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Second Glance: ‘Do Not, Future People, Bring Up a Child the Wrong Way’

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

The Kalevala, or Poems of the Kaleva District

Compiled by Elias Lönnrot
Harvard University Press, 1963

In 1809, Finland left Swedish rule and became an autonomous grand duchy of Russia, which was almost as good as becoming an independent nation. The newfound semi-independence stirred Finnish nationalism and, as a consequence, interest surged in Finnish folklore. One of the people especially interested in this folklore was Elias Lönnrot, a medical doctor who made numerous trips around the country collecting folk songs. It was from this extensive collection that he fashioned the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.

Lönnrot’s status is somewhere between compiler and author: in creating the Kalevala, he merged poems about similar characters and themes, arranged the poems into a logical storyline, tinkered with the words, and invented a few lines (about 3% of the total) to smooth things together. In 1835-6, he published what is now known as the “old Kalevala.” In 1849, he published a revised version of 50 poems, known as the “new Kalevala,” and this version has become canonical (it’s the one I’ll discuss here, in Francis Peabody Magoun’s 1963 English translation).

The Kalevala starts, appropriately, at the beginning, with the origin of the earth and the first human: Väinämöinen. He is an expert in the arts of magic and the world’s greatest singer – not to mention that he creates music when he fashions the world’s first kantele (a harp-like Finnish instrument). He lives in the district of Kaleva with the poem’s two other main heroes: the great blacksmith Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen, a reckless, lustful youth. Opposite Kaleva is the North Farm, and the relations between the two regions vary throughout the poems, from indifferent to friendly to hostile.

The storyline that drives the Kalevala is the Sampo cycle. Early on, Väinämöinen finds himself swept ashore, helpless and far from home. Louhi, mistress of North Farm, saves him and helps him return to Kaleva. In return, he promises to give her a Sampo, which the Kalevala describes as: “on one side a grain mill, / on the second side a salt mill, on the third a money mill.” In essence, the Sampo provides whatever its owner needs and denies that to anyone else. The account of the Kalevans building it for the North Farm, then stealing it back, and its final destruction forms the epic’s central story, but it is by no means the only story.

The Forging of the Sampo,
by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

There are numerous digressions along the way. Lemminkäinen dies, and his body is chopped to pieces, but with magic (and a handy rake) his mother brings him back to life. To win his bride, Ilmarinen plows a field of snakes from which no one has returned alive. Louhi turns into an eagle. Väinämöinen builds a kantele from the jawbone of a giant pike. The daughter of death gives birth to terrible children: bellyache and gout, boils and plague and cancer. And throughout the poems, charms and incantations and magic render indispensible services.

None of this seems very relevant to the 21st century. One can, of course, read the Kalevala to understand the people of the time, in the spirit of nationalism, or simply for the wonderful stories. But read this way, the Kalevala still appears to be distant from daily life, which is, I think, a shame. The epic seems especially detached from our time because oral poetry in general and much of the Kalevala in particular is designed to teach: how to behave at a wedding, how to brew beer, and how to heal a wound, for instance. These lessons are very specific, and outside of the context in which they are presented – Finland in the 18th and 19th centuries – they are of little use. But the Kalevala needn’t be distant from our lives. Read with an eye to our own time, there is in fact much it can teach us, precisely because the world of the poem is so different from our own. When we attempt to apply something as unfamiliar as the customs from the Kalevala to our lives, we become able to see what is strange and irrational about our own customs.

Väinämöinen himself has this in mind; on two occasions he addresses the people of the future. Here is the first of these messages:

Do not, people of the future,   people just growing up,
make a boat out of bravado,   a boat rib arrogantly.
God starts the race,   the Creator determines the finish,
not the skill of a human being,   by no means the power of a strong man

I think of myself as an empiricist, so on my first reading, I dismissed both the magic that runs through the Kalevala and Väinämöinen’s admonition. As I read, I found myself feeling superior and asking, “Why should I accept some old man’s assertion that God exists, especially when he offers no evidence?” However, when I looked at this passage with the intention of trying to learn from it, there was something for me to take away from it: humility.

I came to realize that while it was reasonable not to believe in the supernatural for lack of evidence, I was contradicting myself when I called the poem’s assertions false without any disproving evidence. Indeed, I know of no evidence that can disprove religion – that’s the whole point: it’s a matter of faith. Neither can I ever definitively disprove magic or the supernatural – merely some isolated instances of either. And more: magic is not so unnatural as the word makes it seem. For instance, the placebo effect – in which a patient taking sugar pills rather than actual medicine is cured – routinely appears in scientific studies. A study published in the journal PLoS Medicine in 2008 showed that in some cases, such as with the use of antidepressants to treat mildly and moderately depressed patients, placebos can actually be more effective than or as effective as actual medications. No scientist has yet produced a compelling explanation for the mechanism of the placebo effect. Even if one were provided, the “miraculous” recoveries of patients taking placebos would remain a sort of magic, as patients receiving no treatment would still be recovering.

