Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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6. The Kalevala, the South Slavic Epics, and Homer*

The differences among the three epic traditions represented in this chapter are great. The Kalevala is the last of a series of compilations made by Elias Lönnrot of shorter songs collected by himself and others from epic singers in various parts of Finland. The oral-traditional epics of the South Slavs are independent, individual songs, both short a long, ranging from several hundred lines to 3,000, 5,000, and even up 10,000 lines. In respect to length some of them are close to the Homeric poems. The Homeric poems, that is, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, are also independent, individual songs, but their lengths are more than 10,000 lines each.

The Kalevala emerged in the period when the Liedertheorie was fashion as a means of understanding the composition of both the Middle High German Nibelungenlied and the Homeric poems, when the prevalent opinion was that these great poems were stitched together from shorter songs. That theory is no longer widely held. The classicist Milman Parry believed that the Homeric poems were composed in the same manner as the longer songs in the South Slavic tradition, and that each was the unified work of a single traditional singer.

In this paper I wish to discuss first the various kinds of relationships {104|105} among the three epic traditions of the title; second, the techniques of composition and transmission in the three traditions, Finnish, South Slavic, and ancient Greek; and third, some of the shared epic subjects and narrative patterns among the three areas.

Part I

What Lönnrot created was in at least one respect closer to the Old Icelandic Eddie poems than to the Homeric because the individual shorter poems from which the Kalevala was made are visible in the final work. Lönnrot succeeded, however, in producing a “national epic” for the Finns, which had never existed before. He did not realize, of course, that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not really “national epics” for the ancient Greeks, any more than the Elder Edda was a “national epic” for the Icelanders.

Yet Lönnrot was not really a traditional singer, in the strictest sense of the words, because he was not brought up in a traditional community and did not inherit the specific traditional songs of a specific group. He was an outsider, but, I hasten to add, he was a very special kind of outsider. He could, and did, create poems, and a poem, in an oral-traditional style. Formulaic analysis would surely show a very high percentage of formulas and formulaic expressions. In spite of the fact that everything in the Kalevala is traditional, the poem itself, as a whole, is an individual construct by a nontraditional person, a song that did not come into being, as Comparetti noted, under the normal circumstances of the tradition. Lönnrot was a man of some education, acquainted with books. He merged variants of songs from different regions, using his knowledge of many parts of the country, a knowledge no traditional singer of the “old days,” or even of his own, would have had.

It is necessary to emphasize that it was not only Lönnrot’s knowledge of the world of books that made him an outsider, but he also had access to manuscript collections containing variants of songs from various regions, as just outlined, and he chose elements from those variants. Both the availability of those variants and his manner of using them distinguished him from the traditional singer. Theoretically, a traditional singer could have traveled all over Finland and acquired acquaintance with the songs and variants of many regions, picking up what he heard {106|107} as he journeyed and keeping what he found to his liking. His sources in that case would have been live songs heard in living circumstances; they would not have been set down in manuscripts from which he might cull his favorites at leisure. He would have assimilated them under the normal associative processes of the tradition of which he was a part. Moreover, with his education, there is a possibility, even a probability, that Lönnrot’s criteria for choice of elements would not be those dictated by the traditional, subconscious association of ideas and phrases, but by those inculcated by written literature.

It is remarkable that a number of other long epics are also, in reality, compilations of short narrative songs. Alexandra David-Neel collected Tibetan songs about Gesar of Ling and constructed an epic from them. [5] Daniel Biebuyck did the same for the Mwindo Epic of Zaire, the former Belgian Congo. [6] The Kara-Kirghiz epics of Manas and of Er Töshtük were formed from individual shorter songs. [7] In all these cases, the real epic songs were the shorter ones which were put together in sequence. In this respect, the Kalevala is quite different from either the South Slavic or the Homeric oral-traditional epics, which correspond rather, in spite of differences of length, to the single narrative songs of the Finnish tradition rather than to the Kalevala. On this subject also Comparetti is enlightening:

It is clear from these efforts to produce long epic songs, that one of the most important factors in the minds of those who created them was length; an epic poem was thought to be long by definition. Had Lönnrot not had such epics as the Homeric poems in his mind, he would not have striven for a long song (see Appendix 1 at the end of this chapter). Like others before and after him, he thought of an epic as a long narrative poem recounting in a high style the deeds of heroes of the past. This concept of epic was derived from a consideration of the Homeric poems and of Vergil’s Aeneid.

