Lemminkäinen’s Mother; painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Finnish National Gallery, Helsinki

Akseli Gallen-Kallela: Lemminkäinen’s Mother, 1897

“Among Finnish peoples,” I read with close attention at age eleven in the impressively weighty Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology,

magic made its influence felt throughout all aspects of material and intellectual life…. Their popular poetry remains thoroughly impregnated with the spirit of Shamanistic magic. The Kalevala is thus in the first place a magic poem.

Adjacent to these words was an image captioned “Shaman priest in his hut,” the shaman in question sitting cross-legged in front of what was identified as his magic drum, smoking a long, thin pipe and staring toward the camera with a distant penetrating gaze. Although Larousse failed to make clear that the photograph—as was evident—had been taken not in Finland but in Siberia, on the other side of the circumpolar world, the juxtaposition indelibly associated this seemingly otherworldly personage with the equally otherworldly notion of a “magic poem.” I tucked away the word “shaman,” reactivating it some years later through the writings of Mircea Eliade, Carlos Castaneda, and others, but the Kalevala remained for the time being an unknown quantity.

What lingered most from Larousse’s dry prose summaries of some of the poem’s episodes was the figure of the hunter Lemminkäinen, killed and dismembered on the River of Death, and of his mother retrieving and knitting together the pieces and by magic procedures restoring him to life. This haunting episode was encapsulated in an accompanying painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (Lemminkäinen’s Mother, 1897), much of whose work depicts scenes from the Kalevala. The dead hero, stretched out naked, his body once again made whole but still not animate, inevitably evoked Jesus, but in his mother’s face, as she gazed upward by a riverbank littered with human bones, Mary’s grief was transformed into a ferocious determination to defeat death. The river itself seemed connected to some alternative northerly current of storytelling, separate from other bodies of myth and with its own peculiar sense of darkness.

It is odd that the Kalevala—published in its final form in 1849—seems to need to be perpetually reintroduced, since it has been rendered many times into scores of languages, the first complete English version having appeared in 1888. In Finland, which celebrates Kalevala Day on February 28, its ubiquitous influence extends beyond the compositions of Jean Sibelius (“The Swan of Tuonela,” “Lemminkäinen’s Homecoming,” and many others) and the paintings of Gallen-Kallela to a vast body of poetry, art, music, drama, and film subjecting the original text to endless revision and reinterpretation.1 Elsewhere it has been a fruitful if more hidden source of inspiration. The poem’s materials and meter prompted Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who read it in German translation, to write The Song of Hiawatha (1855); J.R.R. Tolkien, as a student at Oxford, was sufficiently impressed by the Kalevala’s “weird tales” and “luxuriant animism” to undertake a prose retelling of its most tragic episode (The Story of Kullervo), which he considered the starting point of his own lifelong literary project.

Writers of fantasy and science fiction continue to draw on it. The American poet Peter O’Leary has recently taken its central narrative thread as the springboard for The Sampo (2016), a vigorously incantatory poem to which I am grateful for leading me back to the Kalevala legends. This year it comes into view again with a Penguin Classics edition, not a new translation but a 1989 version by the Finnish-American poet Eino Friberg that previously was not widely distributed.

To place Friberg’s version alongside two other notable modern translations—those of Keith Bosley and Francis Peabody Magoun Jr.—is to confront very different approaches to bringing this poem into English, with Magoun taking a deliberately prosaic and literal approach, Bosley choosing a hard-edged style informed by modernism and drawing on a wide-ranging vocabulary, and Friberg respecting as far as possible the original meter and the entrancing continuities of the storytelling.

But beyond them lingers the question of the precise nature of the text being translated. Elias Lönnrot, whose name is attached to the Kalevala, is described more often as its compiler or editor than as its author. In his preface to the shorter 1835 version now known as the Old Kalevala, he described himself as a collector, while acknowledging that “I have tried to put these songs into some sort of order.” A provincial tailor’s son who with some difficulty acquired a university education and eventually worked as a rural medical inspector, Lönnrot wrote a master’s thesis on Finnish mythology and beginning in his mid-twenties made expeditions to gather old songs. That twenty-year process culminated in the completed Kalevala of fifty runos (cantos).

