Shall I start to sing
Shall I begin to recite
With a good man as a partner
Two who grew up together?
Come, let us put hand in hand
And finger in finger-gap
Each grip in the other's grip.
One word from you, one from me
Splendid speech from both:
We will shape our mouths
We will pitch our tunes
Like two kanteles
Like five or six gates
Three doors of a hut.
— (Kuusi: 81)
So begins the prologue to the outstanding collection, Finnish Folk Poetry Epic. Within the Finnish lore are words of sharing, songs of partnership, charms of invitation from across the ages. Many have heard these songs and accepted the call of an ancient chorus. Many have heard the music of the Northland and followed it back to the beginning of the world. The words are still here, hanging on the air, waiting to be answered.
A Vision Shared
When Tolkien created his Middle Earth, he imbued that world with mythic resonance, with word–music and place–magic giving his characters and landscape depth, vitality, and a sense of actual existence. One of the ways he accomplished this was by drawing from his impressive knowledge of the early literature and lore of the Northern world and particularly of Finland. Indeed, there may be no greater storehouse of ancient European myth and legend than the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala (assembled by the scholar Elias Löt;nnrot in the nineteenth century), and the hundreds of songs and spells that have been collected from Finnish oral tradition since the nineteenth century.
Perhaps because of their geographical remoteness, the Finnish tales and songs possessed—Tolkien believed—a truly Northern mythology unsullied by contact with the rest of Europe. Certainly they retain strong connections to a mythic world that thrived before the advancing of an Industrial Age. Now no myth or culture exists in a vacuum, but the particular ancientness and singular eloquence of Finnish lore provided Tolkien with the inspiration to create such a mythology for his own country of England. One branch of his elvish language is founded upon the sound of Finnish, and several of the gods in his Silmarillion—Ulmo and Illúvatar—bear names highly reminiscent of gods from the Finnish pantheon—Ilmo and Ilmatar. (Shippey, 215)
I would first like to say this: that Finland, the northernmost land, together with Lappland, was once during pagan times as learned in witchcraft as if it had had Zoroaster the Persian for its instructor . . . There was a time when the Finns . . .would offer wind for sale to traders who were detained on their coasts by offshore gales, and when payment had been brought would give them in return three magic knots tied in a strap not likely to break. This is how these knots were to be managed: when they undid the first they would have gentle breezes; when they unloosed the second the winds would be stiffer; but when they untied the third they must endure such raging gales that, their strength exhausted, they would have no eye to look out for rocks from the bow, nor a footing either in the bottom of the ship to strike the sails or at the stern to guide the helm. (Book III, 172-173)
Like most early modern ethnographic writers, Magnus employs a comparative method, evoking the name of the famous Persian sorcerer, Zoroaster, to shroud the Finns in foreign mysticism for his readers. The example of wind-related enchantment is significant. Depicting them as wind traders and controllers, Magnus makes an important association of Finnish magic with the natural world. Despite the reference to foreign Zoroaster, the Finns are not defined as conjurors of spirits, but as indigenous natural wizards, conjuring and controlling the powers abounding in the sea, land and air around them.
In another account, Magnus relates the trouble encountered by a Swedish hero, Arngrim, when battling against the Finns.
They devote themselves no less to magical skills, and know how to receive or inflict blows by attacking and fleeing on curved boards across the snowfields. These men Arngrim assaulted and crushed, as Saxo testifies, for the sake of winning fame. After they had had the worst of the conflict and had dispersed in flight, they threw behind them three pebbles and made them appear to their foes like three mountains. Arngrim therefore, stunned by the uncertainty of his deluded vision, recalled his troops from the pursuit, believing that he was cut off from the enemy by a wall of towering cliffs. The next day they encountered him again and, when they were beaten, scattered snow on the ground, giving it the semblance of a mighty river. The Swedes, utterly deceived by the illusion, completely misread the situation and thought that an extraordinary volume of roaring waters lay before them. As the victors quaked at this meaningless apparition, the Finns made good their escape. (Book V, 256)
Magnus is dismissive of the craft of illusion, but again, he allows us to perceive the intrinsically associative nature of Finnish magic. It is tied to the landscape, born out of the rocks and snows. It is part of the landscape and can, if needed, rise up out of even the smallest piece of stone to muddle the minds of their enemies. It is as if the land itself comes to the aid of the Finns, producing mirrors of its mountains and the shadow of its waters to protect those people who know how to call upon it.
Not only associative, the Finnish mythic landscape is a fully sentient world. Trees speak, animals talk, and every living thing holds the potential for communication if the right words are spoken, if the right charms, or runes, are sung. But because the natural world is alive, often following its own concerns and agendas irrespective of human needs, that world is also dangerous. Animals, plants and places could harm a person physically and spiritually, and so many kinds of charms were needed to help mortals and deities negotiate a potentially perilous world.
The varied categories of Finnish lore, many of which are found in the wonder-filled landscape of the Kalevala, are as wide as the Northern winter. In addition to the tales included in the Kalevala, Lönnrot edited and published a large collection of magical songs and classified their contents under headings to denote their purposes and use.