In the Kalevala Lönnrot on occasion inserted separate stories, such as the tragic one of Kullervo, thereby interrupting the flow of another narrative. Even though the events of Kullervo’s life are intertwined with that of Ilmarinen, since he eventually murders Ilmarinen’s wife, the prophecy of a heroic life for the child Kullervo is inconsistent with the boy’s actual future. The unusual results from the tasks that he performs so badly are, in other contexts, indicative of a glorious life; the joinings are not felicitous. In the Odyssey Homer tells, through the Phaeacian bard, the story of Ares and Aphrodite. Like the laments of which I spoke earlier, that tale is the result of Homer’s desire to tell the story fully. It is not an interruption but a lingering over the details of a scene. On the other hand, Homer interrupts the forward movement of the Telemachy, which is sometimes thought of as a kind of preface to the whole poem, to recount the story of Odysseus, whose adventures in turn are held up at one point for him to recapitulate everything that happened to him up to the time of the telling. But these strands of narrative are related and the juxtaposition of the several portions is the product of a particular technique of narration. The Kullervo poems, on the other hand, are not intimately related to the other narratives in the Kalevala. The many deceptive stories in the Odyssey are important, integral elements in the main narrative of Odysseus’s return. Such stories are found in abundance in South Slavic return songs as well. But they are a different matter from an inserted ritual, lyric, or narrative songs such as those which are so common in the Kalevala.

The short Finnish songs, even the narrative ones, are more comparable to the South Slavic “women’s songs” than to the South Slavic epics. This is especially true of the Finnish lyric and ritual songs, such as the charms and songs used in the ceremonial acts and speeches attendant upon weddings. For example, South Slavic women’s songs have a rich cycle of ritual songs associated with weddings, including the lament of the bride on leaving her home, instructions for the bride from her mother, and so forth. These separately are like the corresponding Finnish songs. They exist independently, but they are not included in epic texts. Here is an example from the South Slavic wedding cycle. [18]

Sunce mi je na zahodu, The sun is setting,
Hoće da zađe, It will set, {111|112}
Hoće da zađe. It will set.
I devojka na pohodu, The maiden is leaving,
Hoće da pođe, She will leave,
Hoće da pođe. She will leave.
Žali oca na pohodu, She is sorry for her father as she leaves,
Oće da pođe, She will leave,
Oće da pođe. She will leave.
Žali majku na pohodu, She is sorry for her mother as she leaves,
Oće da pođe, She will leave,
Oće da pođe. She will leave.
Žali seju na pohodu, She is sorry for her sister as she leaves,
Oće da pođe, She will leave,
Oće da pođe. She will leave.
Žali brata na pohodu, She is sorry for her brother as she leaves,
Neće da pođe, She won’t leave,
Neće da pođe. She won’t leave.
Za svekrvu upituje, She asks about her mother-in-law,
Hoće da pođe, She will leave,
Hoće da pođe. She will leave.

Lönnrot also added to the length of his new poem by expansion of episodes and songs from within, a method used by both Homer and the {113|114} South Slavic singers. This element is so clear in all three traditions that it seems superfluous to illustrate it.

In sum, both the Kalevala and the South Slavic epic songs, different as they are from one another, have something to teach us about the Homeric poems. Of the two, the Slavic tradition is closer in type to the Homeric poems than is the Finnish Kalevala. In both the Slavic and the Homeric traditions we find independent, integral songs of some length. If there were separate songs telling the story of Telemachus, or of the wanderings of Odysseus, apart from the Homeric Odyssey—and I believe there were—they were integrated into the long Homeric poem rather than concatenated in Kalevala style.

Part II

In his Preface to the New Kalevala Lönnrot gave his version of the way in which songs were transmitted.

As for the authenticity of the songs, the matter runs about as follows: At a feast or some other social gathering someone hears a new song and tries to remember it. Then on another occasion when this person himself is now {114|115} singing it before a new audience, he remembers quite exactly the material proper rather than its narrative word for word in every detail. Those passages which he does not remember in just the original words he tells in his own, in places perhaps better even than they were before. And if some rather insignificant incident among them is left out, another can take its place out of the singer’s own head. In the same way, then, second and third persons who hear it proceed to sing it and the song is changed, changed rather in individual words and details than in the material itself.

