The Väinämöinen Poems
and the South Slavic Oral Epos

by   D. E. Bynum

Having emanated from the common fund of ideas current in European intellectual life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many tendencies in learnèd disquisition about the oral epic tradition of the South Slavs have paralleled those to be found in such studies of the Finnish “runic” (ballad) tradition as have been published in the several linguae francae of modern academic discourse. Yet none of these tendencies has hitherto resulted in a systematic comparison of the two poetic traditions themselves—Finnish and South Slavic—by a South Slavicist. Such an exercise is both feasible and rewarding, although I find that it yields somewhat novel results for interpretation of the Kalevalaian poetry.

In what follows, I take as point of departure with relation to the Finnish tradition Martti Haavio’s study Väinämöinen, Eternal Sage (1952). Although the book is now an old one, I have found much in it worthy of notice. My debt to it is undiminished by my several divergences from its views. Haavio’s avowed purpose was to disengage the several discrete strands of traditional poetic narrative about Kaleva’s cunning old son Väinämöinen from the complicated web of Elias Lönnrot’s literary weaving in the literary Kalevala, and by so doing to establish as perfectly as he could the pure, original form of each of the several primary “runes” that he believed historically underlay the many related variants found in oral tradition by collectors in the several different regions and provinces of greater Finland and in ethnically cognate enclaves in neighboring lands.

Haavio proceeded toward this end by identifying the common elements shared among many texts from different singers, and then constructing from those elements a simplified ‘core’ of story purged of the many merely local accretions and contaminations which he thought had everywhere attached themselves to the pristine narratives since the remote and unknown moments of their first composition by hypothetical early medieval poetic geniuses. Moving thus oppositely away from Lönnrot’s intentional artistic conflation of many disparate materials into a new literary unity in the Kalevala, Haavio’s different method was to conflate from the resemblances among similar regional variants of the ‘original’ texts a new scholarly unity of concept for individual episodes in the “runes” pertaining to Väinämöinen. In a manner generally consistent with the tenets of both the historic-geographic school of folk narrative criticism and literary Textkritik (the two being in any case closely similar, and similarly motivated, systems), Haavio printed his hypothetical Urtexte as epigraphs to the successive chapters in his book.

Haavio’s aim in applying such a method was to arrive as exactly as possible at what in each “rune” he could believe an original creative poet had once long ago composed in a unique act of poetic genius, a solitary coruscation of his own personal verbal skill and of a singularly gifted poetic insight into the nature of the world. He denied such original poetic power to both the ordinary runo of the modern collectors’ experience (even when the runo was a giant of Simana Sissonen’s or Arhippa Perttunen’s stature) as well as to what he called the unknown “adapters,” whom he regarded as historically responsible for the big devagations and mixtures of ‘different’ runes such as he believed he often found in the actual collected texts.

Working as I have done in the South Slavic field a generation and more after Haavio’s time, I can concur very little in his methodological presuppositions, which simply belong to an earlier era and are now quite out of date. For me there are no Urtexte to be separated from the dross of later accretions and admixtures, and no great original primaeval poets from whom such poetry sprang like die Schöpfung aus Gottes Absicht. For me the process of accretion and admixture is itself the great first principle of poetic creativity in an oral narrative tradition, and the modern Finnish runo must correspondingly remain indistinguishable from all his precursors from time immemorial. I also regard such traditions wherever they have been collected as having very much more ancient histories than can usefully be reconstructed by the historic-geographic method. Thus it is not Haavio’s approach to his subject that has been useful to me; what I have found valuable is rather the result of his remarkable intimacy with the vital details of the many difficult texts in the diverse Finnish collections which he achieved once he had approached those texts by whatever avenue of method he found congenial.

The several narrative runes concerning Väinämöinen which Haavio treated are basically six in number, and include those that Elias Lönnrot wove into the First, Sixth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Songs of his so-called Proto-Kalevala; the First, Ninth, Tenth, Twenty-Second, Thirtieth, and Thirty-Second Songs of the Old Kalevala; and the First, Third, Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Fortieth, Forty-First, Forty-Fourth, and Fiftieth Songs of the classic Kalevala. More recent editions of some corresponding texts of the actual songs as collected from the Finnish oral tradition itself have been anthologized with English translations in Matti Kuusi, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch’s book Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic, 1977 (hereinafter referred to as FFPE). Pertinent items in that volume include texts nos. 2, 3, 4, 5; 10, 11; 23, 24, 25; 28; 30; 57 and 58.

Haavio called his six basic narratives about Väinämöinen:

I assess each of these narratives in the same order.

The Creation Rune

- the primordial fusion of nature and culture -

The pertinent texts are the First Song in all three redactions of the Kalevala and texts nos. 2, 3, 4, and 5 in FFPE.

A bird flies over the open sea seeking a nesting place. Väinämöinen, who is submerged “in the middle of the sea’s navel,” raises his knee, which emerges from the water as “a green hummock” of “fresh turf,” and the bird casts a copper nest upon it, in which it then lays a golden egg. The bird’s subsequent incubation of the egg burns Väinämöinen’s knee, and he shakes the nest and egg off onto a shoal, where they shatter. Väinämöinen makes the earth from the lower shell, the welkin from the upper shell, the sun from the egg-white, the moon from the egg-yolk, and the stars from the lesser fragments of the egg-shell.

Observe as a matter of simple ethnographic fact the characteristically knee-level position of the metal-smith’s anvil-footing as pictured in the photographic illustration no. 44 in FFPE:

Again in the Visit to Antero Vipunen (q.v. infra) Väinämöinen’s knee burns as he makes an anvil of it to work other metal. As is typical of the Väinämöinen runes, here too the purely artificial, humanly calculated, cultural act of metal-working is analogized with its logical opposite: the purely instinctual, natural animal act of ovarian reproduction. The bird is inseparably both egg-layer and smith. This is a conspicuous rôle-reversal as between the bird and Väinämöinen; but it needs to be remembered that this is a tale about a primordial mythic time, a time before the present order of things as we know them in the post-Väinämöinen era had yet come into being; and in that earlier, mythic time it is the unthinking bird that is the smith, while the humanly intelligent Väinämöinen reacts in a merely animal, instinctual fashion with a simple tactile reflex to cool his hot knee. But as may accidentally happen at a real forge, premature quenching of the bird’s hot-cast egg shatters it. If in this rune Väinämöinen is as yet not the great smith that he later becomes (not yet able to avoid either being burnt or dropping his work into the quenching-bath before it is ready), he is nevertheless superbly inventive, for his subsequent creation of the world from the broken egg is pure inspiration and unpremeditated opportunism. It is a brilliant act of spontaneous improvisation from scavenged debris. And that, suggests this rune, is how even the most momentous things come into being.

