Keith Bosley’s tongue-in-cheek account of his translation of The Kalevala reads

The Sampo is forged, a rogue screws; there’s a wedding, a murder, the blues; a serf bites the dust, the Sampo gets bust, and Finland receives the Good News. (xxxix)

A fair and concise summary, and one that hints at the odd collection of stories in Kalevala. Elias Lönnrot assembled and published the epic in 1849, but the individual cycles are stories collected from a myriad of Uralic oral narratives from the first to the tenth century CE. Lönnrot selected and shaped his source works to convert multiple narratives of these stories into a single consistent story, but there are still moments of odd slippage in tone and narrative facts: sometimes the three main characters (Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen) seem to be minor gods, and sometimes more like heroic but ordinary people; sometimes the gods and fate seem closely involved with human life, and sometimes are barely present; the Northland is both an ordinary place one might travel (and pick up a wife) and a dangerous and mythic enemy; Christian influence feels at time incidental, at times overt (the last cycle is a version of Christ’s birth). The number of forms the epic includes is also various, ranging from quest narrative to etiology to conduct manual: the heroes steal the mythical Sampo from the Northland, we learn about the birth of iron and fire, and a young bride learns how to live among her in-laws.

I’m sort of fascinated by the inclusion of nearly a whole book on women’s domestic work — a topic which doesn’t show up in other western epics very much (at all?), and was also surprised to see how the text registers how dissatisfying this sort of life might be for women: the Maid of the North, right before she leaves her home to live with Ilmarinen, laments for a long time about going to live with a new family, about facing status as a “foreigner” and a serf-wife rather than a cared-for daughter at home. And while the women agree that marriages can be happy and wives accepted into a new family, they also stress the importance of good behaviour and fulfilling one’s duties in order to manage this acceptance (hence the housework conduct manual). Startlingly they focus on how tired they’ll be from their constant household labour, and even give advice on the proper way to sleep so that one never appears to be indolent, or even too fatigued by overwork (a form of complaining!). But for all that The Kalevala registers the potential unpleasantness of marriage for women, it also never really challenges the arrangement. The Maid’s female relatives warn her new bridegroom against beating her (and even provide detailed instructions about the proper way to beat a wife), but much of their advice is offered so that he avoids becoming the target of neighbourhood gossip. When one woman does suffer a physically brutal marriage, and is eventually turned out of her home (in winter!) for complaining about it, all the neighbours she turns to refuse to help her, suggesting that the burden of a failed marriage is almost always on the wife. Even the Marian figure in the final cycle has to give birth in a sauna/stable because no one will take in “a scarlet women … a whore” (50:243-311).

It’s all terribly fun reading, at any rate. But it’s helpful to read any introductions to The Kalevala before rather than after starting the poems themselves, because then you don’t spend most of your time wondering what the Sampo is.

23 April 2012 ~ Hamilton

Works Cited

Lönnrot, Elias. The Kalevala. Trans Keith Bosley. Oxford: OUP, 2008.


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