The Magicians of the Northlands

Picture from

Picture from

“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


34 thoughts on “The Magicians of the Northlands

  1. Kate, this is a haunting, lovely story. I knew little about the history of Finland before we went there in November. The people were so welcoming, and the mish mash of cultures was very interesting.

    1. I was amazed to see how many strands of humanity found their way there, Andra! Finnish and Swedish, Sami from Lapland, Tartar and Romani…it must be quite a mix of cultures, indeed!

  2. I loved visiting Finland and I wish I’d known this story prior. As you say, when one’s life is so drastically “altered” by the generous absence of light, then one must find other ways to fill time. This makes sense.

  3. Wonderful! I’m left wondering whether you are, perhaps, part Finn . . . with the gift of lifting and swaying readers with inspired stories.

  4. I hear similar stories of the celts — music, storytelling, magic and a primitive ascetic. I wonder if they are related to the Finns.

  5. Thank you Kate for inserting some knowledge of Finland in between the little I already knew about its culture — the filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki and the gay porn artist Tom of Finland.

  6. Very coo. I really enjoy and learn so much from your posts. I have read parts of the Kalevala- what a beautiful tale- such an intriguing people.

  7. I’m really interested in reading more…learning more. I must admit I am completely out of my element here, but you’ve provided such a nice morsel that does whet my appetite. I always enjoy your Quirks of History posts! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Debra! I don’t think one needs to be an expert to read, or I would be out of the running straight away. You just need amind that loves stories and language. As, indeed, you have.

    1. Gosh you must have read early, IE! I changed it to armaments within a short time of publishing. I was telling Laurence the other day that for some reason I have to see it published before I can tweak it properly…

  8. Must give the Kalevala another go, having given up when a callow twenty-something youth… Of course, us musicians know of the poems via that famous Finnish composer Sibelius, inventor of the score-writing computer program.* I particularly liked his The Swan of Tuonela tone poem.

    More recently, I was reminded of shamanic culture when reading A S Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale. She introduces a legend of the taxonomist Carl Linnaeus visiting shamans in the 18th century; I wrote a rather scattergun review of the novel here ( which you might enjoy.

    * I’m kidding, of course; that was his kid brother…

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