Women Weaving the World: Text and Textile in the Kalevala and Beyond

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Chapter Two

The Finnish tradition, specifically, abounds with intersections in text, textile, and the feminine realm. Textile crafts are integral to Finnish culture, both traditionally and in the design-oriented Finland of today. Historically, all “women in all the northern countries knew how to weave cloth,” on looms “of that old-fashioned model, in which the warp is in an upright position.” [1] This is similar to the ancient Greek warp-weighted loom that Fanfani and Harlizius-Klück have researched extensively and link to the structure of Greek verbal arts, as seen in the previous chapter. [2] The spinning and weaving of fabric to dress and decorate bodies and homes was an important practical and cultural activity. Though long winters, activities such as weaving provided ways to stay productive and active indoors, and traditions of rag-rug weaving ensured that no material went to waste.

Throughout a long history of foreign rule, Finns struggled to maintain their language and define their own cultural identity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a push for a unified Finnish national identity revived interest in folk-arts, stemming from a Romantic idealization of rural life and folk-culture. In 1879, Fanny Churberg, originally a painter, turned towards what she designated the “applied arts” and founded the Friends of Finnish Handicrafts. “Fennomania,” or the craze for all things related to the perceived genuine Fennic culture, was at the heart of Churberg’s organization that aimed at finding and developing a “Finnish style” based on folk art traditions. [4] In this world of pastoral and domestic bliss, crafts and folklore are central tenants of life; singing is primarily a men’s activity, and handicraft the women’s chore and pastime, as is painted in this idyllic scene, written by Churberg:

Weaving and singing are tandem crafts, drawing on tradition and imagination to create beauty from the homely. Weaving is an act of pure creation, almost devotional in its transcendent simplicity.

Crafting the Kalevala

Concurrent with traditional domestic handicraft is the husband’s oral performance of the “Kalevala’s ancient verse.” The Kalevala is originally a mythology and oral-poetic tradition native to Karelia, an ancient, dynamic set of characters and stories unified in the unique rhythm and repetition of the verse. During the Finnish National Movement, this tradition was claimed as the Finnish heritage, to be used as a foundation for the language and culture of a new nation. Elias Lӧnnrot’s 1849 Kalevala text, drawn from the stories and performances of the folk-poets, came to represent the movement and continues to shape Finnish identity today, a century after independence.

The Kalevala is a rich tradition to examine not only for its wide influence and dramatic story, but for the complex issues of recording oral traditions it presents. “The ambiguity between the Kalevala as a published work and the Kalevala as an oral folk expression through the runo-singers” [6] is emblematic of the challenge at the heart of oral poetry scholarship. When no two performances are exactly the same and each singer has their own version of the myths and stories, how can one define a canon? When a tradition is by nature oral, can written text do it justice? Lӧnnrot’s Kalevala has become the epic poem of Finland, inspiring countless works of art and becoming a pillar around which Finnish nationalism was built. The characters and stories from the larger folk tradition live on primarily in the narrative which Lӧnnrot curated, which is a limited selection that collapses characters and plots to serve a cohesive narrative. As Thomas A. DuBois, scholar of Finnish folk poetry, aptly explains:

In creating an epic “according to literary standards current among European Romanticists,” [
8] Lӧnnrot made a nationally, and internationally, intelligible narrative that did not rely on having an audience familiar with the characters and stories of the ancient folk tradition. Since then, Lӧnnrot’s Kalevala has been integrated back into traditional singers’ repertoire, reshaping the tradition. [9]

The Kalevala tradition is one of craft—not only are the stories and style of singing a learned art, but the singing is understood to belong to a world of craft. As the singer in the prelude to the first runo [17] explains, his songs were learned at home:

Before he begins to spin his tale, the singer pays tribute to the tradition of song and craft that he has inherited. His songs are part of the shared folklore, for and of the domestic domain, telling of characters and plots well known to his audience. However, these songs are not the exact ones he learned as a child, nor will they ever be sung again in the exact same way. In an oral poetic tradition, each performance is unique, crafted in the moment by the singer—a temporal, physical, and ephemeral thing. As Albert Lord, a pioneering scholar of oral traditions, writes of the singer:

There is an internalized structure at the heart of oral traditions that provides the singer with the tools and the potential to generate new combinations.

