“The Finns are extremely wild, and live in abject poverty. They have no armaments, no horses, no dwellings; they live on herbs, they clothe themselves in skins, and they sleep on the ground.
“Their only resources are their arrows, which for the lack of iron are tipped with bone.”
So wrote a Roman senator at the end of the second century AD. Since prehistory the Finns have proved themselves hardy against Arctic conditions: as far north as Siberia, midnight sun prevails in the north from May to July, and seemingly endless night rules in Winter. Further south, daylight never leaves in midsummer, and day is only six hours long in parts of the Winter.
So there must have been a lot of time for thinking. For singing And for storytelling.
It is said that anyone who knew the Finns knew they were masters of the unexplained.The supernatural.
Norwegian Kings of the Middle Ages forbade people voyaging to Finland to consult magicians. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Swedish officials would search relentlessly for the magic drum – the quodbas- used by the Finnish sorcerers to accompany their enchantments. They were called shamans: mediators between the powerful forces of baffling nature, and its people.
While few of the drums still exist and the twenty-first century has claimed Finland, yet a potent relic of the magic remains.
It is called The Kalevala. And it is a very, very long poem, written in trochaic tetrameter – four ‘footfalls’, each with a stressed and an unstressed part. It did not start as a heroic poem: it began with the son of a Finnish Tailor, a mighty fine district dog breeder called Elias Lannrot (1802-84). Elias made eleven field trips over 15 years to listen to the folk tales the people of Finland told him, and writing them down.
He was systematic: he would ask people to perform the songs to him – they sang them, generally, on a string of five notes. Music has wicked power there. He and his team would record name, age and place of the contributor, and so we know the chief contributors to the Kalevala. We now how much was made up by Lannrot – around 3 per cent – and how much original: one-third was word-for-word transcription, half slightly adjusted.
It was organic, and grew during Lannrot’s life, starting with 32 poems and growing to 50.
And what is undeniable is that the haunting magic of this race lives and breathes through the lines of these tales. It is a page turner. I started scanning briefly for the beginning of the world and ended tearing myself away as the hero seemed to have forgotten the beautiful maiden he was supposed to have married, who committed suicide and lay a mermaid at the bottom of the sea, and turned his eyes to another woman. I shall be returning shortly.
There is something about the rareified air of that country. Something about the balance between night and dark, the mix of peoples who merged to create this great and beautiful set of verses. They are clever, born magicians. And their stories still bewitch today.
“Other songs the winds have sung me, Many birds from many forests,
Waves of sea and ocean billows, Music from the many waters,
Music from the whole creation, oft have been my guide and master.
Sentences the trees created, rolled together into bundles,
Moved them to my ancient dwelling, on the sledges to my cottage,
Tied them to my garret rafters, hung them on my dwelling portals,
Laid them in a chest of boxes, boxes lined with shining copper.”
You can read the Kalevala here