National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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Public Domain Books

The Story of the Kalevala

Wainamoinen was born upon the ocean after his mother, Ilmatar, daughter of the illimitable Ether, had floated upon its surface for more than seven hundred years. During this time Ilmatar had created the islands, the rocks, and the continents. After eight years of swimming through the ocean, studying his surroundings, Wainamoinen left the waters and swam to a barren promontory, where he could rest himself on dry land and study the sun, the moon, and the starry skies. At last he called to him Pellerwoinen, that the slender youth might scatter seeds broadcast upon the island, sowing in their proper places the birch, the alder, the linden, the willow, the mountain ash, and the juniper. It was not long until the eyes of the sower were gladdened by the sight of trees rising above the hitherto barren soil.

But as Wainamoinen cast his eyes over the place he perceived that the oak, the tree of heaven, was wanting. The acorn planted in the sterile soil developed not until Tursas, the giant, arose from the ocean, burned some meadow grasses, and raking together the ashes, planted therein the acorn, from which soon sprang up a mighty oak-tree whose branches hid the sun rays and the starlight.

The oak-tree must be felled if the land was to prosper, but who could fell it? “Help me, Kapé, daughter of the Ether, help me, my ancient mother, to uproot this terrible tree that shuts out the sunshine,” cried Wainamoinen.

Straightway arose from the ocean a little being clad in copper,–cap, boots, gloves, and belt. He was no longer than a man’s forefinger, and the blade of the hatchet at his belt was but a finger’s breadth. “Art thou divine, or human?” queried Wainamoinen. “Tell me who thou art. Thou surely hast the bearing of a hero, though so small. But thou must be of the race of the pygmies, and therefore useless.”

“I came here to fell the oak,” replied the pygmy. “I am a god and a hero from the tribes that rule the ocean.”

“Never canst thou lop the branches of this mighty tree,” replied Wainamoinen.

As he spoke, the pygmy became a giant; with one step he left the ocean, and stood piercing the clouds with his head. He whetted his hatchet on the great rocks, and with three steps reached the tree; with four blows felled it. The trunk fell eastward, its tops westward, the leaves to the south, the hundred branches to the north. Full of magic power were the parts of this tree, and happy was he who possessed himself of some part of it.

Then vegetation flourished, the birds sang happily in the trees, and all was well except that barley was wanting. On the ocean strand Wainamoinen discovered the barley seed; and, advised by the birds how to plant it, was soon gratified by the sight of the growing barley. His next act was to clear the forest; but he left the slender birch for the birds to nest in, thus winning the gratitude of the silver-voiced singers.

In the land of Kalevala, Wainamoinen passed many happy years, and the fame of his wonderful songs of wit and wisdom spread even to the land of the Lapps, in the dismal north, where lived Youkahainen, a young minstrel. Against the advice of his parents, the youth, filled with jealousy, visited Kalevala, to hold a singing contest with Wainamoinen.

He proudly displayed his wisdom to the old minstrel, who laughed at it as “women’s tales and children’s wisdom,” and when Youkahainen declared in song that he was present at the creation, Wainamoinen called him the prince of liars, and himself began to sing. As he sang, the copper-bearing mountains, the massive rocks and ledges, trembled, the hills re-echoed, and the very ocean heaved with rapture. The boaster stood speechless, seeing his sledge transformed into reed grass and willows, his beautiful steed changed to a statue, his dog to a block of stone, and he himself fast sinking in a quicksand. Then comprehending his folly, he begged his tormentor to free him. Each precious gift he offered for a ransom was refused, until he named his beautiful sister Aino. Wainamoinen, happy in the promise of Aino for a wife, freed the luckless youth from his enchantment, and sent him home.

