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Custom and Myth

Page: 61

{164a} This custom, which is not peculiar to the Finns, but is probably a universal note of early society, prohibits marriage between members of the same tribe. Consequently, the main action, such as it is, of the ‘Kalevala’ turns on the efforts made by the men of Kaleva to obtain brides from the hostile tribe of Pohja. {164b}

Further proof of ancient origin is to be found in what is the great literary beauty of the poem—its pure spontaneity and simplicity. It is the production of an intensely imaginative race, to which song came as the most natural expression of joy and sorrow, terror or triumph—a class which lay near to nature’s secret, and was not out of sympathy with the wild kin of woods and waters.

‘These songs,’ says the prelude, ‘were found by the wayside, and gathered in the depths of the copses; blown from the branches of the forest, and culled among the plumes of the pine-trees. These lays came to me as I followed the flocks, in a land of meadows honey-sweet, and of golden hills. . . . The cold has spoken to me, and the rain has told me her runes; the winds of heaven, the waves of the sea, have spoken and sung to me; the wild birds have taught me, the music of many waters has been my master.’

The metre in which the epic is chanted resembles, to an English ear, that of Mr. Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’—there is assonance rather than rhyme; and a very musical effect is produced by the liquid character of the language, and by the frequent alliterations.

This rough outline of the main characteristics of the ‘Kalevala’ we shall now try to fill up with an abstract of its contents. The poem is longer than the ‘Iliad,’ and much of interest must necessarily be omitted; but it is only through such an abstract that any idea can be given of the sort of unity which does prevail amid the most utter discrepancy.

In the first place, what is to be understood by the word ‘Kalevala’? The affix la signifies ‘abode.’ Thus, ‘Tuonela’ is ‘the abode of Tuoni,’ the god of the lower world; and as ‘kaleva’ means ‘heroic,’ ‘magnificent,’ ‘Kalevala’ is ‘The Home of Heroes.’ The poem is the record of the adventures of the people of Kalevala—of their strife with the men of Pohjola, the place of the world’s end. We may fancy two old Runoias, or singers, clasping hands on one of the first nights of the Finnish winter, and beginning (what probably has never been accomplished) the attempt to work through the ‘Kalevala’ before the return of summer. They commence ab ovo, or, rather, before the egg. First is chanted the birth of Wäinämöinen, the benefactor and teacher of men. He is the son of Luonnotar, the daughter of Nature, who answers to the first woman of the Iroquois cosmogony. Beneath the breath and touch of wind and tide, she conceived a child; but nine ages of man passed before his birth, while the mother floated on ‘the formless and the multiform waters.’ Then Ukko, the supreme God, sent an eagle, which laid her eggs in the maiden’s bosom, and from these eggs grew earth and sky, sun and moon, star and cloud. Then was Wäinämöinen born on the waters, and reached a barren land, and gazed on the new heavens and the new earth. There he sowed the grain that is the bread of man, chanting the hymn used at seed-time, calling on the mother earth to make the green herb spring, and on Ukko to send clouds and rain. So the corn sprang, and the golden cuckoo—which in Finland plays the part of the popinjay in Scotch ballads, or of the three golden birds in Greek folksongs—came with his congratulations. In regard to the epithet ‘golden,’ it may be observed that gold and silver, in the Finnish epic, are lavished on the commonest objects of daily life.

This is a universal note of primitive poetry, and is not a peculiar Finnish idiom, as M. Leouzon le Duc supposes; nor, as Mr. Tozer seems to think, in his account of Romaic ballads, a trace of Oriental influence among the modern Greeks. It is common to all the ballads of Europe, as M. Ampère has pointed out, and may be observed in the ‘Chanson de Roland,’ and in Homer.

