular Imagination: Interfaces of Individual Expression and Collective Traditions in Pre-Modern Northeast Europe investigates the symbolic and textual strategies that lended pre-modern, largely oral cultures the means to create poetic corpora that even today form an uncontested and valued, but unevenly recognized, part of Northern European cultural heritage. In these cultures, the production, transmission and interpretation of cultural knowledge was deeply rooted in mythic thinking and the human faculty of imagination, matching creativity with slowly changing mental templates. An understanding of these forms of thought and communication will provide a solid basis for the negotiation of cultural and ethnic identities as well as the rights to intangible culture.

The Approach

At the level of theory, the project focuses on the intersection of oral poetry, mythic knowledge and vernacular imagination. Oral poetry is approached as a conventionalized conservative system of expression; mythic knowledge as mythology and belief traditions; imagination as the human capacity to organize mental representations. Oral poetry is a central mode of expression in cultural practices associated with ritual and beliefs, used in the application and communication of mythic knowledge. Imagination allows the organization of images and construction of mythic knowledge in relation to the language and semiotics as used in that poetry. Oral poetry thus emerges as a site of vernacular imagination rooted in cultural practices, enabling adaptive strategies for applying mythic knowledge in both familiar and unforeseen situations. These processes are addressed at the level of the individual understanding, collective tradition, and in comparative typological and long-term historical perspectives.

Regional Focus

Traditions are considered according to a regionally defined area of Northeast Europe. This is a culturally dynamic area peopled by diverse ethnic groups with distinct local cultural traditions with a long history of contact and exchange. In cultures of this region, oral poetries had central roles in individual and community life prior to processes of modernization, and these have evolved in relation to long histories of cross-cultural contacts. Studies of traditions in Northeast Europe have been generally inclined to divide these according to linguistic heritage (e.g. Finno-Ugric), influences from a single culture (e.g. Germanic), or limit geographical surveys to adjacent cultures – often reflecting political boundaries. The Circum-Baltic area has received increasing attention for its rich history of interfaces between Finno-Ugric and Indo-European cultures, but without normally considering cultures east of Karelia. Our project opens this Circum-Baltic discussion to a new scope of Northeast Europe, including the Nordic and Baltic countries and northwestern territories of the Russian Federation where many small cultural groups such as the Nenets are found. Emphasis is given to North Finnic (especially Finnish and Karelian) traditions because Finnic cultures have historically stood at the nexus of interactions between Indo-European and Finno-Ugric or more broadly Uralic cultures.

The project seeks to offer broader insights into this region‟s dynamic history, a new understanding of cultural heritage in this part of the globe, and new perspectives on European cultural identities. The project will generate new knowledge on the interface between slowly changing structures and creative innovation; elucidate processes by which mythic knowledge is mediated and socially negotiated; examine how modes of expression condition mythic knowledge; and consider how cultural practices both shape vernacular imagination and are conditioned by it.

Anchor Studies

The overall goal of and abstract overview will be developed around four „anchor‟ studies. These treat: North Finnic Kalevala-meter poetry; North Finnic lament poetry; early Germanic poetries; Nenets epic and shamanic songs. Each anchor study is situated in the context of different genres and traditions of the culture, and more broadly within the context of neighbouring cultures, where appropriate.

These four anchor studies treat the two most central and archaic oral poetry traditions of North Finnic cultures, the oral poetry of one Indo-European culture and of one Uralic culture in the region. The four anchor studies provide complementary and mutually reinforcing insights on their respective target cultures. They will be united in the development of a flexible research frame and general methodology for use as a tool when approaching other traditions in more flexible modes of expression, both in pre-modern and modern societies.

Both Finnic oral poetries are represented by sufficiently thick corpora that relationships and interactions between them can be assessed. This is doubly important. On the one hand, the corpora themselves offer exceptional contexts for considering interfaces of the individual and collective tradition in the development of specific case studies. These will provide valuable analogical models for the consideration of traditions and repertoires in other studies were sources may be more limited. On the other hand, they provide two distinct systems of oral poetry and their associated specialists that have coexisted in a single culture and in common social environments. This provides an unusual laboratory with the potential to produce new insights concerning how individuals negotiate between and across multiple collective traditions of mythic knowledge that may be present in a coherent society.

These two traditions and how different individuals interface with each of them is further complemented by the very different relationships of each with other traditions in the region as these become situated in a multicultural context. The Germanic (Indo-European) tradition offers historical perspectives to these studies with its very different corpora that allow exceptional long-term perspectives. The history of contact with North Finnic cultures and interaction with Kalevala-meter poetry traditions highlights the dynamism of cultural interaction in this region of Europe while adding complementary perspectives for the comparison and contrast of how mythic knowledge was maintained and developed in the different Finnic oral poetry traditions. The Nenets (Uralic) tradition offers still broader perspectives from both geographical and linguistic peripheries that are essential to framing perspectives on cultures in Northeast Europe. This tradition presents a representative of Northern Eurasian shamanism, which is among the essential aspects of cultural heritage associated with mythic knowledge in this region of Europe. This study will offer new perspectives on how epic traditions functioned similarly or differently in different cultures of the region as well as on the interconnectedness of mythic knowledge across genres of magical practice and epic tradition.

The constellations of many-sided interfaces between these different anchor studies will produce new perspectives on interrelationships of oral poetry, mythic knowledge and vernacular imagination in this part of the world. New understandings will be developed on the role of the individual in collective practices both synchronically and diachronically; both within individual genres and across whole modes of expression; both within a single culture and across diverse cultures. The broader situation in Northeast Europe will be developed simultaneously through networking and collaborations centrally actualized through the organization of workshops international conferences.