Mäetagused vol. 45


Narrative as the Cure: Rite Performance and the Actualization of Narrative as Experience


Key words: healing rite, incantation ritual, non-propositional import, performance, shaman, tietäjä

This paper addresses theoretical issues of narrative in an attempt to approach the semantics of understanding underlying the performance of certain healing rites. The first section of the paper introduces the term narrative power to refer to the cultural load developed by narratives and narrative strategies and develops a framework for approaching healing rite performance as the application of strategies which actualize narrative as experience. The Finno-Karelian tietäjä tradition is discussed in relation to shamanic rite performance and memorized traditions of incantations, particularly those which incorporate historiolae.

The European incantation tradition exhibits a fixed text approach which may bear continuities in strategies of application but continuities between performance and the healing event are ambiguous, open to interpretation, and the tradition does not require ‘understanding’ at all. Shamanic traditions are incredibly diverse, but they present an opposite extreme of subjective, internalized understandings of the mythic world and strategies for manipulating narrative power as an effective means of negotiating the recovery of a patient in interaction with the unseen world. The rites of the tietäjä have evolved between these two sets of strategies. The poetic meter inclines individual lines of verse to crystallize and somewhat flexible constellations of lines emerge as familiar compositional units in incantations and other genres. The degree to which rite performance was a variable emergent narrative nearer shamanic rites or a consistently reproduced – if verbally flexible – narrative more akin to the strategies of the European incantation would be dependent on the individual tietäjä, even if in the cultural milieu emphasis was placed on understanding the unseen world and the significance of elements manipulated in the incantations.

These traditions have been addressed here in generalizations in order to offer an overview of strategies applied and also how those strategies both interact with and affect other phenomena in the tradition ecology which for centuries may have been shaping a remarkable range of traditions and aspects of the worldview more generally. However, it must be remembered that these traditions have always been dynamic rather than uniform, and it is through the flexibility and openness to reinterpretation that the narrative power of these traditions could persist as viable instruments for crisis resolution through centuries of cultural change.

Depiction of Disease in the Letters of Poet Ilmi Kolla

Eve Annuk

Key words: correspondence, illness narrative, Ilmi Kolla, pathography, tuberculosis

Private letters are the least researched genre of autobiographical writings. Irrespective of this fact, letters can indeed offer abundant research material about the ailing person’s perceptions of the disease and how he/she depicts this in writing. The article dwells upon the depiction of disease, based on the letters by Ilmi Kolla (1933–1954), using the concept of (auto)pathography as an analytical means. The focus is on how the illness is being textualised in letters and how the epistolary genre affects such a depiction.

Ilmi Kolla’s letters reflect the progress of her disease, presenting this from the author’s viewpoint, yet adapting it according the addressees – e.g., Ilmi Kolla’s letters to her mother are written in a more optimistic tone regarding her illness than the ones to poet Debora Vaarandi expressing greater concern. The letters reveal various facets of the disease and her state of mind with regard to the illness, presenting a picture of sanatorium and hospital treatment. In line with the growing severity of Ilmi Kolla’s disease, the illness becomes gradually more visible in her letters, encompassing increasing textual space. Thus, the ailment has become one of the main topics in I. Kolla’s letters sent from the hospital during the last six months of her life.

The fact that letters tend to be fragmentary texts separated from each other by a temporal-spatial distance becomes evident in the narrative of disease constructed by the letters. Although such an illness narrative lacks coherence intrinsic of a traditional linear autobiographic text, such a life history or a diary, an epistolary story of an illness can be studied from the viewpoint of auto-pathography as the letters create an autobiographic description of the illness.

As unpublished texts, letters can both reflect and oppose the discourses of the time. The depiction of the disease, and that of an ailing body, revealed in Ilmi Kolla’s letters, functions as a counter-discourse to the body image of the Stalinist era, which highlighted a healthy, strong and powerful female body. As such, the reflection of the disease in the letters actually brings out the cultural and gender-wise meanings related to the disease, highlighting the illness as a cultural construct.

