V is for Väinämöinen

Published April 26, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


All right, so this one is a bit of a cheat.  Because Väinämöinen exists in two forms, the god-like first man, or a fairly human hero.  The first is mythology, the second is from a nineteenth century epic poem.  Now, the epic is supposed to have been a compilation of Finnish oral tradition that was dying out.  But was it?  Well, yes, almost unquestionably.  But how much of it was genuine oral tradition, and how much the product of the compiler?  That would seem to be the subject of great debate…and thus my assertion that I’m kind of cheating here, because I’m using the epic poem version of Väinämöinen, not the shorter, less-easily-compared-to-anything-specific myth.  (Yes, my A-to-Z theme was definitely poorly chosen.  I see that now…)  Still, it seems like most of the material does genuinely come from oral tradition, so it’s not as “cheating” as it might be.

Now, on to the story of Väinämöinen.  I’m definitely going to read this epic someday because it sounds really fascinating, but I haven’t read it yet, so I’m going to have to present you with a summary of a summary.  I apologize for that.

The epic of Kalevala (compiled, edited, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it by Elias Lönnrot), begins with the myth I mentioned above, in which the world is created, in part by the primeval goddess Luonnotar breaking a set of duck eggs that then become the world.  Luonnotar somehow becomes pregnant, but doesn’t realize it.  After her son, Väinämöinen, grows to full maturity (over 700 years!) he still has to just sit there in her womb for decades, waiting to be born, because she doesn’t realize he’s there, and wouldn’t know how to let him out even if she did.  Eventually, he climbs out himself, but by that time he’s already an old man.

He swims over to what’s now Finland, and begins to spread plantlife.  While he’s trying to farm, a frost giant named Joukahainen decides that Väinämöinen is an interloper who must be destroyed.  Joukahainen has powerful magic, which should scare Väinämöinen,  but the already-old-at-birth man isn’t frightened.  Instead he uses music to perform wondrous feats of magic, including turning Joukahainen’s bow and arrows into a rainbow and some hawks, and creating a bog beneath the frost giant’s feet.  Suddenly trapped, Joukahainen surrenders, and makes a peace offering:  if Väinämöinen will set him free, then he can marry the giant’s sister, Aino.

Well, sounds like a good deal for Väinämöinen, right?

Unfortunately, not so much.  As soon as Aino is told that she’s to marry the old man, she’s horrified at the prospect, and drowns herself to get out of it.

You might think that having someone commit suicide to avoid marrying him would put Väinämöinen off the very idea of marriage, but instead it only makes him more eager, and he sets off north to Pohjola to see if any of the other frost giant maidens are perhaps less picky than Aino.

It’s not an easy trip as Joukahainen attacks him again, and Väinämöinen ends up floating helplessly in the sea for days, until he’s scooped up by an eagle (presumably a gigantic one) and carried to his destination in the bird’s talons.  He meets a frost giant princess named Louhi, who has a number of marriageable daughters, and they strike a deal that she’ll give her daughter to the man who can forge her the sampo.

The sampo is a magic mill, hand-cranked, which can produce different substances from three of its sides:  salt, flour and gold.  It was legendary, but had never been forged, yet that was the condition that Louhi set before she would allow anyone to marry her daughter.

Well, Väinämöinen may be able to conjure up all sorts of things, but to make a sampo was beyond him.  So he headed back to Finland to see his brother Ilmarinen, who was a smith.  (I’m not clear if they’re literal brothers, or if it’s more figurative…)

It was difficult, and required many long days of work with the most rare (if rather un-metallic) materials, but eventually Ilmarinen was able to make the sampo.  They took it to Louhi, who should therefore have granted her daughter to Ilmarinen, but instead they both went home brideless.

At this point, the epic veers away from Väinämöinen for a while, to tell of another man, Lemminkäinen, who also wants to marry one of Louhi’s daughters.  But since it doesn’t involve Väinämöinen, we’ll skip over it.  Instead, we’ll return to poor Väinämöinen, who is once again on his way to Pohjola to seek a wife.

