The Northern Way

Page 5

The Kalevala (the Land of Heroes) relates the ever-varying contests between the Finns and the "darksome Laplanders ", just as the Iliad relates the contests between the Greeks and the Trojans. Castrén is of the opinion that the enmity between the Finns and the Lapps was sung long before the Finns had left their Asiatic birth-place.

A deeper and more esoteric meaning of the Kalevala, however, points to a contest between Light and Darkness, Good and Evil; the Finns representing the Light and the Good, and the Lapps, the Darkness and the Evil. Like the Niebelungs, the heroes of the Finns woo for brides the beauteous maidens of the North; and the similarity is rendered still more striking by their frequent inroads into the country of the Lapps, in order to possess themselves of the envied treasure of Lapland, the mysterious Sampo, evidently the Golden Fleece of the Argonautic expedition. Curiously enough public opinion is often expressed in the runes, in the words of an infant; often too the unexpected is introduced after the manner of the Greek dramas, by a young child, or an old man.

The whole poem is replete with the most fascinating folk-lore about the mysteries of nature, the origin of things, the enigmas of human tears, and, true to the character of a national epic, it represents not only the poetry, but the entire wisdom and accumulated experience of a nation. Among others, there is a profoundly philosophical trait in the poem, indicative of a deep insight into the workings of the human mind, and into the forces of nature. Whenever one of the heroes of the Kalevala wishes to overcome the aggressive power of an evil force, as a wound, a disease, a ferocious beast, or a venomous serpent, he achieves his purpose by chanting the origin of the inimical force. The thought underlying this idea evidently is that all evil could be obviated had we but the knowledge of whence and how it came.

The numerous myths of the poem are likewise full of significance and beauty, and the Kalevala should be read between the lines, in order that the fall meaning of this great epic may be comprehended. Even such a hideous impersonation as that of Kullerwoinen, is rich with pointed meaning, showing as it does, the incorrigibility of ingrained evil. This legend, like all others of the poem, has its deep-running stream of esoteric interpretation. The Kalevala, perhaps, more than any other, uses its lines on the surface in symbolism to point the human mind to the brighter gems of truth beneath.

The three main personages, Wainamoinen, the ancient singer, Ilmarinen, the eternal forgeman, and Lemminkainen, the reckless wizard, as mentioned above, are conceived as being of divine origin. In fact, the acting characters of the Kalevala are mostly superhuman, magic beings. Even the female actors are powerful sorceresses, and the hostess of Pohyola, especially, braves the might of all the enchanters of Wainola combined. The power of magic is a striking feature of the poem. Here, as in the legends of no other people, do the heroes and demi-gods accomplish nearly everything by magic. The songs of Wainamoinen disarm his opponents; they quiet the angry sea; they give warmth to the new sun and the new moon which his brother, Ilmarinen, forges from the magic metals; they give life to the spouse of Ilmarinen, which the "eternal metal-artist" forges from gold, silver, and copper. In fact we are among a people that endows everything with life, and with human and divine attributes. Birds, and beasts, and fishes, and serpents, as well as the Sun, the Moon, the Great Bear, and the stars, are either kind or unkind. Drops of blood find speech; men and maidens transform themselves into other shapes and resume again their native forms at will; ships, and trees, and waters, have magic powers; in short, all nature speaks in human tongues.

The Kalevala dates back to an enormous antiquity. One reason for believing this, lies in the silence of the Kalevala about Russians, Germans, or Swedes, their neighbors. This evidently shows that the poem must have been composed at a time when these nations had but very little or no intercourse with the Finns. The coincidence between the incantations adduced above, proves that these witch-songs date from a time when the Hungarians and the Finns were still united as one people; in other words, to a time at least 3000 years ago. The whole poem betrays no important signs of foreign influence, and in its entire tenor is a thoroughly pagan epic. There are excellent reasons for believing that the story of Mariatta, recited in the 50th Rune, is an ante-Christian legend.

An additional proof of the originality and independent rise of the Kalevala is to be found in its metre. All genuine poetry must have its peculiar verse, just as snow-flakes cannot exist without their peculiar crystalizations. It is thus that the Iliad is inseparably united, and, as it were, immersed in the stately hexametre, and the French epics, in the graceful Alexandrine verse. The metre of the Kalevala is the "eight-syllabled trochaic, with the part-line echo," and is the characteristic verse of the Finns. The natural speech of this people is poetry. The young men and maidens, the old men and matrons, in their interchange of ideas, unwittingly fall into verse. The genius of their language aids to this end, inasmuch as their words are strongly trochaic.

