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Shamans of the Kalevala: a Cultural Analysis

By Robert Giddings

The Kalevala constitutes an epic group of rune-songs, assembled by Elias Lönnrot, but formerly crafted in a culture well versed in the symbolism of shamanic acts, practices and beliefs which consistently frame the context of the narrative. The Kalevala’s unique demonstration of these beliefs, common in many exclusively oral cultures throughout Eurasia, contrasts with every other single literary narrative collection in the entire western corpus of literature. The chance preservation of these songs lies in the work of Finnish intellectuals, venturing to the hinterlands of Finland during the nineteenth century to collect the rune songs of the peasants. Otherwise these songs would have died with their singers during the twentieth century, from industrialization, world war, and Soviet persecution. Beliefs describing shamanic symbolism, practices, cosmology, etc. are illustrated through adventures of the three shamans of the Kalevala, a hero for each of the three realms of the shamanic universe: Väinämöinen for the middle realm of people, Lemminkäinen for the lower realm of death, and Ilmarinen for the heavenly sphere.

The Kalevala begins and ends with Väinämöinen; he constitutes the central unifying character in the most prominent realm, a position Lönnrot sought to manufacture specifically, replacing other characters in the rune-songs with Väinämöinen in order to coalesce the narrative. Väinämöinen, from “vein emoinen, guardian spirit of the water,” according to Lönnrot’s etymology, comes from his mother Ilmatar, impregnated by the wind. This shamanic belief of spirits (winds) impregnating women becomes less prominent with the advent of agriculture and monotheism, neatly illustrated subsequently in the tale. After a childhood spent floating on the ocean, Väinämöinen after arriving on land guards the forming life, fostering and defending first vegetation, then tends to the needs of humans by finding barley to plant, an act consistent with the interpretation of a fertility figure.

In the context of the Sámi tripartite world theory, “double-bottomed lakes called saivos,” below which “the saivo people live,” constitutes a “world … actually turned upside down,” and while “an ordinary human being can journey to this realm during sleep or supernatural experiences,” “the shaman is in continuous interaction with this realm” over the course of the Kalevala (Pentikäinen 1989: 193). This interpretation shows Väinämöinen, a figure heavily tied to both water and shamanistic acts, as holding responsibility over the realm of man, the middle earth.  Väinämöinen belongs to the middle realm first through his association with his mother, a water spirit, secondly through his heavy involvement with humans in the epic, and finally taken in context with his journeys to the spirit realm below. Väinämöinen’s journey to the dead shaman Antero Vipunen in Runo 17 displays the shamanic strength of Väinämöinen, as it was traditionally the only recognized method for gaining further ability and most importantly denoted a progression to the final stage of shamanhood. This model of an upper and lower world, with the shaman as the traveler, holds sinister connotations for the lower spirit world, over which the next shaman-hero, Lemminkäinen, holds the strongest dominion. The Finnish epic seems to hold double meanings in reference to the journeys of shamans and the traveling between the realms (despite the seemingly pedestrian nature of the English translation).

Lemminkäinen’s encounter with the serpent may lie in the shaman’s relationship to the home, with the serpent in Estonia and Finland symbolizing the spirit of the household, often worshipped and regarded highly. The space of the shamans excluded a sedentary or civilized lifestyle, limited to the periphery except in ceremonial duty. The magical nature of the conflict contrasts with the Scandinavian tale of Sigurd, whose fight with a serpent is resolved strictly with martial arts. Yet in the Siberian shamanic tradition, the traveling shaman was metamorphosed into a snake, worm or serpent for ventures into the realm of the dead, frequently encountering other, sometimes hostile shamans.  The purpose of entering the realm of the dead was to consult spirits for advice, lead spirits to return to the land of the living, or retrieve stolen spirits. The confusing episode of Lemminkäinen’s may be a result of a migratory Indo-European tale, which surfaced in Greece as the mythology of the lord of the underworld, Hades, and his wife Persephone. Lemminkäinen’s wife, after he took great trouble to court her, agrees not to socialize with other women for the duration of their marriage so long as he also agrees to not wage war – a condition she breaks.

