Women’s Voice

Aili Nenola is known for paving the way for humanistic women’s studies in Finland. She was professor of Folklore Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Turku (1982–1995), professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Helsinki and director of the Christina Institute for Women’s Studies. Nenola’s doctoral dissertation of 1982 discussed Ingrian laments.

Is it possible to reconstruct traditions from times before Christianity through oral poetry?
Finnish has a written tradition dating from the 16th century, when the Lutheran bishop Mikael Agricola translated the New Testament into Finnish. And by doing that within the 16th century he also brought Lutheran Christianity into the country. He was preaching against all heathen traditions like lamenting. But the East of Finland, Karelia, was influenced by the Orthodox belief, and these priests had accepted ancient oral history, traditions and beliefs. Here people incorporated the new belief into their own culture connecting it to things of everyday life, such as fishing, sowing, funerals or weddings, etc. The functions of the spirits were transferred to Christian figures, Mother Nature to Maria for instance. Even if the names are Christian you can still read the old believe through them. So traces have been kept in songs and other oral traditions, though they have been of course mixed with new ones. There is a lot of material kept, so that we can
reconstruct how it used to be before Christianity. I believe it is remarkable, that in these margins of Europe you can discover more clearly how the old social system worked, and how European Christianity included this popular old culture. But, nevertheless, all material has been collected only in the last 200 years, so everything is a reconstruction. History is a strange mixed up thing. There were wars and people moved and cultures changed and got influenced by others. But yes, the poetry contains the remnants of the northern culture area. And the cultures were not so different from each other.

What can one say about the position of women in those days?
About those old times you could say that most things in life included women. As women had a big role in keeping the house and the family, they must have had some sort of power. But perhaps as in many oral cultures, not influenced by developed structures, most people lived in hard conditions that meant that men and women were struggling together to keep up the living standards. I think that in those cultures the society was not egalitarian, but men and women were segregated and each had their specific task within the family or community. But the position of women is not only a question of male power versus female power, but also of age and parental power. The patriarchal system in those days was not only male centered as it is with us. But of course there are small hints of another kind of value system. The laments do not speak about things in a normal way; they have their own system of surrogate names. You wouldn’t say mother, you would say “my nurser”, and a child is named “the one that was nursed”, and so on. People, men or women, were always “somebody’s mother” or “somebody’s child”. This might mean that the mother had a very central place within that culture. But it could also be that the world in the lament was not corresponding to the real world, and that in the song it was possible escape from everyday life. Whatever arguments you follow, these old songs and oral poetry show that women had a voice. It was not possible to have women muted in these cultures, and I think that is generally not possible in cultures with segregation. The public and private were mixed in a way that you just couldn’t ignore women’s voice.
The beautiful thing of that culture definitively was, whatever you would do, you would sing. It was a different way of living. It was not only celebration, the song could accompany a lot. Just telling about what you were doing, what had happened in life, expressing frustration and expectations or feelings. There were songs about the environment, the rivers, the plants and all other living things, and there were songs to work with. When they didn’t sing they would invite someone to sing and all would participate. Women’s and men’s songs were maybe different but could be shared. The issue that is important for us is that the women’s voice was powerful and it was heard in those times. It could not be overheard.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Any Day Now, pages 37-39