This is a description by someone who knew the tradition very well and it is a very perspicacious explanation. I believe that by the “someone” he speaks of who hears a new song he means a singer, that is, someone within the singing tradition itself. Otherwise the singer would not be able to compose “new” lines and passages. Lönnrot continues in a remarkable way:

Lönnrot recognized two kinds of transmittal, one closer to the “original” (my quotation marks) and one more removed. The first recipient, it would seem, tried to memorize, that is to get by rote every word through mimicking, as children learn from parents. The other recipient, already, I assume, a competent singer, remembered, rather than consciously memorized, the “material,” including, presumably, some of the words, naturally enough, but in reality he retold the story in his own way. It is extremely important to realize the distinction between memorizing, with its conscious attempt to reproduce every word of an “original,” which must be fixed for that process to be meaningful, and remembering, the basic, normal process of recall, which is more potent, I believe, than it is generally credited with being. It is through learning the art of verse making and through remembering given, discrete, units of composition, rather than through word-for-word memorization, that the South Slavic songs were both composed and transmitted. I believe that it was {115|116} in this way that the epic songs in ancient Greek tradition were transmitted from one generation to another.

Song 15, “The Sampo IV,” begins with a stanza devoted to the departure of Väinäimöinen for Pohjola to woo the maid. The second stanza is on the left in the following quotation. The opening stanza of Song 16, “The Courtship I,” is on the right:

The girl Anni, matchless maid Annikki the island maid
  smith Ilmorini’s sister
was washing her little things went off to do her washing
bleaching what she’d rinsed on the shore of the blue sea
at the end of the long quay at the end of Laisa Quay
when she saw a shoal of fish.  

Finally, for comparison, on the right in the following quotation we have the opening stanza of Song 17, “The Courtship II,” still keeping the second stanza of Song 15 on the left.

The girl Anni, matchless maid The girl of night, maid of dusk
was washing her little things was rinsing clothes she had washed
bleaching what she’d rinsed what she had bleached was bleaching
at the end of the long quay at the end of the long quay
  a bright-carved bat in her hand
when she saw a shoal of fish.  

Let us pursue the textual comparison of the three songs. Song 15 continues on the left and Song 16 on the right.

  She spied a black speck on the sea
  something bluish on the waves
  herself put this into words:
  “If you are my father’s boat
  turn homeward, turn to your house
  away from other havens!
  Or else if my brother’s craft
  away from other havens!
  Or yet Väinämöini’s boat
  bring yourself here for a talk!
“If you are a shoal of fish  
then away with you, swim off!  
If you are a flock of birds If a darling flock of ducks
Then begone with you, fly off! spread out into flight!
If you are a water-rock Or again a water-stone
then roll off in the water! draw the water over you!”
If you’re old Väinämöine  
bring yourself here for a talk  
come here for a word!”  
The old Väinämöine came It was Väinämöini’s boat
took himself there for a talk took itself there for a talk.
went there for a word.  

The foregoing passage does not have an equivalent in Song 17, which continues simply with:

A red boat went by:
one side of the boat was red. {117|118}

There follows immediately the conversation in which the questions and answers concern the destination of the boat and/or its occupant, which we shall consider shortly.

Typical of versions of the same theme by different singers, our texts of the girl’s words exhibit variant readings where the subjects are the same. One of the items concerns a flock of birds, another, a water-rock. Here, in Finnish, are the four lines involved; the first two tell of the birds, the last two of the water-rock. Song 15 is on the left, Song 16 is on the right:

Jos lienet lintuine karja Olit armas allikarja
niin sie lendoho leviete! sina lentohon levie
Jos lienet vezikivoine Elikkä vesikivoni
niin sie vezin vierekkänä! vesi peälläsi vetähys!”
If you are a flock of birds If a darling flock of ducks
Then begone with you, fly off! spread out into flight!
If you are a water-rock Or again a water-stone
then roll off in the water! draw the water over you!”

I have underlined the words that are alike in both versions, except for morphological differences. The singers were certainly not going back to the same memorized “original”; the similarities come from the traditional subject matter. Memorization is not needed; one need only remember “flocks,” “fly off!” “water-stone,” “water.” The alliteration of “lendoho leviete!” and “vezikivoine,” “vezin vierekkänä!” helps in the remembering as well.

The same is true of the final words of the girl’s speech in Song 15 and their corresponding lines in Song 16. Here they are in Finnish:

Jos lienet vanha Väimämöine Eli pursi Vaïnaïmöisen
pakinoilla painustoate sie painu pakinoilla!
sanomilla soahustoate!”  
If you’re old Väinämöine Or yet Vänämöini’s boat
bring yourself here for a talk, bring yourself here for a talk!
come here for a word!”  

These lines are, of course, repeated in the description of the action after the girl’s words: {118|119}

Tuli vanha Vainaimöine Se oli pursi Väinäimöisen
pakinoilla painustihi se om painu pakinoilla.
sanomilla soahustihi.  
The old Väinämöine came It was Väinämöini’s boat
took himself there for a talk took itself there for a talk.
went there for a word.  

