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Custom and Myth

Page: 63

While all is merry, the mischievous Lemminkainen sets out, an unbidden guest, for Pohjola. On his way he encounters a serpent, which he slays by the song of serpent-charming. In this ‘mystic chain of verse’ the serpent is not addressed as the gentle reptile, god of southern peoples, but is spoken of with all hatred and loathing: ‘Black creeping thing of the low lands, monster flecked with the colours of death, thou that hast on thy skin the stain of the sterile soil, get thee forth from the path of a hero.’ After slaying the serpent, Lemminkainen reaches Pohjola, kills one of his hosts, and fixes his head on one of a thousand stakes for human skulls that stood about the house, as they might round the hut of a Dyak in Borneo. He then flees to the isle of Saari, whence he is driven for his heroic profligacy, and by the hatred of the only girl whom he has not wronged. This is a very pretty touch of human nature.

He now meditates a new incursion into Pohjola. The mother of Pohjola (it is just worth noticing that the leadership assumed by this woman points to a state of society when the family was scarcely formed) calls to her aid ‘her child the Frost;’ but the frost is put to shame by a hymn of the invader’s, a song against the Cold: ‘The serpent was his foster-mother, the serpent with her barren breasts; the wind of the north rocked his cradle, and the ice-wind sang him to sleep, in the midst of the wild marsh-land, where the wells of the waters begin.’ It is a curious instance of the animism, the vivid power of personifying all the beings and forces of nature, which marks the ‘Kalevala,’ that the Cold speaks to Lemminkainen in human voice, and seeks a reconciliation.

At this part of the epic there is an obvious lacuna. The story goes to Kullervo, a luckless man, who serves as shepherd to Ilmarinen. Thinking himself ill-treated by the heroic smith’s wife, the shepherd changes his flock into bears and wolves, which devour their mistress. Then he returns to his own home, where he learns that his sister has been lost for many days, and is believed to be dead. Travelling in search of her he meets a girl, loves her, and all unwittingly commits an inexpiable offence. ‘Then,’ says the ‘Kalevala,’ ‘came up the new dawn, and the maiden spoke, saying, “What is thy race, bold young man, and who is thy father?” Kullervo said, “I am the wretched son of Kalerva; but tell me, what is thy race, and who is thy father?” Then said the maiden, “I am the wretched daughter of Kalerva. Ah! would God that I had died, then might I have grown with the green grass, and blossomed with the flowers, and never known this sorrow.” With this she sprang into the midst of the foaming waves, and found peace in Tuoni, and rest in the waters of forgetfulness.’ Then there was no word for Kullervo, but the bitter moan of the brother in the terrible Scotch ballad of the Bonny Hind, and no rest but in death by his own sword, where grass grows never on his sister’s tomb.


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