Having been set ridiculously impossible tasks in order to win her hand, Väinämöinen finds his magical music can’t quite accomplish the last one, and sets out on a journey to learn just the spell/song to finish the task.  His first stop is Tuonela, the land of death.  He finds the land quite inhospitable (imagine that!) but eventually finds his way to the court of Queen Tuonetar.  Unlike her country, she treats him quite hospitably, and even offers him a beer.  Väinämöinen is about to drink the beer when he realizes it contains the property of oblivion, and that if he drank it he would forget everything, even himself.  This narrow escape is followed by others as he flees the land of death, a task that requires the use of his magic.

After he warns people of the dangers of the land of the dead, Väinämöinen continues to search for the spell he needs, and in his travels he learns of a giant who sleeps, using the surface of the earth as a blanket.  This giant, Antero Vipunen, has been asleep so long that trees have grown up on top of him.  Väinämöinen sets out to learn what the giant knows, but when he tries to awaken the giant, he ends up being swallowed.

Trying to get out of a gigantic being that’s swallowed you — without being digested in the process — is always a tricky business, but Väinämöinen sets about it methodically by using his magic to turn his clothes –and even a few of his own body parts! — into a forge and bellows, which he promptly begins to use.  The resulting noise, smoke and heat cause the giant to wake up in agony, coughing up Väinämöinen, and the spells he was there to seek out.

Having completed his impossible tasks at last, Väinämöinen returns to Pohjola to claim his bride…only to have her choose to marry his brother Ilmarinen instead.  But he’s a good sport about it, and sings at the wedding.

Following this, there are more sequences that don’t involve Väinämöinen, though one of them involves Ilmarinen’s new wife, which leaves poor Ilmarinen a widower not long after his wedding.  Following this loss, Ilmarinen tries to make himself a new wife out of precious metals, but since she’s so cold he can’t stand her, and tries to marry another of Louhi’s daughters.  This does not go well.

Meanwhile, the sampo has been making Pohjola into a very wealthy land.  As the ones responsible for its creation, Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen want to have a share of that.  They and Lemminkäinen travel to see Louhi and ask for a share of the wealth, threatening to take the sampo away if they don’t get it.

Needless to say, they don’t get it.

A battle begins to ensue, as Louhi raises an army.  But on his way to Pohjola, Väinämöinen had made a new instrument, the zither, which made his music’s magic much more powerful, so much so that he could entice even trees and rocks.  He uses it to put Louhi and her whole army to sleep, and the trio are able to retrieve the sampo from Louhi’s vaults.

They’d probably have gotten away with it, if Lemminkäinen hadn’t felt the need to gloat by singing a song of triumph.

Lemminkäinen’s song counteracted the spell of Väinämöinen’s song, and Louhi and her army woke up.

Then the battle really did ensue.  In the course of the battle, the sampo was destroyed, and Väinämöinen’s zither was lost overboard.  The pieces of the sampo are viewed as enough to ensure Finland’s prosperity, and the trio return home as triumphantly as they can.

Then Louhi tries to get her revenge, and we seem to return to the more mythological material, rather than the more epic material we’ve been getting so far in Väinämöinen’s adventures.  Because — in addition to sending a plague to the land’s cattle, which Väinämöinen is easily able to cure — Louhi steals the sun and the moon, though Väinämöinen is able to force her to return them.

The epic ends with an obvious allegory to the Christianization of the region, as it has a virgin named Marjatta getting pregnant by eating a berry.  Väinämöinen says that Marjatta’s son should be killed, but the infant reproaches him for that and his other sins, then becomes king.  Väinämöinen, meanwhile, sails away, to live somewhere between heaven and earth, though he promises that he will return someday, when his magic will once again be needed.

Right, so, there’s a lot here that’s similar to a lot of other stuff.  (And if I actually had time to read the original epic, there would probably be much more.)