To return to the singer who invokes his parents engaged in their crafts—the singer, too, is commencing a crafting activity, a process requiring skill, labor, and time that employs a learned technique but is shaped by the individual’s personal style. His activity is not unprecedented, as singing Kalevala runos necessitates knowledge of the characters and their stories as well as comfort with the trochaic rhythm, which takes years of listening, learning, and training with a master singer. Drawing from the collective cultural memory and his repository of images and phrases, the runo-singer is piecing together a rhapsody, a new combination of similar elements. With each line, he is adding a thread to the unique textile of this telling.

Craft in the World of the Kalevala

Turning is a fundamental part of weaving: the alternating direction of the shuttle, the turning of the weft thread around the last warp string, the resultant curving, wave-like pattern of an over-under threaded weft. Turning is also a fundamental aspect of poetry, and the turn, or line break, shapes the meaning, reception, and form of a poem. The poet employs this tool, and many others, to shape words into the specific rhythm and form of the poem; the poet turns the weft of imagery through the warp of structure, meter, and rhyme. To turn is to be engaged in translating material into product, thoughts into words.

This parallel, of a familial structure and a crafting process, is present throughout the Kalevala. From the lineage that the runo-singer invokes before he begins to tell his tale, as explored above, to the many descriptions of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, and daughters-in-law at home, the framework of the Kalevala mythology is one of familial ties, inseparable from the domestic spaces they operate within. Simultaneously, from Ilmatar the ur-mother to the young, new wife, the Kalevala is populated with craftspeople who shape their fate and their environment through the words and objects they manipulate.

Väinämöinen, the hero of the Kalevala, is a wordsmith, a singer so talented that he can bend nature to his will with words and sing his enemies into ruin. Born at the origin of the world already as an old man, he is the wisest and most prolific of singers in a world where those with the power of song are closest to the divine. Väinämöinen is the master singer, endowed with the power of the homeros, like the runo-singer is joining together characters, stories, and word patterns he has used before into a new performance of song. Within this song, Väinämöinen is Homer, creating the precise combinations of words that will allow him to shape the world around him.

Väinämöinen is not, however the only character who possesses the power of words. Many others call on the gods to aid them in their ploys, summon the depths of their emotions to lend power to their words, or sing of the origin of materials and objects to gain access to their power. Multiple times in the Kalevala, Väinämöinen is challenged to a singing competition by a daring foe who doubts his power or is fooled by a disguise. When young Joukahainen, a plucky, envious Lappish boy, hears of the “wondrous charms recited, / And that magic songs were sung” in Väinolä, better runos than he knew, “better than his father taught him,” he is incensed (24–9). He is determined to challenge Väinämöinen, despite his parents’ warnings.

When he crashes carriages with Väinämöinen on the road, he demands a “game” of singing in which “He who has the greater knowledge, / He who has the mightier memory” will win the right of way. Väinämöinen feigns a modest talent and entreats the young man to go first, and tell what he knows. As he demonstrates his knowledge of nature and topography, Väinämöinen berates him for his triviality, calling it “childish notions” and “woman’s tattle,” not suitable for “bearded men” (176–77). Again, the young man sings of the world, telling of creation and causing Väinämöinen to accuse him of lying, as he was not there at the origin of the world (which, of course, Väinämöinen was). Angered, Joukahainen draws his sword and taunts Väinämöinen when he will not draw in turn. Väinämöinen is incensed; he will not tolerate being mocked or attacked, and least of all threatened with physical weapons.

