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Oksana Mykytenko

Hronotope of “Transition” in the South-Slavonic Graveside Lament Tradition*

Перед праздником Пасхи Иисус, зная, что пришел час Его перейти от мира сего к Отцу, явил делом, что, возлюбив своих сущих в мире, до конца возлюбил их.( Ин. 13,1)


The main subject of the  XIV International Symposium on the Balkan folklore “The folklore in transition: memory and perspective” – is undoubtedly relevant to the studies of poetics. In this paper I’m going to illuminate the chronotope of transition in the graveside laments performed among south slavonic people (macedonian, serbian and bulgarian traditions) as one of the semantic entitis and core structural units of texts, including oral folklore.

The continuity of time and space of a literary text was interpreted by Mikhail Bakhtin as “an aethetically presented chronotope” [Bakhtin, 235]. For the folklore texts the chronotope determines the perspective on reality and thus the genre specifics. According to Bakhtin, the notion of time serves as the basic principle of the fictive world, being “compressed” and getting aesthetically vivident. Due to it, the space gets involved into the plot’s unfolding. The chronotope forms the centre of the aesthetic perspective, that is highly symbolic. Thus there appear such themes, as the

journey, threshold, encounter, crisis and turning point of the life.


*This work was supported by the Research Support Scheme of the Open Society Support Foundation, grant No: 1322/1999


Highly symbolic graveside laments imply deep semantic level, for which it seems significant to observe the interaction between the description and its object (reality) in order to reveal the interaction between the axes of time and space on multiply levels up to the verbal manifestations. The lament is a genre with an extremely strict and clear structure. As a ritual the keening of the dead was performed within the family. Universal folklore chronotope, typical both of ritual and non-ritual folklore texts, is generally divided into two spheres, such as natural (solar-biological) and cultural-historical, and the textual attitude is either reflective or narrative. Reflective folklore genres refer to the solar-biological sphere, whereas narrative focuses upon social activities and processes. The attitude of laments, of the ritual keening of the dead refers to the solar-biological sphere. Despite few narrative features inherent for any verbal text in a more or less degree, the laments are dominated with the reflective attitude. Any text implicitly supposes two communicative instances: the author and his reader. For oral traditional folklore the interaction between the performer and the audience is explicit and specially important.

For the traditional ethnic spiritual culture time is interpreted as sacred and it is included to the hierarchy of values, based on the opposition of life and death [Tolstaya, 63]. This folklore chronotope gets evidently explicit in the funeral rite. In 1909 Arnold van Gennep launched a three-stage model of the rite of the transition (“rite de passage”): the separation, the transition, the entering into new status. The key item is the notion of transition that occurs at the crucial points of the human life, such as marriage, death, birth. It determines a special chronological and special structure manifested via ritual events.

Extemely significance-loaded funeral rite is consistently transitional on all the levels. It embodies the oppositions between life and death, own and alien ( the other),  sacred and profane and manifested through multiply variants. Thus a unique tragic case is included into the realm of eternity, it is extracted out the onward march of the time.  The ritual laments are double dimensional, not only by their semantics, but even by topics and the set of poetical devices, that corelate with the general sence of the rite. Key topics include the expiring of the vital resources, destruction and chaos of the nature, the violation of the boundary between the realms life and death, that cause danger to the society, that the performer is trying to eliminate [Nevskaja, 124].

Highly elaborated by tradition, multilevel graveside funeral and remembering ritual cycles performed among the south-slavic people can be interpreted via a comparativist reconstruction of the invariant, by obtaining elements those missing in a given tradition from other(s). Such an analytic model to be applied to different areals and local zones was elaborated by the ethnolinguistic trend led by Nikita I. Tolstoy. Lidia Nevskaja studies slavic traditions from the Balto-Slavic perspective in order to reveal deep-level semiotic dichotomies.