What is now Finland came under the rule of Sweden in the twelfth century, and in Lönnrot’s era Swedish remained the language of the elite, even though Finland had been ceded to Russia in 1809. Although a written Finnish literature was slow to develop, a large body of oral poetry persisted in outlying areas, recited to the accompaniment of the harp-like five-string kantele. Many of these songs reflected pre-Christian traditions that over centuries had been vigorously combated by prelates both Lutheran and Orthodox: “Their unholy objects of worship are forests, stones, rivers, marshes, springs, hills, the sun, the moon, stars, lakes and simply all manner of things.”2


The repertoires of local bards had come to be recognized as unique repositories of a folk culture otherwise in danger of obliteration, and Lönnrot had a good many predecessors in his work of collection. One of them had articulated, in 1817, what might have served as Lönnrot’s starting point: “If one should desire to collect the old traditional songs and from these make a systematic whole, there might come from them an epic, a drama…a new Homer, Ossian, or Nibelungenlied might come into being.”3 The goal was political from the start: a national poem—preserving (in Lönnrot’s words) “the activities, life, and ancient condition of our forebears”—to establish a poetic heritage for a nation that would not formally exist until 1917.

Traces of the heritage were inevitably dwindling. In his preface to the Old Kalevala, Lönnrot writes of an eighty-year-old peasant named Arhippa, a crucial contributor to the Kalevala who supplied some four thousand lines; he sang over a period of two days as Lönnrot scrambled to keep up. Arhippa wistfully recalled performances heard in childhood:

Every night they used to sing continuously and never the same words twice. In those days there was story-telling!… Were my father now living, you would not write down his songs in two weeks. Singers like that are no longer born on earth, and all the old songs are disappearing from among the people.

In that light each recitation seems to hark back to sources truer and more complete, whose powers and energies can now only faintly be summoned. Yet the past thus kept miraculously alive was more precisely reshaped with each recital. The analogy to what Milman Parry proposed a century later as the origin of the Homeric epics in traditional oral performances is unavoidable.4

To Lönnrot fell the task of imposing continuity on fragments and variants gathered from widely scattered informants. In eleven field trips, most significantly in Karelia (most of it now Russian territory), Lönnrot, eventually with the help of other collectors, transcribed recitations of all sorts, reserving the relevant narrative songs to be stitched into a long poem and joining disparate pieces through what Magoun describes as “conflation and concatenation.” He felt free to rename characters, fuse unrelated stories, and interpolate linking passages of his own composition, while preserving some 85 percent of the phrasing of the local bards. This process of what might be called intuitive welding resulted in some of the work’s most celebrated episodes. In Lemminkäinen at least three different mythic personages are combined. The tragic tale of Kullervo (the abused child, survivor of a massacre, who wreaks violent revenge on all his perceived enemies, inadvertently commits incest with his sister, and finally commits suicide) has inspired paintings, plays, and operas; it too is derived from multiple unrelated sources. Lonnröt did not restore a lost work; he brought into existence out of words and stories not his own an epic that never was.

Remnants of potent shamanic ceremonies had by Lönnrot’s time become entertaining tales of virtuosic wizardry, and such recitations continued to serve as auspicious rituals, however obscure some of their meanings. They marked an attenuated trail leading back toward the birth of forms and the origin of names, primordial formulas like those found by the Kalevala’s central figure, the god-hero-wizard-singer Väinämöinen: “Magic sayings by the thousands,/Snared them from the secret places,/Lured them from the hidden crannies.” Magic sayings are at the heart of the Kalevala, whose recurrent theme is the power of the proper words to transform, lead astray, destroy, create, or bring back to life by shamanic fiat.