In short, the elements that remain textually alike in all versions of a theme, that is, a repeated passage, are the essential ideas as expressed in the traditional word combinations, parts of lines, lines, or groups of lines, especially couplets, that singers have used for generations. These are adapted to the context of the particular song being sung. The similarities are thus the natural ones stemming from the narration of the subject of the passage in traditional garb; they are not the result of memorization of a fixed text, a process which could not have produced the patterns of repetition outlined here.

What we have seen in these examples from the Kalevala songs in Finnish is demonstrably true as well of both South Slavic and Homeric oral-traditional narrative song. A single illustration from each will have to suffice, but they can easily be multiplied. First, an example from a South Slavic “return song” at the moment when the hero, who has been long in prison in an enemy city, asks a recently captured prisoner for news of home. [25] Here are two versions of the same passage from the same singer, the one on the left collected November 24, and the one on the right November 20, 1934.

“Sedi lj’ moja kula na ćenaru? “Sedi lj’ moja na ćenaru kula?
Je li’ se moja kula podurvala, Da se nije kula oburvala,
Alj’ se moja kula harap učinela? Alj’ je kula jošte na nogama?
Je lj’ mi živa ostarela majka? Je lj’ mi živa u ođaku majka,
Je lj’ mi živa svijet mijenila? Alj’ je majka svijet mijenila?
  A sedi lj’ joj Huso kahveđija?
  Čini lj’ staroj hizmet do odjaka?
A sedi lj’ mi sestra neudata, A sedi lj’ mi sestra neudata,
Sestra Fata u ođaku mome? Sestra Fata Đulić bajraktara?
Čeka lj’ brata Đulić bajraktara? {119|120}  
  A sedi lj’ mi vijernica ljuba?
  Da se nije ljuba isprosila?”
A sedi lj’ mi dorat u podrumu?  
Držu lj’ konja dobro u podrumu?  
Dalj’ mi Huso sedi kahveđija?  
Čini lj’ staroj hizmet u odaji?”  
“Is my house standing on the border? “Is my house standing on the border?
Has my house fallen in, My house has not fallen in?
Or has it been destroyed? Is the house still standing?
Is my old mother alive? Is my mother alive by the hearth?
Is she alive, or has she changed worlds? Has my mother changed worlds?
  Is Huso the steward there?
  Does he serve the old woman by the hearth?
Is my sister unmarried, Is my sister unmarried,
My sister Fata by the hearth? Fata, sister of Đulić the standard-bearer?
Does she await her brother Đulić the standard bearer?  
  Is my true-love there?
  My true-love has not been betrothed?”
Is my chestnut horse in the stable?  
Do they care well for the horse in the stable?  
Is Huso the steward there?  
Does he serve the old woman in her chamber?”  

After the answers to these questions have been given, the hero continues:

“Sedi lj’ moja vijernica ljuba?  
Da se ljuba nije isprosila?  
  “A sedi lj’ mi dorat u podrumu, {120|121}
  Sedi lj’ dorat u toplom podrumu?
  Hranu lj’ dora konja mojega,
  A goru lj’ mu četiri svijeće;
  Sve mu goru danjem i po noći,
  Ka’ sto ga je Đulić naučijo?
Is my true-love there?  
My true-love has not been betrothed?”  
  Is my chestnut horse in the stable?
  Is the chestnut horse in the warm stable?
  Are they feeding my chestnut horse?
  Are the four candles burning for him?
  Burning day and night,
  As Đulić taught him to expect?”

There are at least two things that we can learn from a study of those two passages. First, I believe that it is clear that the singer had not memorized a fixed original. Indeed, there never was a fixed original. Yet the text may seem to be amazingly close, so close that in the minds of some the closeness can be explained only by the existence of a fixed original that has been memorized. That leads to the second fact, which we can learn from studying these passages and others like them. They consist of easily remembered, more or less stable, units of two or three lines. Those lines may have one or more lines added to them in elaboration, as the third line in both passages, or the couplet in the passage on the left asking about Djulić’s sister. In the question about the chestnut horse in the passage on the right the elaboration is greater and includes a group of three lines at the very end, which themselves form a unit of composition used elsewhere. I should like to suggest that these units of composition are the ones that are more overtly in the mind of the singer than are the individual formulas that make them up, important though {121|122} they be. It is these units, too, from which “themes” are constructed, as the foregoing passages illustrate.

