Kalevalaic connections

…aka “What bridges Finnish shamanism and contemporary Australian poetry?”

The first lecture I ever gave was on the Finnish national epic Kalevala. I was fresh out of Honours and I was part-excited at the opportunity, part-appalled that someone as unimpressive as yours truly could be allowed to lecture at university (mercifully I ground those doubts into a fine dust in good time). Wanting to get everything right, I spent the entire previous day… making traditional pastries for the students. Because of course. (I should probably mention that I didn’t yet know how to use PowerPoint properly, so it’s not as if I couldn’t have spent my energies on that, for example.*) Every now and then I have the opportunity to teach the Kalevala again, and my next excursion to the land of heroes is in about a week.

The Kalevala is great fun, not least because of its wonderful alliteration and rhythm, which translations can’t typically quite capture:

Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi

lähteäni laulamahan, saa’ani sanelemahan,
sukuvirttä suoltamahan, lajivirttä laulamahan.
Sanat suussani sulavat, puhe’et putoelevat,
kielelleni kerkiävät, hampahilleni hajoovat.

(Translation here)

The Kalevala also has many juicy cultural layers. It is based on orally transmitted poems recorded for the first time in the early nineteenth century: the national Romantics of the time saw in folk poetry a link to a real, historical Golden Age of the Finns. The Kalevala itself was compiled, edited and partly invented by the physician, botanist and philologist Elias Lönnrot, who became a national hero for his efforts (people liked to think the Kalevala had existed as a unified whole since the (g)olden days, and that Lönnrot had discovered the narratively coherent whole – proof that the Finnish language could sustain a high culture!). So some layers of the text derive from the nineteenth century rune singers of Eastern Finland, who sang for Lönnrot songs they had (possibly) learnt from their elders – or some version thereof, anyway. Then there is a sliver of Lönnrot improving on what he had recorded and some parts that are Lönnrot’s original poetry. So already we have the competing voices of the rural singers, each with their individual strengths and preferences for types of songs, and Lönnrot the young scholar (he was not yet 30 when he began the work) filtering the material for the needs of a culturally nationalist academy. One day someone will apply author theory to the Kalevala and it will be epic.

Because the songs were part of the oral tradition there was no ‘correct’ version of a particular song: there were always regional variants and individual singers could always vary songs, invent new ones and so on. So if a song was recorded in the early nineteenth century, which bits of the song only came into existence at that point and which parts had been passed on from previous generations? The cultural references in the Kalevala can be to the ‘now’ of their recording in the nineteenth century, to the singer’s childhood, or to centuries earlier – the options are bewildering and I take my metaphorical hat off to folklorists for tackling the problem. One theory, for example, is that the sequence where the sage Väinämöinen (or, as students invariably refer to him, “V-guy”) tries to find crucial incantations in the belly of the master shaman Antero Vipunen initially described a trance-like state, a spiritual journey Väinämöinen takes in order to increase his powers. This kind of a process would have been a natural part of the cultural environment of a shamanist society, but by the time the early poems took their shape in the Bronze Age times had changed, and people could only understand Väinämöinen’s ‘going under’ in more literal terms. The scale of the cultural shift implied in the poem, then, is almost incomprehensibly huge.

Given how crucial a part of Finnish culture and society the Kalevala is I’m always fascinated by what non-Finns get out of it, what can the epic mean to someone who hasn’t grown up with its characters and storylines firmly embedded in popular culture. A couple of months ago I leapt at the chance to interview the pseudonymous Australian poet Scott Sandwich about his eight-minute version of the epic, written during his residency at the Arteles Creative Centre in Finland. Scott’s enthusiasm is infectious, and I hope you get as much out of our shared Kalevala geek-out as I did:

*spending my time preparing the entirely wrong thing was something of a theme in my early adventures into teaching.

writing music: "Nouse lauluni", Rajaton

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