Geoffrey O’Brien’s NYRB essay on the Kalevala is full of interesting stuff (I didn’t realize Lönnrot played quite such an authorial role: “He felt free to rename characters, fuse unrelated stories, and interpolate linking passages of his own composition”), but I’m bringing it here for the final two paragraphs:

Of the many things brought into existence in the course of the poem, none is more mysteriously powerful than the Sampo. When Väinämöinen, adrift on the water, is rescued by Louhi of Pohjola, she promises to get him back to his home country if he will make her a Sampo out of the tip of a swan’s feather, the milk of a barren cow, a barleycorn, and the wool of a ewe; he says he cannot, but will send her the smith Ilmarinen, who will have no trouble since he hammered out the vault of the sky. And what is the Sampo? It has a “lid of many colors” (or in Friberg’s version, a “ciphered cover”), but aside from that its nature and origin remain obscure: according to various commentators it is “a mysterious talisman,” “a miraculous mill,” “a deeply coveted object of mysterious power and provenance.” For Peter O’Leary the “great roots it extends deep into the earth” suggest something organic in nature, like a mushroom, perhaps. It brings happiness to those who have it, producing grain and salt and money; it stirs up strife between the southern lands and Pohjola as it is successively forged, locked away, stolen, and smashed into pieces, and its fragments, washed ashore, continue “to grow, increase and flourish.”

That the Kalevala should have at its heart the mysterious Sampo seems appropriate, since the poem itself can be conceived as a vehicle for transmitting a cargo both precious and only partly knowable. Even the singers who provided Lönnrot with his materials only partially understood their songs’ implications, and however sensitively he assembled those materials, to read the work is to be aware of the underlying presence of earlier intentions. Those origin stories tug irresistibly in a reverse direction, toward an original enunciation persisting through accumulated layers of mishearing and melding. Its vitality is somehow preserved like the buried Vipunen, uttering “strands of magic verse” for which Lönnrot’s Kalevala would be only a way station for a text never really final: a voyaging cluster continually eliciting further variant strands emanating from “the deepest origins/From the very birth of time.” What and where the “real poem” might be—and where and in what form it might end up—is finally as imponderable as the nature of the Sampo.

An epic MacGuffin! According to Wiktionary, the word is “Probably equivalent to sammas [(Finnish mythology) cosmic pillar that supported the sky] +‎ -o.” Someday I should really get around to reading the Kalevala.


  1. jack morava says

    I hope this link works; I love C PG (among others):

    C Payne-Gaposchkin, Myth and science: Hamlet’s Mill (1972)

    Through shrewd synchronicity I have recently posted an identification of the many-colored Sampo in \S 3.1 of .

    see ref [26].

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I hope this link works

    Only enough to see the first page, alas.

    The work reviewed is itself easily available online (presumably by a kind of Gresham’s Law.)
    I note a lot of nonsense about the Dogon therein, courtesy of the indefatigable Marcel Griaule.

  3. fascinating! both the sampo and the Kalevala! which is now much higher on my more abstract to-read list (especially after enjoying colarusso’s collections of Nart sagas recently).

    “a new… Ossian… might come into being”

    o’brian gives no indication he caught the irony of this (which is itself kinda delicious)! but i feel like lönnrot and macpherson’s projects were actually identical: forcing local vernacular poetic material into a form it never had, but that they decided it should have had. it’s quite telling that the creators of these nationalist epics are so insistent on shaping their ‘purified’ works to fit into a genre based on a handfull of specific outside models, rather than taking local forms and genres seriously. (this may be a turtles-all-the-way-down situation: homer could easily be the macpherson of early greek poetic narratives)

    and it’s annoying when reviewers reproduce that same patronizing disrespect for the artists who don’t do that kind of flattening: “Even the singers who provided Lönnrot with his materials only partially understood their songs’ implications.” i’d say that lönnrot’s decision to be a finnish homer, treating traditional singers as sources to be mined for “[raw] materials” rather than helping keep their repertoires alive in their actual forms, demonstrates that if anyone was missing the songs’ implications, it was him. but then, o’brian also seems to have an incredibly impoverished idea of history (“not precisely an epic in Ezra Pound’s sense of “a poem including history”—it notably lacks dynasties, palaces, sieges”), so it’s hard to expect much.

  4. jack morava says

    @ DE, Exactly! But the review itself is in my opinion masterful.

    [My posting BTW has not yet been peer-reviewed. I am thinking of submitting it to the Bulletin of the Societ\’e Philharmonique de Zanzibar.]

  5. January First-of-May says

    forcing local vernacular poetic material into a form it never had, but that they decided it should have had

    Lönnrot was in turn followed by Longfellow, who went so far as to ape Lönnrot’s meter for (AFAICT) no good reason.

    (Though AFAICT at least Lönnrot – or Macpherson, come to think of it – didn’t go as far as to replace the protagonist’s name with that of an unrelated character from a completely different culture, just for euphony.)

  6. Stu Clayton says

    I am thinking of submitting it to the Bulletin of the Societ\’e Philharmonique de Zanzibar.

    The plot thickens unless given a good stir from time to time. I see that I have been misconstruing some of your sallies.

    This is a pleasant kind of homosophy. Bits of knowledge are shown to be equivalent under a continuous déformation professionelle.

  7. jack morava says

    … some of your sallies…

    … less Quixote, hopefully more like Dr Faustroll ?

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Actually I was thinking of Mustang Sally, but thanks for bringing Jarry to my attention. Something to read over the weekend. Only 96 Pléiade pages !

  9. jack morava says

    From the second telepathic letter to Lord Kelvin:

    Farewell: I can glimpse already, perpendicularly to the sun, the cross with a blue center, the red brushes toward the nadir and the zenith, and the horizontal gold of foxes’ tails…

  10. James Kabala says

    Interestingly the confusing nature of the Sampo was unintentional comedy fodder in a movie (Finnish-Soviet co-production if I recall correctly) featured on Mystery Science Theater 300.

  11. @James Kabala: I remembered that there was an MST3K episode with those jokes about the ambiguous “Sampo,” but I couldn’t recall which one it was. However, I have very vivid memories of the other Russo-Finish films they riffed, because they were often visually quite beautiful (as the MST3K themselves admitted) but badly dubbed. For example, The Sword and the Dragon is a pretty good retelling of the story of Ilya Muromets (my father remembers enjoying it when it was released in America), but the English dub is absurdly silly.

  12. PlasticPaddy says
    02:51 “May you be cursed, murdering scum!”

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    “Had I so willed, I could have crumbled your palace into bits, but I did not wish to spoil its decorations!”
    Rousing stuff for a wet Saturday afternoon.

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