Reading

Words of Power–the knotty beauty of the Kalevala

The Finnish national Epic, The Kalevala, begins and ends with the image of a skein of stories. The narrator talks of pulling one thread out and seeing where that story goes. One story connects to another, as we know, like drawing out more and more yarn from a skein.
I love to teach it at the end of our epics class, when people are well-versed in the distinctions between primary and secondary epics (primary being orally composed, the accretion of hundreds of years of story-telling finally written down, like the Odyssey or Beowulf, while secondary epics are authored, like Dante’s Divine Comedy or Milton’s Paradise Lost). I ask them on the first day which pile the Kalevalafalls in to, and the answer is both.
Not really, but close enough to be interesting. The Kalevala was collected and edited in the 19th century in a nationalistic effort comparable to the Grimms’ in collecting their fairy tales. And just as folklorists chide the Grimms for not being completely authentic in their reproduction of the tales they collected, Elias Lönnrot shaped, edited, and generally intervened in the song of the people much like an author would, even if not to the same degree.
The result is amazingly cool. Yes, I love it that much.
It’s got stories that feel achingly ancient, like the creation of the world by the water mother, Ilmatar. She is alone and lonely and begs for companionship, so allows herself to be impregnated by the sea. But when her child takes 730 years to gestate (!), she kills the time by shaping the heavens and earth from broken egg shells, the sun and moon from a yolk and some egg whites.
When her child is finally born, he is already an old man. He is a World Singer like Orpheus, capable of calling things in to existence, transforming things, and moving rocks and trees and animals with his songs. His name is Vainamoinen, and he is a rock star.
But he’s also old as the hills, so no one wants to marry him. In fact, the first girl we see him woo (and she is a girl—Merida from the Pixar film Brave leaps to mind), essentially kills herself rather than marry him. Aino goes to the edge of the water and is swept down in to the waves. It seems like she drowns, but she actually transforms in to a salmon that Vainamoinen catches later and must release. He mourns her twice. Like Orpheus.
So it feels old—very old—primal… creation of the world and human society sort of old. When Vainamoinen is wounded, he seeks the origin of iron, so he can write a spell to staunch the blood. The ancient motif of knowing “true names” or true history as a source of power over something feels prehistoric, almost. But here it is in a 19th century poem, where they’re also concerned about controlling the iron in his blood. It’s a beautiful mishmash.
These stories are so strange and so unsettling, they remind me what it felt like to be a child, when everything was new and therefore strange. But also marvelous. Also full of magic and potential. And because they elevate storytelling to the level of spell-casting, they remind me of our always present power to transform our world through words. Weaving is one of the oldest metaphors we use for storytelling. Text and textile are related. And we all have the ability to weave our words into wisdom; all we do is tug on that thread and see where it takes us.

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