The Song of the Sampo
in Finnish Myth and Lore
The Kalevala‘s Sampo Songs
Though composed into an artificial elegance by Elias Lönnrot in the nineteenth century, it is the force of Väinämöinen’s clever songs that drive the Kalevala. In the Kalevala, we can learn much about the adventures of Väinämöinen, the master of songs and most famous Finnish cultural hero. The Kalevala‘s pages are replete with tellings of creations and destructions, beginnings and endings, giants and riddles, charms and runes, lamentations of loss, the forging of the sun and moon. And Väinämöinen had a hand in much of this. But it is within the Sampo runes or songs of the Kalevala that the full and subtle Finnish expression of the sacred reaches its poetic pinnacle through an artifact of both beauty and obscurity.A mill? An idol? Its true form unknown, the Sampo is the embodiment of creative achievement, beauty, greed, and the anxiety of loss inherent in any ultimately fading human endeavor.
The story of the Sampo begins with longing. Well, things always do, don’t they? It is within the heart that passion has its first forge. So even before the fertile Sampo was brought into being by smith Ilmarinen’s hands, its potential begins to form in the words of love spoken by Väinämöinen which set the smith’s heart turning with desire.
Old Väinämöinen uttered: ‘I have much to tell:
There is a maid in the Northland
A lass in the cold village
Who will not accept bridegroom . . .
You everlasting craftsman
Go and fetch the maid
Look for the braid–head!
If you can forge the Sampo
Brighten the bright–lid
You’ll get the maid for your pay
For your work the lovely girl.
Here, the yet unforged Sampo is suggested as a bride price and may in this way shed some light on its possible metaphorical meanings. Worth the value of a bride, the Sampo comes to symbolize aspects of fertility and abundance, the hopes of a fertile and balanced marriage. Such domestic relationships are themselves symbolic of human hopes for engagements with the lands they live upon. The ways we live on the land establish sacred relationships that benefit from our attention and good husbandry. Such attentions in turn foster prosperity of crops and abundant living.
Ilmarinen takes the advice of Väinämöinen and journeys to Northland where Louhi, dark crone of Pohjola, is already expecting him. It seems she does not recognize him at first, but she knows of the Sampo though it has not yet been forged.
Then the Mistress of Northland
Inquired of the newcomer:
‘Have you come to see,
Hear and know about
That Ilmarinen the Smith
The most skillful of craftsmen?
He has long been waited for
And ages longed for, hereIn furthest Northland
To make up the new Sampo.’
We learn that she waits for the "new" Sampo, perhaps indicating that this is not the first one, or that the Sampo is part of some larger cycle of events, or patterns of exchange between the various worlds of the Kalevala.
Hoping to win Louhi’s daughter, Ilmarinen stays in Northland and sets about forging the Sampo which will then become the price of the marriage. Like the hopeful outcome of a marriage, the Sampo is not so much fashioned initially, as it is born from the forge. And like a child, it is after its birth that a parent’s skill in directing its ultimate character and nature is needed. From under the forge, the Sampo, its "bright–lid growing," begins to crown.
At the third day’s end
Leaned over to look
At his forge’s underside—
Saw the Sampo being born
A bright–lid growing.
Then the Smith Ilmarinen
The everlasting craftsman
He hammers away
He taps-taps away.
He forged the Sampo with skill;
On one side there’s a corn mill
On the second a salt mill
A money mill on the third.
And then the new Sampo ground
And the bright–lid rocked;
Ground a binful at twilight—
One binful to eat
Another it ground to sell
And a third to store at home.
This is our fullest physical description of the Sampo. It produces wealth of three kinds and rocks like a machine, but its actual form remains obscure. But, as we will see below, this obscurity is a vital aspect of the Sampo’s power to generate inspiration and desire, as well as prosperity.
The Hag of the North was pleased;
Then she took the great Sampo
Into Northland’s rocky hill
Inside the slope of copper
And behind nine locks.
There she rooted roots
To a depth of nine fathoms;
Sank one root in Mother Earth
And one in a riverbank
And a third in the home–hill.
Hidden away within the living earth of Northland, the Sampo became the abundant churn of Otherworldly wealth. As Ilmarinen points out, with the Sampo under her control, Louhi’s land waxes in riches:
. . .with the Sampo in Northland . . .
There is plowing, there is sowing,
There are all kinds of growing
There is good luck forever.
It is perhaps this glowing report (and the fact that Ilmarinen returned home without his promised bride) that leads Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen to mount and expedition by sea back to Northland to retrieve the Sampo. Understandably, Louhi is unwilling to return the new source of Northland’s fertility.Upon arriving, Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen are challenged by Northland’s Mistress who asks them, "What message do the men have? What news the fellows?" Väinämöinen answers her,
The men’s message concerns the Sampo
The fellow’s news the bright–lid:
‘We’ve come to share the Sampo
To look out for the bright–lid.’
