Kalevala is the Finnish National Epic.  The earliest stories date back to prehistoric days, possibly more than 3000 years, and The Kalevala still survives (sparsely) in the oral tradition in parts of Karelia.  It was first collected and compiled from hundreds of runesingers in the early 1800s by a country doctor named Elias Lönnrot, who walked the country on foot from village to village to preserve the ancient mythological tales. His compilation was first published in 1835.  The Kalevala predates the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf by hundreds of years and is incredibly long (over 2 million verses have been collected so far) — and no-one knows how much was lost of the stories over the centuries.  For more detailed information on The Kalevala, please refer to Wikipedia.

Of more modern interest, The Kalevala was also one of the inspirations for Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  In particular, the character of Väinämöinen, a mighty enchanter who has the power to chant a man to sink into the swamp, was one of the inspirations for Gandalf.  Tolkien also based the Elven languages on the sounds of the Finnish tongue.

I have been seriously dismayed at the poor translations of the Kalevala that exist.  I don't even want to discuss the e-texts I found — there are flagrant errors and a lack for the feel of the rhythms of the language and the moods of the storytelling.  I haven't of course seen all the printed translations of The Kalevala, so if someone knows of a worthy one, please let me know — I will happily recant.  For now, here is an excerpt from the Fifteenth Poem, which probably dates from around 800 AD.

 [Nota bene: The following translation does not preserve the Kalevala metre.  I tried that, but faithfully and artificially keeping it distorted the original content of the lines, words being more often polysyllabic in Finnish than they are in English. I thought it more prudent to reproduce the content and taste of the text, rather than violating it by being enslaved by the metre, adding words for syllables' sake, which may change emphases or intentions in the process.  Furthermore, since the poem was meant to be sung, and orally recited, I thought preserving the fluency and flow of the text paramount.  I have tried my best to keep any taking of license to a minimum.]


Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Lemminkäisen äiti, 1897.

  [AJ Intro:  In the Fifteenth Poem, the mother of Lemminkäinen (the hero, whose name means "son of Lemmi", but also carries the connotations of "Beloved One" and "Son of Love", and whose other name Kaukomieli means "FarMind") senses something ill has befallen her heroic son.  When a hairbrush starts bleeding red drops of blood, the mother goes to find what has happened to her child.  The Mistress of Pohjola (Northtown), the gaptoothed Louhi, has sent Lemminkäinen on a quest to Tuonela, Land of Death, to kill the Swan of Death that swims on the River of Death.  Lemminkäinen has died and his body is lost in the Tuoni, the River of Death.  His mother asks the smith, Ilmarinen (Man of Air), the forger of the dome of the skies, to forge her a mighty rake of copper, with which she can seek her son in the River of Death.]

Poem XV



The mother of Lemminkäinen herself gets the rake of iron,
Flies to the river of death.  Prays to the Day:
"Oh Day, created by God, our Creator's creation, our light!
Shine one moment hotly, another humidly heat,
The third in a full blaze: make sleep the sly bunch,
Tire the folks of the Cursedlands,
O'erpower the Kingdom of Death!"

The said Day, created by God, the Maker's creation sunny,
Flew to the top of the birch tree, onto the branch of the alder.
Shone a moment hotly, another humidly heated,
A third fully blazing: made sleep the sly bunch,
Tired the Cursedland people, the young men onto their swords,
Elders against their staves, the middle-aged onto their spears.
Thence it flew, whisked away, to the top of the smooth heavens,
To its earlier resting place, to its home of old.

Then the mother of Lemminkäinen took the iron rake;
Rakes for her son in the roaring rapids,
In the rushing stream.   Rakes and does not find.

Thence she moves in deeper: wading into the waters,
Up to her garters in the stream, up to her waistband in water.

Rakes for her son the length of Death's river,
Dragging cross-current.  Dragged once, then again:
Gets the shirt of her boychild, a shirt to her heart's sorrow;
Dragged yet once more: got socks, met the hat,
Socks to her great grief, the hat to her annoyance.

Stepped even deeper from there, to the deeps of the Cursèd Lands.
Dragged once along the water, once more across the water,
A third diagonally.  And then on this, the third try,
A bale of wheat came against the iron rake.

A bale of wheat it was not: but it was the flighty Lemminkäinen,
The beauteous Farmind himself, caught in the tine of the rake
By his ring finger, by his left toe.
Arose the flighty Lemminkäinen, rose the son of Kaleva,
On the rake of copper to the top of the waters smooth;
Yet was a little lacking: one hand, half a head,
Many other members, most of all his life.

