The state of bidding farewell. How familiar it is to us, and how mysterious. Be it saying goodbye to a person, a place, or some period of our lives. Leaving, and seeking forgiveness from those who remain, or believing that an invisible bond will unite you forever…

When parting for a short while, we usually say “Bye-bye” or “See you later”, and when it’s for a long time – “Farewell”. Usually, it’s the younger ones who come to say goodbye to the older, and the latter in turn forgive and bless the younger. On Shrove Sunday, before the beginning of Lent, people come to absolve their sins in church, while outside of it they ask forgiveness from their friends and foes. We also say goodbye every evening before going to sleep, as if we were to die, before rising up again in the morning.

Traditionally, saying farewell is often related to the themes of journeys, crossings. When we go through a separation (the leaving of one space, period, self-image, and all the objects, states, emotions connected therewith) and the inclusion that follows (meeting, acceptance of something new, different, sometimes “alien”). In any crossing (parting, path) the farewell motif is reproduced to varying degrees – for instance, the crossing present in a traditional wedding or funerary ritual. Simply recall how, according to old family tradition, you do not sweep out the dirt or do any cleaning after your loved ones depart on a journey (to not “sweep them out forever, wipe out the trail”). Or how carefully you keep the keepsakes given to us during a separation, these items that carry the meaning of protective charms – the idea of “home” is now contained and connected to them. All of this is an attempt at dealing with the transitory state that each of us experiences daily within (even when we do not take a single step).

Researchers have long used the phrase “rite of passage”. One of the most distinctive and well-studied of such rites is the traditional wedding – a ritual crossing of the highest importance in a person’s life, on a par with birth and death. A wedding heralds the beginning of a new family and the end of the initiating rituals. It is a time when young men and women finally attain the status of spouses and the gender-age category of wives and husbands. Generally, in a traditional wedding the groom completes only one initiative (vertical) passage, unlike the bride, who goes through both a vertical and horizontal (territorial) move. She not only symbolically dies and is reborn as a wife, going through initiation, but also completes a horizontal move, leaving her childhood home and saying goodbye to her family, often forever. The ceremonial action is constructed specifically around the bride and her ritualistic states, until the moment when the wedding procession sets off for the groom’s house. This period of time is overflowing with ritualistic events steeped in the theme of bidding farewell: to your childhood home, your parents and friends, your maiden’s braid and carefree way of life. Let’s attempt to immerse ourselves in this space and take a closer look at the ritual “codes” of farewell ceremonies.

Bride bidding farewell to the childhood home

“It’s time for you to be on your way, maid,

May God protect you, o sold bird!

The hour of sorrowful farewell draws nearer,

The moment of parting is upon you <…>

Handfuls of tears you start crying,

Fistfuls of them, hot and bitter,

Flooding your father’s yard,

Creating lakes inside your wooden house”[1].

A bride’s pre-wedding duties in the Northern tradition have always begun with a round of farewell visits to her relatives, sometimes including the houses of her fellow villagers[2]. Visiting the graves of deceased relatives was also a compulsory step. The bride said goodbye not only to her living, but also the deceased members of her family, as it was believed that after their anamnesis they could bestow their blessing. In this way, ancestral integrity was assured, tying together every generation of the family.

One of the symbols of the bride parting with girlhood, a way of destroying it, if you will, was the hair unbraiding ceremony. The braid was to be unwoven slowly, sometimes extracting from it bits of twig or burdock that were intentionally braided in to begin with. This hampered the unbraiding process somewhat, symbolising the bride’s reluctance to relinquish her girlhood: games and conversations with her beloved girlfriends, a carefree life in her parent’s home. After the braid was unwoven, the bride’s head was covered with a shawl, and the process of preparing her for the pre-wedding banya (steam bath) began. From this moment on, the young woman died in her status as a maid, and began the ritualistic movement towards rebirth as a married woman. During the whole process she will be referred to as the bride (nevesta, from the Russian nevest kto: “God knows who”), that is, she is someone making this crossing, going through a symbolic death. Due to this it was believed that the bride cannot do anything for herself, not even walk, and therefore throughout the whole ceremony her friends would lead her around by the arms. Leading, or carrying, the bride is a special ritualistic action that serves to emphasise her transitory status, her rebirth as a married woman. This process will only be completed when she steps over the threshold of her groom’s home (which serves as boundary for the crossing). For example, during a summer wedding in Karelia the wedding procession could be transported from the locus of the bride to that of the groom via boat; however, the boat, with the bride on board, was to be dragged from the shore to the groom’s house, and only then could the groom carry the bride into his house in his arms. In modern wedding ceremonies this process has been simplified to a single symbolic crossing (that of a bridge), where the couple crosses a notional boundary or line, thus completing their rebirth in their new status and beginning a new life together.

One of the symbols of the bride parting with girlhood [- ] was the hair unbraiding ceremony.

One mandatory attribute, the musical code to the farewell wedding rituals of the bride, was crying (wailing, lamentation). Crying was performed both at the graveyard, during the house visits, and during the unbraiding. If for some reason the bride could not or did not know how to lament, this action could be performed by a specially invited wailer. The constant accompaniment of the ceremonies with lamentation did not mean that those involved were genuinely crying. Ritualistic crying is the musical code of the ceremony, its aim is not to move someone to pity, but rather to create a special memory structure[3]. Incredibly, we still record wedding wails during our expeditions to Karelia to this day, from women (80 years old) who were present at the weddings of their sisters as children and heard the lamentations of the wailer. The impression it made upon them was so vivid, so deep, that they remembered it throughout all of their lives and kept not only the words of the lamentation in their memory, but also its melody. When agreeing to recall the lament and perform it for a recording, it feels as if they relive that soul-piercing state of farewell, which makes their voices waver and break, and the hearts of all present stutter in their chests.

