ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - Kalevala Mythology

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

Kalevala Mythology, by Juha Y. Pentikäinen., expanded edition. Translated and edited by Ritva Poom. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Pp. xvii + 296. ISBN 0-253-21352-5 (paper)

Reviewed by James Baron
College of William and Mary, Virginia, USA

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I do not read Finnish, and therefore am not familiar with either version of the Kalevala in its original language, nor with the scholarship and criticism about the poem, its sources, and its influence that have ap-peared only in Finnish. I have, however, read the 1849 version of the epic carefully and repeatedly in English over a span of several decades and also sampled some parts of it in a Swedish translation which my wife's grandmother brought with her to America from East Bothnia in 1904, and I am quite familiar with Kalevala scholarship in English and the Scandinavian languages of Germanic origin. For this review, I shall attempt to make an advantage of this deficit, by approach-ing the book strictly from the point of view of its usefulness to a classicist, student, or layperson who is also Finnish-deprived; those who are interested in what a professional scholar of Finnish literature thinks of the work are encouraged to consult William Sayers's review of the first edition, which appeared in Scandinavian Studies 63 (1991), 3, pp. 410-12; I assume that the same journal will carry a review of this new edition soon.

As Professor Sayers points out in his review, this book falls into several rather distinct parts, all of which, I be-lieve, have valuable comparative insights to offer to scholars of the Greco-Roman cultures. Just exactly what these insights are may, indeed, vary greatly from reader to reader, and this might be the book's greatest value for classicists: comparisons of the Kalevala's development, its ancestry, and its impact on a culture with an emerging sense of identity to the similar and dissimilar situations surrounding the ancient classics, especially the Homeric corpus, are apt to provoke some very stimulating and revealing disagreements with great potential to deepen our understanding of our own subject matter and ourselves as scholars.

In the first part of the book, Professor Pentikäinen discusses the compilation and creation of both the Old (1835) and the New (1849) Kalevala by Elias Lönnrot out of a collection of short oral lays gathered from illiterate singers by Lönnrot and others. Lönnrot seems to have imagined, on the basis of the Homeric scholarship of his era, that what he was doing was not generically different from what some anonymous person or persons accomplished in Greece during the archaic period, and indeed, those few scholars who have revived the view that no complete version of the Iliad or Odyssey existed before the "Pisistrateian Recension" will find this section of the book gratifying. It may be, however, that Lönnrot's work and methods actually more closely resemble those of Livy in the compilation of the first books of Ab urbe condita, and with that statement, too, one can use this book to raise some very interesting and long overdue debates about our professorial presumptions about classical authors.

The second section deals with the prehistory of the oral poetry which Lönnrot collected. Classicists who hold that shamanism has never been given its due in the study of the origins and development of both Greek myth and Greek religion (like myself) will see many interesting items worth pushing to the limits of comparative credibility and beyond in Pentikäinen's lucid and extensive exposition of his theories (not universally accepted) of the prehistoric culture of the Finno-Uralic peoples and of the place of the shaman as aoidos (ho or he, since shamanism has clearly been an equal-opportunity profession for many millennia in the circumpolar regions). Some may, however, be incensed by a few of Dr. Pentikäinen's cavalier assumptions about Greek and Indic culture.

The third part of the book treats, in two short chapters, the story of how the Kalevala and the art and music which it began to inspire as soon as it was published developed almost instantly into a founda-tion myth of the Finnish nation-state of the present. In the light of the many recent publications about Athenian mythmaking and Theseus and the Amazons, etc., on the one hand, and about Augus-tan and post-Augustan propaganda, on the other, this brief section of new material in this edition is likely to be the most meaningful and enlightening part of the book to scholars of ancient culture. The unifying impact of what truly might be called the "Kalevala craze" in a popula-tion with potentially explosive linguistic, religious, and ideological differences is truly one of the more amazing events of literary and cultural history which has taken place in the last 150 years, and has left an unusual wealth of docu-mentation for scholars to study not only in comparison to the history of propaganda and ideology in ancient Greece and Rome, but espe-cially in contrast to what happened in Germany during the same period.

Finally, with its complete plot summaries of both versions of the Kalevala, direct from the hand of the compiler himself, and ample presentation of direct evidence about the state of mind of Lönnrot and about the cultures from which he drew his materials, this book can serve as an efficient starting point for the study of the Kalevala in its own right as a work of literature, something which should be part of the agenda of anyone who teaches about the diverse forms of epic and heroic literature in a modern classroom. Dr. Poom is also to be complemented for very effectively translating Dr. Pentikäinen's rather colloquial style, which is unusually successful in conveying the most important serious and substantial information without intimidating even non-profession-als and undergraduates. It is unfortunate, however, that a number of the typos and misattributions cited in Dr. Sayers's 1991 review have not been corrected.

by Kaavya Giridhar