How An Ancient Singing Tradition Helps People Cope With Trauma In The Modern World

In Finland, lament singing is experiencing a revival, one sad song at a time.


Published:

Lament teacher Pirkko Fihlman wears a traditional Käspaikka scarf during a gathering at her home in Helsinki.

Photo by Katri Heinämäki

Riitta Excell wore a pair of homemade wool socks: white with red floral patterns and rounded blue toes. Around her were women sipping tea and enjoying plum pastries and chicken feta pie. They wore homemade wool socks, as well.

It was nearly 3 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon, and Pirkko Fihlman’s living room on the outskirts of Helsinki was filled with black-and-white family photos, porcelain figurines of angels and birds, and embroidered rococo chairs. The clink of tea cups fell silent, and then Excell squeezed her eyes closed, clenched her fists, and began to sing a lament in Finnish.

 

“I took pills for my depression

just to smother my emotions.

Doctors said that I would need them,

but I learned to cry without them.

So I stopped taking the tablets,

then I let my feelings rise up

for my mother when she passed on,

for my marriage when he quit me,

left me as a single mother,

with a hard job and no weekends.

Now I weep without taking pills,

yet I still feel very angry,

and the fury seems well-founded,

but the feelings will not hurt me.”

Excell’s lyrics may be modern, but the style of singing comes from an older place.

“Lament [singing] is a very old, traditional way to express your feelings,” says Fihlman, a lament teacher and matriarch of the group. “If you are hurt or you have sorrows or you want to express your feelings, you cry it out. You let it come out. That’s what they would do in the old times.”


In Finland, the ancient musical tradition known as lament singing is seeing a revival.

In the past, the custom was observed at funerals, weddings, and during times of war. But today, practitioners have a modern application for it: musical therapy. By providing an opportunity to process emotions through song, lament singing can confer mental health benefits to modern practitioners.

“[In lament] people can express themselves,” Fihlman says. “Very often people [in my courses] make laments of their grief. They miss their parents or they have troubles in their marriage or maybe they were hurt in childhood and they never had a chance to bring it up.” 

While the custom resembles many “new age” practices, Finnish lament singing has a feature that those neo-spiritual systems don’t: It teaches a tradition specific to the region instead of borrowing from other cultures.

“The function of [lament singing] was to establish positive contact with your ancestors, the dead, and help them in some way,” says Jim Wilce, a professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and author of numerous books and papers on lament singing around the world. Originally, he says, the tradition wasn’t about emotional healing.

Which, according to Wilce, is what makes the revival so unique.

“In every traditional lament … you have a connection with what I call ‘the divine powers,’” says Eila Stepanova, a folklore studies Ph.D. at the University of Helsinki. “[This isn’t] a Christian god. It’s something in between—an older layer of traditional beliefs.”

Riitta Excell sings a lament. Photo by Katri Heinämäki.While lament singing exists in communities from Bangladesh to New Zealand, according to Wilce, and has even been documented in the ancient poem “Beowulf,” the form being practiced in Finland has its roots in the area now known as the Republic of Karelia—the region on the Russian side of the Finnish border. Stepanova says the traditional laments—sung for funerals, weddings, war—were performed to help people move from one world to the other, be it to the land of the dead, to a new family, or to the battlefield. At ceremonies for the dead, for instance, laments were sung to wake deceased members of the family in the other world to meet new arrivals.

But traditional laments weren’t simply a style of song: They were a unique language in which nothing was ever named directly.

“For example, you have substitute names for all personal relations [and] for objects or phenomenons,” says Stepanova. “So in lament language, when you talk about your mother, you don’t use the word mother. You say, ‘the dearest woman who brought me [into] the sweetest world who carried me,’ or ‘my dear carrier,’ or ‘my dear cherisher.’”

Other examples include the sun, which can be called a “golden disk,” or arms, which can be called "shoulder branches.” And in lament singing, positive descriptions are used. Things are sweet, light, bright, dear, or wonderful. The one exception is any description of the lamenter herself.

“She is always the miserable [one]. She never says the word ‘I,’” explains Stepanova. Instead, when describing herself, the lamenter might say she’s the “miserable body,” “woman of great sorrows,” or “body made of tears.”

Stepanova’s mother published the first lament dictionary in 2004 documenting approximately 1,400 different metaphors for words used in the songs. Like any language, it’s evolving with modern times. Cars can be “headless horses,” phone calls can be “messages that come through metal strings,” and televisions can be “talking boxes.”

