GB No. 3(22)/96


The below text discusses the vernacular folk ritual tradition of neighbours' help, widely spread, not so long ago, among Slavs in Eastern and Central Europe. The custom is similar to the presently popular one that belongs to the West Local Exchange Trading System (LETS). The article is an excerpt from the book by Janusz Reichel Rzecz o pieniądzu dla lokalnych społeczno¶ci czyli małe jest najpiękniejsze (About currency for local communities or the small is most beautiful).

Tłoka - is a village custom, nowadays forgotten in Poland, of voluntary neighbours' help at work, e.g. during harvest. It used to start with a ceremonial invitation and finish, when the work was over, with a dinner, singing and dancing. The principle of tłoka - collaboration and mutual help for the common welfare - is not only a village custom; it is a whole system of rites related to work. Co-operation in farming has always been necessary and it occurs in many cultures, but tłoka is of special meaning as a specific, Central European phenomenon of spiritual life, connected with the cult of ancestors present in the Belorussian variation of it.

It is interesting that the custom has a common name in many languages: Belorussian, Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and Ukrainian. It would be difficult to find out to what extent the principle of mutual help in the former folk culture influenced the historical process whose result was the emergance of the Polish Republic: the European federal state following the rules of tolerance and citizen freedom (although the rights were reserved only for the noble). Maintaining an efficient and stable structure of multi-ethnic and multi-religious state is difficult to attain even today, so the spiritual aura that resulted in achieving the condition is even more interesting. Significant is the fact that the maximal territorial range of the old Republic covered the area of occurrence of the mutual help custom related to the specific ritual known as tłoka. The fall of the Republic also results from the collapse of the principle of mutual assistance and solidarity.

The origin of the notion tłoka is not clear. It is widely believed that the word comes from Prussian. A Russian ethnograph Zabyszyn wrote at the end of the 19th c. (...) help in various districts have different meanings but in each case it ends with a feast. The word 'toloka' means the same that help does, but the fist word originates from the Old Prussian word Talk, i.e. - repaying work with a feast.

Władysław Kopalinski in his Słownik mitów i tradycji kultury (Dictionary of myths and traditions of culture) gives another interpretation of the word: the notion originates from the word "tłok" - "crowd" (of neighbours coming to help). Another meaning of tłoka is "helping with all one's heart", "obliging". Kopalinski defines tłoka as an example of village neighbours' help, probably a remnant of a former village community.

Aleksander Brükner, in turn, explains the origin of tłoka differently: 'tłoka', in Russian 'toloka' (...) is a pre-Slavic custom of voluntary (sometimes turning to obligatory) neighbour's help in the field or pasture, repaid with a feast (Lith. 'talka', Pruss. 'talokininkas', seem to originate from Polish and Russian, although in Lithuanian there even exists a verb 'telkti', 'susi telkti', meaning 'invite and gather for tłoka' Tłoka in Latin stands for 'palilia', i.e. 'shepherds' feasts'. In 1500 'tłoka, merenda, Vesperbrot' meant afternoon meal.)

As at the beginning of this century one of our prominent Polish sociologists Florian Znaniecki wrote in his book Chłop polski w Europie i Ameryce (Polish Peasant in Europe and America) the rule of solidarity is one of the main principles of the Polish culture. In his opinion the principle cannot be considered solely as limited to the village community or meaning co-operation at work. For Znaniecki the rule has much a bigger significance: it stands for the solidarity of all living creatures against the death. As one can see, tłoka can be understood also as a principle of unifying spiritual power resulting from collaboration.

Tłoka, the village custom of mutual help, has been disappearing in our times in the process of social and economic changes. However, the idea of tłoka keeps emerging as an archetype from the collective subconscience: during Belorussian national resurrection in the 80's/90's one of the organisations established at that time adopted the name of Tałaká .

The analysis of rites related to tłoka and customs related to work may play an important role in the renewal of respect for work in the countries of Central Europe. As the example of Far Eastern cultures shows, the premise for a fast development is a harmonious connection between modernisation and tradition. Only this way guarantees preservation of identity in the modern world and protects against the threat of annihilation of traditional values among the commercial mass culture.

The principle of mutuality and helping and all the rites connected to tłoka are issues that deserve comparative studies that can explain their role in the former spiritual life in Central Europe and its potential significance for the new identity awareness developing in the post-communist period in the region.

Piotr Wiench

Władyslaw Kopaliński, Słownik mitów i tradycji kultury, Warsaw, 1985, p. 1189.
Aleksander Brückner, Słownik Etymologiczny języka polskiego, Warsaw 1989, p. 572.
M. Zabyshin, Russkij narod, ego obuchai, predaniya i praca, poeziya, Moscow 1888, izdatel'stwo Avtor 1992.
Valodzina Tacyana Vasil'evna: Talaka y sisteme duhovnoi kul'tury belarusav, Minsk 1994.

GB No. 3(22)/96 | Contents