Birth charms

Comments to the millennium cantata by Veljo Tormis and Jaan Kaplinski

We live in a world full of oppositions, contradictions and unanswered questions. Although the changes we are going through seem unprecedentedly rapid and radical, many questions we are asking now are not different from the questions asked by our ancestors many generations ago.
Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is the life worth living or would it be better not to be born? How can we be happy in the world full of pain, suffering and madness? Has our life a deeper meaning or is it just an accident concerning nobody but ourselves and our closer relatives?
The fact that we ask the same questions over and over again proves that we haven't find satisfactory answers to them. However, we cannot leave them unanswered either, and continue our search for the meaning of life and death, for escape from suffering, death and madness.
Are these questions perhaps meaningless, should we cast them aside once for all, be merry and enjoy our life as long as we can? Or are the existential questions too personal and intimate, so that nobody can ask or answer them for anybody else? Then we can't say whether the life as such has a meaning or not, but if we are lucky and persevering, we can say whether our life has a meaning for ourselves. Perhaps we can live a meaningful life, perhaps we can cope with suffering, death and despair, find peace of mind. But can we tell other people how we have succeeded in doing it? Can our existential experiences, existential answers and peace of mind be put into words, told and explained to other people?
Many people have asked these questions and many have tried to formulate their answers to them from the most ancient times. The search for the meaning of life, for peace of mind, for consolation is documented in poetry since Gilgamesh, Job and classical Greek literature. Hamlet's question "To be or not to be" has grown up from a long tradition of human intellectual and poetic effort. This tradition does not begin with written texts. It has its roots in the oral literature that was the poetic environment of countless generations probably from the Upper Palaeolithic on.
We know nothing of the anxieties, thoughts and existential questions asked by the most ancient inhabitants of Europe, but their burial customs and later, the remnants of their art prove that they too were preoccupied with the mystery of life, death and birth. Already the Neanderthal people burying their dead in the caves of present-day Kurdistan brought bunches of flowers to the graves of their dead. Did they hope the deceased will find comfort in flowers, did they hope he or she would one day come back to life? We don't know, and probably never will know. Did our ancestors twenty or forty thousand years ago seek consolation and joy in music, dance and poetry? The bear-bone flute found in a cave in present-day Slovenia and estimated to date back about forty millennia could indicate this was the case. But such moving testimonies of human grief and tenderness overlap with examples from folk poetry that definitely present some quintessential features of perennial poetry and philosophy.
In a beautiful Estonian folk song recorded in the past century the orphaned girl comes to the grave of her mother calling her to come back to life and take care of her unhappy child:

Rise from the earth, my mother,
come to comb my hair,
come to prepare my dowry.

The mother answers she can't come:

There's blue sand on my eyes,
there's red grass on my eyebrows,
elms are growing on my feet,
linden trees on my head.

Or it is just improper for a corpse to stand up and walk among the living. The child could find consolation in Nature:

The wind comes and is kind to me,
the sun shines and strokes my hair.

The body of Estonian of traditional folk poetry collected and recorded mostly in the second half of the XIXth century is very rich and can tell a lot about the world view of the Estonian peasants in the past. Its poetics and music definitely deviate from the recent poetical and musical tradition prevalent in most European countries. This tradition, now extinct, belongs to a more ancient layer of folk lore recognizably similar to the skaldic and bardic poetry in Northern Europe and the traditional poetry of Turkic and Slavic peoples. Besides of being an exquisite source of anthropological and philological information, and despite of surviving in impoverished and oppressed village communities, this body of folk poetry reveals an astonishing richness of poetical imagination and imagery. After having died out as a living tradition roughly a century ago under the influence of modernization and Christian sectarianism, it is being rediscovered now by musicians and writers as a source of inspiration.
For the authors of the present cantata, the old songs represent another world and world view, different from our present ones, another model of perception and expression of reality. In contrast to the time- and speed-conscious modern time, the old song lives in a timeless, endless and beginningless closely knit microcosm of constant repetitions and returns. The poetics of these songs matches their cosmology: the songs are full of variations and repetitions, all the songs are interconnected, form an integrated body of poetry, a poetical hypertext with direct or indirect links from one song to every other one. The poetical microcosm is closely related to the realities of peasant life: there are songs for every occasion, every mood and every activity: wedding songs, wooing songs, incantations, laments, cow-milking songs, harvesting songs, songs about husbands, wives, mothers-in-law, songs about forest trees, animals and birds. At the same time, the abundance of fixed phrases, alliterations and parallelisms creates a sense of vagueness, even unreality. The world of the songs is not the same as the everyday world of the singers themselves. Rather it is a kind of an ornamental background to it, created by the magic power of the song the singers, inheritors of an ancient ecstatic shamanistic tradition were quite conscious of:

When I begin to sing my song,
when I start to tell my thoughts,
the war stops half way,
the bright blade falls silent,
the silver sword gets lost in thought....


I sing the sea into a mountain,
the mountain into silver coins ...

At the same time, the eternal existential questions of mankind are not absent from the traditional songs. The questions of Gilgamesh, Job and Hamlet are present in the songs created by generations of anonymous peasant women from Estonia:

What has God thought,
when he created me!
Could have made me a guelder rose,
a berry bush in a faraway land,
a hazelnut bush in Germany,
in summer I would be in bloom,
in winter I would bear berries.


Where should I go,
where must I creep to?
The sea is too deep,
the cloud is too dark,
the earth is too low,
the heaven is too high.

In the present opus, the traditional song serves as a musical and poetical background. In its mythological timelessness, this background differs from our present world and the way contemporary artists see it. However, studying it more closely, we can find here many points, images and questions that are as meaningful to the modern man as they were for his ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago. The time-bound and the timeless are inextricably interconnected, interwoven.
The cantata begins and ends with the song of creation. The end takes us back to the beginning: perhaps to a new beginning.

There's an apple-tree on the hill,
there's a branch on the apple-tree,
a blossom on the branch,
an apple on the blossom.
A big gale came,
a fierce wind blew,
it blew the apple in the sea,
brought the apple into water.
What came out of the apple?
A blue-winged bird,
a holy pürje bird.
It flew over half of the world,
over nine churches,
looking for a nesting place.
It flew to our paddock,
sat on our swing,
made a nest on the swing.
The nest made, it began to lay eggs,
the eggs laid, it begin to hatch,
hatched a month and another month.
When it had the fledglings hatched,
it began to scatter them:
threw one to the sea,
threw another to Alutaga,
the third to Virumaa.

The third fledgling became a smith. The smith didn't want to marry a common woman, he began to collect gold and silver, and forged for himself a golden wife. When he went to bed with the golden wife, he found that she was cold and lifeless, she had no soul. The older people told him he should have taken as a wife a living girl. Going to bed with his young wife, they would make love until the morning. He promises his wife easy work: in summer she had only to kiss him, in winter she had to comb his hair. While combing his hair, she dropped the comb into the water, and went to seek it. She went to the sea, and suddenly felt a sword under her feet. She took the sword to the landlord, the landlord and his guests were astonished. There are many strange things to be found in the sea.

The sea is black and deep,
the sky is broad, the land is bare,
the night is long and dark.
Where are we going against the night,
against the night, against the moon,
against the bright morning light?
We are going on the old tracks,
the old cleared-up path
God himself has trodden on,
Mary herself has slept on,
the Holy Cross has stretched itself,
Hallelujah has yawned.