Väinämöinen can be observed, with his long beard and oracular gaze, in an imposing sculptural monument unveiled in Helsinki in 1902; to his left is seated Lönnrot, pen and paper at the ready, his demeanor that of an amanuensis unperturbed by the proximity of the primal shaman. Yet ancient as Väinämöinen is—he is after all the first planter of trees and cultivator of barley—he is seen emerging from the mouth of a shaman yet more ancient: Vipunen, long dead yet still somehow alive, rooted in the ground with alders and birch trees growing out of him, in whose belly Väinämöinen has been swallowed up like Jonah, and from whom he has succeeded in wresting the spells for building a boat that will take him to “dark Pohjola,…the foggy land of sedges,” the ominous and witchy territory sometimes translated as Northland or North Farm, home of the gap-toothed Louhi and her beautiful daughters.


Such are the threads of the Kalevala’s most archaic songs, in which no beginning is so old that there was not something before it, and where ordinary notions of identity and of cause and effect are superseded by magical techniques capable in an instant of changing anything into anything and creating something out of nothing. The culture embodied by these materials was sufficiently exotic that it sent nineteenth-century artists like Gallen-Kallela and Pekka Halonen off to Karelia as if it were (as characterized by a Finnish art historian) a domestic Tahiti, albeit a Tahiti whose lore was of fens and fogs and killing frosts.5

The Kalevala is thus not so much a timeless work as one existing simultaneously in a multitude of epochs: Lönnrot’s time; the rather different, even if contemporaneous, time of the singers he sought out; and the indeterminate periods when the prototypes of the poems were first composed. The reader encounters a palimpsest of eras woven with deceptive smoothness into an ongoing text, eras that by the historian Jukka Korpela’s reckoning may stretch from the Neolithic to the 1840s. We lurch unpredictably from an Iron Age when foreign contacts are rare or unknown to a later moment when the talk is of topcoats and German shoes. The poem’s legendary heroes—Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, Lemminkäinen—seem to move in and out of multiple identities: starting as gods or demigods, they devolve into hunters and gatherers, freebooters and singers, and end up as country folk concerned with down-to-earth domestic business.

Väinämöinen is by turns supernatural creator, wily trickster, sought-after wedding singer, and (repeatedly) rejected suitor. Ilmarinen, credited with having “hammered out the vault of heaven,” figures at other moments as a sooty and slightly clueless village blacksmith. We move as well through a multitude of modes: spells and incantations, cosmological myths, humorous folktales spiced with nonsense words, animal fables, violent legends, homilies on the proper conduct of husbands and wives, maternal lamentations, despairing or self-condemning inner monologues, and even, in its glimpses of household life, something like naturalistic reporting—all bound together by the constant evocation of the geography in which the Kalevala is grounded. If not precisely an epic in Ezra Pound’s sense of “a poem including history”—it notably lacks dynasties, palaces, sieges—this is preeminently a poem including climate.

The superimposed zones of the Kalevala occupy a common ground, a space that toggles between the real and the mythic. It is a geography defined by watery pathways and watery fates: the maiden Aino drowns herself and is transformed into a fish; Lemminkäinen’s boat is trapped by supernaturally invoked ice; Väinämöinen is wounded by a jealous rival and left to drift on the water “like a fallen fir log,/…like a hollow pine stump.” Often a marshy damp and chill pervades. The varying states of water and their uncertain transitions, from freshets to slush, from whirlpools to slack water, are called upon to characterize states of mind. Everything continually changes—waterways ice over, wood rots—and beyond the known waters is the River of Death in the land of Tuonela, where each of the three heroes in turn will be sent on a quest, in each case barely surviving. The sheer difficulty of continuing to exist is repeatedly stressed, notably by the wounded Väinämöinen as he drifts helplessly into the unknown: “Now I do not even know/How to live or how survive…./Must I make my home in wind,/Build my walls upon the water?” All journeys are uncertain, and even the wisest acknowledge the profound unease of departing toward lands where “only the wind is known to me.”

