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Larin Paraske (1833 - 1904)

traditional singer

Larin Paraske
National Board of Antiquities

Only a very small number of the singers of old Finnish-Karelian poetry cast in the traditional Kalevala metre are known to posterity. One of the most notable of these is Larin Paraske, a woman of Ingrian background; it is from her that the largest corpus of lines has been recorded. In both her epic and lyrical poetry, Larin Paraske commented on family relationships and life in general from a woman's viewpoint, and she also pondered on the meaning of song. The dramatic contrast between the richness of her inner life and the poverty of her external existence has touched the hearts of subsequent generations. Larin Paraske recited for many artists, including Jean Sibelius, who sought inspiration in the Kalevalan world.

Songs in the 'Kalevala' metre survived in the Baltic area for some two thousand years. The longevity of this cultural form depended on a strong continuum of active individuals. Only a relatively small number of the singers are known to posterity. Larin Paraske is one of the most notable of them. The total number of her recorded lines of verse - 32,000 - constitutes the largest amount of material in Kalevala metre elicited from one person. Thanks to it, Paraske has acquired something of a representative role. Through her, other singers as well have sung and become visible: nameless, faceless, voiceless bards.

Larin Paraske lived her life in the border villages of the eastern Karelian Isthmus and northern Ingria. She was an Ingrian - one of the region's aboriginal inhabitants, who were of Karelian stock and Orthodox by religion. Her childhood was clouded by serfdom at Mäkienkylä in the Lempaala district. Her youth was cut short prematurely by the deaths of her mother in 1848 and her father in 1851. The bright side of her childhood has come down to us in stories of young herdsmen singing spiritedly in the fields, and in the singing contests which Paraske always won. When, at the age of 20, Paraske married a man on the Finnish side of the border - moving to Larila (Lari's) farm in her mother's home village of Vaskela in the district of Sakkola (later Metsäpirtti) and changing her name from Paraske Daughter-of-Mikkiitta to Larin ('Lari's) Paraske - life improved in one respect: there was no serfdom on the Karelian Isthmus. The poverty was just as severe. The farm was only one sixth the size of a full taxable unit of land. Paraske's husband Kaurila Son-of-Teppana was 18 years her senior, and his health was poor. Paraske was forced to look for additional sources of income. She towed yawls along the River Taipaleenjoki, carried firewood and cared for orphans, some fifty in all, whom she went personally to fetch from children's homes in St Petersburg. The couple had nine children of their own, of whom only three reached adulthood. After her husband's death in 1888 Paraske's financial problems became increasingly severe. Her main aim was to keep her own cottage. But it came under the hammer on several occasions - the last time being in 1899, on account of a debt of 200 marks.

In Paraske's days, the tradition of singing in Kalevala metre was still quite strong, especially among women on both sides of the border. Paraske learned her first song at the age of four, sitting on her mother's lap at a neighbour's wedding. From then on, song was continually a part of both her everyday life and special occasions. As a village of song Vaskela was at least as rich as her birthplace Mäkienkylä. Being a good singer and an inquisitive person, Paraske learned the singing traditions of both areas. The assistant pastor at Sakkola, Adolf Neovius (1858 - 1913), began collecting local folk poetry in 1885; he noticed Paraske's talent in 1887 and began systematically writing down her poems. Their collaboration lasted for eight years (1887 - 94), the result being the 32,000 lines mentioned above. These comprise 1,583 poetic texts. Neovius often wrote down a poem twice: in dictated and sung form. If such entries are counted separately, the number of poems increases to 1,995. They include all the types of poetry in Kalevala metre: narrative poems, lyric poetry, wedding songs, dancing songs, play songs, children's songs and incantations. Paraske also provided Neovius with a dozen or so song tunes, thousands of proverbs and riddles, a comprehensive description of local wedding customs and a collection of dirges. She also gave him many words and explanations for his dictionary of the Sakkola dialect, as well as providing Theodor Schvindt (1851 - 1917) with information on embroidery during his research on Finnish decorative patterns. Some poems recited by Paraske were also recorded by the folk-poetry collectors Aksel August Borenius (later Lähteenkorva; 1846 - 1931) in 1877, 1887 and 1889, and Vihtori Alava (1870 - 1935) in 1891 and 1893.