Väinämöinen sings and the earth shakes—“cliffs were cracking, boulders breaking” (283). He enchants Joukahainen’s sword, crossbow, sleigh, dog, and his clothes into parts of the scenery, elements of nature. Finally, he sings Joukahainen into a quicksand swamp, and the trapped and terrorized young man pleas “Wise Väinämöinen, knower eternal, / Now reverse your incantations / And call back your magic spells!” (331–2). Joukahainen offers all he has as ransom for his life, trying to appease the magician as he sinks into the swamp. Finally, he promises his sister for Väinämӧinen’s wife, an offer that is accepted.

Mother Knows Best: A Woven Resurrection

The Kalevala abounds in examples of world-building through word and craft, far too numerous for the scope of this project. I will focus specifically on Runo 15, “The Resurrection,” and the relationship and actions related to it, of particular interest for the intricate intersection of themes at this moment in the Kalevala. Craft, magic, family, womanhood, and power all collide in this story of a mother resurrecting her son.

While Friberg notes, referring to Runo 3, that “throughout the Kalevala women, especially mothers, are treated with high and tender respect even by such disobedient sons as … Lemminkäinen” (Friberg, 367, Note 2 for Runo 3), I argue that this claim is preemptive. The mothers of the Kalevala are indeed powerful, important characters, but “tender respect” is an overstatement of the reception they receive. The witch Louhi, Mistress of Pohjola, protects her coveted daughters from the constant barrage of suitors seeking their hands in marriage. She is a powerful matriarch, a formidable wielder of magic words, and a devious negotiator. However, she is the antagonist of the Kalevala, presenting the greatest challenges and threats to the male heroes and represented as mean, old, and ugly. Other mothers are less powerful, but respected within their domestic domain. Indeed, fathers are far less important than their wives in many of the stories; the goodwill of the mistress of the house is more sought after than the master’s approval. While respect may ultimately be garnered by some of these women, it is not without toil, and it often takes perilous situations for their worth to be acknowledged.

As the image returns to the specificity of the body in front of the grieving mother, we can imagine her urgently stitching her son’s wounds with this stream of incantations guiding her. She sends her prayers to the heavens and channels the gods’ powers into her work, hoping for life to return to the mangled body. She has woven a web of charms, has been the homeros force, joining her manual skill and labor with the power of the goddesses she calls upon. It is a moment where the singing is most clearly an incantation, a prayer for strength and success in the face of the impossible.

Research suggests that it is only in the romanticized version by Lӧnnrot that the ill-fated son is resurrected. In another version of Lemminkäinen’s story, sung by a different runo-singer and not collected by Lönnrot, Lemminkäinen’s mother speaks to the dead, asking him if he can still become a full man:

Here, the mother’s work is futile, there is no way to bring a soul back to her son’s body; her rhapsody is not successful, the reconstructed body does not reconstruct the soul. If Lemminkäinen’s mother is unsuccessful, the power of craft and motherhood must be questioned. Is her failure due to an imperfect or less skillful weaving process, or was her goal always impossible? If she had recovered her son’s heart from “down there” would he have come back to life; is the soul contained within that heart, or is the life-force extra-corporeal? If her failure is her own doing, then there is a limit to the power of motherly love and the utility of craft. Her labors are unable to undo death and the damage of Death’s river, and thus the gods have the final say.

Not resurrected, Lemminkäinen’s mangled body is just a poor attempt to reconstruct God’s creation, a useless, lifeless mass of limbs. Like a cloth that has been shredded, cutting the natural unravelling pattern of the thread, Lemminkäinen’s body parts can no longer reconstitute a true whole. In Lönnrot’s version, however, the body has merely unraveled, and can still be reworked. Like a textile that has unraveled, but retains the integrity of the component parts, the materials still have the potential to make a whole.

With the help of a honey bee, she creates a balm with which to anoint her son. She speaks “the spell of waking” [78] and Lemminkäinen awakens, rising from his slumber. “Now he has the words again / To relate what happened to him.” [79] With the return of his words, he is returned to life; with the return of his power to explain himself, so his fate is once again in his own hands. The mother’s first expression is admonishment, telling Lemminkäinen:

She indirectly reminds Lemminkäinen of his folly and disobedience. When, however, Lemminkäinen relates how the cowherd vanquished him, the Mother is harsher in her chastising:

She is incredulous, frustrated that her massive labor to resurrect her son was caused by a simple ignorance about the dangers of a common water hemlock. She then immediately recites the “charm of origin” [
82] for cowbane, turning the moment of resurrection into a lesson. Then she nurses her son back to health, back not only to his former self but “a little better than before / And more gentle than of old.” [83] When she asks her son “anxiously” if there is “anything amiss,” [84] doubting the skill of her craft, Lemminkäinen has the nerve to say he is still pining for the Northern Maiden. This time, however, the mother will not stand for any disobedience, demanding that he forget his ill-fated quest, thank the gods for his good luck, and return home with her. And so he does, setting out “homeward with his mother, / With his most devoted mother, / With his much respected parent.” [85]

The mother’s ultimate power is authority, gaining obedience and respect from her son. All her epic searching, travelling, battling, and creating is for the simple, yet nearly impossible, goal of having her son return home. She succeeds in this, for now, and Lemminkäinen returns home with her, to his waiting wife, alive and well. Though her goals were familial and relied on her domestic knowledge of charms and handicraft skills, her achievements are of divine proportions. She is the only character to resurrect another in the Kalevala, she is the only one who is able to counter Death’s damage. Through her motherhood and through her crafting skill—able to weave both powerful charms and durable stitches—she is able to conquer the strongest magic of all.


[ back ] 1. Naiset kaikissa Pohjoismaissa … osasivat kankaita kutoa … ne ovat tuota vanhanaikaista mallia, jossa loimet ovat pystysuorassa asennossa.” O. A. Forsstrӧm, Suomen Keskiaian Historia, vol. 2 (Jyvaskyla: K. J. Gummerus, 1894), 537. Translation my own.

[ back ] 2. See Harlizius-Klück and Fanfani, “On weaving and sewing as technical terms.”

[ back ] 3. Merja Manninen and Päivi Setälä, The Lady with the Bow: The Story of Finnish Women (Helsinki: Otava, 1990), 57.

[ back ] 4. Manninen and Setälä, 84.

[ back ] 5. Fanny Churberg, Uusi Suometar, 2 April 1879, quoted in Charlotte Ashby, “Nation Building and Design,” Journal of Design History 23, no. 4 (2010).

[ back ] 6. Eino Friberg, “Translator’s Preface: The Significance of the Kalevala to the Finns,” in The Kalevala: Epic of the Finnish People by Elias Lönnrot, trans. Eino Friberg, ed. George C. Schoolfield (Helsinki: Otava, 1988), 11.

[ back ] 7. Thomas A. DuBois, Finnish Folk Poetry and the Kalevala (New York: Garland, 1995), 2.

[ back ] 8. DuBois, 2.

[ back ] 9. From this point forward, the use of the italicized “Kalevala” indicates the curated epic poem by Elias Lönnrot; the un-italicized “Kalevala” refers to the larger folk tradition.

[ back ] 10. Friberg, “Translator’s Preface,” 11.

[ back ] 11. Friberg, 11.

[ back ] 12. Friberg, 12.

[ back ] 13. Friberg, 15.

[ back ] 14. Friberg, 18.

[ back ] 15. Ants Oras, introduction to The Kalevipoeg: An Ancient Estonian Tale, by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, trans. Juri Kurman (Morristown: Symposia Press, 1982), xii.

[ back ] 16. George C. Schoolfield, introduction to The Kalevala: Epic of the Finnish People, by Elias Lönnrot, trans. Eino Friberg, ed. George C. Schoolfield (Helsinki: Otava, 1988), 33.

[ back ] 17. Runo” translates to “poem;” general scholarship tends to refer to the folk poets of the Kalevala tradition as “runo-singers” to indicate the specific, trained skills and designation of a Kalevala-singer. “Singing” and “song” are used here for ease of vocabulary – they refer specifically to the rhythmic incantation of Kalevala stories.

