May '03 [Home]
The True Meaning of Mother's Day: On Dead Epic Sons
[Mother's Day was conceived to honor those whose sons had fallen in war.—Eds.]
The Kalevala is an epic composed in several versions by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) from fragments of ancient Finnish poems. Kalevalaic poetry has been collected among the Estonians and Setus, the Finns, Ingrians, Livonians, Votes and Karelians. Much of the material in the Kalevala dates from the first millennium.
When Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted his tempera work, Lemminkäinen's Mother (1897), he used the pietà form, a presentation of the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead Christ.
In the picture, we see a lifeless man lying naked on the bank of a black river. A grieving woman sits beside him, looking up at golden rays, her hand on his chest. There is also a swan on the river and skulls and bones, symbols of mortality, on the ground. The Kalevalaic poem from which Gallen-Kallela took his inspiration actually depicts a pagan world and its heroes. Gallen-Kallela imported the motif, and gave it a universal meaning: The painting represents all mothers mourning over their dead sons.
In Lönnrot's poem, Lemminkäinen's mother is nameless. She is a supracultural figure, a woman who raises the hero from the dead. "Don't go to war. No good will come of it," she warns her son. In one version, she says, "Don't go, my offspring / unless you are wise in words / unless you can work wisdom." [*]
The 'wanton' Lemminkäinen, as he is called in the Kalevala, can be regarded as the archetype of all young men who leave home eager for a taste of war. "I don't care about home wealth!" says Lemminkäinen. "If I get one mark from war / I'll regard it as better / than all the home gold / silver lifted by a plough." He believes he has inherited his father's magical powers and is confident of his parent's protection.
However, after showing heroism in armed exchanges with his counterparts, he is killed by Dripcap, a herdsman. He dies at the River Tuonela, "in the dead Land's ageless water", a Nordic Styx. The weapon is not a sword, but a water snake. Dripcap hacks this mother's son's body to pieces, and throws them into the river.
Lemminkäinen's fate follows the classical rules of tragedy, formulated by Aristotle in his Poetics. He is of good character. Thus, the change from fortune to misfortune is not due to his wickedness, but, rather, to a great error. The plot is constructed so that we should feel pity at the outcome. Dying, Lemminkäinen realizes that he has failed to ask his mother, "how to be, which way to live / in these evil days". Lemminkäinen's error was that he had a false confidence in his knowledge. "There is no singer in you," his mother had warned, "to match the sons of the North / nor do you know Turja's tongue / and you cannot speak Lappish."
Lemminkäinen's mother intuits that her son is dead when the comb she holds drips blood. Immediately, she leaves her home, and begins the long journey in search of him: "Darling sun, God's creature, have you not seen my son / my apple of gold / my staff of silver?"
She finds him—in bits. With an iron rake, she dredges the black river, retrieving a mass of entrails, his ring finger, a toe from his left foot, fragments of his body. In this graphic recovery scene, Lönnrot, who was educated as a doctor, spares us no detail.
In the Odyssey, Penelope wove a shroud; Lemminkäinen's mother, a Finnish Penelope, used her powerful magic to sew together fragments of her son. She restores him to life by "joining flesh to flesh / bones to bones fitting / and limbs to their limbs / sinews to sinew fractures." Then she calls upon a bee to bring life-giving honey from beyond the nine seas and nine heavens.
The bee has been used as the Christian symbol of the soul and of the Holy Spirit, but more often it refers to diligence and eloquence. According to an old Finnish folk myth, if a bee flies into the mouth of a corpse, the person comes back to life.
There are many similarities between Orpheus, a Thracian singer, Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead, and Lemminkäinen. Both Orpheus and Lemminkäinen are such powerful singers that Nature itself listens to them; when they sing, the wind and the sea fall still. Plutarch wrote that Osiris taught men civil arts, and "tamed them by music and gentleness, not by force of arms". Lemminkäinen's adventures are constructed around his travels, not unlike those of Orpheus, who accompanied the Argonauts in their expedition. To bring Eurydice, his wife, home, Orpheus enters the underworld. In one version of the myth, Osiris dies in a coffin thrown into the Nile. Isis, his sister-wife, restores him to life using her healing and magical powers. Osiris, too, was cut into pieces.
The distance from Greece to Karelia is about 1800 miles. The journey, river, death, and woman—the mere simplicity of these elements does not explain the birth of the myths and their universal prevalence. Is it that reality imitates myth or the converse? Thus, when I come to the famous Babylonian epic poem, Gilgamesh, I do not enter a foreign country, but rather, recognize it as a kind of translation of the other tales.
Rivers are a common symbol of the irreversible passage of time, loss and oblivion. Lemminkäinen met his fate at the hands of a herdsman on the banks of the River Tuonela. As I write this, myth and reality doubly converge, at two rivers—the Tigris and the serpentine Euphrates. The eager young combatants who have rushed for a taste of these waters bear American and British faces, fragments of Kansas City and Manchester. Doubtless of good character, theirs is not the great error.
[*] Excerpts from The Kalevala, an epic poem in the oral tradition by Elias Lönnrot, translated by Keith Bosley, 1989.
(A frequent contributor to the magazine, Petri Liukkonen writes on literature, and is the creator of an enormous internet biographical compendium, Books and Writers, containing in-depth entries on thousands of authors of world literature. The site has drawn millions of visitors.)