It is difficult to account for the fact that the scientific curiosity which is just now so busy in examining all the monuments of the primitive condition of our race, should, in England at least, have almost totally neglected to popularise the ‘Kalevala,’ or national poem of the Finns. Besides its fresh and simple beauty of style, its worth as a storehouse of every kind of primitive folklore, being as it is the production of an Urvolk, a nation that has undergone no violent revolution in language or institutions — the ‘Kalevala’ has the peculiar interest of occupying a position between the two kinds of primitive poetry, the ballad and the epic. So much difficulty has been introduced into the study of the first developments of song, by confusing these distinct sorts of composition under the name of popular poetry, that it may be well, in writing of a poem which occupies a middle place between epic and ballad, to define what we mean by each.
The author of our old English Art of Poesie begins his work with a statement which may serve as a text: ‘Poesie,’ says Puttenham, writing in 1589, ‘is more ancient than the artificiall of the Greeks and Latines, coming by instinct of nature, and used by the savage and uncivill, who were before all science and civilitie. This is proved by certificate of merchants and travellers, who by late navigations have surveyed the whole world, and discovered large countries, and strange people, wild and savage, affirming that the American, the Perusine, and the very canniball, do sing, and also say, their highest and holiest matters in certain riming versicles.’ Puttenham is here referring to that instinct of primitive men, which compels them in all moments of high-wrought feeling, and on all solemn occasions, to give utterance to a kind of chant.172 Such a chant is the song of Lamech, when he had ‘slain a man to his wounding.’ So in the Norse sagas, Grettir and Gunnar sing when they have anything particular to say; and so in the Märchen— the primitive fairy tales of all nations — scraps of verse are introduced where emphasis is wanted. This craving for passionate expression takes a more formal shape in the lays which among all primitive peoples, as among the modern Greeks to-day,173 are sung at betrothals, funerals, and departures for distant lands. These songs have been collected in Scotland by Scott and Motherwell; their Danish counterparts have been translated by Mr. Prior. In Greece, M. Fauriel and Dr. Ulrichs; in Provence, Damase Arbaud; in Italy, M. Nigra; in Servia, Talvj; in France, Gérard de Nerval — have done for their separate countries what Scott did for the Border. Professor Child, of Harvard, is publishing a beautiful critical collection of English Volkslieder, with all known variants from every country.
A comparison of the collections proves that among all European lands the primitive ‘versicles’ of the people are identical in tone, form, and incident. It is this kind of early expression of a people’s life — careless, abrupt, brief, as was necessitated by the fact that they were sung to the accompaniment of the dance — that we call ballads. These are distinctly, and in every sense, popular poems, and nothing can cause greater confusion than to apply the same title, ‘popular,’ to early epic poetry. Ballads are short; a long ballad, as Mr. Matthew Arnold has said, creeps and halts. A true epic, on the other hand, is long, and its tone is grand, noble, and sustained. Ballads are not artistic; while the form of the epic, whether we take the hexameter or the rougher laisse of the French chansons de geste, is full of conscious and admirable art. Lastly, popular ballads deal with vague characters, acting and living in vague places; while the characters of an epic are heroes of definite station, whose descendants are still in the land, whose home is a recognisable place, Ithaca, or Argos. Now, though these two kinds of early poetry — the ballad, the song of the people; the epic, the song of the chiefs of the people, of the ruling race — are distinct in kind, it does not follow that they have no connection, that the nobler may not have been developed out of the materials of the lower form of expression. And the value of the ‘Kalevala’ is partly this, that it combines the continuity and unison of the epic with the simplicity and popularity of the ballad, and so forms a kind of link in the history of the development of poetry. This may become clearer as we proceed to explain the literary history of the Finnish national poem.
Sixty years ago, it may be said, no one was aware that Finland possessed a national poem at all. Her people — who claim affinity with the Magyars of Hungary, but are possibly a back-wave of an earlier tide of population — had remained untouched by foreign influences since their conquest by Sweden, and their somewhat lax and wholesale conversion to Christianity: events which took place gradually between the middle of the twelfth and the end of the thirteenth centuries. Under the rule of Sweden, the Finns were left to their quiet life and undisturbed imaginings, among the forests and lakes of the region which they aptly called Pohja, ‘the ends of things’; while their educated classes took no very keen interest in the native poetry and mythology of their race. At length the annexation of Finland by Russia, in 1809, awakened national feeling, and stimulated research into songs and customs which were the heirlooms of the people.