The Singing Contest

- the fitness of the bridegroom -

This is the tale of Väinämöinen’s encounter with Joukahainen and the consequent betrothal to him of Joukahainen’s sister. The pertinent texts are Song Fifteen in the Proto-Kalevala, Song Thirty in the Old Kalevala, Song Three in the classic Kalevala, and texts nos. 10 and 11 in FFPE.

Old Väinämöinen and young Joukahainen collide head-on as they drive in opposite directions over ice. They agree that whichever of them knows more shall have the right-of-way. But Joukahainen’s most ponderous knowledge is only of things Väinämöinen has done. Väinämöinen first claims his own deeds for himself, then by the power of his words inhumes Joukahainen (and his dog) and alienates various items of Joukahainen’s property, either by transforming them or transporting them to other places. Joukahainen begs for the restoration of himself and his chattels, promising Väinämöinen money, or horse(s), or boat(s), and when these are rejected, finally he promises his own sister in marriage as ransom. Väinämöinen accepts the offer of the girl, and Joukahainen returns home to his mother crestfallen about the bad bargain he has made for his sister. His mother replies however that she has waited her whole life long hoping one day to gain Väinämöinen for her son-in-law.

Here again Väinämöinen scavenges an advantage from an accidental misfortune. As in a riddling-contest before a wedding, Väinämöinen demonstrates his fitness in knowledge to be a girl’s husband and a capable affine to her agnates. One is reminded powerfully of Samson’s similar prowess before his wedding at Timnah in the Old Testament (Judges 13-14). As in the Creation Rune, so too again in this one: both the Creation of the World and Väinämöinen’s betrothal appear in the cosmogonic time of the narrative to be merely accidental contingencies, but in post-cosmogonic time (i. e., in the world as we know it after Väinämöinen has formed it), what for Väinämöinen were only improvisations are for us the indispensable prerequisites to those results. He just happened, literally by accident, to match wits with another man and so won that man’s sister to wife; but ever since, due proof of manly superiority in some similar fashion is the conventional, expected means to getting a wife. Here again Väinämöinen acts as a cosmogonic culture-hero, doing for the first time by accident and inspired improvisation what has since that mythic time in illo tempore become the obligatory, prescribed way of accomplishing that same thing again by lesser persons who epigonically follow his example.

The prime test of superior manhood in this tale (i. e., of manhood fit for marriage) is the power of movement. After the collision, Joukahainen and Väinämöinen are both momentarily immobilized together with all their equipment and appurtenances. Whichever of them is to move forward must first put the other out of his way, and this Väinämöinen does in such a manner as to deprive his rival (and his rival’s dog) of even that lesser residual power of movement that is left to them in their own persons after the collision: he inters Joukahainen (and dog) in the earth. Joukahainen’s chattels, on the other hand, which lie inertly barricading the road after the collision, Väinämöinen transports out of the way, in several cases even imparting to them a power to move in their own right. Thus the stalled horse of Joukahainen leaps like a seal; the immobilized saddle now moves like a duck swimming in the sea; the transfixed collar-tree flows away in the form of a splashing spring; and Joukahainen’s whip, still in the wreck, sways of its own accord when transformed into a reed by Väinämöinen. What was an inert still-life becomes a veritable catalogue of the different kinds of motion observable in nature.

I have commented in another place on the metaphorical expression of certain standard qualifications to be a bridegroom as found in oral narrative traditions worldwide. Expressed always in the idiomatic imagery of each particular people who share the tale, these qualifications are in summary: 1) mastery over wood [either in its hewn state or as fuel for fire, or both], 2) mastery over water, 3) mastery over multitudinous animal life and 4) the power to extract a bride from sequestration (often by making a right choice among alternatives, as for example by discriminating accurately between a proper bride [or her tokens] and specious substitutes. In the same manner that the Creation Rune fused the disparate conceptual elements of natural reproduction and the metal worker’s cultural artifice into a single, unified idea by means of the image of the bird forging a metal egg, so again the Singing Contest fuses the concept of mobility (as a measure of manliness in general) with the concepts of mastery over wood, water, animals and selection (as tests of male worthiness for marriage) in the images of Joukahainen’s chattels. What more potent expression of mastery over hewn wood and water could there be than Väinämöinen’s conversion of Joukahainen’s collar-tree into the running water of a spring? And what greater power over animal life than the transformation of Joukahainen’s terrestrial and domestic horse into an aquatic and feral seal? Then finally Väinämöinen makes the able bridegroom’s choice of his true bride-to-be from among several alternatives proffered him by Joukahainen, correctly preferring the girl to any further means (which he already possesses abundantly) of either terrestrial mobility (horses) or aquatic mobility (boats).

The Journey to Tuonela

- the perfect smith -

The pertinent texts are the Sixth Song in the Proto-Kalevala, the Ninth Song in the Old Kalevala, Song Sixteen in the classic Kalevala, and text no. 30 in FFPE.

The sledge on which Väinämöinen is riding breaks down under him. He requires an auger to repair it and, not having one, goes to Tuonela for it. A river obstructs his journey to that place. From its far bank, he summons a girl (or girls) to fetch a boat to him for his conveyance across the river. The girl questions the cause of his coming to Tuonela, and he tells her that fire, or water, or iron have caused him to come there. To each of these answers, which she takes to be falsehoods, she objects that his appearance betrays no mark of those elements’ fatal effects. He finally says that he has come to obtain pointed iron tools from Tuonela, whereupon the girl provides the boat for his passage over the river.

The girl and her kin then entertain their visitor in the correct manner: feeding him, giving him to drink, and laying him to rest in what, for Tuonela, must be considered a proper bed, although it is “...a bed of silk which was serpent venom” (FFPE), or even more sinisterly, “...the man lay a-bed, the cover kept watch.” Shifting his shape into that of a reptile, Väinämöinen flees the place of death by swimming the same river he had earlier needed a boat to cross, and so returns home. There he cautions young people not to repeat his journey to Tuonela, the difficulty of return being extreme.

Thus for the third time—as seen previously in the Creation and Singing Contest runes—Väinämöinen scavenges benefits from a seeming misadventure, which in this instance is the breakdown of his sleigh. I defer to the judgement of others the question raised by Haavio of whether such an mishap might possibly be fatal in the real world; or perhaps it is only a dead man’s unique place of honour in a funeral procession that causes Väinämöinen to be “resplendant above the other proud folk” on this occasion. As in the Singing Contest, it is in any case immobility that again afflicts Väinämöinen in consequence of his accident. To overcome his immobility in the land of the living, he goes from the scene of his accident to Tuonela, the place of the dead, only to find himself immobilized there too, unable to cross its river. Thus he is aquatically immobile in Tuonela, terrestrially immobile in the land of the living.

