A digression into the Kalevala 2: differences

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Last time I explored ways in which the ancient Finnish poetic tradition presented in the Kalevala was similar to ancient Middle Eastern material. Today it is time for some differences.

The main way that it differs is in genre. Early Israel and Egypt did not use poetry for epic mythic purposes – or if they did, it has not survived – but instead developed a prose narrative tradition for that. The poetry that has come down to us is in the form of fairly short pieces, nothing like the long series of interlinked tales of the Kalevala. Think for example of the biblical psalms, together with their parallels from other nations. The closest analogy to the Kalevala from the ancient Middle East is the mythic material from Ugarit. The episodes in both of these cycles share a great deal – a few characters turn up several times in different contexts, usually so as to contrast loyalty and rivalry – although the Kalevala is very much longer. You even get the same sorts of formal declarations when characters speak to each other – rather than the plain “so-and-so said” you get a couple of lines of introduction to set the scene –

well, such-and-such a person
uttered a word and spoke thus

– even if you have just had a very similar opening a few lines above!

There are other differences too – for example the Kalevala has a great many of what one can call stock phrases – short descriptions of a character or an action which are reused in different places as the need arises. So in one sequence we read many times over of

steady old Vainamoinen


Louhi, mistress of Northland,
the gap-toothed hag of the North

This is a feature shared with Homer’s Iliad, and with the Balkan poets whose work was studied by Milman Parry some years ago. Such stock phrases are extremely rare in Hebrew and Egyptian.

Now, it is unlikely in the extreme that the Finnish bards and poets had direct contact with the Homeric or Egyptian traditions, let alone Ugaritic, though biblical influence cannot be ruled out. So why is it that this sense of familiarity constantly pervades the Kalevala? I suppose one reason could be the logic of oral tradition. The Finnish poets behind the Kalevala material recited their work orally to live audiences, just like bards in other cultures have done. Parry’s study in the Balkans showed that such performances displayed great flexibility and innovation. They combined older material in new ways by bridging together familiar scenes, characters and episodes with original links and connections. Depending on the occasion and audience, the same basic story could be expanded or contracted to fit the need. Stock phrases and patterned scenes help the poet in this task.

The Egyptian and early Hebrew material that has survived is a few steps on from this. Most likely there were such oral poets in those nations at the time. What we have now, though, is not a direct record of their performances. It is a variation that was committed to writing, reworked to be successful in new written traditions. The epic cycles from Ugarit are quite raw and fresh, closer to their oral or ceremonial roots – had Ugarit survived longer it would have been fascinating to see how this material evolved. What we have in the Kalevala is, perhaps, an insight into how oral traditions themselves can begin and be sustained as a living art form, whether in northern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. As well as a whole lot of material which is riveting in its own right!

Finally, I mentioned last time about a promotional slideshow / video. Well, that is now finished and can be found on YouTube at http://youtu.be/JcuvhxPazMs, and also at http://www.kephrath.com/. Enjoy!

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