Let me turn, finally, to an example from the Homeric poems. In recounting the speeches in the assemblies of men or of gods in the Iliad Homer has several ways of noting the reactions of the assembly to a speech that has just been made. In three cases he reports that the men shouted, and in several instances the words of the speaker were met with silence. After he has indicated the reaction, Homer has a line leading to another speech. Two of the three shouting passages begin with the same couplet, and vary only in the third line, which introduces the next speaker. Here is the couplet:

The third shouting passage differs from this couplet in its first and second lines:

The third and fourth lines of the preceding passage are:

In two cases there are only two lines in the passage, and they have already been discussed. In the remaining three cases there are one or two lines of varying content between the beginning and the ending lines. It is to be noted, however, that the intervening lines have relatives in the other passages, both those with shouting and those with silence. Here, in their entirety, are the three cases in question:

The study of these passages indicates clearly that Homer, like the Finnish and South Slavic traditional poets in the passages from them analyzed earlier, had in his mind a more or less stable unit of composition, with some lines very stable but others flexible enough to fit the contexts in which his narrative expressed itself.

As I have already pointed out the Kalevala is unique, although the songs that went into its making were not. They were, indeed, like the South Slavic and the Homeric epics in that they had many variants, many other poems, or songs, around them. They were not isolated as is the Kalevala itself, a lone monument, without variants.

Yet, having said all that, the Kalevala songs are very likely far closer to tradition than those of many edited and published oral-traditional epic texts. The editing process itself, except when it limits itself to correcting such things as spelling or grammatical mistakes, argues the existence of two poetics at odds with one another. When one of the finest of the Croatian collectors of oral-traditional epics at the end of the last century edited his carefully written-down texts for publication he changed them. He standardized the normal variations of metrics, and in many cases he eliminated the regular repetitions which are so much a part of the oral-traditional style but which grated against Marjanović’s literary sensibilities, in spite of his profound acquaintance with the oral-traditional epic style. We can see from his edited manuscripts, copies of which are in the Parry Collection at Harvard, exactly what he disapproved of. Sometimes he omitted whole passages or wrote new ones to be inserted into the text. The editor and the singer had different ideas of what constituted acceptable poetics. I have not seen any better proof of the existence of two poetics, one for oral-traditional poetry and the other for written literary poetry.

Part III

There are two main patterns of story in the Kalevala. One is that of gaining a bride, the other is the stealing of the Sampo (a magic mill {125|126} grinding grain). Clearly the two patterns have much in common. The Trojan legend is concerned with the regaining of a bride, although that is only part of the background of the Homeric poems, not their main focus of action, which is on Achilles in the Iliad and on Odysseus in the Odyssey. The Odyssey is a “return song,” to which is joined a story of an initiatory hero setting out on a journey to find his father, and a series of incidents in a tale of wanderings. Whereas there is an abundance of “return” stories in the South Slavic tradition, as well as many tales of initiatory heroes setting out to find their missing fathers or uncles, there are no “wanderings,” insofar as I can recall, in South Slavic epic.

Väinämöinen is twice offered a bride. In the first case, that of Joukahainen’s sister, the pattern is as follows: (1) a bride is offered to the hero by someone else (Joukahainen) under duress; (2) the bride refuses to marry the hero (because he is too old); (3) the bride kills herself (by drowning); (4) Väinämöinen returns without a bride.

We find the wooing pattern again in the exploits of Ilmarinen: (1) a bride is offered to him by the mistress of North Farm (for forging the Sampo—in Väinämöinen’s place); (2) the bride demurred; (3) again the third element is missing, since the maid of North Farm does not kill herself; but (4) Ilmarinen goes home empty-handed.

The impasse between Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen is solved by one more occurrence of “the jilted bridegroom” pattern for Väinämöinen, and a true wedding sequence for Ilmarinen, who finally wins the maid of North Farm, after performing dangerous tasks set by the mistress of North Farm. The element of testing the bridegroom occurred before, of course, with Väinämöinen, who failed the test!

The “successful bridegroom” pattern, if we may call it that for the moment, is (1) someone offers the hero a bride; (2) a series of tests is imposed on the hero, which he succeeds in performing—sometimes with outside help; (3) the hero wins the bride.

Interestingly enough, in his wooing of Kylliki, Lemminkainen is also {127|128} a “successful bridegroom, ” but in his case no tests are imposed on him. That element is replaced by a straightforward “abduction of the bride.”

In South Slavic epic it is not uncommon to find the hero—or sometimes the villain—riding up to a group of maidens dancing the kolo, with the heroine at the head of the dance, and taking her onto his horse, tying her three times to him with his long sash, and galloping home. If this pattern were being followed in the Kalevala, one would expect pursuit to complete the pattern, or at least a later rescue.