His dam at this fell wondering, thus she crying saith:
"Would this yet make a man, a male worked anew?"
A raven overheard it.  To that it replied:
"There is no man in the passed-away, nor barely in the remains:
His eyes have been eaten by whitefish, his shoulders split by the pike.
Leave the man to the waters, push him into the River of Death!
Mayhap he'll become a cod fish, or grow strengthened into a whale."

But this is the mother of Lemminkäinen, she will not drop her son.
Drags once more with her rake of copper
Along the river of Deathland, as well as the river acrost,
Gains a hand, a piece of the head, gains half a shoulderblade,
The other half of the rib bones, many other members.
Out of these she 'gan to build her son, refashioning flighty Lemminkäinen.

Rejoined the flesh to flesh, bones into bones slipped,
Joints to joints, veins to collapsèd veins.

Herself the veins knitted, the ends of veins knotted,
Vein-threads smoothed out, conjuring these words:
"Sweet is the mistress of the veins, Suonetar, graceful woman,
Lovely spinner of veins on her beautiful spinning wheel,
With her copper spindle and iron wheel!
Arrive when you are needed, come here when you are beckoned,
A vein-bundle in your lap, a membrane scroll under your arm,
These veins to knit, ends of veins to knot,
In these broken wounds, in these ripped out holes!

"Since I doubt that will suffice, there is a maiden on the air,
In a boat of copper, a vessel with a red stern.
Come, maid, from above the air, maiden from the nave of the sky!

"Row this boat through the veins, shaking up these limbs,
Row through the slots in the bones, along the cracks in the joints!

"Put the veins in their places, set them in their stations:
Mouth to mouth the greater veins, against each other the arteries,
Side by side the sidling veins, head to head the small ones!

"Thence, take a misty needle, a closing clamp at needle's end!
Sew with misty needles, with tin needles stitch:
The ends of veins tie up, knit them with silken bands!

"Since I doubt that's enough, the God of Air himself,
Harness your colts, team up your steeds!
Ride your varicolored chariot through bone, through joint,
Through the moving-muscles, through the flowing veins!
Bind bone to flesh, vein to end of vein,
Pour silver into the slots in the bones, gold in collapsèd veins!

"Where a membrane's missing, set a membrane a-growing,
Where a vein's collapsèd, set a vein a-knitting,
Whence the blood has run off, set more blood a-flowing,
Whence the bone has rotted, slip more bone in its stead,
Whence the flesh removèd, set new flesh befitting,
Each thing to its blessèd place, set in its rightful place:
Bone to bone, flesh to flesh, joints to their joints!"

Thus the mother of Lemminkäinen made the man, curried the male,
To his former being, to his ancient likeness.

Got the veins straightened, the ends of veins smoothened,
Yet the man remained speechless, wordless her child.

Thence she put it into words, herself spoke, thus named:
"Whence now can balm be gotten, a drop of mead be brought,
With which to anoint the weakened, to heal the one come to ill,
For to bring the man to words, to break him into his songs?

"Bumblebee, our bird, king of the forest flowers!
Leave now, honey to fetch, some mead to gain,
From the pleasant Forest House, from well-ordered Tapiola,
From the bulbs of many flowers, from the hem of many a grass,
As a salve for sick ones, to make the ill things well!"

Bumblebee, swift bird, by now flew, a-flitted
To the pleasant Forest House, to well-ordered Tapiola.
Pecked the flowers in the field, boiled honey on his tongue
From the noses of six flowers, the hem of a hundred hay.
Thence he arrives a-puffing, lumberingly comes,
All his wings mead-covered, feathers in molten honey.

The selfsame mother of Lemminkäinen took some of these salves,
With them anointed the weakened one, treated the one come to ill:
There were no help in these, no words for the man.

This she put into words: "Bumblebee, my birdling!
Fly over to another place, over nine seas
To a covered island, to a honey'd continent,
To Thor's new house, the roofless house of the worshipped-one!
There is pleasant honey there, there is goodly balm,
That will be fitting for the veins, agreeable to the joints.
Do bring to me those ointments, carry me those salves,
For me to place on the damage, on the wounds to pour!"

Bumblebee, fellow lightfooted, again flew a-gliding
Over seas nine, half a sea of a tenth.
Flew a day, flew another, flew soon a third,
Without sitting on a stalk, not a moment's rest on a leaf,
To a covered island, to a honey'd continent,
On the brink of a raging rapids, by the sacred river's swirl.