Paraske sang the region's traditional poetry, which depicts the ways in which the women of the Isthmus and Ingria lived and thought as rich and spirited. The poems vary in their emphases. Paraske's epic poetry is characterised on the one hand by austere scenes connected with the structure of society (for instance, the fantasies concerning Kullervo's childhood and fate as a slave) and on the other hand by shorter, ballad-type songs which - with occasional cruel twists and turns - deal with family relationships. The wedding songs contain depictions of the everyday life and the celebrations of ordinary people; the singer-poems meditate on the meaning of song; and the dancing and play songs are full of humour and the joy of life. The wailing songs and dirges are permeated with an awareness of the death of one's mother and father, of man and child, and finally of one's own death, and with the knowledge of Man's fundamental lack of security on this earth.

As an illiterate member of an oral culture ("doesn't know a single letter", Neovius wrote), Larin Paraske did not know anything by heart. In her own words, she sang from her "head memory", "by ear". In Finnish this means sudden remembering and improvisation. Thus, with the help of traditional images and a total mastery of the language of Kalevala metre, Paraske repeatedly constructed poems that were at once of great antiquity and on each occasion slightly new. Like all good traditional singers, she also inserted hints of her own private life into the poems. Such allusions can be discerned, for example, in the exceptionally expressive widow's songs, which Paraske presented in a number of variations; in one of them she longs for her "lovely one", her "black-browed one", using images drawn from the world of men's work: "there is no sound of my darling, no sound of him coming home; he does not chop firewood by the pile, he does not clatter under the shed roof."

Larin Paraske's status as a representative is based not only on her poems but also on the fact that it was she who made the Kalevalan world accessible for a few years to scholars and artists. Adolf Neovius moved to Porvoo in 1889 and invited her to stay with him in order to continue their collaboration. Paraske lived in Porvoo mainly in 1891 - 94. In the 1890s, Neovius maintained lively contacts with academic and artistic circles. In March 1891 Paraske made an appearance at the annual general meeting of the Finnish Literature Society (Suomen Kirjallisuuden Seura). Jean Sibelius (1865 - 1957) visited her in December 1891 and listened to her dirges. Perhaps he also asked Paraske to sing a poem about Kullervo, as he was himself just then composing his own Kullervo. Eero Järnefelt (1863 - 1937) and many others produced portraits of Paraske. The press carried articles about her. There were discrepancies between the public figure and reality - the costume used for her appearances had been purchased by Neovius; and the kantele harp in her hands was pure decoration. In her own surroundings she did not wear a decorative folk costume, and she could not play the kantele. It was a matter of symbolic representation, not of realism. Paraske did not rebel against it.

Larin Paraske's claim to greatness is justified by her phenomenal memory ("The Finnish Mnemosyne") and its proof, a huge collection of poems. The dramatic contrast between the richness of her inner life and the poverty of her external existence has touched the hearts of subsequent generations. Guilt feelings have been aroused by the fact that the Finnish cultural élite, at whose disposal she placed herself and her poetry, did not take the trouble to offer her 200 marks in her hour of need. The pension granted by the Finnish Literature Society in 1901 came too late and was too small.

Today Paraske is the subject of a search for ever new dimensions. One such dimension is her status and experience as a conscious artist. Another is the distinctive quality of the oral, communal form of remembering and creating that she represents. The copiousness of her poetry provides rare opportunities for research on this topic. Paraske's role in our national culture in the 1890s - and later as well - is also an interesting phenomenon. It illustrates a process typical in the history of the Finnish identity: the encounter of official and unofficial, literary and non-literary, Eastern and Western culture, and the influences that they exert on one another.

Senni Timonen

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Paraskeva Nikitina, from 1853 Larin Paraske, born 27.12.1833 Lempaala, died 3.1.1904 Metsäpirtti. Parents: Nikita Nikitin (Mikiitta Mikiitta's son) serf and smith at Kuussova estate and Tatjana Vasilovna (Vasil's daughter). Husband: 1853 - 1888 Gavril Stepanov (Kaurila Teppananpoika), tenant farmer, died 1888. Children: Tatjana, born 1854, died 1854; Vasili (Vasle), born 1856, died 1856; Nadezhda (Nati), born 1858; Tatjana (Tanu), born 1861; Vasili (Vasle), born 1864; Vasili (Vasle), born 1868, died 1872; Anastasia (Nasto), born 1870, died 1875; Stepan (Teppana), born 1874, died 1878; unbaptized daughter, born 1877 or 1878, died immediately after birth. (Dates are unreliable before 1865.)

© Biografiakeskus, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, PL 259, 00171 HELSINKI

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