Aino’s mother was rejoiced to hear that her daughter had been promised to the renowned Wainamoinen; but when the beautiful girl learned that she was tied by her brother’s folly to an old man, she wandered weeping through the fields. In vain her mother and father sought to console her; she wept for her vanished childhood, for all her happiness and hope and pleasure forever gone. To console her daughter, the mother told her of a store of beautiful ornaments that she herself had worn in girlhood; they had been given her by the daughters of the Moon and Sun,–gold, ribbons, and jewels. Beautifully arrayed in these long-concealed ornaments, Aino wandered through the fields for many days, bewailing her sad fate. On the fourth day, she laid her garments on the sea shore, and swam out to the standing rock, a little distance from the shore. No sooner had she clambered on the rainbow-colored rock than it turned and fell to the bottom of the sea, carrying with it the weeping maiden, chanting a farewell to her family. The fleet and haughty hare bore the news of her death to the household, where her unfortunate mother sat weeping, urging other mothers never to force their daughters to wed against their choice. The tears that rolled down her cheeks formed three streamlets, that, growing larger, became torrents with foaming cataracts. From the cataracts towered three pillared rocks upon which rose three hillocks, and upon each hillock sprang a birch-tree. On the summit of each tree sat a golden bird singing; and the first sang, for three moons, his song of “Love! O Love!" the second called for six moons, “Suitor! Suitor!” but the third bird sang forever his sad song of “Consolation! Consolation!”

Wainamoinen was deeply grieved when he heard of the fate of the lovely Aino, and he at once went to angle in the deep where dwelt the mermaids, the daughters of Wellamo.

After he had fished many days in vain, he caught a wondrous salmon, larger and more beautiful than he had ever before caught. But as he took out his silver knife to cut it, the fish sprang from his hand into the deep, telling him that it was Aino who had thus come to him, and whom he had now lost forever by his stupidity. Then indeed the song of the golden bird seemed sad to Wainamoinen, and he was disconsolate until his mother spoke to him from her grave: “My son, go north and seek thy wife. Take not a silly Lapp, but choose one of the daughters of Suomi.”

Quickly Wainamoinen prepared for his journey, and mounted his magic steed, that galloped over the plains of Kalevala and crossed the waste of blue sea-water as though it were land.

But the envious Youkahainen was informed of the journey, and had prepared a cruel cross-bow and three poisoned arrows. In spite of the protests of his mother, he waited for the hero and shot at him three times. The third arrow struck Wainamoinen’s horse, which sank to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the hapless rider struggling in the water. “Seven summers must he tread the waves,” chuckled Youkahainen; “eight years ride the billows.”

For six days Wainamoinen floated on the waters; then he was rescued by a huge eagle that carried him on its back to Pohyola, the dismal Sariola, and left him on a barren promontory, where he bemoaned his unhappy fate. Here he was found by Louhi, the toothless dame of Pohyola, who took him home and fed him. Then she promised to provide him with a sledge that he might journey safely home if he would forge for her the Sampo, a magical jewel that gave success to its possessor. If he could make her this, she would also give him her daughter in marriage. “I cannot forge the Sampo, but if thou wilt help me to my distant country I will send thee my brother Ilmarinen, the blacksmith, who can forge for thee the magic Sampo, and win thy beautiful daughter.”

Louhi provided a sledge and horse, and as Wainamoinen seated himself she warned him, as he journeyed, not to look upward before nightfall, or some great misfortune would befall him.

The maiden of the Rainbow, beautiful daughter of Pohyola, was sitting on the rainbow weaving, and Wainamoinen, hearing the whizzing of the loom, forgot the warning, and, looking up, was filled with love for the maiden.

“Come to me,” he cried.

“The birds have told me,” she replied, “that a maiden’s life, as compared to a married woman’s, is as summer to coldest winter. Wives are as dogs enchained in kennels.”

When Wainamoinen further besought her, she told him that she would consider him a hero when he had split a golden hair with edgeless knives and snared a bird’s egg with an invisible snare. When he had done these things without difficulty, she demanded that he should peel the sandstone, and cut her a whipstick from the ice without making a splinter. This done, she commanded that he should build her a boat from the fragments of her distaff, and set it floating without the use of his knee, arm, hand, or foot to propel it.

While Wainamoinen was engaged in this task, Hisi, the god of evil, caused him to cut his knee with the axe. None of his charms availed to stanch the blood, so he dragged himself to his sledge and sought the nearest village. In the third cottage he found a graybeard, who caused two maids to dip up some of the flowing blood, and then commanded Wainamoinen to sing the origin of iron. The daughters of Ukko the Creator had sprinkled the mountains with black, white, and red milk,–from this was formed iron. Fire caught the iron and carried it to its furnace, and later Ilmarinen worked the unwilling metal into various articles. As he sought something to harden it, Hisi’s bird, the hornet, dropped poison into the water; and the iron dipped into it, formed the hard steel, which, angry because it could not be broken, cut its brother, and vowed that it would ever cause man’s blood to flow in torrents.

