August 19, 2022

The Sampo

         Today’s post is on something about which I am definitely not an expert.  Rather, it’s one of those things I happened to hear about and found intriguing.  So I’ve looked it up and offer you a very surface-level summary of something that tickled my fancy.  That something is the Sampo.  What is the Sampo?  Well, part of the fun is that no one seems to know exactly what it is.  It’s a magical artifact that features prominently in the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland.  A poem cycle collected and edited from oral folklore in the mid-nineteenth century, the Kalevala has several different sections describing the actions, reactions, and interactions of a handful of characters.  And then there’s the Sampo.
        The Sampo is forged by Ilmarinen, a god of metalworking and master artificer and inventor, at the demand of Louhi, the witch queen of the north - although it takes a fair amount of extortion and trickery to get even to this stage.  Once Ilmarinen started working on a magical artifact, he had several rough drafts.  A magical crossbow was rejected because it demanded a victim every day, a magical ship was rejected because it always sailed toward battle, a magical cow was rejected simply because it was ill-tempered(!), and a magical plow was rejected because it plowed up meadows and fields that were already planted.  But finally Ilmarinen succeeds in creating the Sampo, with which he is pleased.  He presents it to Louhi, who locks it away in her vault.  Later Ilmarinen and the other heroes set out to take the Sampo from Louhi by force, because it brings prosperity to her whole land, and they want some of that wealth.  In the ensuing battle the Sampo falls into the sea and is lost forever.
        Okay, but what IS the Sampo?  Well, I said at the top that “no one seems to know,” but actually I think it’s more a case of everyone knowing exactly what they think the Sampo is, but it’s just that they all wildly disagree with each other.  Some scholars think it’s a sort of world pillar or world tree, others a compass, or a treasure chest, or various other kinds of artifacts.  In the Kalevala it’s described as a sort of multi-sided mill which grinds out infinite useful things.
On one side the flour is grinding,
On another salt is making,
On a third is money forging,
And the lid is many-colored.
Well the Sampo grinds when finished,
To and fro the lid is rocking,
Grinds one measure at the day-break,
Grinds a measure fit for eating,
Grinds a second for the market,
Grinds a third one for the store-house.
        You can see how this would bring prosperity!  There are other similar magical devices in folk and fairy tales from around the world, such as the salt mill in “Why the Sea is Salt,” the cornucopia of Greek mythology, and a variety of ever-filling pots.  Many of these other artifacts also get lost or destroyed at the end of their stories - often, like the Sampo, because of people behaving greedily.  However, the Sampo may be unique (in my knowledge) for its variety of products.  Plus it’s beautifully decorated, so I think it gets bonus points for that!  Still, I notice in my search for pictures, that while there are lots of illustrations of “the forging of the Sampo,” I don’t see a lot of pictures of what it looks like when it’s finished.
        I am not very familiar with the Kalevala, and I very much enjoyed learning a bit about this wondrous, though ill-fated, magical object.  If you could make a Sampo, what would you have it produce?  And how would you decorate it?

[Pictures: The Forging of the Sampo, painting by Joseph Alanen, 1910-11 (Image from Tampere Art Museum);

The Forging of the Sampo, painting by Väinö Blomstedt, 1897 (Image from Kalevaseura).]


JadeLi said...

It sounds like one of those myths where symbolism linked with the cultural expectations of the day it was written could solve the mystery.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

JadeLi, I'm sure you're right that being immersed in the culture would clear a lot up. I also think that, since it comes from oral history, there probably were lots of different versions originally, depending on who was telling the story.