“Folk Bible” as the Expounder of Slavic Ethno-medicine related Customs

Valeria Kolosova

Key words: ethno-botany, “folk Bible”, folklore, folk medicine, Slavonic dialectology

The article demonstrates how, among the Slavs, a given objective feature of a plant becomes an important factor in the selection of plants for use in folk medicine. At the same time, this feature provides remarkably close ties between the plant, folk beliefs about certain biblical personages, and the symptoms of disease. The role of another mediator – natural language – is no less important for connections between different codes of traditional culture. A plant name becomes linked to words and objects, thereby acquiring secondary associations. Thus, traditional culture regards disease not only as a deviation but also as a situation close to the mythological time of world creation, and a patient is placed in the mythological space where he uses, as medicine, the herbs which have “appeared” thanks to characters of Christian mythology. The phytonyms and etiological legends, analysed in the article, are used within the tradition as an instrument to ascertain the reason why a specific plant was selected for the treatment of a certain illness. In folk culture, an illness is observed – at least indirectly – as an anomalous state of the human being, however, it is also treated as a situation close to the mythological time of origin of the objects of the surrounding world, and the ailing person is placed in the mythological space wherein he/she would use medicinal plants created thanks to the figures of Christian mythology; this re-occurs again in the treatment of each new patient.

An Insight in the Diversity of Estonians’ Knowledge regarding Medicinal Plants

Raivo Kalle, Renata Sõukand

Key words: Estonian herbal folklore, ethnobotany, local and global, medicinal plants, naming of the plants, transmission of knowledge

The article probes the knowledge of Estonians in terms of medicinal plants, proceeding from the origin of the relevant knowledge. We have differentiated local and global knowledge. The concept of locality is closely related to indigenous plants and the knowledge thereof within the community. It is intrinsic of the local knowledge to combine two reciprocal criteria: first, the plant name is characteristic of a particular region (village, former parish, etc.), or, if there is no plant name, there is a recognisable description of the plant; secondly, unique and characteristic use of plants in a particular region. Global herbal folklore is associated with non-native and cultivated species, and can be recognised from among the relevant data according to the specific naming and intrinsic use of non-native plants, or by transferring the name and use of the alien plant to the local species, etc.

In most cases, the introduced species do not have a folkloric name and are known only by way of the naming given by botanists. Pharmacies and chemist’s are the first major and recognisable institutions affecting herbal folklore, as the names of the sold drugs coincided with the names of species. The more thorough analysis focuses on how widespread in oral tradition is the name of the drug made of the roots of the wild rose. Likewise, diverse herbal knowledge has also been influenced by popular science books in Estonian, published for nearly 340 years, and is currently affected by the media and the relevant influential figures presented therein. A number of species, which used to be common, have become rare during recent decades and a similar tendency can also be noted in herbal folklore.

Healthcare in Harju County during 1922–1926: Employees, Institutions, Access to Health Care

Kristina Oganjan

Key words: Harju County, medical staff, medicine, pharmacy, rural medical practice

The aim of this work is to study the state-supported health care system in Harju County during the years 1922–1926. This subject has not been studied extensively up until now and the article provides a clearer picture of quondam health service institutions in Harju County, the people working as medical staff and whether medical care was available to people living in rural areas. The focus is on the rural areas of Harju County, and the national health care system as relatively unexplored domains. Therefore, most of the information here is obtained from the Tallinn City Archive. The article does not concern folk medicine, although this was probably used most often. Folk medicine needs separate research and the current one is groundwork for this: it helps to understand why, in the 1920’s, people preferred folk medicine to state-financed medicine.

As a result of the research I found out that poor access to health care was one of the main reasons why ethno-medical treatment was preferred. In some parts of the region there were no doctors and medical care was very expensive. In the rural areas of Harju County, there were no hospitals and people could only use the ones in Tallinn. In addition to the fact that it was difficult to travel to Tallinn, hospital treatment was very expensive. After a stay in hospital, many people accrued serious debt. Rural medical practice doctors had many different tasks which made it difficult for people to access health care.

