Myth, Belief and Past Finno-Ugric Modes of Thinking

Myth, Belief and Past Finno-Ugric Modes of Thinking
© Photograph by Traven Milovich

In addressing the prerequisites of human and social existence, the mythologies of the world revolve around the same key questions, even though the solutions may vary from culture to culture. Thus the mythologies of different cultures are not the same. Ways of seeing the world and analysing it, even making empirical judgements and thus ascribing meanings to perception vary across cultures. Notions concerning the world and its phenomena are structured in different systems of knowledge and mental imagery. The most fundamental areas of cultural consciousness are related to the community’s worldview and basic values; mythology is constructed as a representation of precisely such basic structures of consciousness.

Discrete cultural materials and oral traditions can easily cross national boundaries. Unlike these surface elements, the structures of consciousness needed to sustain a worldview and to resolve contradictions are more deeply rooted and conservative. Hence, mythology is one of the most tenacious forms of mental representation. In fact, we can even view mythology as a “long-term prison” — as Fernand Braudel characterises mentalities — which endures even the most radical historical changes and continuously carries the past into the present. Nevertheless, myths are interpreted within the framework of each culture and continually transformed according to the social context (Vernant 1992:279). The life of a mythical tradition is characterised by the inherently conservative nature of its basic structures and even themes, but at the same time, these structures and themes are constantly reinterpreted in social practice (Sahlins 1985).

The line of research initiated by the Annales school in France and known as the history of mentality aims at getting to the heart of the world of human experience and thought. Jacques Le Goff defines its scope as follows: “The history of mentalities operates on the level of every day and the authentic. It attacks the area not covered by history centring on the individual — it reveals the non-personal substance of the individual’s thought, the substance shared by Caesar and the last of his legionaries, Saint Louis and the peasant on his land, Columbus and the sailors on his ship.” (Le Goff 1978:247– 248.) It is worth pointing out that mentality historians have been interested in folk thought and in particular the field of folk belief and magic. (Cf. Ginzburg 1985/1966; Ginzburg 1988/1976; Gurevich 1990; Le Roy Ladurie 1985/1975; Thomas 1971).

The mentality historian is interested in what goes on in the minds of people in a particular era. The worlds of human experience and thought are, among other things, factors pointing to the concept of mentality. A comprehensive and uniform definition of mentality is not, however, easy to find. According to Jacques Le Goff the French mentalité is used in English philosophy to denote the nature of the collective mind of a people or group of peoples (1978:250). The Finnish “kansanluonne”, or “national character”, is akin to the English term mentality but has gone out of use since it became charged with political undesirable overtones in the 1930s. Jacques Le Goff also mentions that the German “Weltanschauung”, which refers “to a mental universe that is at the same time both stereotyped and chaotic”, comes close to the concept of mentality. A similar line is adopted by Aron Yakovlevich Gurevich in his studies of the medieval folk mentality focusing on the worldview and collective psychological disposition of medieval man. (Gurevich 1990:xvi). Instead of clear-cut theories and ideas, he is interested in implicit models of consciousness and behaviour. Also close to the concept of mentality is that of worldview, although it is, due to its concentration on the cognitive aspect, more narrowly defined (Knuuttila 1989:187–196).

According to Carlo Ginzburg, the history of mentalities has been interested in the enigmatic, unconscious aspect of worldview, relics of the past, archaisms, the emotional and the irrational (Ginzburg 1976:20). In this case, the scope of mentality studies approaches that of mythology studies. Michel Vovelle, in turn, prefers the formulation of Robert Mandrou: “mentality refers to ‘visions of the world’, but he admits that this attractive formulation is undeniably vague.” He states that “we have progressed from a history of mentalities which, in its beginning, essentially stuck to the level of culture, or clear thought, to a history of attitudes, forms of behaviour and unconscious collective representations” (Vovelle 1990:5).

It becomes evident upon examining the multitude of definitions for “mentality” that this term is a problematic concept if we wish to use it in analytic work. It hints — as does the term worldview — at a totality, an integrated whole which is not easily resolved into meaningful elements. For this reason, mentality as a concept serves most often as a heuristic tool for an interpretative mind interested in shared forms of thought and experience as well as attitudes toward life, values and emotions. The concept refers to the mental contents that guide the everyday actions of ordinary individuals and that are sometimes conscious, sometimes unconscious. Lucien Febvre gives them the name “mental equipment”.