[ back ] 18. 1.36–39. All excerpts from the Kalevala will be cited by runo number and line numbers (Runo.Line–line). Excerpts in English are from the translation by Eino Friberg unless otherwise noted.

[ back ] 19. Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, ed. Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 36.

[ back ] 20. Friberg, “Translator’s Preface,” 25.

[ back ] 21. Friberg, “Translator’s Preface,” 15.

[ back ] 22. 1.263–282.

[ back ] 23. 1.255–256.

[ back ] 24. 1.259.

[ back ] 25. Alussa Jumala loi taivaan ja maan; In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 1:1.

[ back ] 26. 1.263.

[ back ] 27. 1.130, 140, 142.

[ back ] 28. 2.301, 315.

[ back ] 29. 9.502–512.

[ back ] 30. 3.440–447.

[ back ] 31. The Northern Maiden, or one of three northern maidens – there are discrepancies as to how many daughters Louhi has, though three seems to be the most commonly referenced number outside of this specific instance in Runo 3. Here she is the Rainbow Maiden, a reference that does not appear to be repeated later, that blurs the line between the Moonmaid and Sunmaid, and these daughters of Lapland.

[ back ] 32. 8.1–2.

[ back ] 33. 8.22–29.

[ back ] 34. 8.7–16.

[ back ] 35. 8.29.

[ back ] 36. 8.90.

[ back ] 37. 8.106.

[ back ] 38. 8.91.

[ back ] 39. 8.7–16.

[ back ] 40. Friberg 366, Note 1:14.

[ back ] 41. Friberg 373, Note 9:1.

[ back ] 42. 3.7–14.

[ back ] 43. 3.268–279.

[ back ] 44. 3.452–7.

[ back ] 45. Friberg 368, Note 3:13.

[ back ] 46. Simana Höttönen, Repola, Olonets Karelia, collected by A. A. Borenius, 1872, in A Trail for Singers – Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, ed. Matti Kuusi, trans. Keith Bosley (Pieksämäki: Finnish Literature Society, 1995), 82.

[ back ] 47. Höttönen in A Trail for Singers, 82.

[ back ] 48. Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2nd ed., ed. Stephen A. Mitchell and Gregory Nagy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 30.

[ back ] 49. 7.324–329.

[ back ] 50. 10.269–270.

[ back ] 51. 7.298–301.

[ back ] 52. 7.334–339.

[ back ] 53. 11.303.

[ back ] 54. 12.209–210.

[ back ] 55. 12.127.

[ back ] 56. 12.180–195.

[ back ] 57. 14.393–397.

[ back ] 58. Friberg 377, Note 14.12.

[ back ] 59. 14.404–410.

[ back ] 60. 14.414–23.

[ back ] 61. 14.439–40.

[ back ] 62. 15.1–2.

[ back ] 63. 15.8.

[ back ] 64. 12.203–206.

[ back ] 65. 15.23–32.

[ back ] 66. 15.40–48.

[ back ] 67. 15.51–55.

[ back ] 68. 15.96.

[ back ] 69. 15.169–185.

[ back ] 70. 15.194–195.

[ back ] 71. 15.308–309.

[ back ] 72. 15.324–327.

[ back ] 73. Simana Sissonen, Ilomantsi, North Karelia, collected by D.E.D Europaeus, 1845, in A Trail for Singers, ed. Matti Kuusi, 100–1.

[ back ] 74. 15.346–348.

[ back ] 75. 15.349–352.

[ back ] 76. 15.353–354.

[ back ] 77. 15.359–60.

[ back ] 78. 15.510.

[ back ] 79. 15.518–519.

[ back ] 80. 15.523–526.

[ back ] 81. 15.544–548.

[ back ] 82. 15.549.

[ back ] 83. 15.565–566.

[ back ] 84. 15.567–568.

[ back ] 85. 15.598–600.