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The Power Of Finland's 'Kalevala'

At 60 degrees north, at high noon on January 6, in Finland, I saw the sun six degrees above the horizon and truly realized we live on a sphere. Some 10,000 years ago a people speaking a non-Indo-European language, the Finns, migrated into this northern land.

For these past 10,000 years an oral tradition of folk tales and songs called the Kalevala has been kept alive by the people. Generation after generation the Finns sat knee to knee, facing one another, hand holding hand, next to the fire, rocking, telling the tales. For 10,000 years.

The Kalevala was written down in the 19th century. The songs, still sung, had laid the groundwork for a masterpiece similar in its gestation to Homer's Illiad and Odyssey. Just as Homer's works transformed Greek oral tradition into a written form, into literature, so too the Kalevala became literature read by all Finns in high school.

The Kalevala is read in school as we read Chaucer. But the Kalevala is so ancient in its origins and imagery that Chaucer feels a bit like a medieval Days of Our Lives.

A bit of the first song goes something like this:

"The Air-Lass tumbled in the waves, her belly hard with the coming birth of the first bard, tumbled in the waves of the waters. Tumbled for 30 years, hard bellied. Tumbled in the waters."

"A small bird appeared over the Air-Lass in the waters, looking for a place to land. The Air-Lass lifted her knee. The bird landed, grateful."

"The bird laid nine metal eggs: eight iron, one gold. Three hatched. The Air-Lass moved and the other eggs fell into the water. One cracked open. The yellow became the sun. The white became the moon. The bottom half shell became the earth. The top half shell became the sky."

It makes me cry.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stuart Kauffman

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