Even the landscape of the Kalevala stories takes on shamanic properties. The sky, frequently a major figure in any non-agricultural culture in which members are born, live and die in the open, and the sea, an important means of wealth, transportation and orientation, figure prominently in the mythology. The belief in a lower and upper world for these purposes makes perfect sense in this context, as does the frequent ship and avian imagery for the constantly traveling shamanic characters. In the battle of Pohjola Lemminkäinen is confronted by a shaman’s bird, composed of half sky and half sea, a perfect symbol for the shaman’s travel vehicle for entering the spirit realms. The unique relationship the Finns have with the sky holds true in their name for the omnipresent Milky Way – The Way of Birds, with the southern end, called the Land of Birds, thought to end in an island of perpetual summer. (Pentikäinen 2001: 80). The northern portion of the Milky Way was thought to lead up to the sky, “Kalevanporras” (stairs of Kaleva) ending in the evil northern land of Pohjola. Lemminkäinen’s confrontation therein with an elder shaman ends in his death by poison and being tossed into a river; but his own status as shaman serves him in his later resurrection after a brief period where his spirit inhabits a river creature. The clear symbolism of his death followed by immersion in the waters of the lower spirit realm, corresponds exactly with the belief in reincarnation commonly held among all shamanic cultures. This event correlates with the circumstances of Väinämöinen’s wounding by Joukahainen, where after three arrow wounds, an eagle retrieves Väinämöinen from the water, and brings him to land. Prior to his death Lemminkäinen had also faced three perils, which he overcame with the invocation of joiks to fight the nature of the conflict, including the giant serpent. All three heroes, like most noaidis, are male, though women had some divining ability (shown in the resurrection of Lemminkäinen by his mother).

Lemminkäinen’s journey to battle an elk of demonic nature has roots in a Eurasian star myth, depicting a travel across the sky on the path of the constellation the Sámi refer to as The Elk. His enchanted skis and final battle with the elk share many traditions of shamanic spirit battle, with the elk or reindeer stag serving as a symbol of the harnessed steed of the shaman in the spirit world, the drum used to induce trance. Another rune-song with roots in common Eurasian lore depicts the felling of the Great Oak by a copper dwarf. Dwarves are associated strongly with death in the Arctic cultures, and perhaps too with shamanic pain conversion. Another interpretation involves the severing of the Oak as the path to the center world, cutting the umbilical cord to the spiritual realms to allow earth to develop on its own independently. This is reinforced if the central conflict in the epic is that between the three light / fertility heroes against the powers of darkness, cold and death in Pohjola.

Rather than interpret Pohjola and Tuonela as Sámi villages, a combination of pejorative terms used to reference them, Arctic mythology, and shamanic symbolism leads one to believe both terms refer to the land of the dead, Tuonela especially, and perhaps even the same place. Similar beliefs are still held among the Sámi,” including “the Arctic belief that the kingdom of the dead lies beneath the water or the earth, Jabmeaivo. Everything in the world of the dead is reversed from how it is in the world of the living,” including the passage where Lemminkäinen visits Pohjola to be served viper-venom ale. Lemminkäinen’s doom is caused by his failure to honor the eldest and most powerful member of the household. This reversal would account for the demonized Elk which Lemminkäinen follows. An episode most agree depicts a shamanic journey of ecstasy into the celestial realm. As Pentikäinen remarks, “It accentuates the hunter’s careful preparations for the hunt, such as making skis, and the elk’s supernatural speed. The prey is not an ordinary elk, but one created or conjured up by the demon. It is a creature constructed from various natural materials, the helping animal closest to the shaman. The description of the shaman’s pursuit of the mythical elk refers to a shaman’s celestial journey.” (Pentikäinen 1989:199)

The third shaman-hero, Ilmarinen, constitutes an exception in many ways to the first two. An important background character, his powers seem a great deal more limited to infrastructural tasks, confined as they are to acts of creation and forging. Whether making the mystical Sampo, the golden and silver woman, or a new sun and moon; the frequent duels, adventures and battles with otherworldly creatures that Väinämöinen and Lemminkäinen face are absent. This may be due to Lönnrot switching some of the main characters in runos from Ilmarinen to Väinämöinen during construction of the epic. One depiction of the blacksmith-bard (including the incantations accompanying the forging of weaponry in particular) comments on the devotion, and importance, one must have to work on the rare, and highly valued, metals in the Arctic. The Inuit tribes refer to iron as star-metal, as meteors form the only ready supply. Ilmarinen’s association with the celestial sphere in the tripartite shamanic world stems from this relationship between metal and sky. 

