next previous contents
Next: Musical instruments Previous: FOLKLORE

Verbal folklore

Throughout long centuries, ever since the time the Lithuanian nation was formed, simple folks have expressed their talent in songs, tales, stories, legends, riddles and proverbs, Folklore touched the most sensitive chords of the human soul, it intertwined with everyday family life and work, kept the historical memory alive, stimulated thinking fuse into a nation and survive.

Songs are the most popular part of folklore. Their number amounts to tens of thousand, while the number of their variants is almost half a million. There are songs for every occasion of life. They express ethical views and emotions. The majority of Lithuanian folk songs were created in the feudal times. According to their subject, purpose and melody Lithuanian folk songs are divided into calendar, family, historical and war songs, songs of social injustice and protest, songs of Lithuanian emigrants and other kinds. Lamentations occupy a special place in Lithuanian folklore. The Christian element in Lithuanian folk songs is not very well developed.

Work songs are rather numerous, they used to accompany all kinds of field and household chores: haymaking, harvesting, processing of flax, grinding grain, spinning, weaving and so on. The ancient calendar rite songs are closely related to agricultural cycles, annual festivals and customs. They include Christmas, Shrovetide, Easter songs and swinging songs. The old ways of rural life are reflected in wedding rites and wedding songs full of lyricism and humour. Social contradictions are expressed in work songs, orphan songs, songs about the hard lot of women and conscripts, and also in the songs of insurgents.

War and historical songs do not mention concrete historical facts and do not indicate any concrete towns, villages or rivers. They are just based on the general image of seeing off a soldier to a war and the difficult period of waiting for him. A very important poetic figure in war songs is the soldier's personified steed, he is the soldier's staunchest friend, his messenger and the connecting link between the soldier and his family. The action usually takes place in a distant land, "beyond seven seas, high mountains and green woods".

There are not very many characters in folk songs. They include mostly ploughmen, hay makers, spinners, weavers, more rarely the lord and the landlady or the master. Love and affection colour the relations between family members. A mother's image is painted in particularly affectionate colours. Everything that is best in life is connected with one's mother, The father is somewhat less poeticized, There is another typical character - the wicked mother-in-law who makes her daughter-in-law work very hard.

The sun plays one of the most important roles in ancient poetry. It symbolizes the brightest moments in life and optimism. In songs about the wedding of an orphan girl the sun, the moon and the stars are her family: the moon allots a portion to her, the sun gives her a dowry, her brother Pleiades accompanies her across the field, her sister stars make a wreath for her. Some plants and birds have a symbolic meaning: the flax blosorn means an imminent wedding, the song of a cuckoo portends heartache and great worry.

In songs about maiden life the rue wreath plays the central role because the rue, contrary to the tradition of Western and Central Europe, is a symbol of maiden chastity.

There is a lot of bright optimism in Lithuanian folk songs: the apple tree may be dry, it may have lost all its leaves, but the sun revives it and the apple tree is determined to live and blossom.

The greatest human value, as expressed in folk songs, is work and the ability to work. Love, fidelity and disappointment go together in songs. Love and mutual respect are based on industry and mastery. The ethical ideal in folklore asserts the unconditional moral superiority of a working man over the privileged classes.

One of the most important characteristics of Lithuanian folk songs is the warm feeling for natural phenomena and its lyrical expression. All the best songs are permeated with sadness and melancholy, most probably because women played an especially active role in their creation, preservation and performance. There is no epic in Lithuanian folklore.

Lithuanian songs are of two kinds: those which are performed in one voice and those performed in two voices. Solo singing is not typical. Group singing has determined the abundance of melody types, versions and variants and the frequency of melody variations in stanzas. Although the melody depends on the character of the song, the melodies of the Lithuanian folk songs are, as a rule, rather restrained and undramatic. There are, naturally, elements of melody which are more characteristic of one region than another. The geographical boundaries of linguistic dialects coincide, in the main, with the boundaries of melodic dialect, although there are places where the melodic elements of different regions merge and intersect. Very often Lithuanian folk songs and Central Europe.

On the first page of his journal "Ausra", published in 1883, Jonas Basanavicius, the heralder or the Lithuanian rebirth, characterized folk songs as a national wealth which is bound to call the nation to struggle for a better future. This is exactly what they did.

Sutartines are polyphonic songs which are very old and used to be popular in the north of Eastern Aukstaitija, but did not occur in any other ethnic region. In sutartines poetry is closely intertwined with musical, choreographic and dramatic elements. Rhythm plays a particularly important role here. Sutartines appeared in the epoch of primitive society and reached their efflorescence under feudalism. They survived as late as the turn of the 20th century. Women usually performed the singing and dancing parts while men did the musical parts although sometimes the music was performed by women as well. Nowadays sutartines are performed by folklore and ethnographic groups.

There are several kinds of sutartines: those performed by singing alone, those in which singing is accompanied by dancing; vocal instrumental sutartines (the modern ones) and instrumental sutartines.

According to the way of their performance there are four subgroups of vocal sutartines. The first subgroup is performed in two voices which start and finish at the same time. Two separate tunes intertwine while the lyrics are the same, whatever differences there are in the lyrics, they concern only the forms of certain words. The second group of vocal sutartines are performed alternately by two groups of singers who sing in two voices. When the first group finishes the first stanza, the second group repeats it while the first group goes on to the next stanza. The third group of vocal sutartines are performed in 3 voices (or three groups). When the first voice reaches the middle of the first stanza, the second voice joins in from the beginning. When the first group finishes the first stanza, it stops and the third voice joins in the middle of the tune sung by the second voice. In this way a two-voice polyphony is created, for only two voices sing at the same time (except for the be- ginning) while the third voice is silent. Instrumental sutartines are per- formed on one instrument (originally the kankles) or on a group of instruments of the same kind. A typical Lithuanian genre is r a u d o s (lamentations), which are performed at sad, painful and tragic moments of life. The performer usually laments a person with whom he parts. It may be on the occasion of marriage, funeral, seeing off a soldier to war or a shepherd who is hired by a farmer.

The content of a lamentation is determined by the person lamented (mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife) and the moment of the ritual at which it is performed (bringing in the coffin, leaving the house, at the grave, after the funeral, etc.). The most typical element in lamentations are questions such as why the death has occurred, how the family will manage without the deceased person, who will do all the work, bring up the children and give comfort. The dead person is addressed as if he were still alive. Death is understood as a passage to another sphere and it-is described as a journey to a distant land. In earlier times it was believed that the dead became incarnated in a cuckoo or a plant, that the person was bound to come back to this world and visit his family.

The text of a lamentation is usually created at the spur of the moment as the situation requires. Traditional motifs and images are connected with improvised elements which concern concrete facts. Lamentations used to be performed by family members, sometimes by professional performers. Lamentations performed at weddings lament youth, the parents' house. The lyrics include a lot of endearments, traditional epithets. At definite moments lamentations pass into sobs. Lamentations became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. They survived the longest in Dzukija.

The world outlook of a Lithuanian peasant used to be rich in legends and tales. Almost every grove, hill and stream is steeped in legend.

More than 80 000 folk tales have been registered in Lithuania. The oldest are animal tales and fairy tales. They emerged as far back as the times of primitive society. The most numerous and the most artistic are fairy tales. Their archaic elements reflect the world outlook of the ancient Lithuanians-. their mythology (dragons, witches, devils, giants), totemism (the marriage of people to totemic animals - grass-snakes, frogs, swans and others) and the cult of the dead. Their driving force lies invariably in the conflict between two characters, which combines all the other elements of the plot into one unified whole. The conflict is usually described in great detail, there are numerous repetitions in order to concentrate attention on the most important episodes, everything less important is recounted in lesser detail. Lithuanian folk tales exhibit features which bespeak their typological and genetic relation to the tales of other nations

The Lithuanian folk tale Egle, Queen of the Grass-snakes has found a wide reflection in professional art. Once upon a time there was an old man and an old woman. They had twelve sons and three daughters. The youngest daughter's name was Egles, One summer evening, after a swim in the sea, the youngest daughter found a grass-snake lying cur- led in her shirt's sleeve. He said he would give the shirt back to her if she agreed to marry him. Egle promised to marry him. In a few days she left her parents' house with a retinue of grass-snakes. On the shore of the sea she was met by a handsome young man who was the same grass-snake that had lain curled in her shirt's sleeve. They crossed in a boat to an island nearby and from there they descended to a beautiful palace at the bottom of the sea where they celebrated their wedding. The life in the palace was rich. Egle cheered up and at last she for- got her homeland altogether. She gave birth to three sons - Azuolas (Oak), Uosis (Ash tree) and Berzas (Birch) and a daughter, Drebule (Asp), who was the youngest.