A locus of sacral importance during a wedding is the bathhouse. The “maid’s bath” or “last bath” is prepared for the bride by her female friends. Singing, they bring in logs for the fire and pull the twigs for the bride’s venik (a bundle of leafy branches and twigs with which one is lashed on the back in the steam room), and, lamenting, they lead her in to be washed. In Karelian lamentations, the bride’s banya is often called sorrowful – “this bathhouse you have warmed is very sad”. The lamentations specify that the bathhouse fire is not to be fed logs of certain types of wood, as the fate of a married woman was believed to be directly influenced by the characteristics imparted upon these types of wood: “My woman, who has washed off wretched seed, do not feed the fire with pine wood logs – pine wood brings sorrow. Do not feed the fire, my woman, who has created sorrowful seed, with fir wood logs – fir wood brings woe…”[4]. In the sacral space of the bathhouse the bride dilutes and washes off her last connections to her childhood home, bathing her body for a new life. Coming out of the bathhouse, she might thank her friends thus: “All my sweet freedom I have left in the bath’s steam, I have lost my gentle braid”.

“A locus of sacral importance during a wedding is the bathhouse”

Soon after the farewell bath comes the ceremony of “the bride parting with her freedom”. The release of freedom is comprised primarily of the bride walking around her house and yard, accompanied by a wailer and friends, saying goodbye to the world she had grown up in and the loss of which she demonstratively mourns. The wailer and a sister take her by the arms and walk her around the house, saying goodbye to the icons, the table, the stove, lamenting all the while. The stove occupied a special place in a woman’s space – it was at the heart of the majority of women’s duties, as well as the place where children were nursed when sick, infants were ceremonially reborn, and sometimes even born. Being at the centre of the home, in parting ceremonies the stove symbolised the connection between the departing and the house, as well as the people in it, primarily the mother. In addition to indoor spaces, the bride has to walk around her yard, lamenting, so that she may say goodbye to her road, the fields and places dear to her heart. What gave the release of freedom ceremony a special tone is parting with the “ribbon”, which served as a symbol of freedom that the bride would leave to her eldest unmarried sister, or to a friend, directing her to wear her girlhood freedom with honour.

The bride’s hair is the focal point of another wedding ceremony – the changing of her hairstyle, otherwise known as winding, setting the head. This is the moment of the bride’s symbolic passing into the gender-age group of married women. From this moment on, the young woman had to start wearing her hair in a married style. The process goes as follows: instead of one maiden braid, the bride’s hair is braided into two braids and wound around her head. In traditional societies, the circle is semantically linked to protective charms. During awedding, the symbol manifests as a circle drawn in the ground around the wedding procession using an axe, walking around the couple clockwise (called “by the sun’s direction”), leading the bride in a circle around a chest during the winding ceremony, and, of course, the placement of the braids around her head. After her hairstyle change, the bride’s hair would be covered with a soroka (a special headdress, “magpie”), hiding all her hair completely, for if a single strand could be seen she would be “simple-haired” – a woman who showed her hair to the world.

 

The arrival of the wedding procession at the groom’s house marked the end of the first part of the wedding ceremony, which happened predominantly in the bride’s house. Here, a special ritualistic space was created, where she would gradually part from her family, her familiar spaces, habits and way of life[5]. After her previous life had been mourned, a new family awaited the bride, as well as a new house, a table set for a feast and a meeting with her new life.

So far we have looked at only one example, the traditional ceremony. However, even without drawing comparisons to other no less important rites of passage, it is clear how developed the space of bidding farewell is within it, how many details are painstakingly included. The bride, going through a state of separation, embarks on a long journey, gradually closing the doors that connected her to her previous life and girlhood. You could say that the ceremonial codes dictate what the bride should feel at that moment, what she should preserve, and what should be discarded, what should be mourned and what should be feared, what she should prepare for and who she should thank. The ceremony is a “form-creating machine”, which, on the one hand, helps to bind yourself even closer to the space you are departing, to impress it upon your memory; on the other hand, it helps harmoniously wash away connections with your past life, enabling you to go forward.

It is for good reason that ceremonial, ritual forms have turned out to be so long-lived and still exist in our daily lives in rudimentary form. It is important experience that allows one to live without unnecessary anguish and avoid many unstable states and feelings of incompleteness. To those who are capable of an understanding outlook they can open many new meanings, teaching us to forgive and say farewell.

[1] E. Lönnrot. Kalevala // Epic poem based on ancient Karelian and Finnish folksongs. Song 22. 4th Ed., Karelia, Juminkeko, 2007. Pages 248, 255.

[2] The fragments of wedding ceremonies showcased here illustrate a widespread local tradition (predominantly North Karelian), called a “wedding-funeral” by folklore specialists. The primary role in this tradition is given to the bride’s initiatory crossing and those actions performed at the bride’s locus, comprised of pre-wedding parts of the ceremony for the most part.

[3] M. Mamardashvili. Lectures on ancient philosophy. Lecture 1 / editied by Y. Senokosov. Agraf, 1997. Page 16.

[4] Karelian laments. Petrozavodsk, 1976. Number 212. Pages 398-399.

[5] Not only the highly developed farewell traditions of Karelia are known – there is also a type of wedding dubbed ‘on the tip of a handkerchief’. It completely does away with the ritualistic farewell, due to the couple beginning their life together without going through the whole wedding ceremony, and often against their parents’ wishes. A young man spreads a handkerchief before a young woman he likes, with words such as these: “If you would take me for your own, take it!”. If she accepts him and picks up the other end, the couple was deemed married.