For the Balkan ethnolinguistic region (due to its geographical position at the seaside) the space (that is overcome by journey) is combined with the “Balkan time”, that is at the same time discrete and continuos. The core notion of the Balkan worldview is thus the “circle”, continuos returning [Civjan,73], provides the possibility of the chronotopical interpretation of the graveside laments. Laments performed among the south-slavic people possess a common origin being similar in the typological sence in their modern existence. Here the term “modern” refers to the broad sence of the word, for the second part of the XIX century up to the end of the XX. Due to the idea of the cyclic returning the chronotope of the graveside lament tends to the synthesis of the dichotomy of life and death. The core semantics is manifested in the themes of the journey, the share (lot),  the home, that correlate with the threefold transition model by van Gennep. The semantics of separation characterises farewell laments at the deceased home and during carrying the coffin out. The idea of the journey is actualized during the proseeding to the cemetery. At the cemetery, especially on sinking the coffin into the grave, the theme of eternal entering of the realm of the ancestors is significant. It is stressed also during the remembering laments. The annual remembering feast indicates the final entering of the deceased to the otherworld and the assembly of ancestors, that are supposed to influence upon the life of the alive.

Due to the limitation of time I’m going to dwell especially upon the very moments concerning with the chronotope within the detailized and higly elaborated grave-side ritual circles.

Ritual keening of the dead is isosemantic to the notion of transition and thus non-sanctioned laments were prohibited, because they were supposed to hinder the transition, e.g. during the agony (during the departure of the soul), neither was it allowed to weep during the priest’s prayer.

Crying started as especially intensive at the moment right after the death in order to inform the village community about the tragic fact. In the Bulgarian tradition one or two females entered the yard weeping aloud. In the Montenegro tradition it was a male lament “lelek” that served to inform the community. It was supported by female weeping and seemed to be rather loud.

The death is interpreted as “separation of the deceaded” even on the level of verbal manifestation e.g. that from the world in the lament:


Jутрос браћа диjeле се,
Тебе ружан дио даше. [ ГЕМ,  1958,319 ]

Што се д’елиш од свиjета,                                                                  
Судбо клета! [ CHT, №68 ]


Ти безвреме, Диме, умре,
Од куката се оддели… [ Цепенков, 281 ]

Разделино, се раздели                                         
И од маjка и од татко,                                         
И од баба и од тетка
И од сите ни родеи. [ Цепенков, 251 ]

Керко моjа мила,                                         
Како ти мене ме оставаш                                         
и ме одделуваш?                                         

Како ка се одделиме, маjкин? [ Панкова, 407 ]


Акъл ми, синко занесе,                                        
не можем шеснайес годин ти си, мале, починало,                                       
ти от мойото сърце не мож да се одвоиш!                                       
От мойте очи не мойш да се отделиш!                                       
От мойта съвес, памет, не мойш да се отделиш! [ ПО, 43 ]

Мо мамо, мо майчице,
отдели се от белия свят,                                       
от бялото слънце… [ Кацарова, 199 ]

Even the God is reproached and blamed for the “unfair” separation:


Боже, Боже, Криводелничеее!…                                       
Зашто криво делиш? [ Марков, 264 ]        

 This constant correlates with linguistic observations upon the semantics of the slavic word-stem “smert’” ‘death’, which origin is traced up to the Indo-European stem “mer/mor/mr” denoting separation (Sedakova, 54). As to the actional code of the rite, a special ceremony of breaking of the bread “putnina”, that was shared among people present at the funeral, was performed in order to eliminate the danger of the dead’s returns home as a ghost [Garnizov 1986, 18]. This kind of a special ritual food was kneated by a chosen female, “mesacka”, and baked at night, that is connected with the opposition “day-night” (compare night vigil over the deceased).

It was prohibited to perform laments at night, after the sunset up to the sunrise. The opposition is indicated by presence / absence of the daylight. This dichotomical prohibition forms an ethnopoetic constant explicit on the textual level:


Не кукаjте по засунцу,                                      
Не раните приjе сунца,                                      
Брате сунце на истоку. [ СНТ, № 92 ]

Al’ si mene govorio                                      
Da ne kukam bezalicno                                      
Prije sunca, te za sunca,                                       
Kad ne kuka kukavica. [ ZNZO, 1964, 13 ]

The margin moments of the 24 hours of the day circle, such as a sunrise and a sunset, a midnight or even a midday, are semantically marked (see Tolstoy 1997, 25), it was somewhere prohibited to sink the coffin to grave at the very midday (Northern-Western Bulgaria). Thus the absolute presence of the daylight served as a substitute for its absolute absence at the midnight and caused danger.

