Friday, December 16, 2011

Marjatta and the Berry (Re-Post)

This is a repost, with minor revision, of a post originally posted in 2005.

The Kalevala is one of the world's most remarkable works of literature. Compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the early nineteenth century from Karelian folk songs, it is the national epic of Finland. What Lönnrot was attempting to do had been attempted before with much less scholarly skill, in particular by James MacPherson in his 1760 Ossian, an attempt to pull together Highland folksongs into a national epic.* But Lönnrot's masterpiece is in another league entirely.

One of the interesting aspects of the Kalevala is Lönnrot's adaptation of the first three poems in a religious cycle of Christian legends; in a trope common in folklore, he presents it as the ending of the Kalevala -- the old gods and heroes sail away as they are replaced by Christianity. As the story goes, there was a young girl named Marjatta who was sweet and pure and innocent; so pure and innocent, in fact, that she refuses to sit in a sledge drawn by a stallion. One day she's out tending sheep on the hillside, when she comes across a cowberry, which she eats ('Marjatta' suggests the Finnish word marja, 'berry'). She becomes pregnant. After nine months, she begins to realize that she needs a sauna (to ease childbirth, of course); so she goes to her mother, who gives this supportive response:

'Fie upon you, demon's bitch!
Who were you laid by?
Was it an unmarried man
or else a married fellow?'

So she goes to her father, who is equally supportive:

'Go, you whore, further than that
scarlet woman, further off
to the bruin's rocky dens
ino the bear's craggy cells--
there, you whore, to breeed
there, scarlet woman, to teem!'

Marjatta responds:

'I am not a whore at all
no kind of scarlet woman:
I am to have a great man
to bear one of noble birth
who will put down the mighty
vanquish Väinämöinen too.'

Väinämöinen is the sky-god/hero who is the protagonist of most of the Kalevala. According to Bosley's notes the line 'who will put down the mighty' might be more literally translated as 'who will have power over power itself'. But back to Marjatta: she needs that sauna, and it doesn't seem to be forthcoming; so she sends her servant-girl Piltti find a sauna at Sedgeditch; when Piltti asks who she will ask for one, Marjatta replies that she should ask for Herod's bath at Saraja's gates.

Piltti comes to Herod's cabin and there finds Herod at a feast. The picture is unforgettably good:

Ugly Herod in shirtsleeves
eats, drinks in the grand manner
at the head of the table
with only his lawn shirt on;
Herod declared from his meal
snapped, leaning over his cup:
'What do you say, mean one? Why
wretch, are you rushing about?'

Piltti replies that she's looking for a bath at Sedgeditch. When Herod's mistress asks her for whom she's asking, Piltti replies that it's for Marjatta. To which Herod's mistress replies:

'The baths are not free for all
not the saunas at Saraja's gate.
There's a bath on the burnt hill
a stable among the pines
for a scarlet woman to have sons
a whore to bring forth her brats:
when the horse breathes out
bathe yourself in that!'

Piltti returns to Marjatta with this bit of helpful counsel. Poor Marjatta bursts into tears and goes to the stall on Tapio hill, praying as she goes:

'Come, Creator, my refuge
and my help, merciful one
in this hard labour
in these most hard times:
free a wench from a tight spot
a woman from the belly-throes
lest she sink in woes
perish in her pains!'

So Marjatta gives birth with the horse's breath as a sauna, and beside a manger brings forth a baby boy, whom she wraps in swaddling clothes.

The story goes on from there, with a confrontation between the little boy and Väinämöinen. It's an interesting set of legends, forming a sort of mythological symbol of the life of Christ that plays on the association of Marjatta and marja; one thinks of the common medieval play on the association of Maria and Latin maris, as in Stella Maris, Star of the Sea, a popular title for Mary.

[All quotations from the Kalevala are from Keith Bosley's translation, Oxford University Press, 1989.]

[*] The Ossianic question, namely, whether MacPherson had forged the poem, was one of the major literary disputes and scandals of the eighteenth century, with most of the period's literary intellectuals in Britain lining up on one side of the question or another, e.g., Hugh Blair argued that it was genuine, David Hume and Samuel Johnson that it was not. My understanding is that current folklore scholarship holds it to be based in actual Highland folksongs, but massively re-worked.

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