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LATVJU DAINAS

"Latvju dainas" is the title Krišjānis Barons gave to the first full edition of Latvian folk poetry that he published in 1894—1915.  Even though the designation "dainas" has been borrowed from Lithuanian, with time it has become a concept to subsume the folk-song tradition, Barons’s achievement, and an eloquent symbol of Latvian identity.  

Latvian folk-songs belong to the oral tradition that is much older than their first printed and hand-written records from the 19th and 16th-17th century, respectively. They are characterized by several features that have been ascribed by researchers of folk poetry to an archaic poetic tradition. One such feature is, for instance, the magical nature of the songs and their close relation to traditions: a great number of folk-songs represent "commentary on a ritual" with the purpose of structuring the ritual taking place in family events or other festivities and to explain the magic essence of the actions performed. Another feature that is evidence of the age of the songs is the shortness of the texts, their structure, and the methods of stringing them together. Each quatrain in trochaic or dactylic verse is like a "snapshot" that expresses some observation, lesson, or feeling or describes some magical or practical act. As they were being sung, the texts were strung together in two ways: in tradition songs, in accordance with the sequence of the ritual, in other cases, in accordance with the theme, image, or a certain word.  Latvians also know songs that are made after the model of lyrical songs or epic ballads widespread in Europe, but the older foundation is the stringing of quatrains without developing a narrative and attaching them to one, narrow range melody. Likewise, the contents of the folk-songs, dealing as it is with the everyday life of the peasant, is considered older than the theme of love. Their mythology is recognized as a good source of research into the archaic concepts of the Indo-Europeans.

Barons’s "Latvju dainas" is an unmatched textual document that, to the present day, has been kept both in his original files and published in a book form, with 217 996 songs included in six volumes (8 books). "Dainu skapis", the file cabinet where Barons accumulated almost all the texts known at the end of the 19th century has been recognized as unique documentary heritage of world significance and in 2001 was included in the UNESCO World Memory list. Using the drawers of the cabinet, Barons sorted the songs organizing them in chapters according to a system that is unsurpassed in Latvian folklore research. Arranging the songs according to the event at which they are sung, Barons devoted the first three volumes (five books) to the stages of a person’s life (pregnancy, birth, childhood, youth, getting married, married life, old age, death) and the relevant rituals, with christening, wedding, and funeral as the central ones. Less numerous cycles are relegated to the fourth and fifth volumes: work songs, songs devoted to the relationships within a society and among classes, war songs, seasonal festival songs, mythic songs. The mischievous and erotic songs are compiled separately in the sixth volume. "Latvju dainas" have come out in two editions; their texts have been used for other collections, and there is also a digital version (dainuskapis.lv), which makes available the original pages from the cabinet along with the texts published as "Latvju dainas".

As "Latvju dainas" were compiled, they served to fulfill a symbolic task: to show that the peasants scattered in the provinces of Kurzeme, Vidzeme, and Vitebsk belong in fact to one, Latvian, nation.  It can safely be said that "Latvju dainas" was one of the first steps in Latvians becoming aware of themselves as a single nations.  

Dace Bula

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