The child of Tuonela whom he summons to ferry him over the river is not unfamiliar with the advent of dead men—those who have drowned, or been mortally burned, or fatally pierced by metal objects. From her list of the forms of death known to her, it would seem that Tuonela’s daughter is particularly conversant with men who have died through a kind of confusion of themselves with products of the forge; here again, as in the Creation Rune, firing and quenching and forming of metals are analogized with the processes of natural organisms. But Väinämöinen shows none of the expected effects of smithing, and so Tuonela’s daughter cannot identify him with the other dead forms she is familiar with. In other words, Väinämöinen lacks the appearance of a metal object that has been worked at the forge, and so she will not be “deceived” into thinking him dead. The scene is not however really a scene of deception, but rather of mutual incomprehension. For the living, the distinguishing characteristic of death is motionlessness, while for Tuonela’s daughter in the land of the dead, it is the condition of a finished artisanal artifact—just such an artifact as, indeed, Väinämöinen has come to Tuonela to fetch.

In keeping with the inability of Väinämöinen and the daughter of Tuonela to understand each other, we too are obliged to equivocate in an extraordinary way about Väinämöinen as he appears in this rune, for surely he is as at one and the same time both dead and alive. And so again the narrative tradition about Väinämöinen conflates into a single image (that of Väinämöinen himself) certain contrastive ideas which are utterly polarized and incommensurate with one other in our world, but which were in illo tempore, when Väinämöinen was still arranging and discovering the proper order of the world, still capable of commingling. Like the bird that commingles the artisan’s culturally acquired skill of forging metal with its own natural act of egg-laying in the Creation Rune, so in a similar manner Väinämöinen in this rune commingles in himself the two states of being which have not ever since his time been so commingled: life and death. For there is only a single class of objects in the world after Väinämöinen’s time that may regularly be both ‘dead’ and ‘alive’, namely the category of things called ‘tools.’ Like the auger which Väinämöinen at first only seeks, but then eventually becomes in his own person, tools in general are inert, fixated, dead things in one sense; but they may also become through the uses made of them in culture quasi-living forms, things as able as any real animate being both to move and to do.

The exchange between Väinämöinen and Tuonela’s daughter is thus remarkably like Odysseus’ “lying” to Athene in Odyssey 13. In both cases, what the supernal female interlocutor takes for mere deceit is actually more than that. It represents an irreconcilable fundamental difference between the man and the maid toward causation, toward the question of why the man has come to be where he is and in need of the maiden’s help to finish his journey. The deficiency in both Väinämöinen’s and Odysseus’ case is the same; they do not either of them appear sufficiently worn and damaged to be eligible for the next stage of their intended journeys. Thus Väinämöinen does not show in his appearance the necessary marks of the fire for softening, the water for hardening, and the iron itself of the forge. These are, moreover, precisely what Väinämöinen has come to Tuonela to obtain, for his reasons for going there are posterior reasons: fire, water, and iron are the very things he—or any blacksmith—must have and understand to forge a gimlet, an augur, or a drill. Thus Väinämöinen tells the maid of Tuonela an impeccable truth as to why he has come; only she does not understand posterior reasons, nor is it in the nature of death that she should. Death occurs only for anterior, and not for posterior reasons; it results from various causes but it is not the means to any subsequent purpose of those who die. In this crucial point Väinämöinen is, as always, an incomparably brilliant inventor, for he turns his misadventure with his broken sleigh into a reason for further travel that is ulterior to death itself, and this is what makes him unlike any other traveller to Tuonela either before or after himself.

He tells the girl that he has come for an augur, a gimlet, or a drill (bit), thus finally acknowledging to her satisfaction that he will be contented to obtain such a tool in its finished, dead state; he has not come to her river by reason of mishandling any of such a tool’s active, living principles of manufacture. A mission of the same kind occurs again in the rune of Antero Vipunen, and under similar circumstances. For here in the journey to Tuonela, just as in the rune of Antero Vipunen, it is not merely the physical object of a particular, concrete auger, drill-bit, or gimlet that Väinämöinen lacks, or even the several necessary substances and skills to form such a tool; no, his deficiency in both instances is very much more serious than that. He lacks indeed the very model, pattern, or idea for such a tool. He lacks the abstraction of the “word” concerning it as well as the material object and the means to form such a metal implement.

Nor was he mistaken in coming to Tuonela in search of such knowledge, for the girl of Tuonela who ferries him across the river is also a praeternaturally able iron-smith. She and her kin-folk fabricate metals as easily as other women spin and weave cloth. For that very reason it might seem paradoxical that although Väinämöinen does ultimately escape Tuonela’s oppressively retentative hospitality, he does not obtain from his hosts and bring back from Tuonela the thing he went there to fetch: the auger or gimlet for repairing his broken sleigh. To escape his hosts’ retention, he only shifts his own shape from that of man to worm, lizard, or snake, and so swims out of Tuoni’s realm by the same route he entered it—the river that intervenes between the land of the living and the place of the dead. Thus he achieves the aquatic mobility in the place of the dead that is requisite to the ideational restoration of his terrestrial mobility in the land of the living, but seemingly he does not obtain the carpenter’s tool requisite to actual physical repair of his sleigh.

We have however observed previously how, in the Creation Rune, a supernal bird incorporates a supremely artful act of metal-working into its natural act of egg-laying, and we noted on that occasion the conceptual conflation of disparate orders of experience into a single poetic image. It is precisely another instance of the same principle at work that we have before us now in the Journey to Tuonela. For whereas Väinämöinen brings home no actual (dead) gimlet or auger of iron for his trouble in going there, his urgent need to penetrate the barrier that separates the place of the dead from the land of the living induces him to assume in his own person the very shape and pattern of the tool which he came to fetch for the repair of his wooden sledge. Observe but for a moment the worm or reptile swimming in the stream of a watercourse, and you cannot fail to recognize in its living form that same pointed spiral, a self-propelled, living animal exemplar of the very thing that Väinämöinen had sought in Tuonela. The Creation Rune and the Journey to Tuonela affirm the same biomimetic proposition: that inert artifice is best that best replicates a living, moving form. Väinämöinen returns from Tuonela bearing no mere static, lifeless metal tool, but rather the live pattern incorporated into his own being of all such implements ever after. Biomimesis makes him the perfect smith.

And if I am right in further conjecture that Väinämöinen’s conversion of himself into a live piercing and penetrating tool in order to rend his way homeward into renewed life through the tissues of the maids who weave iron fabrics in Tuonela is also phallic, and therefore makes symbolically both a son and a lover of Väinämöinen, then so much the better for the power of these poems’ imagery in its deep understanding of the tool-like essence of masculinity in all its aspects.

