Yesterday, I had a remarkably fruitful writing session at the pool. No, I didn’t swim, but my kids’ squeals of delight are apparently great for inspiration. I wrote a scene from my new novel, The Garden in the Heart of the World, about the crowning of a young man who never expected to be king. It happens in the middle of a war-zone, on the eve of invasion.
It was basically writing itself, but after I finished, I felt something was missing. Today, I realized what that something was. There needed to be an element of music to the scene. So I found this great article about Russian ritual lamentation, and I’m hoping it’ll help spark something for that scene in the novel. Here’s the translation, taken from this Russian site:
Russian women keened and wailed when young girls were married, when people were buried, when a beloved son was recruited into the army. It moved the members of the community to share the suffering and cleansed the singer from her pain. It also ritually “freed” the one being wept over for his or her new life.
- The lament of parting: weddings
The bride began to keen from the moment of her betrothal and didn’t stop until the wedding. She cried over the loss of her maiden beauty, her father’s house, her former way of life. It was a way to erase the past, to become a blank page, to die and come to life again in a new form—a married woman.
Sometimes, girls were married off without their consent. In those cases, the wailing was more than a symbol. But in any case, no girl could help lament the end of her girlhood and having to leave the nest of her beloved parents.
Every day, the “poor wailer” would go out on her porch and begin to sing loudly, and her friends would lament with her. While she sewed her wedding dress, they would lament without stopping. There was a special lament for the moment when her braid was undone and replaited in two. As I’ve written before, the braid was a symbol of her “maiden beauty,” her youth. Even when the groom would visit with his family, they would continue to keen. Even on the way to church, the singing didn’t stop.
It was the only way to express her worries about the coming changes. Any such ritual lament indicated a passage into a new phase of life, a rejection of the past, and the acceptance of a strange future.
- The lament of parting: funerals
The widow or orphan wept for their loss, blamed the dead person for abandoning them, for leaving them to fate. The sorrow at such a loss could be so strong that physically, a person could do little more than wail. The sound was symbolic of the soul leaving the body.
Thus, by wailing, the one left alive becomes like the dead person and can accompany him on his last journey. The wailer is, as it were, caught between two world—the world of living and the world of the dead. These songs remembered the past, considered the future (even in some ways becoming a kind of prophecy), and bemoaned the present. Ultimately, they were a way of releasing the soul for its final journey, despite the protest expressed in the wailing.
- The lament of parting: recruitment
If a husband, son, brother was called to war, the women expressed their social or political protest through ritual keening or laments. Every time someone left to war, the whole village would take part in the lament. It was also a way to give vent to sorrow, and there were often reasons to sorrow aplenty.
After all, peasants were more often than not impressed into armed service. They would be chained in case of possible flight. They would often be beaten into service. The ritual lament was the only way for the women to express their horror at the way their men were treated, and so these songs are some of the most poignant.
- The profession of lamentation
Not everyone was capable of giving expression to a real, living sorrow in a way that was emotional, sincere, and so powerful as to move others to tears. All these elements are necessary if the sorrow is to be overcome and destroyed. The lament is not just crying, it’s poetry, the anguish of the soul voiced in language. In some situations, tears were not even necessary.
Therefore, more often than not, professional wailing women were called to help. They had special mannerisms and ways of singing, and each one was unique. One could sing emotionally, with actual tears, her voice breaking, us though she were about to pass out. But another might sing without any emotion, without tears, using the strong imagery of the songs, the symbolism to move people to sympathetic suffering.
For example, Irina Fedosova, a famous professional lamenter from Olonetsk, was an artist of the keen. She would not even begin to sing until she had interviewed all the friends and relatives about the details of their lives and sorrows. Then she would choose the best information and create poetic images around them.
By lamenting someone else’s sorrow, the professional could include in her songs not only the sorrowful present, but intertwine it with the past of the person, and include hints about a possible future. So it wasn’t just a cry of the soul, but a conversation between the past and the future, a telling of a story.
No professional wailer ever mentioned her own name as the “artist.” She always transformed completely, becoming the person on whose behalf she was lamenting, whether that was a young widow or an orphan or a neighbor or a mother that lost her young child.
The ritual lament is a fascinating mix of artistry and native folk tradition. It is filled with poetic images of nature and scenes from the life of the person being lamented. So every song is unique and impossible to be replicated.
No lament was ever sung the same way twice. Every event had its own special telling and special lamentation. It is, after all, an event rooted in the present moment, having a strict set of rules for the given situation, whether a wedding, a funeral, or recruitment.
Not only the words, but the music was also subject to such improvisation, giving each song its unique stamp, and making each professional wailer a true artist in her own right.
Ultimately, the reason for lamentation is two-fold. It’s an expression of powerlessness before fate, injustice, death. This expression allows sorrow to reach its full pitch. But the other side of the coin is that through the lamentation, joy becomes possible again. Only after lamenting, can the sorrowful laugh again. After night, the sun rises again. After winter, spring comes. This is why there is such a mix of joy in sadness in so many Russian folk songs.
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