There was honey being boiled, salves were being made,
In the tiniest kettles, in the prettiest pots,
The size of a thumb to go in, fitting on a finger's end.

Bumblebee, fellow lightfooted, did receive those salves.
A little time passed, a tiny bit went by:
Already came back huffing, arrived a-staggering,
With six cups in his arms, seven on his back,
They chock full of ointments, full up of goodly salves.

Herself the mother of Lemminkäinen rubbed him with those oils,
With nine ointments, with eight salves:
Yet received no aid, he did not from these utter.

So she said these words, uttered this sentence:
"Bumblebee, bird of the air!  Fly away a third time
Up to the highest heavens, to above the ninth heaven!
There they do farm the mead, as much honey as the heart could wish,
With which before the Creator enchanted, chanted our pure God,
Anointed the Creator his children, by evil powers injured.
Wet your wings in that mead, your feathers in molten honey,
Bring the mead on your wings, carry the honey in your cape,
As salve for those who are sick, as cure for injuries!"

Bumblebee, bosombird, he to her words replied:
"How on earth would I get there, I, man of little strength!"

"Well will you get there, prettily you'll tread:
Over moon, under sun, and through the stars of hope.
One day's flight a-winging, to the brows of the moon,
Thence a second a-swimming, to the shoulders of the Great Bear,
The third even higher a-rising, to the back of the seven stars;
From there it's only a short trip, the tiniest tidbit,
To reach the holy God, to the dwellings of the blessed."

Bumblebee from the ground arose, the mead-wing from the meadow;
Already flew a-flapping, with little wings flitted.
Flew around the arc of the moon, brushed the hem of the sun,
Past the shoulders of Odin's Wain, by the Sennstar's back:
Flew to the Creator's cellars, to the chamber of the almighty.
There the salves are being made, ointments are being made,
In silvery cauldrons, in kettles of gold:
Honey was boiling in the middle, on the sides was melted butter,
Mead at the nose of it all, on top of the bottom greases.

Bumblebee, bird of the air, got thence plenty of meads,
Honies to heart's content.  There passed a little time:
Soon he came a-puffing, lumbered back a-huffing
A hundred horns on his lap, a thousand other lumps,
Some with mead, some with water, some with the supreme salve.

From these the mother of Lemminkäinen put in her own mouth,
Those tested with her tongue, very gladly tasted:
"These are those salves, the almighty's ointments,
With which God anointed, the Creator poured on wounds."

With these she anointed the weakened, treating the one come to ill.
Anointed through the slots in bones, through the gaps in limbs,
Anointed below, anointed above, once brushed through the middle.
Thence she put it into words, herself stated and uttered:
"Arise from a-laying, rise up from sleeping
From these bad places, from this hard luck's bed!"

Arose the man from laying, awoke from dreaming.
Finally able to speak, with his own tongue to tell:
"A week, mother, I slept, a long time, mother, I lay there!
I slept very soundly, deeply did I snort."

Said the mother of Lemminkäinen, herself stated and uttered:
"You would have lain longer, longer than a week stretched out,
Without your poor mother, without your shrewd bearer."

"Say now, my unfortunate son, tell for my ears to hear:
What brought you to the Cursèd Lands,
pushed you into the River of Death?"

Said the fiery Lemminkäinen, responded to his mother:
"Rot Hat the cowherd, swollen-eyes of Untamola,
He led me to the Cursèd Lands, pushed into the River of Death.
A waterviper from the waters he raised, an adder from the waves
Against a powerless me; I did not even know this,
Knew not the waterserpent's hatred, the sting of the tubular wyrm."

Said the mother of Lemminkäinen, "Oh, you mindless man!
You bragged the witches to bewitch, the Lappish to outsing:
And you know not the waterserpent's hatred,
the sting of the tubular wyrm!
From the waters is the viper born,
the tubular wyrm from the waves,
From the good brains of the long-tailed duck,
from inside the sea-swallow's head.
The Devouress spat it onto the waters, set it on the waves;
Water stretched it out long, the sun beat it soft.
Thence the wind rocked it, the water spirit shook it,
The waves brought it towards shore, the spray threw it onto land."

Then the mother of Lemminkäinen cradled her beloved one,
Back to bygone strengths, to his ancient form,
Even a little better, even more whole than before.




Translation ©2006 Anniina Jokinen. All rights reserved.
Permission granted to print for personal enjoyment or classroom purposes.  
For all other use permission must be requested in writing.