Lemminkainen’s journey to North Farm for a bride follows the pattern of the “unsuccessful”—but not “jilted”—bridegroom, but there are some differences in the pattern from what we have seen so far. (1) The hero seeks a bride (he is not offered one by someone else); (2) he is asked to accomplish three tasks, two of which he does successfully; (3) in doing the third task (shooting the swan of Tuonela) he is killed (by Märkähattu, Soppy Hat), but brought back to life—and to home—by his mother. This wedding trip of Lemminkainen is like that of Väinämöinen, in which he is unsuccessful in accomplishing the third of the tasks set him (the building and launching of a boat), but the tests for Lemminkainen were imposed not by the maid of North Farm, but by her mother. Setting tests of the bridegroom, as has already been remarked, {128|129} is common, and has its place in ritual as well, but it is not common for the hero to be unsuccessful in overcoming all obstacles. Ritually this would not be proper.

These, then, are the “wedding songs” in the Kalevala. They agree in part with traditional patterns elsewhere, but disagree in some striking ways. The main difference is in the element of frustration of the bridegroom, which gives to some of the hero-bridegrooms in the Kalevala a note of pathos, a feature that is missing in the South Slavic epics.


There are no “wanderings” in South Slavic epic, but there are parallels to some of the single incidents in the wanderings of Odysseus, such as encounters with man-eating monsters. The adventures of Lemminkainen in the Kalevala come close to forming a series of “wanderings,” when the hero sets out to hide on the island where his father had once hidden. In the Proto-Kalevala and in the Old Kalevala he returns home directly from the island, but in the New Kalevala he is shipwrecked and swims to another island, where the lady of the island provides him with a boat, with which he reaches home. There is something Odyssean about the sequence: (1) island of women, (2) acquiring a boat (by building it), (3) shipwreck, and (4) arriving at an island where a woman provides a boat to take the hero home. [39]

Then reckless Lemminkainen ‖ proceeds on the blue sea.
He proceeded one day, proceeded a second. ‖ On the third day, indeed,
a wind got to blowing, ‖ the horizon to rumbling,
a great northwest wind, ‖ a strong northeast wind blew.
It caught one plank, caught a second, ‖ it capsized the whole boat.
Then reckless Lemminkainen ‖ fell straight into the water,
began to row with his fingers, ‖ to paddle with his feet.
After he had swum a night ‘and a day, ‖ after he had paddled along quite a distance,
he saw a little cloud, ‖ a cloud patch in the northwest.
That indeed changed into land, ‖ became a headland.
He went onto the headland into a house, ‖ found the mistress baking,
the daughters shaping loaves …
The gracious mistress ‖ went out to the storehouse,
sliced some butter in the storehouse, ‖ a sliver of pork;
she puts it to roast ‖ for the hungry man to eat,
brings beer in a stoup ‖ for the man who has been swimming to drink. {129|130}
Then she gave him a new vessel, ‖ a really well-equipped boat,
for the man to go to other lands, ‖ to proceed home.

One thinks, of course, of Circe and Calypso, and even of the Phaeacians. In fact, since the final incident is not in the earlier versions of the Kalevala, I wonder if Lönnrot, in inserting it in the New Kalevala, was influenced by Homer’s Odyssey.


There are actually two episodes in the Odyssey in which someone seeks, and obtains, information. They are multiforms of one another. In the first, Menelaus inquired of the Old Man of the Sea how he could leave Egypt and continue on his journey home. The scene is not in the Land of the Dead, to be sure, but it is in the magic land of Egypt. In the second episode, just referred to, Odysseus questioned Teiresias, who was really in the Land of the Dead, about many things, and he learned much even without asking, including his own fated death. As a matter of fact, Väinämöinen’s journey to Tuonela has little in common with Odysseus’s journey to the Land of the Dead; it is more nearly akin to the episodes in which Odysseus is almost killed, or detained forever in the other world, from which, however, he manages to escape.

The world of the dead, as such, like the “wanderings,” is missing in the South Slavic tradition, but there are journeys into “other worlds” in the Balkan Slavic epics. In the other world, heroes seek, and usually gain, brides, horses, and artifacts; and from the other world they rescue people who are being held there against their will. Such a world is usually the world of the enemy — appropriately enough, because it is truly a land of death. One must pass barriers and guardians, which are sometimes monstrous, before one can enter it, and at the barriers, or in the foreign land itself, the hero has sometimes to hide his identity {130|131} through disguise. He is asked to identify himself, and his answers are often deceptive at first, and tests are made prior to his recognition by a friend in the enemy land. Such questions are reminiscent of those put to Väinämöinen at the approaches to Tuonela.

