Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mieleni Minun Tekevi

A high school student from the south is coming to meet with me today. She's writing a paper about Finland's mythology (otherwise known as "Kalevala poetry"). The millions of readers who frequent this blog and don't know me personally may not be aware of it, but I'm considered a prime expert on Finnish mythology among Hebrew speakers, which is the single most random thing a person can be.

Truth be told, I'm not even sure how big an expert I am today. Five years have passed since I published my book on the subject and the relevant volumes I've collected at the time have been pretty dormant since. Still, there are some aspects of the culture with which I remained in deep contact. They can be summed up in this:

There are no angels in Finnish lore, but there is a lot of Finnishness in this angel, created by painter Hugo Simberg to adorn the walls of Tampere's cathedral.

Finland's legends date back to the stone age and they are at one time intensely minimalistic and very complex. The Finnish hero is hardly a hero, but a living, flawed human entity. Väinämöinen, the Kalevala's chief protagonist, is more similar to impulsive and often morally lax King David than to marble-statue Theseus or Perseus. The melancholy of dark forests and long winters is evoked in his failures, his wrath, his wry sense of humor.

There's a deeply abstract core to the Finnish legends and this element is apparent in a lot of Finnish art. The story of Simberg's painting is entirely the work of Simberg's imagination, but it is steeped with the Kalevala's spirit: the mix of magic and realism (industrial Tampere's smokestacks appear right over the angel's head), The potent melancholy, the deep modesty, the mystery of things left unexplained. You can take your mind off of Finland, but you can't take a dark bit of sorcery away from your life once it's touched you. One look at this painting and I feel prepared for the meeting.

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