People from Harju County often did not want to go to the doctor because they did not trust medical staff – on several occasions medical personnel took too much money from patients. However, we can say that in the second half of the 1920’s the situation started to improve: in 1925, there was at least one doctor in every rural medical practice.

People in Harju County often visited a pharmacist before going to the doctor, and sometimes this led to conflict, because pharmacists sold prescription drugs without permission and thus did the work of the doctors. Likewise, pharmacists sometimes asked a higher price for drugs than allowed, which made it difficult for poor people to access medicines, and again it caused conflict between pharmacists and doctors.

Medical Topography Concerning Tartu Dating from 1631

Kaarina Rein

Key words: ideas of Paracelsus in Tartu, life and activities of Johannes Raicus, the first scientific work concerning Tartu in the field of medicine and natural philosophy, the Swedish Gymnasium of Tartu

The present article deals mainly with the works of Johannes Raicus, the scientist in the field of medicine from the 17th century, focusing on his treatise Disputatio physico-medica votiva είς ίέρωα surgenti jam Dorpati novo collegio region, debated at the Gymnasium of Tartu by Petrus Turdinus, the future student of theology at the University of Tartu.

When comparing this disputation with the rest of the works by both Johannes Raicus and Petrus Turdinus – physician and theologian respectively – it becomes clear that the author of the given treatise is indeed Johannes Raicus. Disputatio physico-medica votiva ... reveals an original approach to the subject matter, i.e. the city of Tartu, being clearly distinct from the medical works written in Academia Gustaviana, the Swedish University of Tartu, especially in the respect of developing the ideas of Paracelsus and his followers. Thus it can be concluded that Disputatio physico-medica votiva... by Johannes Raicus is a peculiar phenomenon amongst the 17th century scientific works in Tartu.

News, overviews   

3rd Interdisciplinary Colloquium on Proverbs in Tavira

Anneli Baran writes about the third international meeting of paremiologists, “Inter­disciplinary Colloquim on Proverbs”, organised in Tavira, Algarve region in southern Portugal, from November 8 to 15, 2009. (see http://www.colloquium-proverbs.org/index.php?lang=en).

Kreutzwald Days 2009: Folkloristic Issues

Andres Kuperjanov provides an overview of the 53rd Kreutzwald Days held in the Estonian Literary Museum.

The 2nd All-Russian Conference of Folklorists in Moscow

Anu Korb narrates on the Moscow-based conference, convening folklorists from all over Russia, held by the State Republican Centre of Russian Folklore in Moscow, February 1–5, 2010.

2009 President’s Folklore Awards

Astrid Tuisk elaborates on the festive occasion on February 25, when Urmas Kruuse, the mayor of Tartu, presented the folklore awards, granted by the President of the Republic of Estonia, to Kaie Humal and Hille Tarto. Recognition and acknowledgement was also given to the contributors to the writing contest “The Finland of my memories”.

“Young Voices” 2010 – a Conference for Young Ethnologists and Folklorists

Marleen Nõmmela and Ave Tupits report on the 5th conference for young ethnologists and folklorists, held in Tartu on the 21st and 22nd of April.


A brief summary of the events and activities of Estonian folklorists from March to July 2010, including the BA and MA theses defended this summer.

Pursuing Happiness with a Syringe, Scalpel and Laser

Taina Kinnunen 2008. Lihaan leikattu kauneus. Kosmeettisen kirurgian ruumiillistuneet merkitykset. Helsinki: Gaudeamus. 383 pp.

The 2008 book by cultural anthropologist Taina Kinnunen, The Beauty Cut in the Flesh describes the inner urges of today’s people to be happy by way of moulding one’s body. The author attempts to present the cultural concepts associated with the human body in current western society, and seeks answers to why would people undergo beauty operations. The research is structured as a dialogue between doctors and patients, based on the responses to questionnaires filled in by cosmetic surgeons and their patients, and the conducted in-depth interviews. Reviewed by Piret Paal.