The old man then addressed the crimson stream flowing from the wound, and prayed to mighty Ukko to stop it.

When it ceased to flow at his prayer, he sent forth his son to gather various charmed plants, steep them, and make a magic balsam. After many attempts the son was successful; and the balsam, applied to Wainamoinen’s wound, healed it immediately.

Wainamoinen returned home and sought Ilmarinen, who refused to go north to forge the Sampo. Inducing his brother to climb a lofty fir-tree to bring down the Moon and the Bear he had conjured there, the wizard caused a great storm-wind to arise and blow Ilmarinen to the woodlands of Pohyola.

There the blacksmith at once set up a forge, and after four days’ work saw the Sampo rising from the furnace, its many colored lid rocking and grinding, every day, many measures of meal.

Joyfully Louhi received the magic Sampo and locked it in a secret chamber under the copper-bearing mountains. But when Ilmarinen asked for the hand of the Rainbow Maid, he was refused. “Never shall I, in my lifetime, say farewell to maiden freedom.” So the blacksmith was compelled to return alone to Wainola.

While Ilmarinen was forging the Sampo and Wainamoinen was building the magic boat, Lemminkainen, or Ahti, the reckless wizard, king of the islands, was longing for a bride from Ehstland. In spite of his mother’s entreaties, Lemminkainen went to Ehstland, and when he found it was impossible to gain the favor of Kylliki, the Sahri maid of beauty, he carried her off by force in his sledge. She became reconciled to him when he promised that he would never go to battle, and she in turn vowed that she would not visit the village dances. They lived happily together until Lemminkainen tarried late at the fishing one evening, and Kylliki went to the village dance. When Lemminkainen returned, his sister told him of Kylliki’s broken vow; and in spite of the prayers of his mother and wife, the hero declared that he would break his promise and go to war. To the Northland he would go, and win another wife. “When my brush bleeds, then you may know that misfortune has overtaken me,” he said angrily, flinging his hairbrush at the wall.

Through many dangers he passed unscathed by the aid of his magic, until he stood in the halls of Louhi and asked for her daughter, the Rainbow Maiden.

“First bring me the wild moose from the Hisi-fields and forests,” said Louhi.

From Kauppi, able smith, Lemminkainen procured the wondrous snow-shoes; but Hisi, who heard the boasts of the hero, fashioned a wild moose that ran so rapidly that Lemminkainen could not overtake it, but broke his snow-shoes in the race. He besought Ukko and the mistress of the forest and her king, and at last, with their aid, the moose was captured and led home to Louhi.

“Now bridle the flaming horse of Hisi,” said she.

The mighty stallion stood on the Hisi mountain, breathing fire and smoke. When the hero saw him he prayed to Ukko, “Let the hail and icy rain fall upon him.” His prayer was granted; and, going forward, Lemminkainen prayed the steed to put its head into the golden head-stall, promising to treat it with all gentleness. Then he led it to the courts of Sariola.

“Now kill for me the swan that swims in Tuoni, the black death-river. One shot only canst thou have. If thou succeed, then mayst thou claim thy bride.”

When Lemminkainen entered Pohyola he had slain all his opponents but one blind shepherd, whom he spared because he despised his helplessness. This object of his scorn was waiting for him, and when Lemminkainen approached the river he fell by a shot from the enemy, regretting, as he died, that he had not asked his mother’s advice before attempting to reach Tuoni.

Nasshut, the shepherd, threw the hero’s body into the river, where it was seized and cut in pieces by the son of Tuoni.

At home the mother and wife awaited anxiously tidings of their hero. When they saw blood trickling from the brush, the mother could wait no longer, but at once set out for the dreary Northland. After repeated threats, she wrested from Louhi the fact that her son had gone to Tuoni; from the Sun she learned his fate.

Quickly seeking Ilmarinen, the mother bade him forge for her a mighty rake. With this she raked the deep death-river, collected the pieces of the hero, bound them together with the aid of the goddess Suonetar, and making a balsam, the materials for which were brought her by the bee, she healed her hero son, comforted him, and led him back to Kalevala.

In the mean time, Wainamoinen, who was building his boat for the Rainbow Maid, found that he had forgotten three magic words with which to fasten in the ledges and complete the boat’s forecastle.