The departure of the deceased is stressed during the carrying out: women address him with rhetoric interrogatives, and such questions as Bulgarian “Where are you leaving for?” (“къде тръгна, къде отиваш, на кого ни оставяш”) or Macedonian “To whom are going to leave me?” are recurrent:


О байко, байко!
А, що си, байко другарката заминаваш,                                 
а къде е, байко, юставаш? [ ПО, 85 ]


… Кустадине, мили сине! Оти ми са налути сино;
си устави маjка и татко, да си jодиш, jуф чужди свет,                                 
дека никуj не та знаjте? [ Тановиh, 1927, 263 ]

On the way to the cemetery carrying the coffin the weeping was interrupted at certain points: at the center of the village, on the bridge, near the well and at the very entrance of the cemetery. It was not allowed to weep on the way back from the grave-yard. If some female burst into spontaneous lament, people present started to calm her, which did not happen otherwise during the ritual keening [Genchev, 264].

The communication between this world and the other is manifested via the motif of “sending regards” to the bygone relatives, that had died before, appearing in bulgarian and macedonian laments:


Кольо, мили Кольо,                                         
ти отиваш, Кольо,                                         
при наште умряли.
Млого здраве да им носиш.                                         
Саа китка да дадеш на Тодура,                                         
Другата китка – на мама… [ БФ, Г.3, 1977, кн.1 ]


Мила Маро, лепа Маро,                                         
Ти да носиш, ти се молам,                                         
Здраво-живо на тетка ми,                                         
Здраво-живо на маjка ми… [ Спространов, 22 ]

In the Serbian tuzbalicе the theme of entering the assembly of the ancestors, own kinfolk, is supposed to take place at the Ovce pole, the general locus of grief and sorrow and a battle-field:

Но ћу тебе замолити,                                        
О моj злато!                                        
Понеси се са ранама,                                        
Рано злато!                                        
Па отићи Овчем полу,                                        
Hевера ћеш тамо наћи,                                        
Црни наде! [ СНТ, № 40 ]

The constant topic of meeting is preserved even despite the vanishing of the entire tradition, in recent recordings that contain rather restructed texts, e.g. in laments over the victims of the earthquake in Skopje recorded in 1963:

Maced. Tetka na Blagojce – hm, - dali se vidate so zetot Blagojce,… [ Hadzimanov, 76 ]

The chronotope determines the chronological limits of the ceremony: among the Serbians the deceaded must be buried within 24 hours, for the remembering cycle the dates as 3rd and 40th days are marked, and especially an annual anniversary, which indicates the final end of the cycle beginning with the moment of death. In the laments at that moment the deceaded is addressed as an alien, he is requested to visit his former home as a guest.

Besides the mythical time of the ritual, texts include multiply references to the concrete time: in laments a widow tells about the lasting of her married life with the deceaded husband, about the age of her deceaded child or a parent, the lasting of the deceaded’s fatal dicease.

The idea of the “absence of the time” is involved, especially in the case of the premature death of a young person. There exists a  traditional belief that everybody among the deceaded is 33 years old.  The movement of the  time is suddenly interrupted, there is no more time for the deceaded:


Леле, леле домакине,                                   
Што си умре ти без време!                                   
Тоj умира, да без дена… [ Цепенков, 232 ]

The idea of the “absent / distructed time” is tautologically, which is generally typical for the lament genre poetics, supplemented by the symbol of flowers and grass withering before  the “appointed” time: 


Леле, синко, оче свети!                                
Што ми умре ти без време,                                
Уште младо и зелено… [Цепенков, 238 ]

Moreover, according to the value hierarchy of lament texts, the eternity is apart from the individual human world, it is opposed to it: the human life is limited and too short in contrast with the eternity:

“Dear Marko, oh my soul,  / cocks are crying cock-doodle-doo, / the dawn is blazing, / the bright Sun is shining, / You will nevermore be together with me. / The Sun is declining, / the bright Moon is shining, / You will never be together with me”.


Керко Маро, душо моjа!                                   
Ето петли пропеjаа,                                   
Зора, гледаj, се зазори,                                  
Сонце, керко, пак изгреа,                                  
Ама тебе ми те немат…                                  
Пак сонцето ке си заjдит,                                  
Месечина пак ке изгреит,                                  
Ама тебе ке те немат… [ Спространов, 22 ]




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