Antero Vipunen

- a conflation of life and death -

The pertinent texts are the Sixth Song in the Proto-Kalevala; the Tenth Song in the Old Kalevala; the Seventeenth Song in the classic Kalevala; and text no. 28 in FFPE.

Väinämöinen cannot finish building a ship for want of three “words” wherewith to fasten a part or parts of it in place. Other expedients having failed, he goes to the mouldering heap of a long-defunct sage of the past, Anter(v)o Vipunen, where the latter lies with “a great ash tree (growing) on his shoulders, / alder on his jaws, / a bird-cherry by his beard.” Seeking access to Vipunen, Väinämöinen walks on the edges of men’s sword-blades for one day, on the points of women’s needles for a second day, and on the third day he slips and falls into the crevasse of Vipunen’s open mouth. There, bent double like a fetus and using his knees for an anvil, shirt as a forge, fur-piece as bellows, elbow for hammer, and fingers for tongs, Väinämöinen shapes a cowlstaff, which he then deploys as a brace to keep Vipunen’s mouth from closing on him. Vipunen bids him begone from his insides, but Väinämöinen obtains a wealth of precious words from him before departing. Väinämöinen then finishes the building of his ship.

I have written extensively elsewhere about the world-wide mythologem in oral narrative tradition that involves an ogre in greenwood and certain reversals of fortune that habitually occur there between the ogre and a visiting cosmotact. The copse of trees growing on Antervo Vipunen’s face and shoulder is just such greenwood, and Vipunen is the man-destroyer who, functioning in this case like a pit-fall for trapping game, catches the cosmotact Väinämöinen as he roams at random in a desert place. But Väinämöinen is a hewer of wood (as seen in his boat-building, which is both the initial and the ultimate event in this rune), and as such he inescapably imparts a relationship of quid pro quo and exaction of price or recompense in his dealing with others. Vipunen, on the other hand, whose type is that of the wild greenwood’s denizen, is unaccustomed to orderly exchanges. He says of himself that in past time gratuitously “a hundred men have I eaten, / a thousand heroes destroyed,” while clearly he has answered to no one for these depredations. Vipunen is thus used to having men inside himself as his victims: in a word, he is a cannibal ogre domiciled in the wilderness of the same general type as the Anglo-Saxon Grendel.

The usual or customary course of Vipunen’s freely exploitative dealings with others is however reversed when Väinämöinen comes to him in this rune. Now, instead of simply consuming his victim with no thought of indemnification to anyone, Vipunen is unprecendentedly obliged by his cosmotactic visitor to surrender something (namely his precious words) in exchange. Reciprocally, instead of becoming the ogre’s prey, Väinämöinen, as the cosmotact typical of this mythologem, becomes instead the ogre’s beneficiary. And so, as usual in this bit of universal oral narrative tradition, the reversal of fortune as between the expected predator and the expected victim involves a question of identities: “what manner of man may you be, and what fellow?” A round of hide-and-seek is also played out between the wild would-be predator and his tricky, civilizing visitor: first Vipunen’s exact whereabouts are concealed from Väinämöinen, and then in turn Väinämöinen is concealed for a time in Vipunen, from whom he finally emerges to be asked the question who he really is.

Considerable efforts have been made to represent Antervo Vipunen as a mythic emanation of the sub-arctic and Asian shaman. I am inclined to discount such speculation as mostly unsubstantial and based, to the extent that it has any basis at all, on post-narrative social phenomena. In other words, the narrative foundation of this rune—what actually appears in the texts—is certainly of greater age and wider geographic range in the world than the local elements of any particular people’s ritual or religion that can be associated with it typologically either in the Baltic region or in Central Asia. And as for Antervo Vipunen’s putatively being dead—of course he is dead, in the same way and to the same degree as is Väinämöinen in the Journey to Tuonela. Which is to say that he is not dead at the same time that he is dead; for this merging together in fiction of things and of states of being that are rigidly distinct in reality is one of the notional constants that run alike and continuously through the fabric of all the Väinämöinen narratives. Thus Vipunen also is a conflation into one mythic being of ideational categories—in his case life and death—that in post-cosmogonic time (i. e., in historical time) are definitively separated, but which, so the myth tells us, were not invariably distinct in illo tempore.

The identity of the characters does not depend however on whether they are dead or alive. Whereas Väinämöinen’s identity is murkily manifold in proportion to his cultural complexity, Vipunen is simple and unambiguous. He is an innocently rapacious, casually forgetful denizen of the wild who moulders with age and yet at the same time teems with vital assets in a quintessentially natural manner; like any other, more conventional unexploited natural resource in the wilderness, he lies just waiting to be mined by the cunningly civilized cosmotact Väinämöinen.

In order to exploit the great recumbent natural resource of Vipunen, the cosmotact must first know how to make artful use of himself, to such a degree of artfulness indeed as to raise ponderous question sabout his own identity. For what truly is he when he is finally down in Antero Vipunen’s belly? Is he the blacksmith, or the blacksmith’s shop? Are his fingers really fingers, or the blacksmith’s tongs? Is his elbow an elbow of flesh and bone, or a hammer? Again the perfect smith applies the biomimetic principle: that artifice is best that most perfectly replicates a living, moving form; and again (as previously in the Visit to Tuonela) he assumes that form in his own person. And as always in his stories, Väinämöinen performs this wonderful creative metamorphosis or shape-shifting in direct consequence of a mishap; in this instance, the accident of his chance tumble into Antero Vipunen’s mouth when “his left foot slipped.” Surely there is not anywhere in all of collected oral tradition a better example of the cosmotact as scavenger, nor any example more compactly and economically formulated in verse.

The product of Väinämöinen’s scavengery is of a particular sort: what he acquires by it is habitually the means or method of achieving a purpose, not the achievement itself. He returns from Tuonela with only the idea of an auger or gimlet, not the tool itself. Both in the Journey to Tuonela and in the present rune, what Väinämöinen needs is pointed fasteners to repair his sleigh in the one case and to attach components to his boat in the other case. The only important difference between the two cases is the same difference already noted in the Singing Contest: he wishes to perfect a vehicle for terrestrial travel in the one tale, and for aquatic travel in the other. But this purpose—to render himself mobile by land or by sea—entirely precedes his scavenging for the means to accomplish it after an accident.