After examining in vain the mouths of the wild animals, he sought the dead hero Wipunen, forced open his jaws, and accidentally fell into his mouth. Wipunen quickly swallowed him; but Wainamoinen, setting up a forge in his body, caused him such discomfort that the giant was glad to give his information, and get rid of his unwelcome visitor. Having thus learned the secrets of the ages, and among them the three magic words, Wainamoinen hastened home and finished his boat.

The boat builded, he at once set out for the Northland to woo the Rainbow Maid. The boat was bedecked with silver and gold, and the linen sails were blue, white, and scarlet. The sails were merely for ornament, however, for the boat moved over the ocean without the aid of oars or sails. Wainamoinen’s departure from Kalevala was observed by Anniki, the sister of Ilmarinen, who at once told her brother. With her assistance, Ilmarinen cleansed the black from his ruddy countenance, and jumping into his sledge, was soon on the way to Sariola. The approach of the heroes was perceived by Louhi. “Daughter,” said she, “the old man brings thee a boat full of treasures; take him. Do not wed the empty-handed youth.”

“Thy advice is good, but I will not take it. The young man shall be my husband.”

When Wainamoinen was refused in spite of his gifts, Louhi addressed herself to Ilmarinen, and set him, in turn, three tasks: to plough the serpent field of Hisi, to muzzle Tuoni’s bear, and to catch the pike of Mana, in the river of Tuoni.

With the help of his sweetheart, Ilmarinen accomplished these tasks, and the wedding day was set. Old Wainamoinen, heavy hearted, journeyed homeward, and sent the edict to his people that in the future old men should not go wooing, or strive with younger men.

Great preparations were made for the wedding feast; the mighty ox of Karjala was slain, and for the first time, beer was brewed in Pohyola. Invitations were sent to all the people of Pohyola and the tribes of Kalevala, to all save Lemminkainen.

When Ilmarinen returned for his bride, he was received with honor, and the wedding feast was merry. But when the time came to take the bride away, the Rainbow Maid was unwilling, she who before had been so ready to go with him. Many times had she been told of the miseries of the wife: her husband’s slave, her whole life one of service, one long endeavor to please her husband’s mother and father. After her lament, Osmatar, the Bride-adviser, instructed her how to please her husband’s family, and admonished Ilmarinen to guard well his Bride of Beauty. Then the two set forth together, the Rainbow Maid shedding many tears at parting with her loved ones.

The bride and groom were received with joy by Ilmarinen’s family, and old Wainamoinen himself sang at the wedding feast.

But Lemminkainen was angry because he had received no invitation to the wedding, and in spite of his mother’s advice, set out to make war against the Lapps. He successfully overcame all the terrors that beset him, and reached Sariola, but was so coldly received there that, enraged at such treatment, he slew his host, the landlord of Pohyola, and fled homeward to escape the hosts whom Louhi called to defend her.

His mother sent him to the isle of refuge to escape the northern hosts. In the centre of the tenth ocean it rose, the refuge of his father; there he must abide three years, and must take a vow not to fight again for sixty summers.

The three years passed speedily on the happy isle, where dwelt many maidens who admired the reckless hero, and he departed just in time to escape the swords of the jealous heroes of the isle. His ancient home was in ashes when he returned, his mother missing; but while he mourned for her, he chanced upon her, hiding from the Lapps in the forest. Again he determined to seek out his enemies and be revenged on them. Taking with him his friend Tiera he sought the north, but was met by the Frost-Fiend and compelled to return.

To the house of Ilmarinen the blacksmith, was sold by Untamoinen a slave, Kullervo. He was a giant who had done naught but evil, until in despair his master sold him to the blacksmith. Kullervo, or Kullerwoinen, was made a shepherd and sent forth with the flocks. But rage at the blacksmith’s wife, who baked a stone in his bread on which he broke the magic knife of his people, caused him to transform the flocks into wolves, who tore the Rainbow Wife to pieces when she went to milk them.

Then Kullerwoinen fled from the blacksmith, and set out to find his tribe-people, but on the way unknowingly corrupted his sister, and in despair at his evil deeds, destroyed himself.

Ilmarinen was full of grief at the loss of his wife. Unhappy and restless, he forged for himself a bride of gold; but the image failed to satisfy him, and Wainamoinen, reproving him, forbade his people in the future to worship any graven image. Then the blacksmith again sought the north to win the sister of his former bride, but was met with bitter reproaches for the sorrow he had brought upon the family. Nevertheless, he seized the maiden to carry her away, but she was so angry and so unhappy that he changed her to a seagull and came home wifeless and sad.

