The Fantastic Adventures of Vainamoinen: Finnish Hero, Wizard, Shaman, and God
Väinämöinen is an important figure in Finnish folklore, and has been variously referred to as a hero, a wizard, a shaman, and a god. More importantly, this benevolent character is the primary protagonist in the Kalevala. This is a 19th century work of epic poetry that has since been regarded as the national epic of Finland. The Kalevala is made up of oral folk poetry and mythology collected and compiled by Elias Lönnrot and his colleagues in Finland and Karelia. The Kalevala may be regarded as the main reference for Väinämöinen, and thanks to this piece of work, the character and the stories of his exploits are available to readers all over the world.
Kalevala: The Finnish national epic by Elias Lönnrot. First edition, 1835. (Public Domain)
How Väinämöinen Helped Create the World
According to the Kalevala, Väinämöinen is the son of Ilmatar, a demigoddess who was the “Beauteous Daughter of the Ether”. Väinämöinen’s birth however, was far from ordinary. In the tale Ilmatar is said to have “Passed for ages her existence / In the great expanse of heaven,” Eventually, she grows weary, and decides to go down to the ocean. Once in the ocean, Ilmatar gets stuck in the water, and
Overburdened now the maiden / Cannot rise above the surface; / Seven hundred years she wandered, / Ages nine of man's existence, / Swam the ocean hither, thither, / Could not rise above the waters, / Conscious only of her travail;
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Whilst in the ocean, Ilmatar became pregnant. It was after 700 years, however, that the demigoddess finally delivered her child, Väinämöinen. Whilst in his mother’s womb for the past seven centuries, Väinämöinen grew older, and when he was born, he was already an elderly man with a white beard. One of the first adventures that Väinämöinen had after being born was the continuation of the creation process.
Ilmatar by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. (Public Domain)
Whilst Väinämöinen was still in his mother’s womb, Ilmatar had helped in the creation of the world. Also during the time that Ilmatar was in the water, she saw a duck that was looking for a place to lay her eggs. The demigoddess decided to raise her shoulders and knees out of the water so that the duck could build her nest on her. After the duck had built her nest, she laid seven eggs, six of which were of gold, and the last was of iron. As the duck sat on her eggs, they grew hotter. Eventually, the heat was too much for Ilmatar, and she shook her shoulders and knees, causing the eggs to fall into the ocean, and initializing the creation process,
And the eggs fall into ocean, / Dash in pieces on the bottom / Of the deep and boundless waters. / In the sand they do not perish, / Not the pieces in the ocean; / But transformed, in wondrous beauty / All the fragments come together / Forming pieces two in number,
Creation in the test is represented in sets of opposing pairs. For instance, the lower part of the egg became the “nether vault of Terra”, whilst its upper part became the “upper vault of Heaven”. The Kalevala goes on to say that in the summer of the tenth year, Ilmatar finally commenced her creations,
Thus created were the islands, / Rocks were fastened in the ocean, / Pillars of the sky were planted, / Fields and forests were created, / Checkered stones of many colors, / Gleaming in the silver sunlight, / All the rocks stood well established;
The process of creation was yet to be completed, and would continue after the birth of Väinämöinen. When he was born, Väinämöinen set foot on an island. He remained on the island for several years before deciding that it was too barren for his liking, and got “Pellerwoinen, / First-born of the plains and prairies” to “sow the vacant island”. As a result,
Seeds upon the lands he scatters, / Seeds in every swamp and lowland, / Forest seeds upon the loose earth, / On the firm soil sows the acorns, / Fir-trees sows he on the mountains, / Pine-trees also on the hill-tops, / Many shrubs in every valley, / Birches sows he in the marshes, / In the loose soil sows the alders, / In the lowlands sows the lindens, / In the moist earth sows the willow, / Mountain-ash in virgin places, / On the banks of streams the hawthorn, / Junipers in hilly regions.
The statue of Väinämöinen by Robert Stigell (1888) decorates the Vanha Ylioppilastalo (old house of Helsinki University students) built in 1870 in Helsinki, Finland. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
More Adventures for Väinämöinen
Väinämöinen would then go on numerous adventures, and encounter various characters. Some of the more well-known of these include Väinämöinen’s duel with his rival, Joukahainen, his invention of the kantele, an ancient Finnish harp, and bringing back the Sampo, a magical artifact, from the north.
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The Defense of the Sampo (1896) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, showing Väinämöinen with a sword defending the Sampo from Louhi. (Public Domain)
Väinämöinen’s last adventure involves his departure. In this tale, Väinämöinen is called to examine a baby boy whose mother, Mariatta, became pregnant after eating a berry. Väinämöinen decided that the child ought to be put to death. This child, however, was no ordinary baby, and (despite being just two weeks old) spoke to Väinämöinen in order to chastise him. The child eventually became the King of Karyala.
In the meantime, Väinämöinen, realizing that his powers were waning, sang himself a copper boat, and sailed westwards, promising to return if his people need him. One way of interpreting this final episode in the story of Väinämöinen is to view it is as the replacement of paganism in Finland by Christianity.
Featured image: The Departure of Väinämöinen. Photo source: Public Domain.
Finland Promotion Board, 2015. Kalevala: The Finnish National Epic. [Online]
Available at: http://finland.fi/arts-culture/kalevala-the-finnish-national-epic/
The Kalevala [Online]
[Crawford, J. M. (trans.), 1888. The Kalevala.]
Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/
Sherman, J., 2015. Väinämöinen. In: J. Sherman, ed. Storytelling: An Encyclopedia of Mythology and Folklore. London: Routledge, pp. 482-483.
wizard.zeluna.net, 2016. The Wizard of the Finnish Epics. [Online]
Available at: http://wizard.zeluna.net/wizard-finnishepics.html
www.finnishmyth.org, 2016. Väinämöinen. [Online]
Available at: http://www.finnishmyth.org/FINNISH_MYTHS_GODS/VAINAMOINEN.html
www.internationalhero.co.uk, 2016. Väinämöinen. [Online]
Available at: http://www.internationalhero.co.uk/v/vainamoinen.htm