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Custom and Myth

Page: 64

The epic now draws to a close. Ilmarinen seeks a new wife in Pohja, and endeavours with Wäinämöinen’s help to recover the mystic sampo. On the voyage, the Runoia makes a harp out of the bones of a monstrous fish, so strange a harp that none may play it but himself. When he played, all four-footed things came about him, and the white birds dropped down ‘like a storm of snow.’ The maidens of the sun and the moon paused in their weaving, and the golden thread fell from their hands. The Ancient One of the sea-water listened, and the nymphs of the wells forgot to comb their loose locks with the golden combs. All men and maidens and little children wept, amid the silent joy of nature; nay, the great harper wept, and of his tears were pearls made.

In the war with Pohjola the heroes were victorious, but the sampo was broken in the fight, and lost in the sea, and that, perhaps, is ‘why the sea is salt.’ Fragments were collected, however, and Loutri, furious at the success of the heroes of Kalevala, sent against them a bear, destructive as the boar of Calydon. But Wäinämöinen despatched the monster, and the body was brought home with the bear-dance, and the hymn of the bear. ‘Oh, Otso,’ cry the singers, ‘be not angry that we come near thee. The bear, the honey-footed bear, was born in lands between sun and moon, and he died not by men’s hands, but of his own will.’ The Finnish savants are probably right, who find here a trace of the beast-worship which in many lands has placed the bear among the number of the stars. Propitiation of the bear is practised by Red Indians, by the Ainos of Japan, and (in the case of the ‘native bear’) by Australians. The Red Indians have a myth to prove that the bear is immortal, does not die, but, after his apparent death, rises again in another body. There is no trace, however, that the Finns claimed, like the Danes, descent from the bear. The Lapps, a people of confused belief, worshipped him along with Thor, Christ, the sun, and the serpent. {176}

But another cult, an alien creed, is approaching Kalevala. There is no part of the epic more strange than the closing canto, which tells in the wildest language, and through the most exaggerated forms of savage imagination, the tale of the introduction of Christianity. Marjatta was a maiden, ‘as pure as the dew is, as holy as stars are that live without stain.’ As she fed her flocks, and listened to the singing of the golden cuckoo, a berry fell into her bosom. After many days she bore a child, and the people despised and rejected her, and she was thrust forth, and her babe was born in a stable, and cradled in the manger. Who should baptize the babe? The god of the wilderness refused, and Wäinämöinen would have had the young child slain. Then the infant rebuked the ancient Demigod, who fled in anger to the sea, and with his magic song he built a magic barque, and he sat therein, and took the helm in his hand. The tide bore him out to sea, and he lifted his voice and sang: ‘Times go by, and suns shall rise and set, and then shall men have need of me, and shall look for the promise of my coming that I may make a new sampo, and a new harp, and bring back sunlight and moonshine, and the joy that is banished from the world.’ Then he crossed the waters, and gained the limits of the sea, and the lower spaces of the sky.


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