The Great Myths #29: Learning Poetry in the Giant’s Stomach (Finnish)

klv-hk_8The poet/shaman Väinämöinen, in need of new poems and spells in order to build a boat, goes through an ordeal within the belly of a giant, the keeper of those stories. Here, the giant/ogre figure is more primordial and wise and not simply uncivilized and destructive:

Steady old Väinämöinen
when he got not words
from Tuonela’s dwellings, from
the Dead Land’s ageless abodes
keeps considering
and long he ponders
where to get words from
fetch the right spells from.
He meets a herdsman
who put this into words:
“You will get a hundred words
and a thousand tale-charms from
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
from the word-hoarder’s belly.
But he has to be gone to
and the track picked out –
it is not a good journey
but not quite the worst either:
at first you must run
upon women’s needle points
then next you must walk
on a man’s sword tips
and third must amble
on a fellow’s hatchet blades.”

Steady old Väinämöinen
certainly meant to go. He
ducks into the smith’s workshop
and says with this word:
“Smith Ilmarinen
forge iron footwear
forge iron gauntlets
make an iron shirt!
Prepare an iron cowlstaff
obtain one of steel:
put steel at its core
and on top draw soft iron!
I am off to get some words
take some mysteries
from the word-hoarder’s belly
Antero Vipunen’s mouth.”

Smith Ilmarinen
uttered a word and spoke thus:
“Vipunen has long been dead
Antero for ages has
vanished, left the trap he’d set
the path he’d baited;
from there you will get no word –
no, not even half a word.”

Steady old Väinämöinen
still went, did not heed:
for one day he stepped clinking
upon women’s needle points
for two he rambled along
upon men’s sword tips
for a third too he ambled
on a fellow’s hatchet blades.

Vipunen, he full of tales
old man word-hoarder
he lolls with his tales
with his spells he sprawls;
an aspen grew upon his shoulders
on his eyebrows a birch rose
an alder upon his chin
a willow shrub on his head
on his brow a squirrel spruce
a cony fir on his teeth.
Now Väinämöinen comes:
he drew his sword, snatch the iron
out of the holder of hide
out of the belt of leather;
he felled the aspen from the shoulders
from the eyebrows toppled the birches
from the jaws the broad alders
the willow shrubs from the beard
from the brow felled the squirrel-spruces
the cony first from the teeth.
He plunged the iron cowlstaff
into Antero Vipunen’s mouth
in his grinning gums
in his squelching jaws
and uttered a word, spoke thus:
“Rise up, serf of man
from where you lie underground
from the long sleep you’re taking!”

That Vipunen full of tales
was startled from his sleep.
He felt the one touching hard
and with pain the one teasing:
he bit the iron cowlstaff
he bit off the soft iron
but he could not bite the steel
could not eat the iron core.
At that old Väinämöinen’s
(as he stood beside the mouth)
other foot
his left foot slithers into
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
on his jawbone slid
and Vipunen full of tales
at once opened his mouth more
flung his jaw-posts wide –
swallowed the man with his sword
into his throat gulped
old Väinämöinen.

There Vipunen full of tales
put this into words:
“I’ve eaten a thing or two:
I’ve eaten ewe, eaten goat
eaten barren cow
eaten boar, but I
have not yet eaten
a morsel that tastes like this!”

Old Väinämöinen
put this into words:
“My ruin could be coming
my day of trouble looming
in this lair of a demon
this inglenook of the grave.”

He thinks, considers
how to be, which way to live.
At his belt he has a knife
with a curly-birch handle;
out of it he built a boat
he built a boat of wisdom.
He rows, he glides from
gut end to gut end
he rowed every nook
every cranny he went round.
Old Vipunen full of tales
was not going to heed that.
Then the old Väinämöinen
made himself into a smith
became a blacksmith; he changed
his shirt into a workshop
his shirtsleeves into bellows
his coat into a blower
his trousers he turned to pipes
stockings to pipe-mouthpieces
his knee into an anvil
to a hammer his elbow.
He hammers away
he tap-taps away;
hammered all night without rest
all day without a breather
in the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom.

