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The myth of the Sampo— an infinite source of fortune and greed - Hanna-Ilona Härmävaara


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After a skirmish at sea and long days of being battered by waves, Väinämöinen— a powerful bard as old as the world itself— washed up on the shores of distant Pohjola. A cunning witch nursed him back to health but demanded a reward for returning him home. Not content with mere gold or silver, the witch wanted what did not yet exist. Hanna-Ilona Härmävaara digs into the Finnish myth of the Sampo.

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The story of the Sampo is told in the Finnish national epic The Kalevala (1849, “Old Kalevala” 1835) The Kalevala consists of 50 poems that portray the old Finnic tales, mythology, rituals, and worldview. Its stories may not be as widely known as the stories in Greek and Roman mythology, but they should be!

The story of the Sampo, like all the stories in The Kalevala, was collected in the 19th century by a medical doctor called Elias Lönnrot. He visited remote villages in the area of Finland and Karelia, where stories had been passed along for hundreds of years.
Lönnrot listened to the most renowned singers. One of the storylines Lönnrot heard sung in numerous variations was the story of the Sampo. The details varied from singer to another, but one basic idea remained: The Sampo was something powerful that created endless fortune. The Sampo is quite mysterious. The poems do not tell how the Sampo exactly looks – only that is has a “lid of many colors” and three mills on its sides. Also the scholars have pondered what it symbolizes.

The basic storylines of The Kalevala revolve around the relationship between Kalevala and Pohjola. The heroes of The Kalevala live in Kalevala, while a powerful witch, Louhi, lives in Pohjola. Pohjola is feared and despised, but the daughters of Louhi are legendarily beautiful. Thus, they are desired by men in Kalevala, who are willing to do stupid deeds to court Louhi’s daughters. The Kalevala has a rich gallery of hubristic heroes: they have magic powers, but they also are tragic and ridiculous, blinded by their pride, greed, and desires.

The importance of singing in Finnic culture is prominent in the stories of The Kalevala. The main hero, Väinämöinen is a shamanistic character who is introduced as an “eternal bard”. He uses the power of singing whenever his powers are not enough, whether to craft a boat or to beat a rival. When he slays a great pike, and makes himself a magical kantele, Finnic zither, all the creatures under the North Star gather around him to listen to him sing and play.

The archaic poem singing was a vital tradition throughout Finland until the 1500s, when Lutheran Church forbade singing as a pagan practice. Poem singing occurred both in everyday contexts, and in rituals. Elias Lönnrot organized The Kalevala around epic stories he heard, but The Kalevala also contains charms, origin myths such as the origin of the world, and the origin of iron, lyric songs that express emotions, and ritual songs such as the ones sang at weddings or bear-killing feasts. Singing was not a profession, but it was honorable to know a lot of songs.

Kalevala poetry is sung in the Trochaic tetrameter. The meter fits well with the rhythm of Finnish language. The basic Kalevala melody covers a narrow range, usually consisting of only five notes. The poems include alliteration and repetition, which helped the singers remember the verses. The poems were important in teaching the new generations about traditions, innovations, and beliefs.

The stories evolved across the centuries as new innovations, contacts and stories became part of the shared reality. This is why some stories or characters may seem familiar to audiences not acquainted with Finnish culture. The poems may contain features from Viking legends, Western myths and Christian stories.

As some of the poems were centuries old, Lönnrot thought he would be able put together the past of the Finns by listening to the renowned singers and curating the stories he heard into a cohesive national epic. He had Homer as his role model, and he wanted to create something as great as Iliad or Odyssey. His endeavor was part of a bigger process of nation building for a country that did not yet exist. Indeed, Kalevala was instrumental in the development of the Finnish national identity.

The Kalevala is an important part of the Finnish culture both in art and in everyday life. Kalevala motifs are prominent in paintings of the Golden Age of Finnish Art, and Kalevala keeps inspiring artists, authors and researchers. It has also influenced a lot of place names, personal names, product names and company names.

Kalevala also has fans outside of Finland. It has been translated to 59 languages. Among the biggest names that have used stories from The Kalevala as their inspiration is probably J.R.R. Tolkien. Why did you think the Elvish language Quenya sounds so much like Finnish? After watching the TED-Ed video you probably also notice some similarities between the Sampo and the One Ring.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Hanna-Ilona Härmävaara
  • Director WOW-HOW Studio
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Sasha Dudka
  • Character Designer Denis Bousygin
  • Illustrator Sasha Dudka, Nikita Bondarenko, Anna Aleksandrova, Victor Zhuravliov
  • Animator Sasha Dudka, Alex Bohdan, Elmar Aleskerov, Dmitrii Zakharchuk
  • Art Director Anna Dolzhenko
  • Producer Alex Isaev, Daria Kachan
  • Music Bamm Bamm Wolfgang
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Associate Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Joseph Isaac

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