None of this is to say that evidence is more important than faith or that empiricism is better than religion. Instead, what I mean to demonstrate is that by using the Kalevala to reflect on our own lives, we are prompted to rethink some of our as yet unquestioned assumptions.

This argument can be extended to a willingness to accept the unbelievable – that which, at first glance, seems ridiculous or impossible. It is, as Väinämöinen says, hubristic to assume that humans can determine the course of the world or that they completely understand everything. And while believing the unbelievable –that Lemminkäinen’s mother could rake the parts of his body together and bring him back to life or that Kullervo could turn wolves and bears into cows – seems ridiculous, much that originally seemed incredible is now commonplace (say, quantum physics or microwaves). Indeed, by extension of the argument above, I can hardly call myself an empiricist if I dismiss the unbelievable out of hand simply because it is, well, unbelievable. This does not mean, of course, that I should blindly accept every suggestion that crosses my path, but simply that I should hesitate to judge before I have some sort of sound evidence.

Väinämöinen playing the kantele

Ironically, Väinämöinen gets himself into trouble by blithely dismissing something unbelievable. In the final section of the epic, Marjatta becomes pregnant and gives birth while still a virgin, and Väinämöinen condemns her and the baby. The child, still but an infant, is miraculously able to speak in his own defense and humiliates Väinämöinen. Väinämöinen ultimately leaves Kaleva, though he vows to return one day, and the boy replaces him as the spiritual leader of Kaleva. Because the child is born in a similar way to Jesus, this episode is often understood as the introduction of Christianity to Finland, which was necessary because though the poems Lönnrot drew on described a pre-Christian world, by the time he wrote the epic Finland had become largely Christian.

Had Väinämöinen been willing to entertain the possibility of the unbelievable, he might not have been put to shame. The episode demonstrates the difficulty of faith. On the one hand, having an open mind to the unbelievable makes one an easy target for a cult or scam, but on the other, closing one’s mind too much might lead one to miss out on religious transformation, human experience, or scientific advances. The necessary balancing act requires that one continuously remembers to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence.

Väinämöinen’s second admonishment comes at the end of the Kullervo cycle. This cycle consists of six poems stuck in the middle of the Kalevala, with relatively little connection to the rest of the epic. The story they tell is a strange, tragic one. The eponymous character, Kullervo, is born on the farm of his uncle Untamo who, having killed Kullervo’s father and family, repeatedly attempts to kill Kullervo as well. The infant miraculously survives and spends his childhood neglected and unloved, until Untamo eventually sells him as a slave. His new mistress sets him to work as a cowherd and gives him a loaf of bread, into which she has deviously baked a stone. Kullervo breaks his knife – the only relic he has of his father – on the stone and in a rage tricks the mistress into being eaten by bears and wolves. He runs away into the forest and discovers, completely inexplicably, that his family still lives. The poem never remarks on this stunning change. Kullervo is unable to complete the first few tasks his father sets him, so he is sent on a long journey to make a delivery for his father. Along the way, he seduces a young woman. To their mutual horror, they discover that they are siblings, and his sister kills herself. Kullervo goes on to discover that only his mother loves him and, in despair, sets out to kill Untamo. On his return, he finds his whole family dead and kills himself.

The inclusion of these tenuously relevant, contradictory, and deeply tragic poems is a matter of much mystery. Lönnrot may have felt obliged to include them simply as a result of having heard them many times and therefore feeling that they belonged. Some of the inconsistencies in the poems may be a result of Lönnrot’s having combined various other fragments that were not originally parts of a unified whole. It has also been suggested that he felt the Kalevala, in order to be a proper epic, needed tragic elements. The meaning of the poems is left to the reader to divine, though Väinämoinen gives his interpretation at the end:

Do not, future people,   bring up a child the wrong way,
in the home of one who rocks foolishly,   of a strange luller to sleep.
A child reared the wrong way,   a boy rocked stupidly,
will not grasp things,   not acquire the mind of a man,
even though he should live to grow up,   should become strong of body

Väinämöinen’s interpretation here – that with improper care, a child will “not acquire the mind of a man” (and thus, will be unable to function in society) – provides us with a way to begin to give meaning to this story: the disasters that befall Kullervo and his family are not his fault; they are a result of a poor upbringing. For that reason, Väinämöinen urges us to take care in raising children. It is especially significant to note that the consequences affect not just Kullervo’s immediate family but also Untamo’s family (all of whom are slain) and the slavemistress’ family. Because a bad upbringing can affect society at large, we would be advised to be generous in sharing the burdens of childrearing – perhaps, I would suggest, to support charities or government social services – even if only for our own benefit.

