Call for Papers

Laments lost or alive and well
International Conference of the Lament Tradition
May 15–17, 2023
Helsinki, Finland

Lamenting – ritual wailing – is a practice that is known worldwide. The ways of lamenting and the meanings of laments vary from culture to culture and from context to context. Folklorist Eila Stepanova defines the traditional lament as “sung poetry of varying degrees of improvisation, which nonetheless follows conventionalized rules of traditional verbal and non-verbal expression, most often performed by women in ritual contexts and potentially also on non-ritual grievous occasions” (Stepanova 2017, 487). However, there are several contemporary practices (at least in Finland) that do not fit this definition. To open the phenomenon of lamenting for (post)modern interpretations and representations, which vary, for example, from performing arts to therapeutic self-expression and healing practices, we follow the broad definition by anthropologist James M. Wilce, who analyses the “lament as a genre of crying with melody and words” (Wilce 2009, 2).

The waning or even disappearance of certain traditions, including lamenting, has been an ongoing topic in the field of cultural studies dating back to when interest in traditional cultures first arose in Europe in the late 18th century. The lament, as a genre of strong emotion and loud women’s voices, has been seen as savage and primitive, and it has been associated with shame and attempts at control by (Western) educated and industrialized ruling peoples. In Europe, the tradition has survived in Orthodox Eastern Europe until these days, and for example in contemporary Finland the lament tradition has been sprouting in many different directions from arts into therapeutic self-expression. The lament has not died.

In this conference, we seek to examine laments alive and well – but not forgetting its historical practices. We explore the variety of laments, their meanings, and their practices in relation to the world changing all around. The conference aims to reflect on questions and topics inherent to the contemporary field of lament research and to search for some common ground. We invite scholars to discuss the lament, its various representations and interpretations, and related metacultural discourses: the lament saved, kept, revived, revised, appropriated, experienced, sensed, in history, recorded, dug up from archives, reinterpreted, transmitted, and twisted into something new – but not lost. The conference discussions find their home in the shared ground between folklore, cultural and religious studies, ethnomusicology, ethnology, and anthropology.

We hope to advance discussions about interrelations and metacultural discourses, as well as to find ethically sustainable ways 1) to study these issues and 2) to support the variety of representations, practices, and interpretations of the lament.

The conference welcomes proposals for papers on a range of topics related to the lament in the realms of ritual, performing arts, emotion, the (post)modern, cultural identity, research history, spirituality, and psychology, to name but a few. Potential themes for proposals include but are not limited to the following subject areas:

  • Laments and changing context
  • Rites of passage and transitions in contemporary/(post)modern urban culture
  • Revivals of laments and new interpretations and representations
  • Postcolonial perspectives on laments
  • Sensed, bodily felt laments
  • Artistic interpretations and stage performances
  • Religion, beliefs, and laments
  • Laments and spiritual interpretations
  • Laments in times of crisis
  • Historical lament traditions

Papers addressing other issues relevant to the research of the lament will be considered as well.

The working language of the conference is English. Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words for individual papers, along with name, affiliation, email, and a brief biographical note (2–3 sentences maximum) to the conference email [no longer valid] by November 17, 2022. Notifications of acceptance or rejection will be sent out by December 9th at the latest. Depending on the number of participants, the presentation length for individual papers will be between 15 and 20 minutes.

The conference fee will be approx. 50 € (including lunches and a concert on Monday). Participants are expected to cover their own travel and accommodation expenses.

Kyynelkanavat – Laments in contemporary Finland – project funded by Kone Foundation
Karelian Cultural Society
Finnish Literature Society

Stepanova, Eila. 2017. Parallelism in Karelian Laments. Oral Tradition 31 (2): 485–508.
Wilce, James M. 2009. Crying Shame. Metaculture, Modernity, and the Exaggerated Death of Lament. Malden, MA, Blackwell Publishers.

Photo collage of lament in Karelia and in contemporary Finland. Credits: I.K. Inha 1894 / Finnish Heritage Agency; Screenshot from YouTube-video 2020; P. Virtaranta 1968 / Ahavatuulien armoilla (1999); R. Patrikainen 2021; A.O. Väisänen 1915 / Finnish Heritage Agency; R. Patrikainen 2021; Screenshot from YouTube-video 2020.