Wainamoinen and Ilmarinen soon conceived the idea of going to the Northland to win back the Sampo. On the way they allied to themselves the wizard Lemminkainen. As they approached the whirlpool near Pohyola, their vessel stuck on the shoulders of a great pike. When neither Lemminkainen nor Ilmarinen could slay it, Wainamoinen impaled it on his fire-sword, and the three banqueted on the great fish. From its bones, Wainamoinen framed the first harp. No one could win music from it but its creator; but when he touched its strings and sang, the very trees danced about him, wild animals lay in peace at his feet, and the hearts of men were ravished. As his listeners wept at the strains, Wainamoinen’s tears rolled down into the ocean. Thence the duck brought them, changed to pearls, receiving for a reward its beautiful coat. Such was the origin of sea-pearls.

When Wainamoinen had put the inhabitants of Pohyola to sleep with his magic music, the heroes found the Sampo with little difficulty, and bore it away from the copper mountain. But as they hastened home, the discordant voice of Lemminkainen, who sang for joy of their capture, caused the crane to screech, and the bird’s cry roused the people of Pohyola. Louhi speedily discovered her loss, and started in pursuit of the heroes. In various ways she attacked them,–with war ships that were stopped by a reef conjured up by Wainamoinen, by a terrible storm, and by a giant eagle that perched on their boat. In their struggle with her the Sampo was broken and its fragments scattered on the ocean. Louhi left them, uttering dire threats; and Wainamoinen, gathering up what fragments of the Sampo he could find, buried them where they would bring prosperity to his people.

Now Wainamoinen longed to sing to his harp to rejoice the hearts of his people, but the magic instrument had been lost in the storm conjured by Louhi. After raking the sea for it in vain, he constructed a new harp from the birch-tree, and delighted the people with his songs.

In revenge for the theft of the Sampo, Louhi sent nine diseases upon Wainamoinen’s people,–colic, pleurisy, fever, ulcer, plague, consumption, gout, sterility, and cancer, the offspring of the fell Lowyatar; but by the use of vapor baths and balsams Wainamoinen healed his people. Then Louhi sent Otso the Bear, the honey-eater, but he was slain by the hero, who made a banquet of his flesh for the people. Enraged at her failures, she stole the sun, moon, and fire, and left Kalevala in darkness. Ukko, taking pity on his people, struck lightning from his fire-sword and gave the fire-child to a virgin to be cared for. In an unguarded moment it sprang earthward, fell into the sea, and was swallowed by a fish, that, in the agonies of torment, was swallowed by another. Wainamoinen went fishing with Ilmarinen, and at last caught the gray pike,–found in it the trout, found in the trout the whiting, and in the whiting the fireball. When he attempted to seize the fireball he burned his fingers, and dropped it. Ilmarinen did likewise. Then the ball rolled rapidly away until Wainamoinen caught it in an elm-tree, and took it home to gladden his people. Still they were cheerless without the sun and moon, and Wainamoinen was obliged to go to Louhi and compel her to give up the sun and moon. When he returned there was joy in Kalevala.

In the Northland dwelt a happy maiden, Mariatta, who, eating of the magic berry, as she wandered one day in the fields, bore by it a child which she called Flower. Her parents cast her off, and as no one would take her in, she was compelled to go to the flaming steed of Hisi, in whose manger the child was born. Once when she slumbered the child vanished, and she sought for it in vain, until told by the sun that it was in Wainola, sleeping among the reeds and rushes.

The child grew in grace and beauty, but no priest would baptize him, all saying that he was a wizard. Wainamoinen, too, counselled that he be destroyed; but when the two weeks old babe lifted its head and reproached him, saying that he had committed many follies but had been spared by his people, Wainamoinen baptized him, and gave him the right to grow a hero and become a mighty ruler over Karyala.

As Wainamoinen grew feeble with the passing years, he built himself a boat of copper, and singing a plaintive song in which he said the people of Suomi would look forward to his return as a time of peace and plenty, he set forth, sailing through the dusk of evening to the fiery sunset, and anchored in the purple horizon, leaving behind him for an heritage his harp, his wondrous songs, and his wisdom sayings.


Preface  •  The Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Râmâyana  •  Selections From the Râmâyana  •  The Story of the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  Selections From the Mahâ-Bhârata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained