Singing is a powerful motif in Finnish folklore. A pair of men might sit facing each other, holding hands, and rock back and forth to sing a spell. A person might pluck at a kantele (basically a small lap harp) and sing a spell or prayer as well. It is a practice so old that the beginning of it is beyond memory, but lived long enough for it to survive into the 20th century.

In my studies of Finnish folk songs and the Kalevala, it has become obvious how important the act of music and singing is, and by extension, the concept of names. Names have a power to them–if you understand something’s name, you can shape it. A name is also something sacred. That’s why Ukko is never addressed directly by his name Ukko’s name is not actually Ukko, but rather, Ukko is a tributary name meaning ‘Old Man’. He is known by other names as well, like Pitkäinen in some regions, and even by Ilmarinen. Similarly, the bear is never addressed directly by the name bear (Ohto), but by other diminuatives–golden king of the forest, honey lover, things like that.

Part of the music is obviously the poetry. And while I may not be much of a singer, I’ve been studying poetry in university or on my own devices for many years. The Kalevala meter sounds rather alien in English, but has a certain sing-song quality that is undeniably beautiful. Kalevala meter depends heavily on alliteration, as do many Northern European styles of poetry (e.g. Beowulf and the Eddas), but it doesn’t have the mid-line stop (caesura) you’ll find in poems like the Havamal or Beowulf. Instead it is a line done in trochaic tetrameter–basically, eight syllables broken up into four two-syllable feet called troche. Marvelously, many of the English translations preserve this meter for translations, as below.

Ukko / thou of / gods the / highest,

aged / father / in the / heavens,

thou am/idst the / clouds who / breathest

thou am/idst the / air who / speakest

There is a definite feeling to the way the runo are written that supercedes language, and there is something exceptionally beautiful and precious about that to me. My knowledge of Finnish is certainly juosten kustu, but the spirit of their songs survives anyway, to touch a child separated by land and language. There is something holy in that.

I will close with a song that is so pretty it damn near brings me to tears, echoing this very line of thought. Our ancestors, spiritual and physical, live in us, as we will live in our children’s.

The song is in Swedish, but here is a rough translation of the refrain in English:

One day, you’re one of those who have lived before, in a bygone era
One day, maybe a long time, you are lulled to rest, the soul finds peace
Your actions, your words, your faith walks on in your grandchildren’s blood
As the ocean wave was carrying in her arms fathoms forever the lives of men

Life, life is power, longing, desire
life is like; go your own way
each pathway is shared routing your
this is life, everything happens now



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