The Song of the Sampo
in Finnish Myth and Lore
by Ari Berk
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 misreadthe 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, Lцnnrot 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)