The fundamental difference between the Finnish tradition and those of the Slavic Balkans and of ancient Greece is the prevalence and force of shamanism in the Kalevala and in the songs and their variants that went into its making. Heroism by magic spells rather than by swords and spears gives the Kalevala a very special atmosphere, and it is exciting to enter into that strange world.

It is useful and necessary to be aware of the similarities among traditions, to understand that traditions are not watertight compartments. But it is also important to comprehend the peculiar features of each tradition and to have as firm and sympathetic a grasp as possible of the details and meanings of the traditions in which one works. The haunting, tragic beauty of the Kalevala cannot be easily matched anywhere else. Lönnrot expressed in it, however, the same sense of human personal loss that one finds in the Iliad. The Kalevala also shares with it the ultimate sense of reconciliation with the reality that is symbolized by the fact that only portions of the Sampo can ever be possessed by any one people, ironical though it be that they were clever enough to create it.


The following two passages are taken from The Traditional Poetry of the Finns, by Domenico Comparetti, translated by Isabella M. Anderton (New York: Longmans Green, 1898). Appendix 1 is found on page 157, and Appendix 2 on page 9, note 1, of that work. In Appendix 1 the author being quoted is Elias Lönnrot himself from Helsingfors Litteraturbladet, 1849, page 16.

Appendix 1

“The order in which the singers chant their runes should certainly not be entirely overlooked. At the same time I have not thought well to attach too much importance to it, as it is a matter in which they differ much from each other. This very difference in the ordering of the runes confirmed me in the idea I had already conceived: that all runes of this {131|132} kind could be combined among themselves. For I had observed that the disposition adopted by one singer was not the same as that adopted by another; so that, after a great copying of runes recited by various singers, I found very few that had not been sung, by one or another, in various connections. I could not consider one singer’s ordering of the runes as more original than that of another; but explained each case by the natural desire of man to bring order into his knowledge, a desire which produces differences according to the different conception of the individual singers. As a consequence, since none of the singers could compare with me in the mass of runes I had collected, I thought that I had the same right which I was convinced most singers assumed: the right, that is, of ordering the runes according as they best fitted into each other.”

Appendix 2

“We may refer here to what Lönnrot wrote in this connection after the new edition of the Kalevala in Helsingfors Litteraturbladet, 1849, n. 1, p. 20: ‘No discussion as to the mode of origin of the Homeric poems could ever have arisen had those who have written on this subject had the experience which I have acquired through the Finnish poems, of the influence of tradition on poetry. They would all have agreed that some poet first briefly sang contemporary events, and that tradition then expanded the songs and produced variants of them. He who afterwards collected these variants did much the same as I have done in ordering and weaving together those of the songs of the Kalevala; only I beg that no one take these words amiss, as though I wished to place my abilities or the subject I have treated on a par with that other collector and his work. The various dialectic forms which occur so often in the Homeric poems render impossible the belief that the latter were the work of one man or were handed down by tradition without many variants. He who orders and puts together these pieces of a cycle of songs must sometimes insert a connecting line, and I doubt not that such lines can be found, if we look for them, in the Homeric poems. I also have had to introduce some of them into the runes of the Kalevala; but it seemed to me, and to others also, that it would have been mere pedantry to draw attention to them, especially as they have nothing to do with the poem itself, and consist generally in such phrases as “He expressed himself in words and spoke thus” (Sanon virkkoi, noin nimesi), or, “Then he spoke and said” (Siita tuon sanokisi virkki). {132|133}


[ back ] * The original form of this paper was read at the International Folk Epic Conference at University College, Dublin, Ireland, September 2-6, 1985, and published in the proceedings of that conference, The Heroic Process: Form, Function and Fantasy in Folk Epic, edited by Bo Almquist, Séamus Ó Catháin, and Pádraig Ó Héalá (Dublin: Glendale Press, 1987).

[ back ] 1. Quoted from Lönnrot, 1963, Appendix I, Materials for the Study of the Kalevala, B, The Kalevala, 350.

[ back ] 2. Lönnrot, 1963, Appendix I, D, Lönnrot’s Prefaces to the Kalevala, II, Preface (1835) to the Old Kalevala, 366.

[ back ] 3. Comparetti, 1898, 328.

[ back ] 4. Lönnrot, 1963, and see Appendixes 1 and 2 of this paper.

[ back ] 5. David-Neel and Lama Yongden, 1933.

[ back ] 6. Mwindo, 1969; and Biebuyck, 1978.

[ back ] 7. Examples of the “short” songs—some have more than 2,000 lines—about these two heroes can be found in German translation in Radloff, 1885. A composite epic of Manas can be seen in Russian translation in Manas, 1946, and one of Er Töshtük in French translation with introduction and notes in Boratav and Bazin, 1965.

