The Kalevala Pt 1 :: A Difficult Birth

A Chronology (of sorts)

Young, Very Young Read The Hobbit
Same Day(ish) Fell in love with J. R. R. Tolkien’s books forever
Some Point Later, Probably Early Teens Read The Lord of the Rings
Same Day(ish) Resolved never to read another fantasy; none could be as good
Through Teens Tried to read The Silmarillion, failed
University Inspired by new friends, finally read Silmarillion

From then on, there was no stopping me. Having mastered Morgoth, I decided to read some of the books that inspired Tolkien. George McDonald The Princess and the Goblin, Andrew Lang’s fairy books, the Elder and Younger Edda and The Kalevala among others.

Recently, I picked up my copy of The Kalevala again to revisit what I found the first time round to be a hugely enjoyable read. How would I find it this time?

An Explanation
Whereas in my posts on The Divine Comedy, I am giving an outline of the whole chapter (they are conveniently short) as well as my own comments, here I would like to focus on particular incidents and/or characters. In this post, therefore, I shall limit myself to looking at how Väinämöinen, one of the central characters in The Kalevala came to be born.

A Digression
I must beg your indulgence. Before continuing, or rather, before beginning, I must digress for one quick moment. In case you were wondering, one of the reasons I loved The Kalevala when I first read it was the names. Väinämöinen, for example, trips off the tongue with an exceptionally pleasant ease; Väinämöinen – it sounds so friendly and smooth. Ilmarinen – a very obvious influence on Tolkien – sounds to me like the Venus de Milo looks. That hasn’t changed.

After the poet’s introduction, we meet ‘a lass, an air-girl’ who is living very happily thank-you-very-much in the air. Well, I don’t suppose we would be very likely to find her anywhere else. However, as time passes, her happiness grows less and she becomes lonely. The poet says

Her times grew weary
and her life felt strange

which I have to admit sounds to me almost like the air-girl was suffering from depression; she had become dislocated from both the world and ‘normal’ emotions.

In an attempt to escape her sadness, the air-girl came down from the air and

launched herself upon the waves
on the clear high seas
upon the open expanse.

This should have been a happy time, a dance with the high-spirited water, but danger lurked. The east wind whipped the sea up while it, itself ‘lulled the maid’ before – along with the sea – effectively raping her.

… the wind blew her womb full
the sea makes her fat.

The reason I say ‘effectively’ is that there is no attempt to personify the wind or sea. That makes it hard to understand what has happened in human terms.

As a result of this assault, the air-girl – who is now called ‘the water-mother’ – became pregnant. The normal length of time for a pregnancy is nine months, but we are in the land of myth, and the normal rules do not apply here. Thus, the water-mother remained pregnant for no less than seven hundred years. She swam this way and that, in all directions ‘but no birth was born’.

In her distress, the water-mother pleaded to the ‘Old Man, chief god / upholder of all the sky’ to help her. Presently, there

Came a scaup, a straightforward bird

Another Digression
It isn’t made clear (at least not to me) whether or not the Old Man sent the scaup. What I do know, however, is that this bird is a kind of duck. I can only say that if I had been writing this story, I would have put an eagle or similarly majestic bird at the beginning of the world.

As the scaup flew about, the water-mother lay resting in the sea. The bird saw her and mistook her protruding knee for ‘a grass hummock’, the scaup made a nest there and laid its eggs – six of gold and one of iron.

Unfortunately, the water-mother proved sensitive to the change in temperature on her knee as the bird incubated its eggs. She shook it and the eggs fell into the sea, where they smashed.

But they weren’t lost. The lower half of one egg ‘became mother earth below’, while

an egg’s upper half
became heaven above…

The yolk became the sun, and the white the moon.

what in an egg was mottled
became the stars in the sky
what in an egg was blackish
became the clouds of the air

And thus the world was made.

But still Väinämöinen had not been born. Things get a little confusing here as the poet says

Now in the ninth year
in the tenth summer

the water-mother lifted her head out of the sea and began to populate and form the ocean. That much I understand but I am not sure about the measurement of time. Have 710 years now passed or are we to disregard the earlier statement about the length of her pregnancy? Things get even more confusing when the poet tells us that

Steady old Väinämöinen
went round in his mother’s womb
for thirty summers
and as many winters too

Ultimately, I suppose we should neither ask nor expect myths to be completely logical. They are stories, after all, not equations. It is highly likely that they have multiple authors, too, and in their inconsistencies bear the imprint of each.

Still, poor old water-mother having to bear her son for thirty years if not seven hundred.

Sadly for the water-mother, the Old Man had not answered her prayer (unless it was to send the scaup, which was not very helpful). So, despite being as yet unborn, Väinämöinen decided to take matters into his own hands. He prayed

… with this speech:
‘Moon, unloose, and sun, set free
and Great Bear, still guide

Did the moon hear his prayer? Or the sun? What about the Great Bear (i.e. Plough)? No, no, and no. But Väinämöinen was not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer, so he quite literally put his best foot and finger forward.

he shifted the stronghold gate
with his ring finger
slid the lock of bone
with his left toe

and tumbled out of his mother, into the sea, where he remained for no less than eight years. What was water-mother doing during this time? We are not told.

As for the sea, it took care of its new charge until Väinämöinen finally stepped upon terra firma. Upon doing so he proved that he was not a man to hold grudges.

he rose to look at the moon
to admire the sun
observe the Great Bear
and study the stars.

I have to admit, when you used to hearing about envious Greek gods, Finnish myth is a real breath of fresh air. I wonder – I hope – it reflects something of their national character. Whether or not that is the case, we’ve now reached the end of chapter 1. What will Väinämöinen do with the life that he has now begun?

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