I’m going to start with the over-all stuff first, and then look at specifics.  Väinämöinen has often been compared to Orpheus because of the power of his music, and that’s definitely a logical comparison (especially with the power of his zither) but there’s definitely more to him than that.  Honestly, reading the summary of the epic, my main thought was that he was a fusion of Odysseus and the anti-Odysseus.  Because he’s an old man who’s constantly traveling, and the hero of an epic, and he even visits the realm of the dead, all of which is like Odysseus, but he’s also constantly rejected in love, and never gets his happy ending, which is very much unlike Odysseus.  Oh, and going on a quest to steal the sampo back is rather like Odysseus and Diomedes going to steal the Palladion out of Troy.  (Admittedly, they never possessed the Palladion before, so they’re not reclaiming it, like Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen are, but Athene is the guardian goddess of both Odysseus and Diomedes, so…well, it’s perhaps a weak comparison at best.)  Given that his magic can transform both himself and other objects, I’d say that Väinämöinen has a little bit of the trickster in him as well.  (In a non-mythological comparison, Väinämöinen was one of the inspirations for Gandalf, or so I’ve read.  Given various details of the story — particularly the rescue by the eagle — I’d say that seems very likely to be true.)

Moving on to some specifics, the sampo is both like and unlike any number of objects that magically produce limitless supplies of something, usually either food or gold.  The horn of plenty in Greek myth is the oldest such item I know of off-hand, and the gold-generating variety is common in European folktales.  However, these things are usually created by magical beings, whereas we’re presumably supposed to see Ilmarinen as an ordinary mortal (more or less), and the objects in question usually create only one type of thing.  Most significantly, the sampo is the only one I’m aware of that’s mechanical, rather than simply being a vessel of some sort (generally, outside of the horn of plenty, it tends to be a pouch, wallet or other bag-like object) which is perpetually full.

The impossible tasks set before Väinämöinen can marry the daughter of Louhi, which included things like using a blunt knife to split a hair, and tying a knot in an egg, are a common folkloric trope.  Similar examples can be found all over Europe.

Visits to the land of death are also surprisingly common, but I found the false welcome by the queen of the dead to be reminiscent of the tale of Theseus and Pirithoos arriving at the court of Hades.  Now, there the situation was very different, as Pirithoos planned to abduct Persephone and force her to marry him, and it was Hades himself greeting them and tricking them into sitting on the enchanted bench, but the show of hospitality is similar, and Väinämöinen does end up nearly trapped they way the two of them were trapped.  The beer of oblivion is, of course, frequently compared to the waters of the River Lethe which flows through Erebos and causes all who touch its waters (or drink them, depending on the version) to forget everything.  (This was a major component of Aeneas’ visit to the land of the dead in the Aeneid, btw.)  I would also say that it could be compared to the lotus in the land of the lotus-eaters in the Odyssey, but perhaps that comparison would not hold water if I’d actually read the Kalevala, instead of just reading a summary.

Being swallowed by an enormous being and finding a way to make it open its mouth is also pretty common, with the most familiar example of course being Jonah and the whale.  (Though it tends to make me think of the sequence in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when they get swallowed by the sea monster, but…)

Now a couple of brief comparisons to things not directly involving Väinämöinen.  Ilmarinen creating himself a new bride out of gold and silver is just like Hephaistos crafting two little girls out of gold to help him walk…except that he doesn’t need to sleep with them, as he already has a beautiful wife.  (Though the identity of his wife changes from epic to epic.)  And, of course, Lemminkäinen gloating by singing a song of triumph only to have that blow up in his face (and the faces of his companions) is just like Odysseus gleefully informing Polyphemos of his true identity as they’re sailing away.  (Though Lemminkäinen presumably didn’t get as many people killed in his arrogance as Odysseus did.  Assuming any of Odysseus’ tale was actually true, anyway…)

Getting back to Väinämöinen, there’s pretty much only the tale of his departure from this life left.  His departure is very much the old religion leaving to make room for the new one.  His promise to return when he’s again needed has been compared to the tale that King Arthur will return when Britain again needs him someday (though I think he’d be flummoxed by what he saw if he did come back!), but viewed in the light of the obvious “Christianity is here, so paganism is no longer needed” allegory of the ending of the epic, I’m not sure that comparison is entirely apt, since the Arthurian tales as we’ve received them are entirely Christian (though they probably didn’t start out that way).

I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out, but…this is a pretty long post, and it’s getting late, so I’m going to go ahead and hit the “Schedule” button now.


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