The Resurrection of Ahti: Reading The Kalevala

“Tell now, O Dreamer your dream, O stretched in the earth, your vision.” –The Kalevala

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats once wrote of a dream he’d had in which his fellow writer Bernard Shaw visited him in the form of a smiling sewing machine.1 It strikes us as a peculiar image that aptly expresses the poet’s subtle criticism of his contemporary. Early in his career, Yeats fled from the harsh realities of life into fairy tales and later deftly wove Symbolist thought, Irish mythology, and mysticism into his own unique hermetic system. He stands at the cusp of Romanticism and Modernism, and his work resonates as a magnificent achievement. 

It is hard to think of a writer who more embodied his opposite than Shaw with his rationalism, realism, and passion for social engagement. The author of A Vision expresses his disdain by picturing his rival as a mechanism happily chattering away at his latest workpiece. And whether we think of the image as an actual dream or a symbol the poet created, we must view it as the product of an individual mind enmeshed in the aesthetic and cultural developments of a particular time and place. 

Let’s consider another image. Early in the Finnish epic The Kalevala, Ahti, also called Lemminkainen, enters a singing contest in the far-off Northland. Coming home, a rival murders him, and his broken body falls into a river. His mother first grows uneasy, then, learning of his fate, asks the smith Ilmarinen to forge her a copper pitchfork with iron tines a hundred fathoms long. With this implement, she fishes out of the deep the pieces of her son’s body. 

“She gets some hand, gets some head.

“She gets half of a backbone 

the other half of a rib,

and many other scraps, 

built from them some of a son, worked 

on wanton Lemminkainen,

joining flesh to flesh,

bones to bones, fitting 

limbs to limbs,

sinews to sinew fractures.”2

In this way, she reconstructs his corpse. Then, finally, she has him all put back together and asks a bee to procure her a special nectar from heaven. When she anoints him, she speaks a kind of ritual invocation. 

Then she put this into words, 

she declared and chattered:

‘Rise up out of sleep, 

get up out of dream

from these evil places, from 

the bed of hard luck!”3

Miraculously, Ahti rises, his life restored. First, his mother takes a moment from her rejoicing to scold him over all the hard labor he has put her through; then, she soothes him as only a mother can, and they go off together in peace. 

When we compare the resurrection of Ahti with Yeat’s dream, we find we are in an utterly different realm. Although The Kalevala was published in the nineteenth century, it stands apart from the debates between Romanticism and Naturalism. It knows nothing of Xanadu and is equally ignorant of the workhouses of Dickens. It sings its songs entirely outside our literary history and traditions. We could not be in a more different world if we had stepped through a wardrobe and found ourselves in Narnia. 

Moreover, the work is not the product of an individual creator. For although we find the name of Elias Lonnrot on the byline of this poem, as we shall see, his role was more that of a preserver who shaped the epic into the form in which we read it today. 

Lonnrot was a physician who became passionately interested in the oral folk traditions of his native Finland. He often took extended leaves of absence to visit remote villages where singers still practiced this ancient art. He began collecting transcriptions of these performances and soon sensed a larger story of which the individual songs were fragments. Like Ahti’s mother, he assembled these bits and pieces into a coherent whole. And with the mead of scholarship, time, and patience, he brought to life and presented a hitherto unknown epic poem to the world. 

We cannot read this narrative, then, in the same way we might read The Song of the Wandering Angus or Pygmalion. “In any serious approach to The Kalevala literary studies cannot ignore the oral tradition behind it.”4 We are not encountering the product of an individual mind, but time-honored songs refined and polished by countless performers and woven together by an editor. 

It is not an epic in the grand manner of Homer or even Beowulf. It lacks the unity of these works. It is looser and homier and meanders as a bright brook mazes its way through forests and grasslands. And yet this very dreaming energy carries us away. 

To read The Kalevala, then, is to drift free of the currents of western literary history and find ourselves on the shores of a new land where songs possess a magic power and trees mourn when they are not made into ships. As we turn its pages, we enter into a myth that the ancient singers present with such freshness and lyric joy that it becomes irresistible.

For example, consider the following passage. Vainomenen has created a musical instrument made from pike bones. As he plays, all nature seems drawn to his song. 

“Yes, the air’s nature daughters

and the air’s lovely lassies

marveled at the merriment,

listened to the kantele;

one on the sky’s collar bow

shimmered upon a rainbow;

one on top of a small cloud

bloomed upon the russet edge.

That Moon-daughter, handsome lass and

the worthy maid Sun-daughter

were holding their reeds,

raising their heddles

weaving golden stuff 

and jingling silver

on the rim of the red cloud

upon the long rainbow’s end;

when they got to hear

the sound of that fine music

the reed slipped out of their grasp

the shuttle dropped from their hands,

the golden thread snapped, 

and the silver heddles clinked.

There was no creature

that did not come to listen

and marvel at the merriment.”5

The Kalevala has inspired numerous works of art and the music of Sibelius. Soon after its publication, it became the touchstone of Finnish literary tradition. Since that time, it has rightly taken its place as a classic text, and the world is immeasurably richer for Lonnrot’s efforts to resurrect this tale. 

Like this post? Check out my published work here!

Notes:

  1. Wilson, Edmund, Axel’s Castle, Charles Scribner, and Sons, p.60
  2. Lonnrot, The Kalevala, Keith Bosley tr. Oxford University Press, p. 176
  3. Lonnrot, p.183
  4. Lonnrot, p. xvii
  5. Lonnrot, p. 540

The Resurrection of Ahti: Copyright 2022 by Jonathan Golding. All Rights Reserved. 

Artwork: Lemminkainen’s Mother by Akseli-Gallen-Kallela, 1897, Public Domain

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