While the corn ripened, Wäinämöinen rested from his labours, and took the task of Orpheus. ‘He sang,’ says the ‘Kalevala,’ of the origin of things, of the mysteries hidden from babes, that none may attain to in this sad life, in the hours of these perishable days. The fame of the Runoia’s singing excited jealousy in the breast of one of the men around him, of whose origin the ‘Kalevala’ gives no account. This man, Joukahainen, provoked him to a trial of song, boasting, like Empedocles, or like one of the old Celtic bards, that he had been all things. ‘When the earth was made I was there; when space was unrolled I launched the sun on his way.’ Then was Wäinämöinen wroth, and by the force of his enchantment he rooted Joukahainen to the ground, and suffered him not to go free without promising him the hand of his sister Aino. The mother was delighted; but the girl wept that she must now cover her long locks, her curls, her glory, and be the wife of ‘the old imperturbable Wäinämöinen.’ It is in vain that her mother offers her dainty food and rich dresses; she flees from home, and wanders till she meets three maidens bathing, and joins them, and is drowned, singing a sad song: ‘Ah, never may my sister come to bathe in the sea-water, for the drops of the sea are the drops of my blood.’ This wild idea occurs in the Romaic ballad, η κορη ταξιδευτρια, where a drop of blood on the lips of the drowned girl tinges all the waters of the world. To return to the fate of Aino. A swift hare runs (as in the Zulu legend of the Origin of Death) with the tale of sorrow to the maiden’s mother, and from the mother’s tears flow rivers of water, and therein are isles with golden hills where golden birds make melody. As for the old, the imperturbable Runoia, he loses his claim to the latter title, he is filled with sorrow, and searches through all the elements for his lost bride. At length he catches a fish which is unknown to him, who, like Atlas, ‘knew the depths of all the seas.’ The strange fish slips from his hands, a ‘tress of hair, of drowned maiden’s hair,’ floats for a moment on the foam, and too late he recognises that ‘there was never salmon yet that shone so fair, above the nets at sea.’ His lost bride has been within his reach, and now is doubly lost to him. Suddenly the waves are cloven asunder, and the mother of Nature and of Wäinämöinen appears, to comfort her son, like Thetis from the deep. She bids him go and seek, in the land of Pohjola, a bride alien to his race. After many a wild adventure, Wäinämöinen reaches Pohjola and is kindly entreated by Loutri, the mother of the maiden of the land. But he grows homesick, and complains, almost in Dante’s words, of the bitter bread of exile. Loutri will only grant him her daughter’s hand on condition that he gives her a sampo. A sampo is a mysterious engine that grinds meal, salt, and money. In fact, it is the mill in the well-known fairy tale, ‘Why the Sea is Salt.’ {169}

Wäinämöinen cannot fashion this mill himself, he must seek aid at home from Ilmarinen, the smith who forged ‘the iron vault of hollow heaven.’ As the hero returns to Kalevala, he meets the Lady of the Rainbow, seated on the arch of the sky, weaving the golden thread. She promises to be his, if he will accomplish certain tasks, and in the course of those he wounds himself with an axe. The wound can only be healed by one who knows the mystic words that hold the secret of the birth of iron. The legend of this evil birth, how iron grew from the milk of a maiden, and was forged by the primeval smith, Ilmarinen, to be the bane of warlike men, is communicated by Wäinämöinen to an old magician. The wizard then solemnly curses the iron, as a living thing, and invokes the aid of the supreme God Ukko, thus bringing together in one prayer the extremes of early religion. Then the hero is healed, and gives thanks to the Creator, ‘in whose hands is the end of a matter.’

Returning to Kalevala, Wäinämöinen sends Ilmarinen to Pohjola to make the sampo, ‘a mill for corn one day, for salt the next, for money the next.’ The fatal treasure is concealed by Loutri, and is obviously to play the part of the fairy hoard in the ‘Nibelungen Lied.’

With the eleventh canto a new hero, Ahti, or Lemminkainen, and a new cycle of adventures, is abruptly introduced. Lemminkainen is a profligate wanderer, with as many loves as Hercules. The fact that he is regarded as a form of the sea-god makes it strange that his most noted achievement, the seduction of the whole female population of his island, should correspond with a like feat of Krishna’s. ‘Sixteen thousand and one hundred,’ says the Vishnu Purana, ‘was the number of the maidens; and into so many forms did the son of Madhu multiply himself, so that every one of the damsels thought that he had wedded her in her single person.’ Krishna is the sun, of course, and the maidens are the dew-drops; {170} it is to be hoped that Lemminkainen’s connection with sea-water may save him from the solar hypothesis. His first regular marriage is unhappy, and he is slain in trying to capture a bride from the people of Pohjola. The black waters of the river of forgetfulness sweep him away, and his comb, which he left with his mother, bursts out bleeding—a frequent incident in Russian and other fairy tales. In many household tales, the hero, before setting out on a journey, erects a stick which will fall down when he is in distress, or death. The natives of Australia use this form of divination in actual practice, tying round the stick some of the hair of the person whose fate is to be ascertained. Then, like Demeter seeking Persephonê, the mother questions all the beings of the world, and their answers show a wonderful poetic sympathy with the silent life of Nature. ‘The moon said, I have sorrows enough of my own, without thinking of thy child. My lot is hard, my days are evil. I am born to wander companionless in the night, to shine in the season of frost, to watch through the endless winter, to fade when summer comes as king.’ The sun is kinder, and reveals the place of the hero’s body. The mother collects the scattered limbs, the birds bring healing balm from the heights of heaven, and after a hymn to the goddess of man’s blood, Lemminkainen is made sound and well, as the scattered ‘fragments of no more a man’ were united by the spell of Medea, like those of Osiris by Isis, or of the fair countess by the demon blacksmith in the Russian Märchen, or of the Carib hero mentioned by Mr. McLennan, {171} or of the ox in the South African household tale.


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