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Custom and Myth

Page: 59

épopées. Now, in the ‘Kalevala,’ there is no trace of the influence of family feeling; it was no one’s peculiar care and pride to watch over the records of the fame of this or that hero. The poem begins with a cosmogony as wild as any Indian dream of creation; and the human characters who move in the story are shadowy inhabitants of no very definite lands, whom no family claim as their forefathers. The very want of this idea of family and aristocratic pride gives the ‘Kalevala’ a unique place among epics. It is emphatically an epic of the people, of that class whose life contains no element of progress, no break in continuity; which from age to age preserves, in solitude and close communion with nature, the earliest beliefs of grey antiquity. The Greek epic, on the other hand, has, as M. Preller {161} points out, ‘nothing to do with natural man, but with an ideal world of heroes, with sons of the gods, with consecrated kings, heroes, elders, a kind of specific race of men. The people exist only as subsidiary to the great houses, as a mere background against which stand out the shining figures of heroes; as a race of beings fresh and rough from the hands of nature, with whom, and with whose concerns, the great houses and their bards have little concern.’ This feeling—so universal in Greece, and in the feudal countries of mediæval Europe, that there are two kinds of men, the golden and the brazen race, as Plato would have called them—is absent, with all its results, in the ‘Kalevala.’

Among the Finns we find no trace of an aristocracy; there is scarcely a mention of kings, or priests; the heroes of the poem are really popular heroes, fishers, smiths, husbandmen, ‘medicine-men,’ or wizards; exaggerated shadows of the people, pursuing on a heroic scale, not war, but the common daily business of primitive and peaceful men. In recording their adventures, the ‘Kalevala,’ like the shield of Achilles, reflects all the life of a race, the feasts, the funerals, the rites of seed-time and harvest of marriage and death, the hymn, and the magical incantation. Were this all, the epic would only have the value of an exhaustive collection of the popular ballads which, as we have seen, are a poetical record of the intenser moments in the existence of unsophisticated tribes. But the ‘Kalevala’ is distinguished from such a collection, by presenting the ballads as they are produced by the events of a continuous narrative, and thus it takes a distinct place between the aristocratic epics of Greece, or of the Franks, and the scattered songs which have been collected in Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, and Italy.

Besides the interest of its unique position as a popular epic, the ‘Kalevala’ is very valuable, both for its literary beauties and for the confused mass of folklore which it contains.

Here old cosmogonies, attempts of man to represent to himself the beginning of things, are mingled with the same wild imaginings as are found everywhere in the shape of fairy-tales. We are hurried from an account of the mystic egg of creation, to a hymn like that of the Ambarval Brothers, to a strangely familiar scrap of a nursery story, to an incident which we remember as occurring in almost identical words in a Scotch ballad. We are among a people which endows everything with human characters and life, which is in familiar relations with birds, and beasts, and even with rocks and plants. Ravens and wolves and fishes of the sea, sun, moon, and stars, are kindly or churlish; drops of blood find speech, man and maid change to snake or swan and resume their forms, ships have magic powers, like the ships of the Phæacians.

Then there is the oddest confusion of every stage of religious development: we find a supreme God, delighting in righteousness; Ukko, the lord of the vault of air, who stands apart from men, and sends his son, Wäinämöinen, to be their teacher in music and agriculture.

Across this faith comes a religion of petrified abstractions like those of the Roman Pantheon. There are gods of colour, a goddess of weaving, a goddess of man’s blood, besides elemental spirits of woods and waters, and the manes of the dead. Meanwhile, the working faith of the people is the belief in magic—generally a sign of the lower culture. It is supposed that the knowledge of certain magic words gives power over the elemental bodies which obey them; it is held that the will of a distant sorcerer can cross the lakes and plains like the breath of a fantastic frost, with power to change an enemy to ice or stone. Traces remain of the worship of animals: there is a hymn to the bear; a dance like the bear-dance of the American Indians; and another hymn tells of the birth and power of the serpent. Across all, and closing all, comes a hostile account of the origin of Christianity—the end of joy and music.


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