This wonderfully versatile metre admits of keeping the right medium between the dignified, almost prancing hexameter, and the shorter metres of the lyrics. Its feet are nimble and fleet, but yet full of vigor and expressiveness. In addition, the Kalevala uses alliteration, and thus varies the rhythm of time with the rhythm of sound. This metre is especially fit for the numerous expressions of endearment in which the Finnish epic abounds. It is more especially the love of the mother for her children, and the love of the children for their mother, that find frequent and ever-tender expression in the sonorous lines of the Kalevala. The Swedish translation by Castrén, the German, by Schiefner, and the Hungarian, by Barna, as well as the following English translation, are in the original metre of the Kalevala.

To prove that this peculiar and fascinating style of verse is of very ancient origin, the following lines have been accurately copied from the first edition in Finnish of the Kalevala, collated by Dr. Lönnrot, and published in 1835 at Helsingfors, the quotation beginning with the 150th line of the 2nd Rune:

Louhi Pohjolan emanta
Sanan wirkko, noin nimesi:
"Niin mita minulleannat,
Kun saatan omille maille,
Oman pellon pientarelle,
Oman pihan rikkasille?"
Sano wanha Wainamoinen:
"Mitapa kysyt minulta,
Kun saatat omille maille,
Oman kaën kukkumille,
Oman kukon kukkluwille,
Oman saunan lampimille?"
Sano Pohjolan emanta:
"Ohoh wiisas Wainamoinen!
Taiatko takoa sammon,
Kirjokannen kirjaëlla,
Yhen joukkosen sulasta,
Yhen willan kylkyesta,
Yhen otrasen jywasta,
Yhen warttinan muruista."

As to the architecture of the Kalevala, it stands midway between the epical ballads of the Servians and the purely epical structure of the Iliad. Though a continuous whole, it contains several almost independent parts, as the contest of Youkahainen, the Kullervo episode, and the legend of Mariatta.

By language-masters this epic of Suomi, descending unwritten from the mythical age to the present day, kept alive from generation to generation by minstrels, or song-men, is regarded as one of the most precious contributions to the literature of the world, made since the time of Milton and the German classics.

Acknowledgment is hereby made to the following sources of information used in the preparation of this work: to E. Lenquist's De Superstitione veterum Fennorum theoretica et practica; to Chr. Ganander's Mythologia Fennica; to Becker's De Vainamoine; to Max Müller's Oxford Essays; to Prof. John A. Porter's Selections from the Kalevala; to the writings of the two Grimms; to Latham's Native Races of the Russian Empire; to the translations of the Kalevala by Alex. Castrén, Anton Schieffier, L. LeDuc and Ferdinand Barna; and especially to the excellent treatises on the Kalevala, and on the Mythology of the Finns, by Mace Da Charda and Alex. Castrén; to Prof. Heléna Klingner, of Cincinnati, a linguist of high rank, and who has compared very conscientiously the manuscript of the following pages with the German translation of the Kalevala by Anton Schiefner; to Dr. Emil Reich, a native Hungarian, a close student of the Ugrian tongues, who, in a most thorough manner, has compared this translation with the Hungarian by Ferdinand Barna, and who, familiar with the habits, customs, and religious notions of the Finns, has furnished much valuable material used in the preparation of this preface; and, finally, to Prof. Thomas C. Porter, D.D., LL.D., of Lafayette College, who has become an authority on the Kalevala through his own researches for many years, aided by a long and intimate acquaintance with Prof. A. F. Soldan, a Finn by birth, an enthusiastic lover of his country, a scholar of great attainments, acquainted with many languages, and once at the head of the Imperial Mint at Helsingfors, the capital of Finland. Prof. Porter has very kindly placed in the hands of the author of these pages, all the literature on this subject at his command, including his own writings; he has watched the growth of this translation with unusual interest; and, with the eye of a gifted poet and scholar, he has made two careful and critical examinations of the entire manuscript, making annotations, emendations, and corrections, by which this work has been greatly improved.

With this prolonged introduction, this, the first English translation of the Kalevala, with its many imperfections, is hesitatingly given to the public.


October 1, 1887.


Index  |  Previous page  |  Next page