Folk Poetry connected with customs


This study is concentrated on that part of Hungarian folk poetry which presents itself in connection with folk customs, and the genres involved are analyzed from the viewpoints of function, content, form, method of construing metaphors and interrelationships with religion and folk-beliefs.

Chapter One discusses the concept and definition of folk custom. By way of introduction, it is stated that this study is mainly restricted to the sphere of those customs which are associated with texts of poetical nature. In the range of general customs, particularly interesting are the publicly performed rites whose complete forms contain three constituent factors: (a) ritual actions connected with the custom; (b) parts of text explaining the essence of the rite; and (c) texts linked up with the rite, termed here „recited rite”.

Of the three constituent factors, first the action is examined: definitions of custom, rites and ritual symbol are given. It is stated that the ritual actions can be regarded as socially developed and recognized actions that possess a uniformly accepted meaning within the confines of one particular community and may receive different interpretation in other communities. Biological, psychological and other components relating to the rite may belong to the sphere of investigation of other disciplines (such as psychology, semiotics); the chief task of ethnography proper being to clarify questions connected with the function a consciously and habitually practised rite fulfils in a given culture, the ways of passing down this cultural heritage, and the like.

Further, the same chapter points out the significance of endeavours to classify rites, the place of such researches in the history of science, the importance of the activity of the so-called ritualist school, as well as the Hungarian representatives of this trend. It is understood that at the initial stage the ritualists were engaged in establishing connections between ritual and myth; subsequently, however, the scope of inquiry gradually broadened out until examinations extended to establishing general interrelationships between the origin of ritual actions and human language. – This group of questions is closely connected with the subjectmatter of the study, because the book deals with analyses of such texts of folk poetry which are either directly or indirectly associated with certain types of action.

Chapter Two deals with questions of folk poetry relating to customs. It is brought out that the „recited rite” may contain the text explaining the action of rite (that is, the aetiological text), provided the recitation of the aetiological words is obligatory during the performance of the rite. By way of exemplification, the author describes a ritual custom of carnival practised in Western Hungary: the so-called „pulling of the log” (rönkhúzás) and the jocular wedding ceremony going with it; this custom combines all three component parts mentioned above, the acted rite, the recited rite and the aetiological text. The last-mentioned portion of text is usually also recited while the rite itself is in progress.

The author throws up the question whether it is justified by points of method to class separately the texts of folk poetry connected with customs, because these poetic texts show fairly variegated formal solutions. Nevertheless, there is a thing they have in common, and that is their function, inasmuch as all these texts are closely linked to folk customs, either being aetiological in nature, or forming an organic part of the given rite.

As a matter of course, also products of other branches of folk poetry may be associated occasionally and provisionally to a custom; these, however, cannot be reasonably classified with the texts of customs proper.

Folklore manuals are in the habit of grouping the diverse types of folk poetry related to folk customs according to the literary categories of lyrical, narrative and dramatic poetry. Sometimes also endeavours are made to consider all these texts as belonging to the dramatic art, owing to their relations with actions performed. Nevertheless, it would seem more appropriate in the case of oral poetry to replace the division into lyrical, narrative and dramatic branches by a division into lyrical, narrative and ritual categories, in which classification folk poetry, connected with customs, would constitute the third category, without any regard to the form the individual texts may actually assume.

Aetiological texts of customs may be classified according to various points of view. Most often, the grouping is carried out according to place, time, function, or a characteristic feature of the rite. However, if departure is made not from the action side but from the side of the text of the aetiological narrative, then such groups of texts will be obtained which can be interpreted as aetiological legends, pseudo-historical legends, mythical narratives, and so on.

As far as aetiological legends about customs are concerned, in Hungarian folklore these are often related to pseudo-warfares against the Turks, and some of the customs involved are also traced back to bygone days of the Turkish occupation period: for example, the custom of raising noise on the eve of the last day of the year finds explanation in some villages in a way that their ancestors used to frighten away the Turks by raising such noise; and so do the masks worn at Carnival and Whitsuntide plays, the inspection of landmarks in the Easter Week, the guarding of the vineyards at vintage in the Sárköz region, and so on. Less frequently other pseudo-historical events, or historical names may also occur in the aetiological narratives.