Of the three main characters in the Kalevala, only Ilmarinen does not shift shapes, as Väinämöinen and Lemminkäinen do multiple times. His powers of transformation lie in his talent as a blacksmith, a highly revered and spiritual profession among the Finnish and other cultures of limited technology. His manufacture of the mystical Sampo, the marriage betrothal, and the creation of a golden woman are his contributions to the frequent shamanic transmogrification of objects in the story. The blacksmith’s use of fire to transform minerals occurred under a great many taboos, and despite the smith’s mastery of enchanting metal with spirits, blacksmiths were generally regarded as not capable of entering ecstasy. In the Kalevala, the Ilmarinen crafts Väinämöinen’s boat, the sun, and the moon at his forge. In Proto-Scandinavian, the word for blacksmith ‘logasmithr’ translates as ‘blacksmith of song.’ The interplay between white magic and black magic usually places the blacksmith on the side of the destroyer, as the act of death necessary for rebirth forms a crucial portion of the act of smelting and reforging metal. Ilmarinen’s association, because of the creation of the sun and the moon, the source of the material he works with, and the mystery of the Sampo, lies with the heavens.
Shamanic Cosmology And Metaphysics in the Kalevala
The unification of the three heroes in the second half, from the rather disjointed plot in the first, results in “the shamanistic heroes of the Kalevala, victorious in crossing the borders to the kingdom of death. They each, in turn, cross the River of Tuonela and acquire the information necessary for resolving a crisis,” with this brief venture metaphorically outlining the entire primary purpose of a shaman in the society, to solve problems by consulting spiritual guidance from the other realms, especially death (Pentikäinen 1989: 205). Shortly thereafter, Väinämöinen engages in a defensive duel of sorts with the mistress Louhi of Pohjola, who had sent plagues upon the people of Kaleva. Väinämöinen counters this through shamanic intervention, sending the plagues away to Pain Mountain, another metaphoric interpretation for the shamanic practice of personally absorbing the pain of someone who is afflicted. Cultures of shaman historically induce the beginning rites of shamanhood initiation with demonstrations of whipping, bloodletting, or other actions, all intended to induce heavy endorphin release and promote withdrawal into the metaphysical world.

    Further contacts with the mistress Louhi take on tropes of shamanism, including Louhi’s transformation into a huge bird to attack the heroes’ ship, fleeing Pohjola with the recovered Sampo, and the later bear sent to wreak havoc on the cattle inhabiting Kaleva. The bird or eagle was a conventional shaman spirit form, and traditionally, “the festival to celebrate the slaying of the bear was in fact a wedding ceremony through which the primordial father was born anew, simultaneously bequeathing his power and blessing on his descendents” (Pentikäinen 1989: 168). An interpretation of this lies in the tools of the shamanic trade, destroying and renewing, traveling and shape-changing, above all, the transfer of information and energy. Pentikäinen goes on further to cite Martti Haavio “In general the bear was not hunted in White Sea Karelia, as it was considered to be a shaman journeying in the form of the primordial father or bear,” (Haavio 1967: 26-38) Thus one can conclude that the bear sent was a shaman under the control of Louhi, raising an interesting question of whether or not the limited economies of the Arctic, unable to support true war, evolved to replace outright conflict with shamanic combat.

    Detractors of the theories put forth here abound, including among others one of the earliest scholars of the Kalevala, Domenico Comparetti, who remarked “this poetry is not marked by a profound symbolism, either in the myth or in the poetic idea.” Comparetti went on further to note “not a single case occurs of the Finns having taken a myth bodily from their Scandinavian neighbours, or even having copied or modeled from them,” preferring instead to draw parallels from Greek and Brahmin mythology.

