I have come to the Writers and Translators House in Ventspils to discover the Latvian Dainas. It’s the first time I’ve been to Latvia despite having relations from Old Prussia, which turns out to be considered part of Kurzeme or Courland, from the Curonian Spit. The seafarer, Thomas Martin Brand left from Pillau to go to Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. This family history helps me as a writer to connect with the area.
But my own route here has taken a different path. In my twenties I squatted in East London. My boyfriend at the time lived on Sidney Street. Then I found out all about the Sidney Street siege, the largest, most serious gun battle to take place on London streets. Peter the Painter became the most wanted man in British newspapers. He was presumed to be one of the anarchists beseiged in the house, firing round after round from the tenement windows. But he was never found.
Peter the Painter is a key character in many novels, but the important one, from my point of view, is the novel that I myself wrote about a young Alfred Hitchcock living as a boy in the East End. He becomes friends with Peter the Painter, a Latvian anarchist, born Jānis Žāklis. I was lucky enough to benefit from the extensive, original and new research compiled by Philip Ruff for my characterisation. And it also introduced me to the world of the Dainas.
What are the Dainas? They are folk songs that have traditionally been shared by women, not exclusively, but often. Through the long winters, working by candlelight, new Dainas would be composed, shared and sung, and the old ones remembered.
There are regular characters and motifs in the songs. Latvian folk culture has a vivid and living pagan mythology that survives through the imposition and acquisition of Christianity. Presiding over lives is the caring Sun goddess, Saule. Her consort is the Moon goddess Meness. I was intrigued by this reversing of gender from what I was used to encounter in personifications of the sun and the moon. Once I immersed myself in the mythology I found it made sense. The sun as the mother, or godmother, caring and giving light and life.
The main collector of the Dainas was Krišjānis Barons, who in the nineteenth century, over a period of forty years, collated, classified and published the songs. Over 200,000 tests, ascribed to a place of geographic origin, and assembled ingroups gave Latvia a monumental and well-organized body of oral literature. It was Barons and his friedns who called the short, lyrical folk-songs Dainas.
At Ventspils I have been learning various Dainas from the sun cycle tradition. Many of these little songs refer to the sun goddess, Saule, asking for her blessings. They are gentle little songs, some of them appear to be dances, particularly those in a 5:8 time signature. Most of the songs I have taught myself with the aid of transcriptions and my Latvian translator friends are about courtshop. Perhaps maidens go the woods to eat berries. Or a suitor comes from Germany to ask for the hand of a daughter of the house in marriage. It is the mother rather than the father that responds that her daughter is too young.
My main source book that has introduced me to the Dainas is a beautiful little orange hardback with folk patterns on the front, ‘Latvian Sun Song Melodies,’ or in Latvian, ‘Saules balsi’, a group of songs selected by and commented on by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga . Vaira was President of the Republic of Latvia (1999-2007) and the first female president of the country. She gives credit to the composer Emilis Melngailis as the musician who collected and arranged many of the folk melodies. On expeditions through the Latvian countryside he wrote down many texts and songs that were not widely known at this time. He particularly frequented the old people’s homes or poorhouses as they were previously called, bringing a bottle of vodka.
Many of these folk songs were free flowing rather than attached to bar lines. The melody changes. This presents decisions for those transcribing the melodies. Where do you put the bar lines? It’s a matter of choice and some might choose not to have them at all.
The sun song texts depict Meness, counting his stars, wooing the sun goddess, and Saule herself, beaming generously on the people. Some of the songs are magical, or perhaps just wishful thinking. One I particularly like has the singer beating sticks, one against the other, to encourage the sun to set faster. Courland is a place so north where the sunny hours last so long, and the German and Germanised barons who ruled made the peasant Latvians work during daylight hours. So the peace of sunset was something to be devoutly wished. Only then could the peasant workers get some rest.
Beat a stick against a stick,
so the sun can set this evening
Already the cow herds are tired
and so are the young ploughmen.
This simple song game echoes with many childhood songs from England and elsewhere.
Another magical symbol and spell mentioned in the songs is the ball of yarn. Woollen balls were used to curse, cast and binds, presumably mostly by weavers and spinners. In the film ‘Pūt, vējiņi’ (1973) songs and magic spells haunt the action. There is a powerful, visual scene in which the rejected lover Zane uses balls of thread to curse her stepsister and her former suitor.
There is also the principle of sympathetic magic. For example in a song about which horse to saddle for the day, the singer advises to look at the colour of the sky to make the decision. When the grey day dawns, harness a grey horse. When a red sun rises, harness a red horse.
One of the most important rituals was to bring a child out into the sun. At a name-giving ceremony this was combined with a ritual dance. Members of the extended family stood in two rose. The Godmother, holding the child, would dance with it in a zig-zag pattern, showing the child to each member of the clan in turn. Apparently in ancient times if the child was deemed not to be acceptable by the clan a baby may have been drowned, especially if the child was considered deformed. With the increasing acceptance of Christianity and church baptism the violent side of this ritual receded and the songs became magic spells or prayers for good wishes for the baby, to be granted by the giver of prosperity, Saule, the sun goddess.
(to be continued)