The nature of the joiner’s craft is elegantly analyzed, and craftsmanship is again related to the artisan’s own physical being in the images of swords and needles upon which Väinämöinen treads on his way to Vipunen’s subterranean belly (or womb). For it is in the essential nature of joinery that it first separates matter and then recombines it in different configurations, where it is fastened together once again with other matter. This principle, which Väinämöinen as shipwright must pragmatically obey in the practice of first hewing boards from timber and then fastening them together again as he frames a sea-going vessel—this same principle is applied also to Väinämöinen himself as he passes first across the cutting, separating edges of male swords for a whole day, and then for a second day across the penetrating, reunifying points of female needles (the distinction made here between female clothes-fasteners and male flesh-cutters is interestingly the same as in Homer’s Iliad E 425). So he is himself first symbolically hewn and then reconstituted, just as his craft of joinery first hews and then reassembles and refastens the constituent pieces to make his ship. He lacks only certain “words” to finish the job, and must scavenge for them. Martti Haavio quotes an instructive passage from Elias Lönnrot concerning such “words:”

It seems rather likely that while old people were occupied at a task, they said words special to the work in hand, by which they wished for each task or object better luck, solidity, and success. Of this belief there are certain traces among us still today. The smith for instance, beginning to forge some object says, ‘I have been an apprentice, I have stood at the smith’s forge for thirty summers, for the same number of winters.’ Then shoveling coals into the firebox, he declares, ‘I put my coals into the fire, drive the charcoal into the firebox;’ in speaking of the fire, ‘fire has come down from heaven, has come from the zenith’; putting his iron into the fire, ‘I thrust my iron into the fire, my steel under the forge;’ in fanning with bellows, ‘Now I work the bellows, now I fan the fire.’ Some smiths still use such phrases, and special ones for each step. I have heard it said also that some, while making a boat, pronounce strange phrases when attaching each rib and driving each nail home, and such probably were the three words of Väinämöinen.

Now such words as these are not at all the incantations of a shaman making magic; they are only step-by-step summarizations of the actual acts of artisanship by a smith as he fabricates some object of ordinary material utility. But when in this same way Väinämöinen comes to a certain juncture in ship-building, he finds that he is not able to proceed because, in illo tempore, the next step of the necessary joinery has not yet been invented. And so, no differently than the figures of ancient Greek myth in a comparable impasse of ignorance, Väinämöinen goes to his Finnish Cheiron, to a Nordic Φὴρ λαχήεις (Iliad B 743) or θὴρ ὀρεσκῴος (Iliad A 268) to learn the art of which he is ignorant. For I regard the wild, centauric repositories of arcane artisanal knowledge in ancient Greek tradition as much closer analogs to the Finnish Antervo Vipunen than Jonah’s whale, with which earlier authorities have compared him. That sub-arctic and Asian shamanism has in some places borrowed such imagery from a narrative tradition older and of wider range than itself is entirely credible; for this is self-evidently a very old, durable, and pandemically familiar nexus of ideas in oral narrative tradition—a nexus manifestly more ancient, more widely known, and more enduring than any attested ritual practice of shamanism in the Old World.

The kantele music and the psychopomp

The tradition concerning the invention of kantele music is manifold, with some poems describing the fabrication of the kantele by hewing from wood or from other terrestrially obtained substance, while other poems narrate its derivation from the natural model of fish-bones.

Texts pertaining to the fish-bone kantele are Song Twenty-Two in the Old Kalevala, Songs Forty and Forty-One in the classic Kalevala, and texts nos. 23 and 24 in FFPE. Texts pertaining to the wooden or otherwise terrestrially derived kantele are Song Fourteen in the Proto-Kalevala, Song Twenty-Nine in the Old Kalevala, Song Forty-Four in the classic Kalevala, and text no. 25 in FFPE.

I regard the accounts of the origin of the kantele and of Väinämöinen’s singing to it as sub-narrative material in the tradition: a constituent of story, but not a whole story in its own right. In this I only follow resolutely after Haavio, who observed that the “...variants of the Kantele not often go straight to the heart of the story.” And indeed the narrative about invention of the kantele and Väinämöinen’s mesmeric singing with it was usually found in combination with some other tale: the Rival Courtship, for example, or the Sampo sequence, the Singing Contest, the Journey to Tuonela, or the Sea Expedition. Haavio mentioned further the ancient Greek analog concerning the invention and playing of the φόρμιγξ or κιθάρις as found in the so-called “Homeric Hymn to Hermes.” The Finnish tradition does indeed resemble that ancient tale both in appending the invention of the musical instrument to a larger narrative and in distinguishing between the maker of the kantele and its greatest player, who in the Greek instance were Hermes and Apollo respectively. Similarly, even in those Finnish poems where Väinämöinen is made the inventor of the kantele, he is not its first player, and only when it passes into his hands after the attempts of others does the resultant music fix its hearers’ attention and suspend their movements in the characteristic way.

Haavio argued also for the origins of this rune in the international folktale type of the Singing Bone. His reasoning in support of that opinion turned upon references in some of the multiforms to parts of “a maiden” that were incorporated into the kantele at the time of its creation: her hair, or her ‘little fingers,’ or her finger-bones. Other constituents of the newly invented instrument are however equally prominent in the variants, and in no way support the derivation of the poetry from any folktale. These include the horns of a ram, the thighbone of a deer or of a goat, and ‘shoots of Tuoni’s barley.’ All that these components disclose is that the making of the kantele is once again an act of scavenging, i. e., the exploitation of otherwise useless articles that come to hand accidentally. And as usual, these scavenged constituents of the kantele are not its actual parts as found in any real, historically attested kantele; they are instead only ideal constituents or models found in nature of what should be a kantele’s various parts. Again, the perfect smith’s function is one of joinery: he fastens the constituents together into an artful assemblage which makes the best possible use of his accidental discovery of them.

Conspicuously in the making of the kantele, the pieces are material that would otherwise be useless waste: fishbones; detached (and otherwise discarded) strands of hair; the horns and bones of meat-animals that remain after the flesh has been eaten; even bits of human skeleton. Things therefore that have no other utility go into the manufacture of the instrument which then becomes the tool par excellence for whiling away time that has no other use: time, that is, such as one may properly devote to singing when the other, economic activities of life are finished. And when the preëminent singer sings to the kantele, all living things correspondingly give over their other, usual pursuits and idly listen to the music. In the same way too blind men, sea-farers when they have run aground, young and old, man and maiden—all beguile otherwise idle time with kantele music. Even the idle and otherwise useless boat that has been left to rot unemployed on the strand tends under Väinämöinen’s captaincy toward his invention of music, which thus becomes the universal resort of all moving as well as living things in time of inactivity. Indeed it is so much so that at the end of the myth kantele-music becomes the very aetion of physical inactivity in otherwise active beings of every kind.