But while Finland is seeing a revival—instructor Fihlman says she has conducted nearly 200 courses with almost 2,000 students—other parts of the world are seeing a decline in the traditional practice.

Wilce says that around the world lament singing is threatened. In Bangladesh, for instance, practitioners often face physical violence in rural Muslim societies.

“People are being shamed by their relatives,” says Wilce. “By fundamentalist Christian missionaries in Papua New Guinea and [in] other places by the values of rationality and urbanizing modernity.”

Yet in Finland, the tradition is blossoming, despite a history that has often threatened its survival. In Karelia, Fihlman says that lament singing existed in rural communities for generations, but it was viewed as a pagan tradition by Orthodox and Lutheran Christians and often driven underground. Urbanization also threatened the continued existence of lament singing. In the last century, as young people moved away from their hometowns to find jobs and schooling in cities, villages began to disappear, along with lament singers. And in the early days of the Soviet Union, authorities often employed lament for ideological and propaganda efforts, creating laments that expressed support for the Soviet system and its leaders.

Stepanova says that, eventually, only old people told ancient stories and sang antique laments. “They were museum items, and they stopped being a living tradition among people,” she says.

But somehow, adds Fihlman, it survived. “We don’t have those old people anymore,” she says. “But [now] we have this new generation.”


Minna Hokka wore a candy-striped turtleneck sweater in chartreuse, cream, and maroon. Fihlman, Excell, and other lamenters looked on as she raised her head and began singing. Unlike Excell’s lament, Hokka’s was a historical ode recalling Karelia’s bitter history with Russia.

“To the people of Karelia,

souls and spirits born in beauty:

Through the windows were your green fields,

in the blue skies larks were singing,

saints and icons stood in silence,

watching over wooden log homes.

Kanteles echoed in the dark rooms,

and the stars blinked in the night sky,

but your thoughts were wrapped in darkness:

iron hail rained on your rooftops.”

Hokka, 41, is part of the new generation learning from Fihlman. She says she hopes to start composing laments for young people struggling with addiction.

“Nowadays crying is seen as losing face, so people avoid and fear it,” says Hokka. “Finland needs its tears.”

For Hokka and other lamenters, the practice isn’t just a hobby: It’s an ancient tradition now finding contemporary use. And in Fihlman’s home on the outskirts of Helsinki, it’s taking root with a new generation, one sad song at a time.

“Does [lament singing] have connection to the past? To tradition? To beliefs or values?” Stepanova says. “Or do we make it a museum item behind glass and go and think, Ahh, nice, yes, and forget about it? It depends on us.”

Tristan Ahtone wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Tristan is a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. His work has appeared on and in The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America.

This article was republished from YES! Magazine.

See also:
Do-It-Yourself Sound Healing Session
Sounds Of Healing

Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Daily Astrology

June 28, 2017

A morning sextile between the Virgo Moon and the Cancer Sun focuses intentions on doing quality work, whatever the task may be. Looking out for others is also a pleasantly persistent urge. There’s plenty of energy as mental Mercury and steamy Mars unite…
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Alternative Health Directory

Browse all listings »

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Calendar

June 2017

A one-day class facilitated by Reiki Shihan (Master-Teacher), Lou Orsan Reiki Level I is an introduction to the basic principles of traditional Usui Reiki. The skills learned are designed to...

Cost: $125

Where:
Northeast Reiki Center
61 Nicholas Road, Suite B2
Framingham, MA  01701
View map »


Sponsor: Northeast Reiki Center
Telephone: 508-808-5696
Contact Name: Lou Orsan
Website »

More information

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

1 session remaining Explore ancient shamanic healing techniques in this safe, experiential workshop. Learn the basic, core technique of the shamanic journey, a visionary method used to...

Cost: $35 per session

Where:
Keene Unitarian Universalist Church
69 Washington Street
(and corner of Taylor Street)
Keene, NH
View map »


Sponsor: Cycles of Spirit Spiritualist Church & One Spirit Shamanic Arts
Contact Name: Jay Thomas
Website »

More information

HamletHub Whole New You Series Hearst Media Entertaining Conversations Series Member pre-sale begins Tuesday, May 2 at 10am Public sale Friday, May 5 at 10am After the show Tyler will do an...

