Kaamos, The Period of Gloom
by Petri Liukkonen

"What weariness, / What gloom encircling my soul," complained the Finnish national writer Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872). He was suffering from his own solstice, darkness in his heart, and only wished to slumber. Perhaps Kivi had the kaamos depression.[*] It is commonly held that Kivi was schizophrenic; he was given cold baths, morphine, and enemas in a mental institution. Poor Aleksis, maybe all he needed was a long vacation south of Helsinki.

The kaamos is the sunless period during winter in northernmost Lapland. Etymologically the word is derived from the Lappish "skab'mâ", "skabmo", "skabmâ-ai'ge", in New Norwegian "skamtid", "time of the kaamos". Skam means "short", so the expression could be translated as "short time".

If the Midsummer is the most erotic of all Nordic festivals, then the kaamos is more or less its opposite. But, what can it then be... the most pious season perhaps? Of course, winter and darkness are usually associated with death or sleep, the two sides of the ferry man's coin. And the sad truth is that in Nordic literature there are not many other variations on the theme. Poets seem to experience mass depression during the polar night, while the rest of the people just start to wear warm underclothing. The Finnish poet Risto Ahti circumvents clichés in 'Narcissus in Winter' (1982) with these lines:

You ask, 'Are you depressed?'
'I've exchanged depression for vacancy,' I say.
'Vacant I've been, aimless...'

I live in Kuusankoski, about 150 kilometres from Helsinki. Here the day is at its shortest, sometimes a mere six hours long. In the northernmost part of Scandinavia the sun goes completely unseen for the seven weeks from the end of November to the middle of January. Just now, as I write this, it is noon, but there is virtually no light outside. Kilometres-deep cloud layers in the sky dampen all the colors. This noontide-twilight has a soothing, bluish tone.

This is no dream,
I don't think it is:
as far as I am being
this desolation is,
this empty silence, cold, calm.

(from Lassi Nummi's 'Suddenly at five o'clock', 1984)

Some years ago I moved to Lapland and experienced the real kaamos. Up there, I did not so much envy people who could discern day from night simply by looking out of the window. No, what I really coveted was a remote-controlled forced-air heater in my old car. Still, the Northern Lights or "revontulet" (foxfires), were nice for a while.

'I can't see the kaamos,' I realized,
'but it's here,... like a ghost.'

Yesterday, on December 7, 2001, I stood at one o'clock p.m. in the middle of Kuusankoski's commercial centre, called the "telatori" (Roller Square). The name comes from two giant, twenty-meter-high stone rollers, which were erected on the square last summer. They were donated to the town by a local pulp mill. (It still has plenty of them lying around somewhere.) I had a mission: to record for one minute what was going on in the kaamos.

First observation: nobody smiled. Four electricians were installing stringing decorative lights between lamp posts. One held an electric cable in his hands, while the other tested a small lift. They had parked a small truck near the children's playground slide. A black spitz slipped across the square, dragging a leash behind it. A schoolgirl, wearing a rucksack, spat like a lumberjack. The sky was steely, and emitting a light snowfall. I have always been amazed how silently the snow falls; billions of tons of snow every year, but without any sound. A faint smell of Baltic herring came from a stall farther away where a man was frying fish. What odour the kaamos has? Footprints all over the place told of hectic comings and goings, but my minute was over. "I can't see the kaamos," I realized, "but it's here, like a ghost."

The Norwegian writer Herbjørg Wassmo describes in her novel, Dina's Book, the death of Dina's husband Jacob. He drowns in mid-December. Moon witnesses the scene, making no distinction between living and dead:

One morning before dawn, they dressed for the funeral. The boats were ready. Silence lay over the house like a strange piety. The moon was shining. No one waited for daylight at that time of year.

