Honko’s Greatest Hits


Honko, Lauri 2013: Theoretical Milestones. Selected Writings of Lauri Honko. Eds. Hakamies, Pekka & Honko, Anneli. FF Communications 304. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica. 338 pages.


I greatly enjoyed reading tHonko 2013: Theoretical milestoneshis book. It was refreshing to return to works that I have not read for many years, to read a few that were not previously so accessible, and even to discover one article with which I was wholly unfamiliar. Lauri Honko was arguably one of the most significant and influential scholars in Folklore Studies and Comparative Religion from the latter part of the twentieth century. He was an innovator in areas of theory and methodological insights, many of which remain of central relevance today and even appear foundational in the works of many scholars, my own included. In Finland, where the Historical-Geographic or ‘Finnish’ Method had predominated for so long, Honko’s role was fundamental in reshaping Folklore Studies and opening it to new directions of inquiry and investigation. His training in the classic tradition of Finnish comparative methods provided a background to his research that is to my mind key in his role as an innovator: his focus on contexts and performance at the level of individuals nevertheless always seemed to return to the ‘big picture’ of how folklore functioned as a phenomenon generally, how it varied, and how different traditions existed and interacted in systems. He retained a comparative orientation, but with a synchronic rather than diachronic basis, and he compared processes and phenomena analogically rather than seeking to unravel their genetic relationships. If earlier comparative scholarship had focused attention on questions of what and when, Honko turned to questions of how and why. The intersection of these questions with a comparative orientation centered Honko’s research on theory, and his advances in that area could then be widely used by scholars without such comparative background or orientation.

The heritage of Honko

Honko was made the center of celebration in 2013, when his contributions to theory became the topic of the international conference The Role of Theory in Folkloristics and Comparative Religion. This event was coordinated with the publication of the present volume as well as The Theory of Culture of Folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932–2002 (Kamppinen & Hakamies 2013), on which I have commented critically elsewhere (Frog 2013), and soon followed by proceedings as a special issue of Approaching Religion: The Legacy of Lauri Honko. Contemporary Conversations (eds. Hakamies & Wolf-Knuts 2014). Within that context, Theoretical Milestones reproduces a selection of Honko’s own works.

Of course, it is inevitable that the works in such a collection are dated: the original publication dates range from just over a decade to half a century ago. These articles challenged the ways that folklorists thought at the time of their publication; today some of their targets have advanced to commonplaces or research has advanced beyond them, so that their treatments might appear under-problematized if they were produced today. However, this is nonetheless suggestive of their position and significance in the advancement of research into the present, and into the future. Although these articles belong to the history of scholarship ‒ indeed to the heritage of scholarship ‒ it should also be stressed that the perspectives and insights that they offer have not lost their value. Moreover, the editors accompany these with an introduction that outlines Honko’s career and that does a very nice job of situating these different examples of Honko’s work within the broader context of his activities and in the history of scholarship more generally. I must, however, observe the weakness that the collection lacks both an index and any bibliography of Honko’s works, both of which would have increased considerably the utility of the collection and value of the volume. Overall, I consider this book a valuable collection of Honko’s writings and believe that it will prove of value to both students and established scholars alike.

The contents and edition

The better part of the articles have quite a broad scope, including introductions to collections of articles on the particular topic. The opening section on general folkloristics contains “The Folklore Process” (1991) accompanied by “Folkloristic Theories of Genre” (1989). The former outlines Honko’s model of the different ways folklore is used, affected by folklorists and reused. I am very pleased to see it here: it remains little-known in English language scholarship because the English version was only published in materials for a summer school. The latter article is arguably Honko’s most significant publication on the key concept of genre. The section “Study of Meaning” contains, not surprisingly, the key articles “Folkloristic Studies on Meaning: An Introduction” (1986) and “Empty Texts, Full Meanings: On Transformational Meaning in Folklore” (1986). The section “Belief, Experience and Narrative” contains the classic “Memorates and the Study of Folk Belief” (1964) and “Methods in Folk-Narrative Research: Their Status and Future” (1979‒1980).

