Study Guide

Minerva and Arachne The Kalevala

The Kalevala

The Kalevala is a 19th century collection of epic poetry based on the legends and folklore of Finland. The work was compiled by Finnish author, Elias Lonnrot. It was first published in 1835, and is considered to be Finland's National Epic. The third rune (chapter) of The Kalevala relates the story of a singing contest between two wizards, Wainamoinen and Youkahainen.

According to the legend, Wainamoinen was both the most powerful wizard and the greatest singer ever born. (In Finnish mythology magic is accomplished by singing.) Having grown old and wise (like all wizards), Wainamoinen lives contentedly on the plains of Wainolia, in Kalevala. He practices his crafts amidst the peace of the grasslands, and his fame as wizard and singer is wide spread.

One day, word of Wainamoinen's talent reaches the ears of the young bard (singer and storyteller) Youkahainen. Youkahainen is instantly outraged that an old man living on the plains would claim to be the world's best singer. Youkahainen informs his parents that he intends to travel to Wainolia and confront Wainamoinen. Youkahainen's parents try to talk their son out of his foolish plan, explaining that they believe it will lead to disaster, but the rash youth ignores them.

Youkahainen saddles his horse and hitches it to a golden sleigh. (Apparently Finnish people travel by sleigh.) He then gathers his possessions and sets out across the (snowy) fields towards Wainolia. Youkahainen is in such hurry to confront Wainamoinen that he whips his horse to its fastest speed. He flies over the snow, and after traveling the distance to Wainolia actually collides head on with Wainamoinen, in a sleigh going the other direction. The crash destroys Wainamoinen's sleigh.

Irritated by the loss of his vehicle, Wainamoinen demands to know who the younger man is and where he's going in such a hurry. Youkahainen responds with scorn, giving his name reluctantly and then demanding to know the older man's name and why he dares to be in Youkahainen's way. When Wainamoinen reveals his identity Youkahainen immediately challenges him to a singing contest.

Wainamoinen denies any skill at singing, claiming to be a simple man, but accepts the young bard's challenge. Wainamoinen urges Youkahainen to go first, daring the bard to impress him with his knowledge and voice. Youkahainen sings about a wide variety of things, demonstrating all the knowledge he has gained during his life. Wainamoinen listens, but after each verse he demands more, claiming to be unimpressed. Finally, Youkahainen runs out of subjects to sing about. Having failed to impress the old man with his knowledge, he offers a duel of swords instead. Wainamoinen refuses the duel, saying that he would never waste a sword fight with someone like Youkahainen. Youkahainen responds by calling the older man a coward.

Just FYI, it's not a good idea to accuse a powerful wizard of cowardice. Wainamoinen takes offense at the bard's words. He begins to sing, and the power of his voice shakes the very landscape. With his magic he strips Youkahainen of all his possessions, turning his horse, sleigh, clothes, and everything else into miscellaneous other items. The young man's sword, for instance, he transforms into a lightning bolt and places in the sky above them.

Finally, Wainamoinen's magic changes the ground beneath Youkahainen into quicksand, and the young bard begins to sink. At this point Youkahainen realizes his mistake. He begs the old wizard for mercy, and offers a reward if Wainamoinen will save him. Wainamoinen asks what Youkahainen will give. The young bard rattles off a list of rewards, including a pair of magic horses, but to each answer Wainamoinen shakes his head and lets the bard sink further into the ground. In the end, Youkahainen promises to see Wainamoinen married to his sister, Aino. Wainamoinen accepts, and using his magic he rescues the bard and returns all of his belongings.

This particular myth doesn't include a goddess, although wizards are very similar to gods. Especially old, powerful wizards. What it does include is a contest between older and younger craftsmen. Most importantly, the story maintains the basic themes of pride and hubris. Youkahainen completely disrespects Wainamoinen as a result of overconfidence. (Notice that Wainamoinen is humble about his talent, in spite of the fact that he's clearly better than Youkahainen.) As with Minerva and Arachne the contest ends with the older, superior wizard coming out on top. Moral of the story: don't challenge your betters, especially not wizards and deities.

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