Then Vipunen full of tales
put this into words:
“What kind of man may you be
what sort of fellow? I have
eaten a hundred fellows
destroyed a thousand men, but
I don’t think I’ve eaten such:
coal is coming into my
mouth, firebrands on to my tongue
iron dross into my throat!
Go now, wonder, on your way
earth’s evil, get a move on
before I seek your mother
and fetch your honoured parent!
If I tell your mother, speak,
report you to your parent
mother has more work
great trouble a parent has
when her son does wrong
her child misbehaves.
I have no idea at all
cannot guess your Origin
demon, where you latched on from
pest, where you have come here from
to bite, to nibble
to eat and to gnaw: are you
disease the Lord created
death decreed by God
or are you man-made
brought and wrought by someone else
put here for payment
set up for money?
If disease, the Lord’s creature
death decreed by God
I will trust my Creator
cast myself upon my God:
he’ll not cast away the good
he’ll not let the fair be lost.
But if you are man-made, a
problem caused by someone else
be sure I shall learn your kin
I’ll find out where you were born.”

The giant’s speech continues for many pages, until Väinämöinen has a chance to respond:

Steady old Väinämöinen
then put this in words:
“’Tis good for me to be here:
the liver will serve for bread
the marrow to eat with it
the lungs will be right for stew
the fats for good food
I will set up my anvil
deeper upon the heart-flesh
slam my sledgehammer harder
on still worse places
so that you’ll never get out
never in this world be free
unless I come to hear words
and fetch the right spells
and hear enough words
and a thousand charms.
Words shall not be hid
nor spells be buried
might shall not sink underground
though the mighty go.”

Then Vipunen full of tales
the old word-hoarder
with great wisdom in his mouth
boundless might in his bosom
opened his word-chest
and flung wide his box of tales
to sing some good things
set some of the best things forth –
those deep Origins
spells about the Beginning
which not all the children sing
only fellows understand
in this evil age
with time running out:
he sang Origins in depth
and spells in order
how by their Creator’s leave
at the Almighty’s command
of itself the sky was born
from the sky water parted
from the water land stretched forth
on the land all growing things;
he sand of the moon’s shaping
the sun’s placing, the fixing
of the sky’s pillars
heaven being filled with stars.
There Vipunen full of tales
indeed sang, showed what he knew!
Never in this world
was heard or was seen
a better singer
a more careful cunning man:
that mouth hurled forth words
the tongue flung phrases
as a cold its legs
a steed sturdy feet.
He sand day by day
night by night he recited
and the sun stopped to listen
the golden moon to take note;
billows stood still on the main
waves at the bay-end;
stream left off rolling
and Rutja’s rapid foaming
and Vuoski’s rapid flowing –
and Jordan’s river halted.

At that old Väinämöinen
when he had heard words
had got enough words
and fetched the right spells
set out quitting
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
and the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom.
And old Väinämöinen said:
“O Antero Vipunen
open your mouth more
fling your jaw-posts wide, so that
I may get out of your gut
on to the ground and go home!”

There Vipunen full of tales
put this into words: “Many
have I eaten, many drunk
destroyed thousands all told; but
I’ve not yet eaten any
such as old Väinämöinen!
You did well to come:
you’ll do better to return.”

Then Antero Vipunen
grinned and showed his gums
opened his mouth more
flung his jaw-posts wide:
old Väinämöinen
quitted the great wise one’s mouth
and the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom;
slips out of his mouth
trips upon the heath
like a golden squirrel, or
a gold-breasted pine marten.
He stepped from there on his way
and came to his smith’s workshop.
The smith Ilmarinen said:
“Did you get to hear some words
to fetch the right spells
for fixing the side
joining on the stern
and raising the bows?”

Steady old Väinämöinen
put this into words:
“Now I’ve got a hundred words
and thousands of charms, I have
brought the words out of hiding
unburied the spells.”
He went to his boat
on the knowledgeable stocks:
the little boat was finished
the side joint was joined
the stern-end ended
and the bows were raised
and the boat was born uncarved
the ship with no shaving pared.

 – The Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot, book 17,
translated by Keith Bosley, p. 199-204, 213-216

Read the other Great Myths here

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