    The Kalevala through the constant invocation of sorcery, incantation, the power of song, use of charms, mystical travel, and communion with animals through various rituals strikes a very different note from the later, magic-shy Eddas and sagas of Iceland, justifying its claim as a “Shamanistic Epic” (Oinas 41). The manner of delivery for the songs which constitute the basis for the Kalevala has roots in the shamanic tradition of the Finns, with a foresinger and aftersinger clutching hands as they invoke the songs, charms and incantations which mirror the precursor roles of shaman and shaman’s helper in everything but name. Shamanic tradition historically relies on drumming and singing, both of which characteristically are featured in the Finnish laulajat. Despite this, the bulk of the material deals with pastoral themes such as agriculture, marriage, ale-drinking and sea voyages, with only a minority of warfare and conflict runos, which typically focus again on small-scale domestic squabbles, for “Lönnrot wanted to depict his heroes, not so much fighting, as leading everyday lives with their pleasures and sorrows. It is for this reason that the Kalevala is a national epic,” (Kolehmainen 60).

    The oral culture of the families and tribes that lived in small winter communities and still smaller units during the summer revealed itself in the form of storytelling the Sámi and Finnish cultures exhibited as late as the early 20th century, the rune-song or the free form joik. The rune-song at the time of collection had evolved to share more characteristics of the western cultures that Finland had been exposed to at the time, but at its root it shares the primal aural evoking of the scenery depicted in the song inherent in the joik. The rune-singers may have co-opted the role of the shaman due to religious persecution, and shared characteristics between the rune-singer’s stylized trance and performance and that of the shaman’s joik accompanied by drum hint at such a link. The formality and later adoption of rune-singing pairs publicly clasping hands to perform a song also demonstrates the gravity of performance that surpasses a normal song of entertainment and moves into a realm of religious worship. Cultures of the Mongols and other Asiatic tribes also divide the song into parts for the foresinger and the aftersinger as Felix Oinas pointed out in his studies of the rune-singers versus the more common shaman and shaman’s helper [Oinas: 63].
    In terms of etymology, “it is also interesting that, in Ganander’s opinion, the expressions “Tuonella kayda,” “Tuonelassa vaeltaa” to go into Tuoni, to wander in Tuonela, like the concept loveen langeta – to fall in a hole – refer to falling into ecstasy, journeying to Tuonela. This kingdom of death was ruled by a female figure known as Tuonelan morsian ‘the bride of Tuonela,’ who lived upon Kipumaki / kipuvouri ‘pain mountain.’ In the state of altered consciousness, the shaman has experiences which deviate from the everyday,” (Pentikäinen 1989: 204-5). The breathtaking beauty of the northern phenomenon known as the aurora borealis, while not explicitly named in the Kalevala, shines well over two-thirds of the nights of the year in northern Finland, and according to Brita Polttila this “navel of the land, center of birth and death, with aurora arcs interpreted as surface of worlds,” understandably figures prominently in the minds of the ancient Finns, and their mythological construction of their worlds (Pentikäinen 1992: 168) Inside the ethereal borealis  dwelled  “long dead shamans, consulted for advice by the living,” yet still “the home of the shaman and smith culture heroes, Pohjola, the realm of death lay, finally Ukko,” perhaps the much later injection of the Abrahamic God (Pentikäinen 1992: 171). The possibility of many seemingly inexplicable separate events, including the eagle swooping down to lay the egg on Väinämöinen’s knee, may be taken as metaphorical fertilization of the Earth by the powers of the aurora borealis, which are occasionally referenced as the sky eagle, sky dragon, the upper gate, or the fiery pillars. This idea of otherworldly spirits begetting offspring is consistent with the impregnation beliefs of nomadic or tribal people. Agricultural civilizations, on the other hand, by and large seem to side with the culturally consistent belief that the father of a child fertilizes a fertile womb. The scene from the Kalevala showing the giant oak tree spreading, and covering the entire sky may have roots in the belief that the shamanic world-tree formed the representation of human life on earth, and by the obsession with self, man ignores the world. The dwarf sent from the sea, a region associated with the underworld, and the dwarf figure in Eurasian mythology also has a strong association with death, destroys man and removes the fixation with self, allowing the world to recover and blossom. The frequent use of bird and eagle imagery, the eagle especially significant as the shaman’s assistant in the spirit world, and the wheeling of eagles in the sky were interpreted as traveling shamans, just as bears were. The belief system inherent in joiking relies on instantaneous spiritual travel, frequently extending into the realm of the dead, recalling the visage and personalities of friends or family members who have passed away through a highly personal and unique method of singing. This ability, nearly shamanic in nature, does not extend to all Sámi, and may be the precursor of related to the folk rune-songs, sometimes translated as enchanting, acts referenced throughout the Kalevala as casting spells. These songs or rhymes have a variety of effects, including that of sleep or stupor, as when Väinämöinen sings all of Pohjola to sleep. The prevalence of death imagery fitting into the same tripartite world model, from Aino’s suicide by slipping under the sea, to Väinämöinen handing over the power of the world by departing in a boat under a whirlpool, should not be overlooked.