Often they survive by the power of speech, their own and that of others, not humans alone but a profusion of creatures—birds, fish, forest animals—all thoroughly communicative, full of advice, and often prophetic. Everything talks: stones, trees, boats, swords, ale. Lemminkäinen’s mother in her search for her lost son interrogates an oak tree, a road, and the moon, each of whom complains of having too hard a lot to be concerned about his fate: the tree is chopped up for kindling or cut down to clear land; the road is trampled by dogs and horses and brutally scuffed by boot heels; the moon is condemned “All the nights to wander lonely…/Keep cold vigil through the winters.” Only the sun is willing to tell her that her son has been “Hurtled down the tumbling rapids…/To the caverns of the dead.”

All objects and creatures are part of a vital continuum in constant mutual communication. It is a world never silent. It seems almost to be kept alive by the noise. Inanimate objects vibrate with a sort of pantheistic tremor. The walls and floors and roofbeams of the house rattle and creak and sing in anticipation of the bride who will come. Nothing stands still; even the dead are not dead, merely elsewhere. All this sound and movement was originally conveyed, of course, by an uninterrupted chanting voice; the sonic descriptions must have provided perfect opportunities to rouse the auditors to stay focused on the narrative’s winding thread. Recitation was not only the medium of the Kalevala poems, it was their abiding subject. The words and the music that accompanied them embody supreme magic. Väinämöinen, greatest of singers, is also the inventor of the greatest instrument, the pikebone harp whose music overcomes an advancing army of Pohjolanders by lulling them to sleep.

Narrative itself is incantatory, and each step of the story reaffirms a ritual cadence. It is composed in a four-beat trochaic line, an archaic meter that in Finnish evidently allows for considerable variation and expressive irregularity. Adopted into English it tends toward the thumping repetitiveness of The Song of Hiawatha, and even Friberg’s version, however admirable its sense of storytelling and however nicely phrased its lines taken in isolation, often prompts an impulse to knock out some syllables here and there so as to put the brakes on. With its unity of tone and polished texture, it does suggest the seamlessly linked effect intended by Lönnrot. (The passages quoted here are by Friberg.) Bosley, by contrast, adopting a less insistent syllabic metrics and a jaggedly stylized diction, evokes quite powerfully the otherness of the poem’s ancient underpinnings. Magoun’s determinedly literal rendering likewise has distinct merits.

Since the Kalevala’s insistent meter is matched by other forms of repetition—recurring verbal formulas and stock epithets, parallelisms echoing or elaborating the preceding line, triadic patterns of action (every journey takes three days, every process has three steps, every question is answered with at least three lies before the truth is offered)—even the most flatly straightforward version retains the quality of ritual music. It should also be said that Magoun’s notes and appendices (especially his richly informative glossary of proper names) and Bosley’s long introduction to the Oxford edition both provide much-needed help. The Penguin edition of Friberg’s translation, aside from Jukka Korpela’s illuminating essay on the poem’s historical and archaeological background, is unfortunately devoid of notes.

The world of magic and the world of ordinary work and pleasures are very close, and their border is porous. A dream grammar enables inconceivable feats. Identities and states of matter dissociate and recombine. The rapid changes of size and condition have a wild humor as wizards exchange dueling impossibilities: “Then he sang young Joukahainen,/Sang him loin-deep in a swamp,/Groin-deep in a grassy meadow,/To his armpits in a heath.” Yet this shamanistic fantastic trades in down-to-earth elements, however enlarged or shrunk or distorted, and after flurries of metamorphosis the world settles into its customary state. Magic is a pathway into, not out of, the material world: it is by grasping the origins of things, whether iron or disease or frost or bears or fire, that wizards gain control over them.

Implicit in every tool is the history of its making. The Kalevala amounts to an encyclopedia of techniques, magical or otherwise. We are told of the making of boats, sleighs, skis, saunas, healing ointments. Actions come with instruction manuals. When Joukahainen seeks vengeance on Väinämöinen, whom he blames for his sister’s death, he must first make a crossbow, ornament it appropriately, make arrows, poison their tips, and then, in a process described in great detail, pick up the bow, assume the proper stance, place the arrow in the groove, and recite a charm to aid him in hitting his target. When Lemminkäinen’s mother goes in search of her son, she enlists the smith Ilmarinen to forge a copper rake with iron teeth to drag the River of Death. But after she finds the pieces of her son’s body, she must resort to charms to make a resurrected man by knitting together the discarded bits of a dead one.

