Translator's notes

The Spirit Lord's Bearkill (Mansi song)


German versions from the original and introductory material by Dorothea Grünzweig translated into English by Derk Wynand

The songs of the Voguls, or Mansi, as they call themselves, part of the Ob-Ugrian group of peoples, are highly regarded in certain circles in Finland, where Dorothea Grünzweig has chosen to live. Their homeland lies in Western Siberia, beyond the Urals, along the Ob River and its tributaries.

The texts were recorded by Finnish, Hungarian and German researchers toward the end of the nineteenth century. In the relevant publications, they are presented without melodies, since research on this remains undecided. But one can assume that the melody originally had more importance than the words, that there were primarily monotone, but also several animated musical runs, and that the lines were for the most part metrical, though also in free verse. The songs were accompanied by a harp of reindeer strings, called ‘goose’ or ‘crane’ or ‘singing wood’. What stands out among the Mansi is their prayers, magic spells and bear songs.

Today some 5500 Mansi remain, but their culture suffered most under the Soviet regime and is in the process of dying out. Factors contributing to this regrettable turn of events are ecocide, especially by oil companies, urban emigration, and Putin’s repressive policies concerning non-Russian peoples. The anthropologist, Juha Pentikäinen, Finland’s renowned scholar on Ob-Ugrian cultures, refers to the current situation as ‘genocide’. There are, to be sure, signs of a counter-movement, initiated by the Mansi themselves, but also by scholars of different nationalities.

The Vogul language is part of the Finno-Ugrian language group – that is, a synthetic language the textual body of which encompasses far less space than, for example, Germanic languages.

A distinguishing feature of the song texts is their parallelism, using variations on a building block – as well as doubling in epithets, such as ‘his ten-toothed, toothed maw’. Existing formulas are taken up, repeated, and modified. A cyclical sense of time, the dependence on stable and yet mobile structures of nature, the interwovenness of man and nature in general, may all have played a part for this art form. The repetition also buys time for the performer, a principle also familiar to the oral tradition of the Finnish Kalevala. The formulas are, as the researcher and translator, Raija Bartens, says, ‘elemental bits of a tribe’s memory cosmos’.

The belief system of the Mansi includes a vast number of deities and spirits like the Moosj, the forest spirits, with the god, Torem, occupying the highest place in the heavens. The World Surveyor, or man observing the world, is the son of the highest god, who, after the spread of Christianity, took on features of Christ. Birds, waterfowl especially, are established between the invisible beings of the heavens and the creatures on earth and beneath the ground. For Torem and the other deities and holy beings subordinate to him, man feels awe and humility and total dependence. He must show his reverence with pious conduct and offerings, something that also allows him to render them merciful.

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