Väinämöinen’s exoneration of Kullervo is also relevant to the possibility of redemption. Kullervo is a degenerate murderer, but he is also a lonely, unloved individual who acts the way he does because of his upbringing – in other words, because no one has ever helped him become socialized. This was in no way unheard of – Finnish life at the time was very difficult, with famine always a possibility and people’s lives subject to the vicissitudes of nature. Children, meaning more mouths to feed, were hardly a great benefit. For that reason – and because there was simply so much work to do – child rearing was much less involved than it is today. Still, cooperation was important within a family unit, in order to ensure that everything got done. Kullervo’s upbringing, in an actively hostile environment, could hardly prepare him for this or even give him the basic skills necessary.

When Kullervo comes home to his farm, his father assigns him to work as a fisherman. Before rowing off to fish, he earnestly asks the steersman whether he should row according to his strength or the strength of the boat and is told to row according to his strength. When he does, the boat breaks to pieces. Sent then to beat fish, he asks the same question and receives the same answer; predictably, he pounds the fish to pulp. His frustrated father declares him hopeless and sends him off on a journey. In his father’s eyes, Kullervo’s lack of success is a result of his incompetence. However, this understanding fails to consider the many mitigating factors. Kullervo is reunited with his family after enduring repeated attempts on his life and a childhood of neglect and animosity – not to mention having committed murder. It is in this vulnerable state that his father affords him a valuable second chance, an opportunity to reintegrate himself into society. Crucially, though, he is set up to fail: without adequate support and advice from those around him, he can hardly be expected to succeed – and indeed he does not. It is easy to imagine, however, that had he received better advice, he would have fulfilled his duties and been able to lead a successful life.

Kullervo’s Curse, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Later in the poems, Kullervo’s mother highlights the possibility of redemption. Urging him not to kill himself, she says

The Finnish peninsula is big,   the marches of Savo are vast enough
for a man to hide his wicked deeds,   to atone for his evil acts,
to hide five, six years,   nine years in all
until time brings pardon,   the years ease distress

These are wise words and considering them in the context of Kullervo’s earlier failures emphasizes the possibility of redemption. As we will see, spurning such words leads to tragedy. Indeed, had Kullervo received the necessary support to succeed as a fisherman – had his father viewed him as vulnerable and in need of assistance instead of simply flawed – he would never have slept with his sister. Had he heeded his mother’s words, he would not have massacred Untamo’s clan or killed himself. The lesson in this is that no matter how damaged or flawed a person is, with the support of society redemption is possible – and both the redeemed and society will be better off for it. In an America with more prisoners per capita than any other nation and lingering torture scandals this is a lesson than merits serious consideration.

Even when the Kalevala is not speaking directly to the people of the future, it abounds with wisdom. From the juxtaposition of modern life and the seemingly strange world of Kaleva, we can see our own lives in a new light and thereby rethink them. Take the importance that the Kalevala places on origins. Knowing the origin of an object or person gives the Kalevans power over it. This shows up in a variety of situations, from an old man’s being able to heal Väinämöinen’s ax-wound only after learning the origin of iron to Lemminkäinen’s staving off frostbite with the origin charm of Jack Frost. In the modern world, though, where spells and incantations are few, gaining magical power over something by knowing its origin seems pretty irrelevant. There is, however, a lesson buried in this idea: that by understanding a problem’s origin, we can more easily find a solution. Consider a city faced by an overflowing landfill. The immediate solution to this problem is to simply build a new landfill. This would, indeed, solve the problem – until that landfill got filled up. By considering the origin of the problem (in this case, the production of trash), we arrive at more lasting solutions.

When we read the Kalevala in this light, using it to illuminate the foolish practices of our own lives, it turns out to have quite a bit to say. It is in fact because the epic is so seemingly anachronistic that it can illuminate the unquestioned assumptions of the modern day. Indeed, other parts of the Kalevala take us far beyond that discussed above and cause us to reconsider anything from the power of nature to the roles and expectations related to marriage – and so much more. The more time I spend reading and thinking about the Kalevala, the more relevant it seems to become.

Sean Hughes is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes regularly for the weekly Seattle newspaper Real Change News; he has also written for The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

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