A key theoretical model developed by Honko was ‘tradition ecology’, approaching traditions, their relations to one another and society, both historically and in synchronic practice, according to the metaphor of an ‘ecology’. This comes to the fore in “Functionalism and Ecology of Tradition”. This section includes “Four Forms of Adaptation in Tradition” (1981) – an English translation of part of “Traditionsekologi – en introduktion” (1981) – and also “Thick Corpus and Organic Variation: An Introduction” (2000), which includes a concise review of the history of changing paradigms in folklore research. The section “Comparative Research on Epics” contains “The Kalevala as Performance” (2002), presenting Honko’s approach to Elias Lönnrot as a “singing scribe”, accompanied by “Comparing Traditional Epics in the Eastern Baltic Sea Region” (2002), concerned with the production of modern epics on the basis of oral-traditional materials. The section “Finno-Ugric Mythology and the Study of Laments” presents three articles that may be less familiar to many readers: “A Comparative Approach to the Finno-Ugric Folk Poetries: Three Alternative Dispositions” (1985), “Vertical Heritage in Horizontal Adaptation: Presentations of Oral Poetry and Belief Systems among Finno-Ugrians” (1995), and “The Ingrian Lamenter as Psychopomp” (1978). The final section on cultural identity makes a very nice close to the collection with the useful discussions in “Studies on Tradition and Cultural Identity: An Introduction” (1988) and “Traditions in the Construction of Cultural Identity”. Together, these final works bring together several themes that can be traced through articles of the preceding sections.

Editorial interference with the original text has been kept to a minimum: more or less limited to the fonts and page-breaks in layout and styling the bibliographies. Although I can appreciate this sort of respect to the original text, the general accessibility of some articles could have been enhanced by for example adding translations of quotations in German. Although the individual articles were not written to be read together or in a particular order, the editors have done well in organizing the thematic sections so that these diverse works can be read in sequence. They form a progression in which earlier sections inform the way that later sections are viewed with good effect.

Selection and navigation

Honko’s scholarly output was prodigious, with publications especially in English, Finnish, Swedish and German. The selection from among these for a single volume of key works was no doubt a great challenge for the editors. The basis for selections is from a reportedly very lengthy list of works that Honko had himself compiled with the intention of revision and republication. Only works originally published in English are reproduced.

One feature that would have liked to see something on why precisely these works as opposed to others were selected and how these selections stand in relation to the broader range of Honko’s works. For example, both articles in the section on epic are from the same volume and concentrate on the same topic of the creation of modern national epics from folklore material. Other aspects of Honko’s work on epics are taken up elsewhere in different articles and round out the picture, but the reader is not told this and without an index these may not be easy to find.

I was also rather surprised that the relatively little-known “The Ingrian Lamenter as Psychopomp” appears rather than the widely-cited article “Baltic-Finnic Laments” (1974). Of course, the latter article is rather long and the theme of a psychopomp may also have seemed better suited for grouping with articles on mythology. However, I think a bit of guidance would have been nice, or a bibliography that could help a reader find other important works by Honko, not to mention lesser-known works on themes relevant to the volume that might be of interest for the history of his scholarship (e.g. Honko’s little-known Finnische Mythologie, 1965) and perhaps to find where articles in the volume are available in other languages.

This does not compromise the value of the articles brought together here or the convenience of the collection. In a sense, however, I felt that the articles of the volume were a bit isolated from Honko’s scholarly production rather than elevated as exemplars of that broader work and thought. Although there are shifts in voice and style in the movements between decades, the collection has something of the feel of an article-based monograph. But this is perhaps what Honko himself wanted, when developing a list of works to compile for republication.


On the whole, Theoretical Milestones presents a very nice collection of important works by Honko accompanied by a useful introduction. It will certainly prove of wide interest and value, which is not only convenient in gathering works from many different venues but also especially because some of these works might otherwise be quite difficult to access.


Frog 2013: In the Shadow of Lauri Honko. – Elore 20(2): 174–178 [online]. < http://www.elore.fi/arkisto/2_13/frog2.pdf > [7.11.2014]

Hakamies, Pekka & Wolf-Knuts, Ulrika (eds.) 2014: The Legacy of Lauri Honko. Contemporary Conversations. – Approaching Religion 4(1).

Honko, Lauri 1965: Finnische Mythologie. – Hans Wilhelm Haussig (ed.), Wörterbuch der Mythologie. Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag. 261–371.

Honko, Lauri 1981: Traditionsekologi – en introduktion. – Honko, Lauri & Löfgren, Orvar (red.), Tradition och miljö: ett kulturekologiskt perspektiv. Lund: Liber Läromedel. 9–63.

Kamppinen, Matti & Hakamies, Pekka 2013: The Theory of Culture of Folklorist Lauri Honko, 1932–2002: The Ecology of Tradition. Lewiston: Mellen Press.


Docent Frog is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Folklore Studies, University of Helsinki.