Cost: $72.50

Where:
The Ridgefield Playhouse
80 East Ridge
Ridgefield, CT  06877
View map »


Telephone: 203-438-5795
Contact Name: Sue LaColla
Website »

More information

Sunday Reiki treatments with Reiki master and practitioner Linda Simons in Brookline, MA. Start your week off on a more balanced note with a Reiki treatment on a Sunday afternoon. Please join me...

Cost: Sliding Scale $20-$40

Where:
233 Harvard Street
Suite 36
Brookline, MA  02446
View map »


Telephone: 617-304-2205
Contact Name: LInda Simons
Website »

More information

You can sit with your favorite medium and get a message from your loved ones in spirit and experience the relaxation of Spiritual Healing with one of our trained healers (pets also welcome!) We...

Where:
Arlington Masonic Temple
19 Academy Street
Arlington, MA
View map »


Sponsor: Greater Boston Church of Spiritualism
Telephone: 617-923-4334
Website »

More information

Prayer for Peace — Lao-Tse If there is to be peace in the world, There must be peace in the nations. If there is to be peace in the nations, There must be peace in the cities. If...

Cost: Donation / heart offering

Where:
HeartSong Spiritual Wellness
23 Pine Street
Milford, MA  01757
View map »


Sponsor: HeartSong Spiritual Wellness Center
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

Qigong is an amazing practice for health, healing and inspiration. Qigong is a series of flowing and repeated movements, stretches and breathing exercises that are very easy to learn and may be...

Cost: Drop in $20 or purchase series card

Where:
The Yoga Depot
17 Depot Square
Lexington, MA  02420
View map »


Sponsor: BodyWork Revolution
Telephone: 781-372-1000
Contact Name: Steve Cunningham
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

6/27, 7/11, 7/18 and 7/25 Creative movement class for ages 3-6. ​Kids dance and yoga class that uses imagination, exploration and creative movements to discover how their body works. Helps...

Cost: $18 - $50

Where:
YOUnity Yoga & Wellness
189 Main Street
Milford, MA  01757
View map »


Telephone: 508-478-3333
Contact Name: BJ Hickson
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

Slow down and relax your mind and body while engaging in a variety of mindfulness activities.  Tarot Card Readings available to the first 6 people who register. Being mindful is one of...

Cost: $20/$25

Where:
HeartSong Spiritual Wellness
23 Pine Street
Milford, MA  01757
View map »


Website »

More information

Weekly yoga classes with Rev. Michelle Caron, RMT, CYT, ZIN of Harmony Way on Wednesdays at 12:15 PM and Fridays at 9:30 AM at the Wilbraham Senior Center. Class welcomes all ages and uses a...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Rev. Michelle Caron, RMT, CYT, ZIN
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

A Reiki Share is a gathering of Reiki practitioners who congregate for a combination social/healing session. The primary purpose of having a "share" is for practitioners to participate in...

Cost: $10

Where:
Open Doors
395 Washington Street
Braintree, MA  02170
View map »


Sponsor: Leslie Miller Jewett
Telephone: (857) 526-3301
Contact Name: Leslie Miller Jewett
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

Weekly yoga classes with Rev. Michelle Caron, RMT, CYT, ZIN of Harmony Way on Wednesdays at 12:15 PM and Fridays at 9:30 AM at the Wilbraham Senior Center. Class welcomes all ages and uses a...

Cost: $5

Where:
Wilbraham Senior Center
45 Post Office Park, #4502
Wilbraham, MA  01095
View map »


Sponsor: Harmony Way
Telephone: 413-636-2475
Contact Name: Rev. Michelle Caron, RMT, CYT, ZIN
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Wild Vibes will be kicking off the seacoast summer with their fourth annual Wild Vibes Yoga Festival on July 1st at Spring Hill in South Berwick. A festival focused on bringing people back to their...

Cost: $15 - $65

Where:
Spring Hill
117 Pond Rd
South Berwick, ME  03908
View map »


Contact Name: Magnolia Barrett
Website »

More information

January 14 - December 9, 2017 With Tom Frederick Novice — This 12-month program is designed to assist you on your journey to spiritual enlightenment. Here we study a variety of esoteric...

Cost: $1300

Where:
Women of Wisdom
118 Washington Street
North Easton, MA  02356
View map »


Sponsor: Women of Wisdom
Telephone: 508-230-3680
Contact Name: Women of Wisdom
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags