The Forgotten Wisdom of Finland

By Elsa-Brita Titchenell

Every land has its epics to keep green the memory of the grand wisdom that once pervaded the ancient world, when humankind was in its infancy and the gods walked among us, teaching and guiding the race that was to become intelligent beings. With the passage of millennia the knowledge has become clouded over so that few, if any, understand or even know the lore that once was current in every mind. In fact, there came an epoch when the rememberers grew concerned that truth might be entirely forgotten. They responded to the need of the age by committing the wisdom they still possessed to writing, using whatever tools were appropriate: engraving in stone, scratching symbols on papyrus, birch bark, or whatever medium lent itself to making an enduring record.

Some of these records have been well known for centuries and scholars have succeeded to a remarkable degree in deciphering the ancient scripts and even in some measure understanding their content. Others remain an enigmatic challenge, mainly because the modern world refuses to acknowledge that any wisdom could have existed before the present materialistic civilization reduced the progress of mankind to purely physical, hypothetical mutation and achievements. For mythology is not just an entertaining amusement for an idle moment. It provides the wherewithal for consciousness to enter a higher, purer world; it also conveys to human minds and hearts a means to leave the trivial commonplace and enter into worlds of magic, where perceptions of grandeur are accessible to the soaring spirit that seeks them. The most commonly recognized mythology is probably the Bible. Therein the tale is told of the emanation and evolution of the early races of humans, their growth and vicissitudes through long ages until the onset of the Piscean era. There it stops, though the heavenly bodies continue to alter their configurations as seen from our planet.

The Finnish mythology is perhaps more difficult to decipher than most, for it was not recorded until quite late, when the Christian era had already gained a foothold in the Northern lands and blended its mythos with the ancient wisdom. Yet there are still recognizable signs of its origin; for instance, the divine smith Ilmarinen forges the magic mill that produces all things over the course of beginningless, endless time, and its radiant multicolored cover that holds all wisdom. The human soul, Lemminkainen, undertakes the classic journey to the Underworld and succeeds in fulfilling his mission and returning to earth after numerous fearsome trials and adventures.

Those who cannot read the Kalevala in the original must rely on a translator, such as W. F. Kirby, Corresponding Member of the Finnish Literary Society who, to the best of our judgment based on other sources, has succeeded in retaining the mystic quality of the poem and its appeal to the inner being of the reader. A perusal of even a translated Kalevala is well worth the effort, as each reader can determine for himself the underlying meaning of the tales, aided by the gentle rhythm, which also is an aid in pronouncing the Finnish names, strange even to tongues of all lands surrounding Finland.

The entire saga is in iambic tetrameter, such as in Longfellow's Hiawatha, and contains many classic themes similar to those found in the myths of other nations. There is a beautiful creation story, relating the birth of a cosmic egg on the infinite waters of space, the forging of the magic mill that produces all substances, the gods that govern greater and less portions of the cosmic order, and the placement of heavenly bodies, sun and moon, and the stars of the Great Bear, called in India the Seven Rishis. In the human sphere, where heroes undertake the perennial task of gaining and sharing their enlightenment with their fellow humans, there are also tales reminiscent of other mythologies: a hero's descent into lower spheres, a tale of unwitting incest, and one like the Greek where Father Time devours his children; atonement, and spiritual gains ensuing upon self-sacrifice and self-discipline.

We find many familiar symbols. The Tree of Life is depicted in all its glory, formed by the celestial musician/magician Vainomoinen who

Spoke aloud his songs of magic,
And a flower-crowned birch grew upward,
Crowned with flowers, and leaves all golden,
And its summit reached to heaven,
To the very clouds uprising.
In the air the boughs extended,
And they spread themselves to heaven.
Then he sang his songs of magic,
And he sang a moon all shining,
On the pine-tree's golden summit;
And the Great Bear in the branches. -- Rune x:32-42

The smith Ilmarinen must forge the Sampo -- the great mill -- "with its many coloured cover, from the tips of swans' white wing-plumes, from the milk of barren heifer, from a little grain of barley, from the wool of sheep of summer" to gain the lovely maiden who dwelt in the bleak land of Pohjola. As the smith declares:

For 'twas I who forged the heavens,
And the vault of air I hammered,
Ere the air had yet beginning,
Or a trace of aught was present. -- x:277-80
"The Forging of the Sampo," by A. Gallen-Kallela. Ateneum, Helsinki

As in other legends, the first portion deals with the formation of the universe with its invisible as well as visible worlds; the latter half deals with human consciousness and its development. A recent work by Pekka Ervast of Finland, Key to the Kalevala, deals with that process. It is an extrapolation from human psychology, giving a detailed account of the progress of a student of truth, his trials, and the gradual awakenment of his inner self through initiation in the mysteries. Ervast's interpretation as an individual quest of the soul is ingenious and remarkable in view of the nature of the Kalevala.

Admittedly, myths demand active effort by the student, for they engage a higher faculty than those commonly used in everyday life. They provide a quality all too often lacking in our modern understanding of life. We are largely unaware that there exists a more complete insight which would give access to vaster realms of knowing and which is the purpose of the human adventure. Those who would gain insight into the oldest traditions must be able and willing to enter the faerie land of their inner and sacred imagination, where they abandon all that is less than the best of their secret self. This implies not just understanding but the comprehension that absorbs all life-forms within the hallowed precincts of the seeker's private self.

Although the Kalevala is one of the more obscure of the myths, even the little cited gives a strong indication that it once contained grand truths well worthy of attention. Whichever mythology is the chosen study, none is entirely without its key. One who applies himself to its perusal will find layer upon layer of ever deeper treasure trove that can provide an enduring urge to live nobly and be applied to the immediate pursuit of living.

World Spiritual Traditions Menu