Mentality thus comes close to the collective consciousness of David Émile Durkheim that has moulded the course of research. The representations of collective consciousness are, according to David Émile Durkheim, social in their origin (1980:32). To David Émile Durkheim “social” also means ’historical’: The collective representations are the outcome of a vast process of working together with a temporal and not only a spatial dimension; in order to form them, numerous minds have combined, compounded and classified ideas and sentiments; in them many generations have stored their experiences and their knowledge (1980: 37).

One possible approach — as I have myself realised — to unravelling the conceptual entity of mentality has been the application of cognitive theory. Mentality, mental equipment, can then be conceived of as a set of cognitive, phenomenal, action-governing models for analysing the world. Cognitive anthropology refers to these models by using the terms cultural model, folk model and mental model (Siikala 1992). Mentality or collective awareness can be regarded as consisting of these models. By means of cultural models, mentality or collective awareness organises and creates the manifestations evident in culture; it also becomes fixed and transmitted along with these visible representations.

Historians of mentalities have pointed out the supra-individual nature of mentalities. In accordance with the Durkheimian tradition, the Annalists conceived of mental forms as a set of collective obligations and norms linking individuals together into a community (Hagen 1984:7). Collectivity is in the abstract sense nevertheless something of a problem. Carlo Ginzburg has drawn attention to the generalising way in which the historians (and Lucien Febvre in particular) have, with no concern for social strata, brandished the concept of collective mentality (Ginzburg 1988:20–21). We may well ask “whose mentality?”

In addition to the collective nature of mentalities, researchers have stressed their resistance to change. Jacques Le Goff points out that the history of mentalities is the history of the slowness of history (1978:257). Mentality researchers have been interested in the continuities involved in history — in tradition, thought and modes of behaviour which appear to be spontaneous but which have their origins in the distant past and which reflect the philosophical outlook of bygone eras (Le Goff 1978: 249). Édouard Louis Emmanuel Julien Le Roy Ladurie speaks of “mental barriers” which cannot be crossed by thought, while Fernand Braudel calls mental structures “long-term prisons” (Peltonen 1988:277). Being slow to change, he says, mental structures pose “obstacles and limitations” which man and his experience is incapable of overcoming (Manninen 1989:66). Jacques Le Goff concretises the mode of existence which drags the past along in its wake as follows: “Man uses the machines he has created, yet at the same time preserves the mentality he had before them. The motorist speaks in the words of the horseman and the nineteenth-century factory worker has the peasant mentality of his fathers and forefathers.” (1978:249.)

Elsewhere, however, Jacques Le Goff observes that the history of mentality is not only the history of the slowness of history but also the history of change (1978:257). Instead of emphasising the static nature of the factors characterising mentality, it would be more in order to debate the way in which they change. The slow pace at which mentalities change does not surprise the folklorist as much as it does the scholar studying the history of thoughts and ideas. One of the characteristic features of popular worldview is syncretism, which involves a multiplicity of origins, the peaceful coexistence of numerous ideals, beliefs and concepts — some of them contradictory — assimilated from different sources and different times (cf. Redfield 1989:54; also Bloch 1968:129).

One important observation as regards mythology and folk belief studies concerns the longevity of the belief tradition and the slow rate at which it changes. Changes in mentalities may be concretely observed by interpreting the cultural products generated by them. Both written and oral texts offer insights into the minds of people representing different eras. Mythic traditions have been slow to change; they carry voices from the ancient past to the present day. We can try to trace the roots of our worldview by listening to this voice. Research in Uralic and Finno-Ugric mythology has attempted to map out ancient modes of thought by analysing the common features of materials collected over the past two hundred years among the ethnic groups in question.

Recent developments in linguistics and archaeology have provided new tools for this work. We may ask, what was the worldview or mentality of the early Finno-Ugric or Uralic peoples, what were the mythic models of thought among the linguistic ancestors of the Finns?


Also published on Medium.

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