Universitas Helsingiensis

Ancient rituals and closed cities

Ancient rituals and closed citiesA professor of folklore studies stumbled across a surprise that extends back over a century on Finland’s eastern border: ancient cults and shamanism, thought to have died out, are alive and well in Khanty villages.

Anna-Leena Siikala retired in early autumn from the chair of folklore studies but she continues to work contentedly in her office at the university’s City Centre Campus… and there is a constant stream of people knocking on her door. First, there is a post-graduate student needing some guidance from the old hand and a moment later, a colleague preparing to attend a congress is trying to persuade her to go along, too.

However, Professor Siikala prefers to concentrate on writing her article. The Professor, who is well versed in the cultures of eastern Finno-Ugrian peoples, is enjoying the best fruits of her long career and the gradual trust she has built up. Sights that thrill her to the pit of her stomach have opened up before her eyes and she can hardly bear to let go of the folders containing materials.

She and her colleagues have been granted access to witness a tradition that was thought to have died out at the time of the Russian revolution.

“I’m writing about the identity of Khanty, about how traditional myths help them survive in the face of the immense changes currently taking place,” says Siikala. “It’s wonderful to witness that the rituals and their associated sacrifices have lived on in secret for more than a hundred years. What we imagined were only public performances at festivals is in fact a reality as the shamans hired for these events by the cultural administration return from the city back to their home villages in the countryside and change roles.”

Professor Siikala bubbles over with unanswered research questions, “How do the shamans themselves interpret their movement between two cultures? How does a modern person in their home village change into someone else? It brings to mind everything I witnessed back when I was conducting my field work into Pacific Ocean cultures.”

Shaking hands with the bosses

Besides centuries old rites, the recent changes in Russia have given Professor Siikala plenty to think about. “If you weigh up and compare matters from the angle of Finno-Ugrian peoples, things look good in the Komi Republic but the state of affairs in Mari is difficult.” The Professor Emerita also reflects on the situation for the Udmurts with a frown.

“I last spent some time there in the 1990s when the mood was optimistic. The president was an Udmurt and the attitude towards the minority culture was positive. But now, the Russian identity has seemingly gained in strength…In contrast, there are plenty of Komi activists and they are able to act publicly. My co-fieldworkers are a researcher and a socially active writer who writes in Komi.”

Professor Siikala’s stories well illustrate how the contacts forged over the decades facilitate collecting materials. “We’ve shaken hands with and interviewed decision-maker after decision-maker – before they became big shots.”

In White Karelia, Siikala and her students have been granted easy access to closed areas. “The authorities keep a watchful eye on what we’re doing but they haven’t been bothersome. We’ll see whether the same applies to the closed city of Salekhard in Siberia; we’ve passed through it on the way to visit the Khanty.”

Khanty granny rock

The change in Russia is almost as large an issue for the folklorist who studies minority cultures as it is for a political scientist. She draws on paper how cities modernised by the gas and oil industry live side by side with villages that look like you have stepped back in time.

According to Siikala, it is impossible to study the renewal of tradition without giving due consideration to changes in infrastructure. “One hilarious case was when the Khanty boy steering the boat I was travelling on played rock to some elderly Khanty and Nenets women at an evening party, and they got up eagerly and started dancing. When I asked what they were dancing, an elderly Khanty woman replied that she only knew the bear hunting party dance – whose tempo luckily kept in time with the rock beat very well.”

Virve Pohjanpalo

The Lure of Khanty

For a Japanese, Sachiko Toguchi speaks amazingly good Finnish, even for someone who has lived in Finland for eleven years. Her interest in Finnish began in her hometown, Yokohama.

“I have always been interested in languages. I studied Finnish, the little you can, in Japan. One of the reasons for my interest was the old belief that Finnish and Japanese are related languages, which is not true at all,” says Sachiko Toguchi. Her passion for Finland and the Finnish language was so great that she came to study in Turku. After the swarms of people in Japan, Turku seemed like a small quiet town.

A year later, Sachiko Toguchi followed her teacher’s advice and moved to Helsinki to study Finnish Language and Culture as her major. Toguchi chose Finno-Ugrian language studies as her minor, but she quickly changed it to her major. The studies included, for example, the Hungarian language. But what really caught her interest was the minor Finno-Ugric language Khanty.

“Khanty is very interesting. I love its rich morpho-syntax,” says Sachiko Toguchi with passion. Khanty stole her heart and she wrote her Master’s thesis, in Finnish, on the agent of Khanty verb constructions. Currently Toguchi is working on a doctorate on the information structure in Khanty narratives. She has visited Khanty-Mansi autonomous area a few times. A number of Khanties no longer necessarily live in a “natural state” and have had to move to the town.

“The conditions have changed there, too. For the exploitation of the oil and gas resources in the area, the Khants have had to change their lifestyle and the natural environment has also suffered. The towns are modern and tidy, but a little further away there awaits beautiful untouched nature. In the country, some people still speak Khanty, but not all that many. The Khanties were initially quite shy, but became friendly and enthusiastic when they heard that I studied their language,” says Sachiko Toguchi.

With only 13,000 speakers, Khanty is an endangered language. Many Khanty speakers are bilingual, speaking also Russian. Toguchi would be interested in translating Khanty-language literature into Finnish or Japanese. She has prior experience of translating Finnish into Japanese.

“There is very little national literature in the Khanty language. The oral tradition is much stronger there than the literary one. I am interested in translating Yeremei Aipin, who has written novels in Khanty and currently writes in Russian. He is a well-known figure in Russia,” says Toguchi.

Toguchi finds that the biggest differences between the Japanese and Finnish universities are the different structure of degrees and the length of studies.

“Most Japanese only take the Bachelor’s degree, while the majority of Finns study for a Master’s. In Japan studies are also completed in a set time, and you can’t study for ten years if you feel like it, as you can in Finland. It is said that Japanese universities are difficult to get into, but easy to get out of.”

Sachiko Toguchi believes that the cut-throat competition that used to be an integral part of the university entrance system in Japan is to some extent becoming less extreme or at least it is changing shape.

“Times are changing in the academic world of Japan, because it has an ageing population and too few children and young people. Higher education institutes will have to compete for students, and it would be counterproductive to maintain entry criteria that are too strict. But I wouldn’t really know, as I have not been applying to a Japanese university for a while,” she chuckles.

Aleksi Ahtola