Charms are indispensable accompaniments to every human act of toolmaking and construction; likewise they are indispensable to every courtship and marriage. The forming of social bonds is part of the inventory of techniques, and Lönnrot suspends his narrative at midpoint for a protracted wedding scene that ends with instructions to the bride and groom, the instructions to the bride being distinctly more onerous. The sequence oscillates antiphonally between celebration and admonition, and many of its vignettes might inform a decidedly grim novel of married life stripped of mythic trappings. The theme is sounded often in the Kalevala (“A daughter in her father’s house/Is like a berry in a garden;/A daughter-in-law beside her man/Is like a hound dog on a leash”), and what constitutes women’s work is enumerated at many points—a long list that includes weaving clothes, bleaching clothes, boiling dye in pots, foraging for branches to make whisks for the sauna, grinding grain, making bread, making beer, all such tasks very much of a piece with the order of nature:

And her shuttle quickly slipping
Like a weasel through a rockpile,
And the reed blades too rap-rapping
Like a pecker on a tree trunk,
With the warp beam turning, turning
Like a squirrel on a tree branch.

In the wedding sequence, the listing of tasks acquires a more ominous tone with, for example, a warning to the bride not to gaze too long into the well when she goes to get water, lest her mother-in-law suppose she’s admiring the reflection of her face. Such notes are balanced with more joyous ones, but the most baleful interpolation is the story of a wife who flees her failed marriage and finds herself abandoned by her own family, “outcast on the wanderer’s road”: an agonizing expression of the fate of a pariah in an isolated and interconnected world. In these runos of marriage and housekeeping there are glimpses, in contrast to the “luxuriant animism” of primeval magic, of hunger and scarcity in what even Väinämöinen, as wedding singer, acknowledges are “ragged border regions,/…benighted northern marches.”

Of the many things brought into existence in the course of the poem, none is more mysteriously powerful than the Sampo. When Väinämöinen, adrift on the water, is rescued by Louhi of Pohjola, she promises to get him back to his home country if he will make her a Sampo out of the tip of a swan’s feather, the milk of a barren cow, a barleycorn, and the wool of a ewe; he says he cannot, but will send her the smith Ilmarinen, who will have no trouble since he hammered out the vault of the sky. And what is the Sampo? It has a “lid of many colors” (or in Friberg’s version, a “ciphered cover”), but aside from that its nature and origin remain obscure: according to various commentators it is “a mysterious talisman,” “a miraculous mill,” “a deeply coveted object of mysterious power and provenance.” For Peter O’Leary the “great roots it extends deep into the earth” suggest something organic in nature, like a mushroom, perhaps. It brings happiness to those who have it, producing grain and salt and money; it stirs up strife between the southern lands and Pohjola as it is successively forged, locked away, stolen, and smashed into pieces, and its fragments, washed ashore, continue “to grow, increase and flourish.”

That the Kalevala should have at its heart the mysterious Sampo seems appropriate, since the poem itself can be conceived as a vehicle for transmitting a cargo both precious and only partly knowable. Even the singers who provided Lönnrot with his materials only partially understood their songs’ implications, and however sensitively he assembled those materials, to read the work is to be aware of the underlying presence of earlier intentions. Those origin stories tug irresistibly in a reverse direction, toward an original enunciation persisting through accumulated layers of mishearing and melding. Its vitality is somehow preserved like the buried Vipunen, uttering “strands of magic verse” for which Lönnrot’s Kalevala would be only a way station for a text never really final: a voyaging cluster continually eliciting further variant strands emanating from “the deepest origins/From the very birth of time.” What and where the “real poem” might be—and where and in what form it might end up—is finally as imponderable as the nature of the Sampo.