[ back ] 8. Comparetti, 1898, 327-328.

[ back ] 9. Hörmann, 1933; Marjanović, 1898-99.

[ back ] 10. For the classical texts see Karadžić, 1958, nos. 44-52. For the long text see Mladenović and Nedić, 1974.

[ back ] 11. See Bogišić, 1878, nos. 1 and 2, pages 3-10, and Miletich, 1990.

[ back ] 12. Srpska akademija nauka, Belgrade, Vuk Vrčević Ms. Collection no. 62, vol. 1, no. 21; vol. 2, no. 14; vol. 3, nos. 1-3. For a study of these texts see Pešić, 1967. It is noteworthy that Vrčević’s texts have affinities with an Albanian version collected by Elezović earlier in the 1900s. See Elezović, 1923, 54-67. See also Parry Text no. 650 (Milman Parry Collection, Widener Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.), a Serbo-Croatian version collected by Milman Parry in 1934 from Salih Ugljanin, a Yugoslav Albanian, in Novi Pazar. For more on these Kosovo texts and others see Lord, 1984.

[ back ] 13. Stojković, 1927.

[ back ] 14. See Lord, A., 1953, Chapter 2 in this volume.

[ back ] 15. E.g., in addition to the laments of Achilles and of his mother Thetis and the Nereids for Patroclus in Iliad 18.22-64, see especially Achilles’s lament for Patroclus in 23.13-23 and the laments of Andromache and Hecuba for Hector in 24.723-760. For more on the ritual lament in ancient and modern Greek literature, oral and written, see Alexiou, 1974.

[ back ] 16. See “The Ragged Border Warrior Wins the Horses,” in Parry, 1954, no. 17.

[ back ] 17. An excellent example of a song telling of the attaining of a bride by the hero, combined with an initiatory journey and a tale of succession, is Avdo Međedović’s, “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho,” Međedović, 1974a.

[ back ] 18. Milojević, 1870, vol. 2, no. 171, from Stana Stojanović of Prizren.

[ back ] 19. Ibid., no. 173, from Nikola Andrejević, priest, in Sretačka-sirinačka, a župa (a fertile, protected valley) on Mount Šar; he wrote it down from his brother’s wife.

[ back ] 20. Lönnrot, 1963, lines 540-549 of Poem 8.

[ back ] 21. All three were translated into English by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.. See Lönnrot, 1963 and 1969.

[ back ] 22. Quoted from Lönnrot, 1963, Appendix I, D, III, Preface (1849) to the (New) Kalevala, 376.

[ back ] 23. Finnish Folk Poetry, Epic, 1977.

[ back ] 24. Ibid. Songs 15 and 16 are from A. A. Borenius’s collection of 1872 and were written down in Archangel Karelia. Song 17 is from the collection of D. E. D. Europaeus of 1845, written down in North Karelia.

[ back ] 25. Parry, M., 1953, no. 4, lines 50-63, and no. 5, lines 33-43, 65-70.

[ back ] 26. Iliad 7.403-404. I follow Lattimore’s translation except for the words between angular brackets.

[ back ] 27. Iliad 2.333-334.

[ back ] 28. Iliad 2.335-336.

[ back ] 29. Iliad 7.404-405, and 9.51-52. I follow Lattimore’s translation except for the words between angular brackets.

[ back ] 30. Iliad 8.28; 7.398; 9.29; 9.693; and 10.218.

[ back ] 31. Iliad 7.399; 9.31; 9.696.

[ back ] 32. Iliad 8.30.

[ back ] 33. Iliad 10.219.

[ back ] 34. Iliad 8.38-30; 9.29-31; and 9.693-696.1 follow Lattimore’s translation except for the words between pointed brackets.

[ back ] 35. Comparertti, 1898, chap. 3.

[ back ] 36. Kačić-Miošić, 1967, 179-180. See also George Kostich’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “Serbo-Croatian Epic ‘Ženidbe’: An Investigation of the Multiformity of the Trials and Defenders of the Bridegroom,” 1977.

[ back ] 37. Child, 1965, vol. 1, no. 2, p. 6.

[ back ] 38. In his version of the Song of Bagdad, Salih Ugljanin, having told of the gathering of the Bosnian armies, changes the subject with “Now let me tell you about Fatima” (Parry, M., 1953, no. 1, line 659).

[ back ] 39. Lönnrot, 1963, Poem 29, lines 403-426, 442-453.

[ back ] 40. Haavio, 1952, 134.