Such inactivity is a trait not only of living things when they are wakefully at rest but also when they have died. It should accordingly be asked whether Väinämöinen’s use of an idle and rotted boat to travel aimlessly out to sea with a company of men and maidens who do not touch each other and old persons who are too weak to row effectively is really a multiform of the Sea Expedition rune, or something else. In the Greek instance, Hermes invented the lyre, but Hermes was also psychopompos, conveyor of the souls of the dead away from the land of the living as in the Second Nekyia (Odyssey ω). The later Orphic traditions in ancient Greece also connected mesmeric music with transition between the place of the dead and the world of the living. In a perhaps similar manner, and even apart from the Kantele sequence, Väinämöinen’s dealing with a great pike at sea is a metaphor of death, as Haavio has observed. It might well reward those who can do it to review the Finnish corpus for other evidence of psychopompic meaning in Väinämöinen’s or other heroes’ music-making and sea-faring; for such further evidence, if it could be found, might considerably amplify the meaning which it has been possible to attach to the metaphors in the Kantele Sequence thus far.

Väinämöinen’s Judgment

- a return to the Creation -

The pertinent texts are Song Sixteen in the Proto-Kalevala; Song Thirty-Two in the Old Kalevala; Song Fifty in the classic Kalevala; and texts nos. 57 and 58 in FFPE.

A male infant is born illegitimately, or taken in as an illegitimate foundling, and then named by its maternal kin while they are still ignorant of its paternity. Väinämöinen is asked, or volunteers, his opinion of the naming, but he evades the question and desires instead that the infant not be named at all. He recommends that it be taken into a swamp, or to a marsh, or to a beach by the sea, and its head bashed in at that deserted place.

But the child miraculously speaks out in defense of itself against Väinämöinen’s harsh judgment, and in turn accuses its judge of either illegitimately begetting it himself, or of incest, or both. In some variants the christening of the infant then proceeds with the added dimension of a coronation, he being declared a king. Väinämöinen goes down to the sea, sails away upon it until he reaches a maelstrom, where he disappears into the depths.

Haavio commented on this piece: “The beginning of the Väinämöinen’s Judgment rune, like the introductions of many other Finnish narrative runes, is vague and almost groping.” I find it neither vague nor groping, but telegraphically brief and direct in its transmission of a clear message. It begins, in a manner which one now understands very well as characteristic of the Väinämöinen runes, with an accident. It is not this time a physical accident (although it has a physical aspect), but rather a social miscarriage, an accident of seduction and illegitimate birth. Accordingly, the rune is a parable about kinship in general and agnation in particular. It speaks of the injury which illegitimate paternity may do not, paradoxically, to a bastard’s mother or her kin, but rather to an illegitimate father. Here again Väinämöinen functions as an inventor, although not this time of any artisanal implement or craft. Rather, it is a mechanism of social consequence which he invents in this rune.

For the rune points out by inference—no doubt too obvious an inference to any of the rune’s original listeners for it to need greater articulation than it already has in the poetry itself—that marriage and the legitimate paternity of male descendants perpetuates a man (i. e., it perpetuates the only part of him that is capable of continuation beyond his own finite lifetime, namely his lineage). This reality is symbolized in the male child’s proper derivation of a name—its social identity—from its married father. But illegitimate paternity has an exactly opposite effect: it extinguishes the father’s lineage by reason of the injustice he does a son in begetting him out of wedlock, even though by dint of his own ability (and even if that ability is genetically inherited from the father) the child may still achieve a kingly destiny among his mother’s kin. Indeed the child’s genetic inheritance from its father, demonstrated in its precocious speaking with profound ironical wisdom at so tender an age, is the very thing that proves Väinämöinen’s paternity; but while the child benefits from it, its illegitimate father can only be injured by it and in no way benefit.

So, as always, Väinämöinen again realizes the conceptual essence of his invention in a transformation of his own physical person. The social perdition of illegitimate paternity is like the physical perdition of being lost at sea, except that in the social case a man brings it on himself. True to that idea, Väinämöinen deliberately goes down to the very beach where he desired that the illegitimate child should be destroyed and proceeds to lose himself without a trace.

Väinämöinen’s subsequent submergence in the open sea carries with it, however, an interesting suggestion of ‘ring-composition’ with respect to the Creation Rune. For once he is submerged beneath the sea at the end of the Judgment Rune, Väinämöinen is again in precisely the same topographical posture which he occupied at the very beginning of the Creation Rune, when he raised his knee from the water to form the islet where the marvelous metal-casting bird made its fateful nest. Thus the scene is set for an eventual return of the culture-hero in the manner typical of his kind the world over.

Comparisons with South Slavic Epos

I indicated at the beginning of this disquisition that I attribute my license for such commentary as I have just made on six of the Väinämöinen runes to comparison of them with similar features of the South Slavic oral epic tradition. I find that the two traditions are substantively quite similar in respect at least to the specific features of the Finnish tradition which I have just reviewed.

The South Slavic tradition embraces both long and short performances, but epic songs were seldom as short as the Finnish narrative ‘runes,’ which more nearly approximate the size of ballads in South Slavic. The South Slavic epics are commonly longer than the Finnish poems by a factor of ten or more, and single songs sung in domestic places (rather than at public gatherings) were not infrequenty thousands of lines long. One exactly recorded performance of this sort is the song “The Marriage of Vlahinjić Alija,” the editio princeps of which I have published in Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs collected by Milman Parry, 1980. This oral traditional epic poem is a little more than six thousand lines in length, and incorporates many elements found in the Finnish Väinämöinen runes. It is one of a numerous class of South Slavic oral epics conventionally called “wedding songs,” a name that refers to the songs’ narrative content and not to the typical occasion of their performance, which was unrelated to nuptials.

Wedding narratives of this kind were widely familiar in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to the Slavic-speaking peasantry, both Christian and Muslim, in much of the mountainous northwestern region of the Balkan Peninsula. The present example happens to be Muslim. Its narrative runs as follows.

A conclave of Muslim dignitaries and warriors has gathered in the town of Udbina. All of them converse together contentedly except one of the most prominent warriors, Mujo Hrnjica. He is asked why he seems so morose, and replies that he is not really dispirited but only distracted by a certain train of thought that has preoccupied his mind. He has, namely, been recalling certain moments of his reckless youth when he had gone from place to place looking for a girl to marry, first in his native Muslim country, but later also in Christian territory. Finally he settled upon a pair of girls in the Christian town of Sinj, one of them the daughter of a famous Christian warrior, Ivan Senjanin, and the other an age-mate of hers of equally good family. (The reader must keep in mind that the Muslim social ideal of polygyny was an avowed part of this tradition.)

Mujo tells how strenuously he courted the two girls, who guilefully affianced themselves to him and accepted his rich gifts of betrothal, only to jilt him when finally he had spent his last farthing on them. Dreading the mockery which he had now to expect from all the Muslim girls at home, whom he had passed over in his vain pursuit of the two duplicitous Christians, and downcast moreover by the Christians’ ultimate rejection of him, Mujo then wished for nothing better than to save his honour and be done with his irksome life by provoking a fight and dying at the hands of some prominent Christian warrior.

