2.1. The narrative songs

The narrative songs are defined here as a genre which is based on narration and story-telling in sung form. The contents of the narrative songs are based on stories which are considered to originate from the, even undefined and legendary, past and to be true (cf. Tereshchenko 1990, 16). The stories themselves are typically long, both in terms of performance and story content: the performance may take several hours, even several evenings, and the events of the story may encompass years or decades.

The oldest narrative themes are filled with fantasy, and yet the overall scene tends to be highly realistic. The Nenets way of life is depicted in the songs in detail. The narrative songs thus serve as a kind of oral chronicle of the history of the people, their abilities, their relations to each other and to other ethnic groups, as also Khomich (1976, 60) points out.

As such, it is worth considering whether Nenets narrative songs can be defined as "epic", from the viewpoint of literary studies. If traditionally the "epic" is defined as a large cycle of stories concerning specifically identified archetypal heroes, Nenets narrative songs can not be held as epic, as the term would apply, for example to the Manas of the Kirghiz, Maaday-Kara of the Altaian or Geser of the Buryat. On the other hand, however, although specifically dealing with Finnish material, Kuusi defines epic as stories, "telling about events larger than life", and includes elements of hyperbole, enumeration and stock epithet (Kuusi et al 1977, 13). All of these all characteristics can be found to some extent in Nenets narratives also. Discussing about the definition of the oral epic, Honko (1995, 117) refers to the characteristic compositional length of the epos, to its narratological characteristics and composition, and especially to its meaning as the reflection of the identity of its owners. This view incorporates the question of the meaning of the epos beyond the local social units: the archetypal hero of the epic is known also outside of the local community and particularly in this kind of case the epic also forms, and may be deliberately constructed as, a possible basis for the identity of an ethnic or national group of peoples larger than a local community.

Since the Nenets do not have precisely these kinds of archetypal heroes known by every community in their songs, should their narrative songs be excluded from this definition of epic? The difference can hardly be considered as categorical, but as a continuum: a single community of nomads, or the people of a given tundra region, form as such a large regional ethnic unit, although the population rates would be minimal and would represent only a small fraction of all the Nenets.

The narrative song terms discussed below are: syudbabts, an ancient type of heroic song, yárabts, more recent heroic-biographical type and hinabts, an even more recent category of songs, that can also be of a narrative type. The lahanakos (fairy-tales) can also be sung, with a performance style similar to syudbabts and yárabts. Furthermore, the historical changes in the genre terminology have produced some transitional epic forms, like hinabts (discussed below). The syudbabts and yárabts have also later counterparts, labelled adjectivally as syudbabtsarka 'half-syudbabts', 'almost-syudbabts', or accordingly, yárabtsarka (Tereshchenko 1990, 26; 31).