Nine years passed and once her oldest son asked her where her pa- rents were and said he would like to visit them. Egle remembered her family but Grass-snake would not let her go. He asked her first to accomplish three tasks. At first she was given a silk tow to spin. Egle span and span and she could never finish it. Then she approached an old wise woman for advice. The woman advised her to throw the tow into fire. And really when the silk burnt, Egle saw a toad which had been producing new and new silk as Egle spun the tow.

Her second task was to wear off iron shoes. Egle accomplished this task when, on the advice of the old woman again, she took them to a smith who burnt them in the foundry. Her third task was to bake a pie. Since Grass-snake had given orders to hide all the vessels in the kingdom, Egle could not even bring water for the pie. On the advice of the old woman she filled the holes of a sieve with leaven, brought some water from the well in it and made the pie.

She said good-bye to her husband on the sea shore and together with her children she departed for her parents' house. They agreed that when she came back she would call her husband out of the sea by saying:

Zhilvine, Zhilvinel!
If alive you are, milk white is the surf!
If is dead you are, blood-red is the surf!

Egle had a very good time at her parents' house and the time allotted for her visit by her husband slipped imperceptibly by. To keep their sister on land, Egle decided to kill Grass-snake. But no matter how hard they tried, they could not get the password out of her sons. But her youngest daughter Drebule (Asp) blurted it out as soon as they threatened to flog her. When Egle and her children came back to the seashore and called Gras-snake, they saw blood-covered waves rolling to the shore and they heard Grass-snake's voice from the bottom of the sea informing them of the betrayal. In her pain, Egle turned her sons into strong trees - oak, ash tree and birch and her daughter into a quivering asp. She herself turned into a fir tree.

Children's lore includes various games, Rhymes, ditties, counting rhymes, imitations of songs and other genres which are sometimes difficult to differentiate into classes.

Counting rhymes are full of nonsense words which sound as charms.

The 19th century saw the appearance of theatricals, choir singing and estate dancing.

At the present time it is difficult to discern the direct relationship of folklore to man's life because of the social changes which involve changes in customs, everyday life, and forms of gatherings. But in the last few years the interest in folklore has grown considerably, which is reflected in the growing number of ethnographic groups and in the frequent re-unions of people who were born in the same locality or who belong to the same family by birth or by marriage. 1989 saw the revival of the songs of the post-war resistance movement which people used to sing secretly, and that was how they continued to live in people's memory.

The aim of riddles has always been to develop a child's ability to observe and think. Here are a few of them:

White cockerels are fighting on a red perch (Teeth).
Though it lies day and night it never rots (Stone).
It passes through fire but it does not burn, it passes through water but it does not sink, it passes through straw but it does not rustle (Shadow)
It has a mouth of bone, a beard of flesh, it is born twice, dies once and is not afraid of the devil (Rooster).
A beggar comes clad in rags, patches all over him, but water would not drench him through (Goose)
A wide field, with countless sheep and a horned shepherd on it (The sky, stars and the moon).
A little lady with nine fur coats on (Cabbage).
The father of riddles lies in a pool (Tongue).
When the mother hides, the father comes out (The sun and the moon).
It is not a bird but climbs high to lay the egg (Hop).
Without a pain, without a complaint, it keeps moaning (Hog).
The maiden is in the bath-house, but her laits are outside (Carrot).
Five men carrying a log (Carrot).
Upon breaking the ice you find silver, upon breaking silver you find gold (Egg).
Seven wives in one bed (Week).
There stands a lord with a red hat. Whoever passes it, bows to it (Cep).
It is clay in summer, and a brother in winter (A stove).
A brother lives between two sisters (The nose).
It has flesh all around, and a tummy of stone (Cherry).
The father has not yet been born, but the son has gone grey (Fire and smoke).



next previous contents
Next: Musical instruments Previous: FOLKLORE

J. Kudirka "THE LITHUANIANS"

Copyright ©, 1996 Lithuanian Folk Culture Centre.