So he made his way to the manor house of a certain Zakarić, to whom he bellowed a challenge as soon as he arrived there, intending to duel to the death with him. But as chance would have it, Zakarić was not at home, and there was no one except Zakarić’s unwed sister, Ruža, to answer Mujo’s call. She demanded to know what madness or inebriation made him behave so foolishly. Mujo then told her his whole misfortune, and explained that he no longer knew any recourse but to await her brother’s return and be killed by him, unless perhaps Ruža herself would have him for her husband.

Swearing him to fidelity (because, says she, Muslims are great liars), Ruža surprisingly accepted Mujo’s proposal on the spot, hastily fetched a rich dowry consisting of all she could carry out of the manor-house, and then rode away with Mujo to be his wife in Udbina. Now, says Mujo, she has borne him two fine young sons, and never was there a happier husband than he.

This portion of the Serbo-Croatian epic occupies the first 314 of its 6,048 verses. It displays two of the several features noted repeatedly in the Väinämöinen runes, namely: invention by scavengery after a mishap, and the cosmotact’s typical use of his own body as a means for the production of what he needs. Thus, Mujo first woos nubile Christian girls in a way that can succeed for a Christian suitor, but not for a Muslim. Predictably therefore his suit fails, and with it also the possibility of his returning honorably to his own land (predictably, that is to say, from an historical point of view, but not in illo tempore when the events of this tale happened). He accordingly seeks a noble and sure quietus through death in manly combat.

Thus for Mujo, as for Väinämöinen in the Journey to Tuonela and the Antero Vipunen rune, what is initially only a rather casual desideratum—a gimlet, a word about ship-building, or a bride—becomes, as the quest for it advances, a matter of life and death. Then, true to the expected form, an accident befalls the hero: Zakarić is not available to kill Mujo. Nevertheless, out of the double wreckage of both his plans, he still manages to scavenge a bride, because in extremis he still has the wit to recognize in Ruža a specimen of the very thing he needs: a Christian girl who will elope with him.

This happy discovery and appropriation of her to his purpose on the spur of the moment does not happen however until he, like Väinämöinen in building his ship, has exhausted all other possibilities and finally placed his own physical person at risk to achieve his purpose. But the body he took to Zakarić’s manor house to be the object of Zakarić’s hate and onslaught becomes instead the object of Ruža’s love and adoption (as with Joukahainen’s female kin vis-à-vis Väinämöinen). So in the upshot he carries away from his adventure not only the particular thing he needed—a Christian bride—but much additional enrichment besides, including in Ruža a superb exemplar of the type of Christian girl and the type of courtship appropriate to wooing her which have become the norms for Muslim suitors ever since.

It is a well known principle that features associated with a single or few personae in short forms of an oral traditional story are commonly redistributed among a larger number of personae in longer forms of the same essential narrative. That is true not only as between the long and shorter forms of the South Slavic “Wedding of Vlahinjić Alija” but also as between the longer South Slavic and the shorter Finnish manifestations of the present narrative system. For Mujo’s framed tale of how he married Ruža is only background to his subsequent consideration in the same epic of whether he ought to try now to marry again a second time:

All the world seems suddenly filled, says Mujo Hrnjica, with the renown of a certain Zlata, who is daughter of the Muslim military commander in the city of Klis, and who has only recently come of marriageable age. Every other able-bodied man in the land is eager to marry her, and Mujo has been considering whether he too might not sue for her as a second wife. But Mujo’s itch for the girl Zlata is promptly reproached by others in the conclave who have heard his talk as being unseemly in a man of his years, and moreover unlikely to succeed, since Zlata is so desired by so many that she is able to choose virtually anyone in the realm for her husband, and would surely prefer someone less encumbered than Mujo.

From the periphery of the assembly an obscure young man, Alija Vlahinjić, now addresses Mujo and the rest of the company. He begs Mujo not to woo Zlata, but to leave her to him, because he loves her dearly and has reason to hope she may accept him. Mujo immediately reliquishes the girl to Alija; but another, toothless, white-haired, wealthy, devious, and sterile old member of the conclave now thrusts himself into the conversation. He insultingly denies that the young man might be chosen by Zlata, and insists that she will choose him instead, because he will lap her in unheard-of luxury by reason of his boundless wealth. He hopes that Zlata, who would be his eighth wife, may finally bear him the heir that none of his previous wives have produced.

The old man abusively recounts also the several reasons why Zlata would never marry the hopeful youth. He is, first of all, a bastard who does not even know the identity of his own father; he was born to his morally reprehensible, helot (Vlah) mother while she tended sheep alone in the mountains. He has no real property of any kind and no chattels except his warhorse and his arms, and he lives alone with his now hundred-year-old mother in a ramshackle hovel on the rich man’s land, where the old man tolerates them as, he says, a matter of common charity. (There is, however, the clear inference to be drawn from the location of Alija’s house and its ownership that the old man himself is Alija’s undeclared natural father). The two social outcasts are so poor, the old man says, that the youth often hasn’t so much as a crust of bread properly to nourish his fallen and kinless old parent while he is away fighting. With no property and nothing to recommend him except his admittedly extraordinary ability and reputation as a warrior, he is no match for the peerless Zlata (whose name means ‘Gold’, for indeed she is her wealthy father’s only child and will bring both power and great property as dowry to her eventual husband).

The girl nevertheless chooses Alija for her bridegroom, since she is already breathtakingly wealthy and wants by means of her marriage to gain the service of a strong fighter, not merely more wealth. She particularly values Alija’s fighting ability because, as her father’s only child, she has an ancient obligation of vendetta to discharge (being in this regard conspicuously like Alkmene in relation to her chosen husband Amphitryon in Hesiod’s ancient tale).

As Zlata explains to Alija, when she was a child four years of age, she had twin brothers twice her age. One fine summer day their mother went for pleasure into the mountains to visit her flocks of sheep and to fetch home fresh cream and cheese. While she was absent, the two boys also decided to go to their mother in the mountains, and set forth together in that direction unattended. They lost their way however, and wandered instead into the hands of a vicious Christian frontiersman named Ivan Višnjić, who murdered the two innocents for their elegant clothes. Since that time, Višnjić has erected and become commandant of a great blockhouse and frontier guard-post on the border between the Muslim and Christian countries. The blockhouse, which is built of pine-wood timbers, stands beside a dangerous river, atop three hundred and sixty-six high pilings, three hundred of which are steel and sixty-six of pine-tree boles. It houses a garrison of three hundred Christian troops who habitually dine together at a single long table in the blockhouse’s great assembly hall. At night, when the garrison are at table together, the blockhouse is protected against surprise attacks by the raising of its great drawbridge, which is its only avenue of communication with the ground beneath. As a precondition to her marriage, Zlata requires that her betrothed cross the flooding river, which has neither any bridge nor fording-place, pluck Ivan Višnjić out of the blockhouse from amongst its garrison, and bring him either dead or alive to her father in vengeance for Višnjić’s murder of Zlata’s two brothers.