What has remained on the path? There's gold and silver on the path. The singer gathers it in her apron and takes home. She throws gold and silver on the hilltop. What grows out from the gold and silver? An apple-tree grows out from it, there's a branch on the tree, a blossom on the branch, an apple on the blossom ...
The circle is closing, we are once again in the beginning. Creation is permanent, creation is always there.
The mythical creation song is like an abstract ornament, it's unemotional, free of passion, has no beginning or end, it belongs to another reality, speaks another language. It flows and flows on, undisturbed by the worries, pains and hopes of men and women.
The songs they sing of their everyday life are different: there we can hear their real voice, speaking of their worries, passions, love and hate. The charms or incantations are a special kind of poetical texts, they are not sung, but recited in a rapid rhythm. The birth charm speaks with the harsh voice of beginning life itself, it's full of hope, fear and pain. It is a cry of help that may suddenly turn into a cry of despair or of joy and relief:

Make way, clear the path,
help out the head, rip out the soul.
Come out, you swinger,
come out, eyelid-mover.

This birth charm sends its echoes as ripples over the static, poetic canvas of the archaic song. The human being is born and wants to express its thoughts, hopes, fears, wants to ask questions. These questions, passions, hopes and despair rip the canvas of the timeless song, tear apart the ornament, inserting other voices, the voices of modern poetry.

What has remained of us, is it ourselves?

The poetical answer is:

Everything worth to believe in exists somewhere.
Everything that was and could have been exists somewhere.

In the past, our ancestors believed that the ghosts of the deceased visited the living in late autumn; the living had to feed them, to have respect to them, they were not allowed to make noise at that time. When somebody fell ill, it was believed that his or her soul could have been lost or taken away, the witch doctor, the shaman had to take a trip to bring the lost soul back.
The modern poet, distant inheritor of the shamans asks whether ourselves, our age, our civilization hasn't lost its soul too:

The souls don't hear, the soul doesn't heed.
We are simply separated, alienated from everything, separated from the dead, from the living and from the souls, from our own soul too.

The soul is away and the sleep is gone.
All are going around without a soul.

Poetry speak with many voices old and new. We hear the voice of Hamlet asking his To be or not to be, we hear quotations from old folk songs. There is the song about the singer. Where has she (most of singers were women) got her songs: Her mother would take her to the meadow in cradle: she listened to the cuckoo and other birds who taught her their songs. There are some excerpts of dimly remembered medieval war songs. And there are dozens of slogans and phrases from our own times. Aggressive propagandists, preachers, advertisers and prophets want us to believe in their messages, to buy their products, their creeds, their ideologies. What is the price? Do they want us to pay them with our soul, to exchange our soul for something interesting, sweet, colourful, for things, a way of life, a religion? Is the coming new millennium itself such a preacher who wants us to rush into its embrace, to believe in it, to trust it, forgetting everything else - our past, our ancestors, our songs and our souls? Surrounded by all the nice things, phrases, pictures and promises we suddenly feel lonely, lonely as a bee who has lost its way to the beehive. With the voice of the poet, we can ask:

Whither dost thou fly little bee?
The sky
is so empty and vast.

Another poetical voice answers:

Someday we shall come back,
someday we all shall come back.

Maybe it is not the soul that has get lost, but ourselves. The soul is still where we left it, waiting for us, looking for us. Coming back means coming back to our soul. Isn't it the old archaic song that can tell us something about our soul? Sometimes it speaks to us with the imagery of medieval syncretism:

Where are we going against the night,
against the night, against the moon,
against the bright morning light?
Will we be drowned in a stream,
will we be lost under the riverbank?
Who will seek us from the stream,
who will look for us under the riverbank?
God will seek us from the stream,
Mary will look for us under the riverbank.

Sometimes we may ask:

If I forget the song and the language, will I remember myself?

Should we do as the traditional Chinese, calling back our lost soul? We could call it with the same words as our ancestors called the souls of their ancestors:

Come home, souls, come home, come home.

In the archaic beliefs, a child being born was thought to be an ancestor reborn, returned to his-her kin, home village. Here, a birth charm is also a charm calling a departed soul back home. Could it be the soul we have lost in our rush into the brave new century, the new millennium? Or is the new millennium too just an old one returning to us, an old time coming back from the timeless :

Make way, clear the path,
help out the head, rip out the soul.
Come back, soul, come back.