Throughout his career the Swedish Nobel writer Per Lagerkvist wrote on the universal battle between good and evil. His poem 'I urtidsnattens mänskohåla', which is not one of his most noteworthy works, is built around opposites: fire and ice, ignorance and knowledge, brotherhood and enmity, hope and despair. The first lines introduce the situation: In a cave, flames die down in a campfire. The fire was given as a gift from the sky to primitive men but they don't know how to relight it. A small group sets out across the frozen tundra to seek help from a neighboring tribe. Just when they reach their destination, they are attacked and slaughtered. "And the darkness won and cold, / and life became death." Lagerkvist composed the allegorical poem in 1937. My guess is that he was not thinking of Arctic winter, but rather, of Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia.

Behind the poem one can suspect -- apart from world politics -- traces of the Prometheus myth. Throughout Arctic regions myths have explained the regular disappearance of the sun. Some myths were borrowed from peoples from farther to the East. In Kalmuk mythology an outcast angel, Irlik-khan, steals the sun. Men, animals, and plantlife begin to perish. Okuntengri, the heroine, saves the world after a bitter fight. In a Finnish folk poem, dating perhaps from the early Christian period, the singer asks: "Where, tell me, has our sun gone / whither has our moon vanished? / The sun's gone into a rock." In this poem, Väinämöinen, a healer and shaman, is the hero, but in another variant the skillful smith's girl replaces the sun and moon in the sky.

The days between the 21.12 and the 24.12. are known in folk tradition as the 'Nest Days'. It was believed that the sun stood still for three days and stayed in its nest. Winter, and sleep... The two are also central in Tove Jansson's fairy tale, "Moominland in Midwinter" (1957). Moomintroll experiences a traumatic awakening halfway through his hibernation. Waters are frozen, the landscape covered by a thick blanket of snow. He begins his initiation into secret winter mysteries by remembering the lilacs and jasmine of summer. Then he meets Too-ticky who thinks: "All things are so very uncertain, and that's exactly what reassures me." Death enters the tale in the character of the Lady of the Cold:

The Lady of the Cold turned her beautiful face toward the squirrel and distractedly scratched him behind one ear. Bewitched, he stared back at her, straight into her cold blue eyes. The Lady of the Cold smiled and continued on her way. But she left the foolish little squirrel lying stiff and numb with all his paws in the air.

In Icelandic sagas, December for Vikings is as good a month as any for killing. Vikings spent most of the warm period on plundering expeditions and then returned home. Sometimes they composed verse, like Egil, a mass murderer, demon, drunkard, lawyer, and poet, who noted in his old age:

I walk over two widows,
Once true women,
now frosted and feeble,
Needing the old flame.

Over 800 years later a descendant of Vikings, Sigurdur A. Magnusson, traces the fate of a child, as unmoved as his ancestors when facing death, although this time the killer is a frozen lake:

Sled-track on the slope
covered by snowdrift
The ice-plated lake
keeps its prey.

(from 'A Child is Lost')

In Pentti Saarikoski's collection, The Obscure Dances (1983), myths are like carved statues which guard the poet's dance with his craft. "On the longest night of the year / it's a starlight night," Saarikoski writes. Earlier he has told about a girl who says: "I'm the light that will lead you into darkness". The scene is homely: the girl is sitting on the kitchen sink and singing. Abruptly the poet breaks the idyll: he decides to kill the girl with a sheath knife. He reveals that he fears death, but somehow I don't believe him. They climb the mountain, he takes her by the hand. "They walk down Theory Thoroughfare / reach the dustbin / and see the stars again, the pieces of sky".

These words refer to Dante's last lines in The Inferno. The poet emerges from Hell, and sees the beautiful lights of heaven: "Dawn, through a circular opening in the cave: / Thus issuing we again beheld the stars." It is a hopeful vision, but it makes me wonder: If Saarikoski compares the kaamos with Hell, what kind of people actually live in Lapland?

[*] The clinical designation is 'SAD' or 'seasonal affective disorder'. (PL)

(Petri Liukkonen is the creator of an enormously successful website which contains detailed biographies of thousands of writers: He contributes frequently to the magazine.)