Part of the mummery shows performed with masks are also connected with such narratives which may be well regarded as legends of belief with an aetiological character. In this group the aetiological texts usually introduce supernatural beings who appear on the scene to punish or reward people. Taboo-legends form an extensive group among the aetiological narratives. We know a great number of stories which contain explanations of certain interdictions of work on certain days of the year; they also describe the nature of punishment in store for those who fail to observe the taboo. A special sub-chapter is devoted to describe aetiological explanations for certain objects used in customs, and the actions performed with these objects are likewise explained. (Such are the narratives telling about the making of Lucy's stool, the stories relating to the painting of red Easter eggs, to mention the widest-known examples only.)

A special sub-chapter is dedicated to explanations of customs connected with the transitional periods in human life (rites of passage) as well as to stories explaining the origin of certain folk-festivals and institutions.

In the chapter about the „recited rite” the following statement is made: if we examine folk custom in the broadest sense of the term we find that a great portion of the norms regulating the individuals' attitude in the community life, and the manner they are supposed to behave, are not associated with textual component parts of poetic character; what texts occur in this connection are mainly restricted to the categories of „dites”, proverbs, sayings, prescriptions, and the like.

The poetic diction connected with customs, but performed individually has a monologue character inasmuch as the message it contains is addressed to such a person who exists only in the mind of the speaker (fictive person).

The best opportunities for the poetic forms to be cast into shape are provided by the publicly performed ritual actions of the community. Consequently, the texts of the narrative or dramatic dictions connected with this type of actions display the highest degree of variability in form. Part of the texts are descriptive in nature; they contain the verbal representation of what one sees performed in the action. Another part is aimed at exerting a direct effect by the spell of the words pronounced; text and action run parallel to achieve the same result in such instances. Mainly wish or command are expressed in this way, and they may be related to the present or to future time. (Tenses are chosen accordingly.)

Of course, the texts may include narrative portions as well. Reference to the past stands in close connection with the purpose of the rite demonstrating that the wished-for event had occurred in the past already and thus re-occurrence of the same is not precluded.

Parts of text recited in past tense can be found in the laments as well, when the course of life of the late body is being related; but even here the person performing the lament comes into the foreground, and so do recitation in singular first person and the use of present tense.

Ritual poetry may follow different paths of development in different historical periods. In societies based upon simple technology („primitive” communities), religion, law and popular knowledge also often find expression in the form of ritual texts; the same categories turn into science, philosophy or codes of legal rules, etc. in subsequent periods of social evolution.

Other categories will develop into literary genres. Corresponding to its highly differentiated formal character, ritual poetry gave rise to several literary genres. In the field of genres that developed from the ritual poetry, in Europe it is mainly tragedy, comedy and the pastoral that attracted the attention of the scholars of literary theory.

The aesthetic components of ritual texts are also discussed in the book, as well as their apparent functions and „real” functions, the latter being often equivalent with the psychological functions.

The author raises the question to what extent ritual poetry is capable in contemporary Europe (more closely in present-day Hungary) of reflecting concrete social conditions and actual ways of living. Further to what extent does the actually prevailing method of construing metaphors possess an ethnic character?

In the next passages the manner of performing the texts is being dealt with. European customs connected with celebration of calendar days are often characterized by the habit of performing the ritual texts in a way that reciters walk from house to house in the communities. This form is typical of the settled, agricultural mode of life, in which it probably came into existence. What we know about the ancient Greek customs in this respect holds for contemporary Europe as well. Basically the form of tradition has not changed much during the long centuries that have passed since.

The author adduces a synchronic example in illustration of the relationship that exists between ritual action and the text associated with it. She refers to the rite of magic stimulation of fruit-trees at New Year or spring. The texts connected with this rite, which prevails on extensive areas (from Great Britain to Japan) even today, and among a great number of nations, are highly suitable to illustrate the regularity of the practice.

This part of the book is followed by one summing up the results of investigations into the historical development of a topic through long hundreds and thousands of years. By applying the diachronic method of examination, the author traces the motif of „godhead looking for dwelling in disguise”, that may appear now in the form of an incantation to cure the patient, now in that of morality play, nativity play, beggar's song, and so on. What is more, this wide-spread motif is to be found, apart from customs' poetry, in the most diverse products of the epic genre.

Chapter Three analyzes some of the quasi-mythical motifs of the ritual songs associated with certain calendar days, or feasts. The main theme of songs connected with the winter solstice is provided by the idea of commencement, birth and renewal: here belong the birth, the renewal of the year and of the seasons of the year, as well as the birth of the god-son and the sun. In the range of the mythical symbols, most characteristic are the following:

a) the coming into life of the child (that may be the sun-god, the new epoch, etc.) is assisted by a demonic female figure who acts at the same time as stimulator of human and animal fertility;

b) the magic tree (also identified with the tree grown in the garden of Paradise, of which also Jesus Christ is coming as fruit.)

c) the child sun-god born of stone;

d) the stag as a symbol of winter zodiac.