She, the Mistress of Northland
Uttered a word and spoke thus:
‘No grouse can be shared by two
Nor a squirrel by three men.
‘Tis good that the Sampo hums
And the bright–lid turns away
Within Northland’s rocky hill
And inside the copper slope;
It is good too that I am
Keeper of the great Sampo.
We must wonder if it is only her refusal to share abundance that justifies the Sampo’s eventual theft by Väinämöinen, Her words imply that the Sampo is too small a thing to be shared amongst two or three people (or perhaps more than one world or land). But can this really be true of the wondrous "mill" that daily grinds out so much wealth within the hills of Northland? We may also see this as a reasonable assertion of feminine ownership of any object associated with fertility magic.So deciding that its power must be shared, Väinämöinen, makes his intentions regarding the Sampo clear.
Steady old Väinämöinen
Uttered a word and spoke thus:
‘If you’ll not give a part, that
Other half of a Sampo
We shall carry off the lot.
We shall take it to our boat.
It was said that Louhi, Mistress of Northland, took that very badly. She then convened all the warriors of Northland and set off after Väinämöinen and the Sampo. This kind of myth of theft and pursuit is not uncommon in northern Europe. One of the earliest mentions of king Arthur, in the Welsh mystery-poem, the "Spoils of Annwn" sings of Arthur’s harrowing voyage into the Otherworld to seek and steal a cauldron that would, over time, become the archetype for the grail.
Kept and protected in the Otherworld, such objects function as hallows, but can become personifications of mortal desire as well. We have always sought to control nature. Now modern science follows myth in this regard: we mutate seeds, affect the weather and bend the cycles of nature to serve human needs. But unlike the myths, science has not yet learned to see the end of the story. In myths, those who seek too much control over nature often lose whatever gains they may have won from the gods. Such mythic losses may also be reflections of larger, seasonal cycles of loss, yearning, quest and attainment.
In Northland, the Sampo ground out abundance, but when it was stolen back, it was broken and its thieves/rescuers were furiously pursued. Perhaps the great beauty and fertile powers of the Sampo made it inappropriate for the mortal, or middle–world. Its perfection established it as a holy thing, worthy of memory, and its keeping–place would then need to be (perhaps should have remained) in the Otherworldly Northland where the forces of the ever–fading mortal world could not diminish it. In this way too, the Sampo shares some similarities with other well–known quest objects — the grail and Excalibur— that are lent to, or quested for by mortals.Such artifacts must eventually find their way back to the Unfading Otherworld, re–installed within the realm of memory where they can continue to inspire successive generations of makers and seekers.
At the end of the Sampo songs, after a sea–chase, Louhi (now in the form of an eagle) is struck by Väinämöinen with an oar. Wounded, but with one talon left, she reaches for the Sampo, but then drops it into the sea where it breaks apart.
Though clever Väinämöinen might not have foreseen the breaking of the Sampo, even its shattered pieces retained some portions of their original power and so continue to serve a purpose.
So some of those bits, those great
Fragments of the Sampo went
Below the quiet waters
Down into the black mud;
There they were left for the water
Treasures for Ahto–land’s folk.
That’s why never in this world
Not in a month of Sundays will the water go without
Or its Ahto lack treasures.
By telling its story, keeping its bright–lid (a threshold to and reminder of whatever mystery once dwelled within it), and knowing that the other parts of it are buried in the sea ("Ahto–land"), people may still partake of the Sampo’s song won through Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen’s bold quest. The spoils of such tales are too compelling to be kept by a single hand or spoken by a single mouth alone. Their wisdom has become part of the great sea’s bounty: plentiful, more than enough to be shared by all.
Shall I start to sing
Shall I begin to recite . . .
One word from you, one from me
Splendid speech from both . . .
Even as it appears to us now in a purely literary form, the Sampo remains a gift of mystery, the embodiment of the numinous. It is never described in enough detail to guess its identity. It is a word without a referent. But this mystery is surely part of the Sampo’s power if not its purpose, for to inspire questions and quest is a particular definition of the sacred. The Sampo is broken and lost, but we may still tell its story. It continues to sing in Finnish myth and the pages of the Kalevala as an axis of otherworldly wonder about which human hopes of artistic and spiritual attainment may, at every moment, begin to form.
The Kalevala by Keith Bosley
Finnish Folk Poetry–Epic, edited by Matt Kuusi, Keith Bosley and Michael Branch
Folk-Lore: A Quarterly Review, (Folk-Lore Society), vols. 1 and 2, 1890–1
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, edited by Maria Leach
A Description of Northern Peoples 1555, 3 vols., Olaus Magnus (ed. P.G. Foote)
Also of Note:
The Lemminkäinen Suite: symphonic music based on four legends from the Kalevala by Jean Sibelius
Kalevala: Dream of the Salmon Maiden, a CD of music and song (in Finnish and English) by Ruth Mackenzie