It was the policy of Russia to encourage, rather than to check, this return on a distant past; and from the north of Norway to the slopes of the Altai, ardent explorers sought out the fragments of unwritten early poetry. These runes, or Runots, were chiefly sung by old men called Runoias, to beguile the weariness of the long dark winters. The custom was for two champions to engage in a contest of memory, clasping each other’s hands, and reciting in turn till he whose memory first gave in slackened his hold. The ‘Kalevala’ contains an instance of this practice, where it is said that no one was so hardy as to clasp hands with Wäinämöinen, who is at once the Orpheus and the Prometheus of Finnish mythology. These Runoias, or rhapsodists, complain, of course, of the degeneracy of human memory; they notice how any foreign influence, in religion or politics, is destructive to the native songs of a race.174 ‘As for the lays of old time, a thousand have been scattered to the wind, a thousand buried in the snow; . . . as for those which the Munks (the Teutonic knights) swept away and the prayer of the priests overwhelmed, a thousand tongues were not able to recount them.’ In spite of the losses thus caused, and in spite of the suspicious character of the Finns, which often made the task of collection a dangerous one, enough materials remained to furnish Dr. Lönnrot, the most noted explorer, with thirty-five Runots, or cantos. These were published in 1835, but later research produced the fifteen cantos which make up the symmetrical fifty of the ‘Kalevala.’ In the task of arranging and uniting these, Dr. Lönnrot played the part traditionally ascribed to the commission of Pisistratus in relation to the Iliad and Odyssey. Dr. Lönnrot cut about and altered at pleasure the materials which come before us as one poem. They have little unity now, and originally had none.
It cannot be doubted that, at whatever period the Homeric poems took shape in Greece, they were believed to record the feats of the supposed ancestors of existing families. Thus, for example, Pisistratus, as a descendant of the Nelidæ, had an interest in securing certain parts, at least, of the Iliad and the Odyssey from oblivion. The same family pride embellished and preserved the epic poetry of early France. There were in France but three heroic houses, or gestes; and three corresponding cycles of épopées. Now, in the ‘Kalevala,’ there is no trace of the influence of family feeling; it was no one’s peculiar care and pride to watch over the records of the fame of this or that hero. The poem begins with a cosmogony as wild as any Indian dream of creation; and the human characters who move in the story are shadowy inhabitants of no very definite lands, whom no family claim as their forefathers. The very want of this idea of family and aristocratic pride gives the ‘Kalevala’ a unique place among epics. It is emphatically an epic of the people, of that class whose life contains no element of progress, no break in continuity; which from age to age preserves, in solitude and close communion with nature, the earliest beliefs of grey antiquity. The Greek epic, on the other hand, has, as Preller175 points out, ‘nothing to do with natural man, but with an ideal world of heroes, with sons of the gods, with consecrated kings, heroes, elders, a kind of specific race of men. The people exist only as subsidiary to the great houses, as a mere background against which stand out the shining figures of heroes; as a race of beings fresh and rough from the hands of nature, with whom, and with whose concerns, the great houses and their bards have little concern.’ This feeling — so universal in Greece, and in the feudal countries of mediæval Europe, that there are two kinds of men, the golden and the brazen race, as Plato would have called them — is absent, with all its results, in the ‘Kalevala.’
Among the Finns we find no trace of an aristocracy; there is scarcely a mention of kings, or priests; the heroes of the poem are really popular heroes, fishers, smiths, husbandmen, ‘medicine-men,’ or wizards; exaggerated shadows of the people, pursuing on a heroic scale, not war, but the common daily business of primitive and peaceful men. In recording their adventures, the ‘Kalevala,’ like the shield of Achilles, reflects all the life of a race, the feasts, the funerals, the rites of seed-time and harvest, of marriage and death, the hymn, and the magical incantation.
Though without the interest of an unique position as a popular epic, the ‘Kalevala’ is very valuable, both for its literary beauties and for the confused mass of folklore which it contains.