The ritual songs and the children's games connected with spring feasts are mainly abounding in symbols relating to the mythical renewal of nature and to the process of seeking and finding a spouse (journey aggravated with obstacles, the carrying of green twig, incantation of rain, etc.)

Midsummer day's song is of outstanding significance among the ritual songs connected with summer feasts. The motifs of the Hungarian sequences of stanzas in this lengthy song had been analyzed in detail by the late Károly Marót, and also the author of this book dealt with them in her study entitled Naptári ünnepek – népi színjátszás (Calendar Days – Folk Drama). Therefore only one of the pertaining motifs has been interpreted here, namely that of the „Holy Virgin Mary resting at dawn”, which often comes up not only in the Midsummer day's song but also in folk prayers, incantations, secular songs, etc.

The theme of the narrative song about the „girl taken to heaven” also enters the scope of the author's investigations, since some of its motivic formulas occur here and there in the cloak of the Midsummer day's song. Parallels of the „girl taken to heaven” (Fair Damsel Julia, Fair Helen Marton) are traceable not only in religious ballads but also in ceremonial wedding songs. As mythological parallels, chiefly the Demeter-hymn of the Homeric hymns may come into consideration, because of the suitor who carries off in the shape of an animal the young girl, and also because of the lament performed by the mother of the girl. It is not precluded that the animal-shaped robber that carries off the young damsel rapturously is survival of ancient exogamous, totemistic matrimonial ceremonies.

Chapter Four surveys the dialogues occurring in folk poetry connected with customs. It is looking for a definition that is apt to discern the folk drama of the European peasantry both from charms (incantations) recited in the form of dialogue on the one hand, and from literary drama, on the other. The study delimits several types of folk drama in the European, more closely in Hungarian folklore: such are, to mention a few, the competitive games, the folk farce and the dramatic cultic play. It states further that also Hungarian dramatic folk poetry connected with customs knows that particular category which Aristotle called „phallic songs”. These songs have as their themes scenes of human life in the first place, including mock-funeral plays and wedding parodies.

The part entitled „Between Dramatic and Narrative Poetry”, deals with the initial stage of the history of Hungarian literary drama, from which stage not infrequently two different versions of one and the same text survive, one being written in pure dialogue form, the other adapted to the requirements of a narrative performance (The Prodigal Son, Passio de vita Christi). The author classes into this group the so-called Catherine Legend, whose dialogue version can be inferred from the existing narrative text (from the sixteenth century). Similar examples are adduced from the realm of folk poetry where the narrative and the dramatic forms of one and the same text can be found to exist side by side.

Chapter Five attacks the question of how and in what form the concept of tragedy appears in the poetry connected with rites. It is found that only the preliminary steps of tragic compositions can be discovered in the range of folk poetry connected with customs. The incantation is aimed at achieving positive goals; a group of them serves this effect by making use of magic formulas: therefore they are optimistic in nature.

Preliminary steps of tragic poetry are to be observed in the words of the malefic charms, as well as in the laments. This section of the book also tries to give answer to the question what role laments may have played in the development of tragedy as a literary genre.

The author concludes that the plots of conflict in European – as well as Hungarian – folklore do not come up as a rule in the field of ritual poetry, nor do they appear in the form of dialogue; the true manifestation of tragic themes is in narratives combined with dialogues, which is ballad poetry, falling outside the sphere of folk poetry connected with customs.

Folk poetry connected with customs includes folklore products that are improvisatory, as well as stereotype texts that are less exposed to personal, subjective variation; the latter type of texts chiefly consists of unchanging formulas. The first group incorporates, for example, poetic compositions connected with death, dirges and laments. In this group there open wide possibilities of casting individual, personal experiences and emotions into forms of improvised performances, from which farreaching conclusions can be deducted concerning the technique of oral composition.

The latter-mentioned group consists of what might be termed charms (incantations) proper. Since word-by-word reproduction is considered a precondition of effectivity of spelling, this group is the least variable of all forms of oral poetry passed down in folklore tradition through generations. The various formulas may survive unchanged for a very long time, providing opportunities for scholars to enter into depths of historical layers.

Hátra Kezdőlap