            In conclusion, as Åke Hultkrantz argues “in the ancient Paleolithic hunting world, [Shamanism] is present in universal form,” with evidence of the same culture found across ancient Eurasia (Pentikäinen 2001: 6). Assuming the longest memories held further and further north, verification of the Kalevalan shamanistic beliefs can be found by comparing them with Siberian and Inuit. Juha Pentikäinen explicitly states his support for this belief, even going so far as to say “the basis for a Finnish shamanistic epic will be sought in the rich shamanistic traditions of northern Eurasia” and V.V. Napolskih delineates the thesis in two clear portions, first that a Proto-Uralic mythology once existed, and secondly that it can also be reconstructed into a Balto-Finnic analysis  (Pentikäinen 1989: 179), (Pentikäinen 1992: 5). The most extensive research and documentation of shamanistic culture includes the Sámi, Inuit, and Siberian traditions. The great deal of similarity between the shamanistic beliefs of these three cultures points to a cohesive shamanistic ritual system in the not too distant past, an idea borne out in current research re-estimating the progression of Homo sapiens across the Bering Strait from the lands in Northeastern Asia.

    Far beyond a depiction of the northern pagans’ sorcery, set in Finland, the Kalevala centers around three central characters, the water-shaman Väinämöinen, the hunter-shaman Lemminkäinen, and the smith-shaman Ilmarinen. This declaration of shamanistic beliefs constitutes a perpetuation of their cultural world view and cosmology by detailing the journeys from each realm. Each of these characters have further normative godheads as Väinämöinen’s role as a fishing and agricultural fertility figure; Lemminkäinen’s martial, hunting and tracking abilities, the various realms of death, and finally Ilmarinen’s involvement with the esoteric transmutations, lying beyond the realm of man and constituting the magic of technology. Thus the shamanic powers of transformation, domain over animals, far-sight, wisdom against misfortunes and ability to retrieve the ill or wounded, as shown in the Kalevala, strongly link with the religious and spiritual articles of belief in Finnish culture prior to the time of Lönnrot. The poem’s ending with the introduction of two more characters, commonly interpreted as the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child, are not only an explanation of the absence of the belief and exemplify the cultural transfer of power from the old beliefs to the modern Christianity the rune-singers became familiar with, but as Pentikäinen explains, the act itself is carried out in a method rich with the symbolism of the vanquished culture. “The boy is specifically named Väinämöinen in the old Väinämöinen’s stead, the old man yields to the community’s decision, chants himself his last boat, and departs,” “correspond[ing] to an archaic natural manner of dealing with one’s right to die.” As Pentikäinen notes, this “rune is also an adaptation of the model of voluntary suicide found among Arctic peoples which condones one killing oneself when one considers oneself of no more use to the community.” (Pentikäinen  1989: 216)

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