Here old cosmogonies, attempts of man to represent to himself the beginning of things, are mingled with the same wild imaginings as are found everywhere in the shape of fairy-tales. We are hurried from an account of the mystic egg of creation, to a hymn like that of the Ambarval Brothers, to a strangely familiar scrap of a nursery story, to an incident which we remember as occurring in almost identical words in a Scotch ballad. We are among a people which endows everything with human characters and life, which is in familiar relations with birds, and beasts, and even with rocks and plants. Ravens and wolves and fishes of the sea, sun, moon, and stars, are kindly or churlish; drops of blood find speech, man and maid change to snake or swan and resume their forms, ships have magic powers, like the ships of the Phæacians.
Then there is the oddest confusion of every stage of religious development: we find a supreme God, delighting in righteousness; Ukko, the lord of the vault of air, who stands apart from men, and sends his son, Wäinämöinen, to be their teacher in music and agriculture.
Across this faith comes a religion of petrified abstractions like those of the Roman Pantheon. There are gods of colour, a goddess of weaving, a goddess of man’s blood, besides elemental spirits of woods and waters, and the manes of the dead. Meanwhile the working faith of the people is the belief in magic — generally a sign of the lower culture. It is supposed that the knowledge of certain magic words gives power over the elemental bodies which obey them; it is held that the will of a distant sorcerer can cross the lakes and plains like the breath of a fantastic frost, with power to change an enemy to ice or stone. Traces remain of the worship of animals: there is a hymn to the bear; a dance like the bear-dance of the American Indians; and another hymn tells of the birth and power of the serpent. Across all, and closing all, comes a hostile account of the origin of Christianity — the end of joy and music.
How primitive was the condition of the authors of this medley of beliefs is best proved by the survival of the custom called exogamy.176 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.177
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 down 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 folk-songs — 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, ἡ κόρη ταξιδεύτρια, 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.178
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, perhaps, and the maidens are the dew-drops; 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 Persephone, 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. M‘Lennan,179 or of the ox in the South African household tale.
With the sixteenth canto we turn to Wäinämöinen, who, like all epic heroes, visits the place of the dead, Tuonela. The maidens who play the part of Charon are with difficulty induced to ferry over a man bearing no mark of death by fire or sword or water. Once among the dead, Wäinämöinen refuses — being wiser than Psyche or Persephone — to taste of drink. This ‘taboo’ is found in Japanese, Melanesian, and Red Indian accounts of the homes of the dead. Thus the hero is able to return and behold the stars. Arrived in the upper world, he warns men to ‘beware of perverting innocence, of leading astray the pure of heart; they that do these things shall be punished eternally in the depths of Tuoni. There is a place prepared for evil-doers, a bed of stones burning, rocks of fire, worms and serpents.’ This speech throws but little light on the question of how far a doctrine of rewards and punishments enters into primitive ideas of a future state. The ‘Kalevala,’ as we possess it, is necessarily, though faintly, tinged with Christianity; and the peculiar vices which are here threatened with punishment are not those which would have been most likely to occur to the early heathen singers of this runot.
Wäinämöinen and Ilmarinen now go together to Pohjola, but the fickle maiden of the land prefers the young forger of the sampo to his elder and imperturbable companion. Like a northern Medea, or like the Master-maid in Dr. Dasent’s Tales from the Norse, or like the hero of the Algonquin tale and the Samoan ballad, she aids her alien lover to accomplish the tasks assigned to him. He ploughs with a plough of gold the adder-close, or field of serpents; he bridles the wolf and the bear of the lower world, and catches the pike that swim in the waters of forgetfulness. After this, the parents cannot refuse their consent, the wedding-feast is prepared, and all the world, except the séduisant Lemminkainen, is bidden to the banquet. The narrative now brings in the ballads that are sung at a Finnish marriage.
First, the son-in-law enters the house of the parents of the bride, saying, ‘Peace abide with you in this illustrious hall.’ The mother answers, ‘Peace be with you even in this lowly hut.’ Then Wäinämöinen began to sing, and no man was so hardy as to clasp hands and contend with him in song. Next follow the songs of farewell, the mother telling the daughter of what she will have to endure in a strange home: ‘Thy life was soft and delicate in thy father’s house. Milk and butter were ready to thy hand; thou wert as a flower of the field, as a strawberry of the wood; all care was left to the pines of the forest, all wailing to the wind in the woods of barren lands. But now thou goest to another home, to an alien mother, to doors that grate strangely on their hinges.’ ‘My thoughts,’ the maiden replies, ‘are as a dark night of autumn, as a cloudy day of winter; my heart is sadder than the autumn night, more weary than the winter day.’ The maid and the bridegroom are then lyrically instructed in their duties: the girl is to be long-suffering, the husband to try five years’ gentle treatment before he cuts a willow wand for his wife’s correction. The bridal party sets out for home, a new feast is spread, and the bridegroom congratulated on the courage he must have shown in stealing a girl from a hostile tribe.