Alija Vlahinjić accepts his fiancée’s commission and performs it, killing all three hundred of the Christian garrison single-handedly, burning the blood-soaked blockhouse to the ground, and returning to Klis with Višnjić as his helpless captive. He arrives in the early hours of the morning when no one is yet awake except his watchful fiancée and the sleepless old rival suitor, who has hoped that Alija will perish in the fight with Višnjić and Zlata yet consent to become his eighth wife. With Višnjić tightly bound and tied to Alija’s horse, Zlata takes Alija into her garden, where he feels the fatigue of his successful mission and falls asleep. Then the old man, who has been watching the scene from an upstairs window, creeps into the garden, cuts Višnjić free of his bonds, helps him silently subdue Zlata, mounts her with Višnjić on Alija’s wondrous horse, and sees Višnjić off at the gallop toward the frontier and the enemy city of Aršam beyond. Alija sleeps through the entire incident, and no one sees Višnjić’s getaway with the captive Zlata except her mother, who from her upstairs window happens to notice them disappearing into the distance when she awakes and looks out on the new morn.

She noisily awakens Alija, who, now all unhorsed and weary as he still is from his previous exploit, nonetheless immediately sets out to trudge on foot along the spoor of his escaped enemy and his now captive fiancée. Without his horse to help him, he must now swim the dangerous river by himself. He reaches the far bank in an agony of exhaustion, then passes the still smouldering site of the former blockhouse, and moves on deeper into enemy territory until finally his strength fails completely and he collapses on the way like a dead man (v. 3453). In the distance the cannon of Aršam boom in celebration of Višnjić’s advent with the coveted Zlata and Alija’s peerless horse.

Eventually an itinerant carpenter approaches him from the direction of Aršam, and Alija asks this artisan the cause of the celebration there. The carpenter replies that he has just finished building a special apartment for the King of Aršam’s nubile daughter, who has just occupied it. Furthermore, the king’s new two-week-old son has just had his hair cut for the first time. These glad events have coincided with Višnjić’s remarkable acquisitions to make the mood of Aršam very merry indeed.

Goaded beyond endurance by this news, Alija kills the carpenter, takes his workman’s clothes and tools for a disguise, and proceeds to Aršam. There, assuming a further disguise as a pretty young woman, and with help of an unexpected ally whom he is able to appropriate to his cause, he insinuates himself into a conclave of the princess’s age-mates, who have gathered to celebrate her establishment in her new court. Supposing Alija to be one of themselves, they include “her” in their festivities, then leave her alone with the princess to act as maid-in-waiting for the night. Alija makes love with the princess and promises to marry her. She in turn discloses Alija’s advent to the captive Zlata, and the three of them—Alija, Zlata, and the princess—escape together from Aršam.

When they arrive at the frontier, the whole society of Muslim warriors meets them in an otherwise empty meadow, where Alija abruptly beheads his old rival, the vieillard who helped Višnjić steal Zlata. Alija then has a double wedding, first with the princess of Aršam, and afterwards with Zlata. With his two wives he dwells thereafter permanently in Klis as heir-apparent to Zlata’s father.

Another half-dozen prime features of the Väinämöinen narratives appear in this portion of the Serbo-Croatian epic. First we have the illegitimate son who, as in Väinämöinen’s judgment, survives his lack of legitimate paternity to become a rightful king amongst his cognatic rather than agnatic kin, since he has no agnates. Instead of his perishing miserably alone in a desert place as his concealed father would wish (in the fight with Višnjić), it is the undeclared father who is destroyed in that manner, and who thus passes out of the world leaving no heir behind him.

As Väinämöinen did in the Singing Contest, so also Alija Vlahinjić in this epic proves himself fit to marry by mastering water (the raging river), wood (which he heroically overcomes and eventually destroys with fire in the shape of a formidable elevated pine-wood fortress), and multitudinous wildlife (the garrison of wild-wood denizens kept in the great blockhouse by Višnjić, all of whom Alija slaughters as in an abattoir. It is useful in this connection to know that the bard who sang this epic was a professional butcher, as this part of his song plainly reflects). Finally, Alija correctly extracts his bride from amongst the stellar collection of nubile women which he finds gathered in the court of the princess of Aršam on the evening of the night when he physically takes possession of her.

For Alija, both terrestrial and aquatic mobility are assured by his marvelous horse, which swims as perfectly as it runs—and its running is like the flight of something wingèd. But like Väinämöinen he too suffers an immobilizing accident, losing his horse to Višnjić while he sleeps in Zlata’s garden. Out of this terrible mishap he however scavenges an unexpected advantage, finding in Zlata’s foreign warden, the princess of Aršam, a second perfect bride for himself. But before wedding her he must overcome his accidental immobility, and to accomplish this he puts his own physical person at risk repeatedly both at the deadly river and in the foreign land of his racial enemies. To reach that land he must, like Väinämöinen travelling to Tuonela, cross the forbidding river. But once he has crossed it, an ambiguity develops as to whether the crossing will result in his death or in his mating; in the event indeed both these things happen, but not before Alija, again like Väinämöinen, has assumed the guise and apparatus of a consummate artisan in joinery.

Nominally, the motifs of the Väinämöinen runes and of the Serbo-Croatian epic are distinctively different, each answering to familiar, inherited cultural requisites of the Finnic peoples on the one hand and of the southern Slavs on the other. But one need penetrate this surface of superficial dissimilarity only a little to discover the sameness of an underlying physiology in the two narrative traditions, a sameness that quite belies the importance of the difference between the languages of the two peoples and the consequent differences in the prosodies of their respective oral traditional poetries. For even more than music ever was, oral narrative tradition is also a kind of universal “language” of great communicative power to those who will learn to read it in the way that it ultimately must be read, a way that reaches well beyond the mere natural languages in which it is everywhere expressed.



Allen, Thomas W. (ed.)

Allen, T. W., Halliday, W. R. & Sikes, E. E. (eds.)

Bynum, David E.

Haavio, Martti

Kuusi, Matti & Bosley, Keith & Branch, Michael (eds. and transls.)

Magoun, Francis Peabody Jr.

Monro, David B. & Allen, Thomas W. (eds.)

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Version History

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Index of TENT Archive’s Other Contents