He begins with 18 general formulas which he calls preliminary (used when the magician was about to begin conjuring), defensive (used while on a journey to defend against attacks of witches and evil wishers), envy (used to ward off the ill effects of jealous glances), vengeance (used to inspire fear in an enemy), origination (used in healing the sick by detecting the origin of a disease, if such was uncertain), reparation (used to invoke the originator or cause of any injury or disease to repair the damage it had caused), inflammation (used for snake bites), expulsion (used to cure many diseases, but especially those caused by elf-shot and witchcraft), posting (recited after an expulsion or menacing formula), pain (used to comforts aches and contusions), reproaching (used after a snake bite or wound caused by an animal; also for toothache and wounds caused from fire, cold, and natural causes), ecstasy (used to make the magician invigorated), distress (used to address sudden attacks of disease or pain), boasting (used to build confidence and disparage a foe), stilling (used to assuage great pain), menacing (these were added after an expulsion charm when it had proved insufficient), exorcising (used to dispel curses, evil spells, and disease caused by witchcraft), and fastening (charms used to hold evil spirits motionless) formulas. Then he designates 40 liberating or healing charms; 52 classes of magic spells and charms to be recited on such occasions as divining, hunting, fishing, and marriages etc.; 73 classes of prayers; and finally, 51 births or origins of animals and things. (FLS Vol. I 1890, 19-20)
In myths and songs about the origins of things in the world, we have a unique opportunity to learn something of the metaphorical language of a culture. Within the brief poem about the cat's making, we can yet perceive a complex socio–sexual commentary.
The Origin of the Cat
I know of the cat's origin–the incubation of Greybeard.
The cat was gotten on a stove–as a girls' nose,
a hare's head, a tail of "Hiisi's Plait of Hair,"
claws of a viper, a tail of snake's venom
Feet of cloudberries, the rest of its body is of the wolf's race.
(FLS Vol. I 1890, 30)
Hiisi was once a forest god, thought to be the genius loci (or guardian spirit) of the sacrificial groves. After the arrival of Christianity, he became associated with evil, and even the devil. Hiisi's symbolic relationship with the cat may be a statement regarding the creature's previously wild nature, dubious forest origins, or general connections with witchcraft as a familiar spirit (a common belief across Europe). This name, along with the descriptions "venomous," and of the "wolf's race" establish the cat as not only a predator, but one with otherworldly ability and a propensity for ill–wishing. References to stoves and a "girl's nose" may draw attention to the domestic nature of the cat's magic by its association with women generally. This is an unpleasant but common irony of northern European folklore: women's power is often suspect and ill–aspected, even in the familiar domestic sphere. The cat, a hearth creature by nature, comes to share these associations, which were doubtless amplified by its nocturnal activities (though every cat's own innate propensity for evil should not be too quickly dismissed here).
The Origin of the Dog
I know of course dog's genesis, I guess a puppy's origin.
He was made on a dust heap–prepared on a meadow,
Begotten of eight fathers, born of one mother.
Earth's mistress, Manuhutar, knocked out a head from a knoll
Procured legs from fence stakes–ears of a waterlily's leaves,
Struck out gums from the east wind, formed the muzzle from wind.
(FLS Vol I 1890, 31)
The name "Manuhutar" derives from "manu," meaning "the dry land," and variants of this creation song name Louhi, the great witch of Pohjola, the Northland, as the mother of the dog. The "dry land" is here used as another word for "Northland," the place (see below) where great evil resides, quests are directed, and magical objects are installed and subsequently stolen back. The song refers to the time Louhi slept with her back to the wind. It was the wind that made her pregnant and after three month's time, she was lightened of her litter. The "Pinefrost crone" swaddled the dog then in her own linen and from this time, the useful dog that "does not eat one up, does not bite the very least" was known (FLS Vol I 1890, pg. 30). Much of this song and related tale remain a mystery. Perhaps it is the wind's howling that caused it to be designated as the dog's wind father. Or perhaps, like so many gifts of the Northland that have dubious beginnings, the dog came to be associated with useful companionship when people simply began to trust it.
Vital to our understanding of the Finnish magical world is the connection between words and actions. Not idle poetry, nor mere memories of events long past, songs as such as these were the very word–events that brought creatures and things into the world.
When Väinämöinen needed a boat, he sang one for himself.
Because of the sheer breadth of the subject of Finnish songs and stories (far too vast for even a long article), I have chosen the songs whose words I love for their sound (even in translation), seeming simplicity, essential nature, and deep mysteries; the origin of cats, dogs, and boats, and the forging of the Sampo. The blood of the North is in such songs, for even the simplest of them when unfolded can uncover for outsiders to Finnish culture a landscape of wonders and complex mythic ideas.
The Origin of the Boat
Good old "Väinämöinen," the soothsayer as old as time,
Made a boat by magic knowledge, prepared a skiff by means of song
From the fragments of a single oak, from the breakage of a brittle tree.
He cut the boat upon a mountain–caused a loud clatter on a rock.
He sang a song, he fixed the keel; he sang another, he joined a plank.
Immediately he sang a third while setting in his place the prow,
While ending off a timber knee which he was clinching end to end,
While setting up the gunwale boards, while he was cutting at the tholes.
A boat was completely finished that could bowl along with speed,
Both stiff when sailing with the wind and safe when sailing against the wind.
(FLS Vol. 2 1891, 43)
And so we must see that any boat over which such songs were sung became the original boat, sung down from Väinämöinen's mind, strong in magic and the wood and words of the first world.