Many years ago, a single parent, employed full-time and in my last semester at UC Berkeley, I carefully searched the catalogue for a course that seemed interesting yet would not assign a lot of reading. I noticed a course in the Scandinavian Department titled “Arctic Literature.” Surely, I thought, there wouldn’t be much reading in that course. After all, I reasoned rather hopefully, areas that had only recently developed written traditions would not have left all that much available reading material. WRONG.
Compiled in the early 19th century by Elias Lönnrot (then a student at Finland’s Turku Academy), The Kalevala is a cosmology epic (creation of the world) composed of 50 poems – a collection of oral traditional songs, lyrics and magic. Historically, the poems were passed from generation to generation by singing. That involved two people holding hands, who would pull and push (rock back and forth) as they exchanged lines. (Hence the black and white picture I’ve included!)
Apparently unnoticed by the other experts whose analyses we read, textile production – particularly carding, spinning and weaving – was a common imagery used throughout the poems. Couldn’t this too, I wondered, be another form of creation imagery? Though The Kalevala is suffused with textile imagery, it seemed ignored by experts (including the professor he rather shamefacedly admitted as he graded my research paper). Neither Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. nor Juha Pentikäinen (the scholarly experts on The Kalevala) made reference to the very frequent textile imagery in The Kalevala. Did they see it as “unimportant” and thus ancillary to the cosmology?
By the way, according to the professor, the creator of the old cartoon character “Mr. Magoo” based the character on one of his professors – Professor Magoun!
But I digress.
An area rich with contribution as metaphors in the folklore tradition is the realm traditionally considered a woman’s domain: textile production. For instance, spinning was referred to by the Roman poet Catullus in 54 B.C. and in the 14th century by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales.
By the way, according to Chaucer, god gave women “deceit, weeping, [and] spinning.”
I digress once again.
The very opening and closing poems of The Kalevala use imagery from the world of textile production, the world of women:
These my father formerly sang
while carving an ax handle,
these my mother taught me
while turning her spindle
I had to learn it at home
under the rooftree of my own storehouse
by my mother’s distaff,
by the chips my brother whittled,
I believe that textile imagery suffusing The Kalevala is much more than that of mere motifs. I hope one day folklorists and mythologists will research the ideas my suggestions raise. Now, however, to quote from The Kalevala (Poem 50:377): “I will wind up my verses in a clew” [a ball of yarn or thread] and hope they do not “form a tangled mass” in your mind.
By the way, I have thought about rewriting my research paper into an article to submit to Piecework. Any thoughts?