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.
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.180
But another cult, an alien creed, is approaching Kalevala. There is no part of the poem 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 baptise 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.
Here the strange poem ends at its strangest moment, with the cry, which must have been uttered so often, but is heard here alone, of a people reluctantly deserting the gods that it has fashioned in its own likeness, for a faith that has not sprung from its needs or fears. Yet it cherishes the hope that this tyranny shall pass over: ‘they are gods, and behold they shall die, and the waves be upon them at last.’
As the ‘Kalevala,’ and as all relics of folklore, all Märchen and ballads prove, the lower mythology — the elemental beliefs of the people — do survive beneath a thin covering of Christian conformity. There are, in fact, in religion, as in society, two worlds, of which the one does not know how the other lives. The class whose literature we inherit, under whose institutions we live, at whose shrines we worship, has changed as outworn raiment its manners, its gods, its laws; has looked before and after, has hoped and forgotten, has advanced from the wilder and grosser to the purest faith. Beneath the progressive class, and beneath the waves of this troublesome world, there exists an order whose primitive form of human life has been far less changeful, a class which has put on a mere semblance of new faiths, while half-consciously retaining the remains of immemorial cults.
Obviously, as M. Fauriel has pointed out in the case of the modern Greeks, the life of such folk contains no element of progress, admits no break in continuity. Conquering armies pass and leave them still reaping the harvest of field and river; religions appear, and they are baptised by thousands, but the lower beliefs and dreads that the progressive class has outgrown remain unchanged.
Thus, to take the instance of modern Greece, the high gods of the divine race of Achilles and Agamemnon are forgotten, but the descendants of the Penestæ, the villeins of Thessaly, still dread the beings of the popular creed, the Nereids, the Cyclopes, and the Lamia.181
The last lesson we would attempt to gather from the ‘Kalevala’ is this: that a comparison of the thoroughly popular beliefs of all countries, the beliefs cherished by the non-literary classes whose ballads and fairy tales have only recently been collected, would probably reveal a general identity, concealed by diversity of name, among the ‘lesser people of the skies,’ the elves, fairies, cyclopes, giants, nereids, brownies, lamiæ. It could then be shown that some of these spirits survive among the lower beings of the mythology of what the Germans call a cultur-volk like the Greeks or Romans. It could also be proved that much of the narrative element in the classic epics is to be found in a popular or childish form in primitive fairy tales. The question would then come to be, Have the higher mythologies been developed, by artistic poets, out of the materials of a race which remained comparatively untouched by culture; or are the lower spirits, and the more simple and puerile forms of myth, degradations of the inventions of a cultivated class? In the majority of cases, the former theory is correct.
172 Talvj, Charakteristik der Volkslieder, p. 3.
173 Fauriel, Chants de la Grèce moderne.
174 Thus Scotland scarcely produced any ballads, properly speaking, after the Reformation. The Kirk suppressed the dances to whose motion the ballad was sung in Scotland, as in Greece, Provence, and France.
175 L. Preller’s Ausgewählte Aufsätze. Greek ideas on the origin of Man. It is curious that the myth of a gold, a silver, and a copper race occurs in South America. See Brasseur de Bourbourg’s Notes on the Popol Vuh.
177 This constant struggle may be, and of course by one school of comparative mythologists will be, represented as the strife between light and darkness, the sun’s rays, and the clouds of night, and so on. M. Castren has well pointed out that the struggle has really an historical meaning. Even if the myth be an elementary one, its constructors must have been in the exogamous stage of society.
178 Sampo may be derived from a Thibetan word, meaning ‘fountain of good,’ or it may possibly be connected with the Swedish stamp, a hand-mill. The talisman is made of all the quaint odds and ends that the Fetichist treasures, swan’s feathers, flocks of wool, and so on.
179 Fortnightly Review, 1869: ‘The Worship of Plants and Animals.’
180 Mr. M‘Lennan in the Fortnightly Review, February, 1870.
181 M. Schmidt, Volksleben der Neugriechen, finds comparatively few traces of the worship of Zeus, and these mainly in proverbial expressions.
Last updated Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at 13:51