The Kalevala is a curious creature that evades easy categorisation. At its most basic level it is a united, flowing, epic poem assembled in its final form in 1849 by Elias Lönnrot. Only 3% of the work is thought to be of his own invention, however. Taking a step back it is built on a collection of Finnish folk poetry that was originally penned sometime in the 1600s over a vast area of Finland. The poetry was originally performed in song and is consequently fairly rigid in form and meter (for any music or literature geeks – specifically the trochaic tetrameter).
These 17th century songs are not nearly the beginning of the material. They reflect much older oral traditions, which are evident in many of the themes the Kalevala expresses. The oldest deal with the creation of the Earth and are notoriously difficult to date, although some speculate a figure of about 3000 years ago.
Of particular fascination to me, is the amount of lyrics in the saga dedicated to beer. An interesting and frequently quoted figure, albeit overstated, is that nearly 400 lines in the Kalevala deal with beer, while but 200 deal with creation.
In the 13th poem we have the retelling of the origin of beer. This poem has proved an important but hotly contested source in trying to nail down the elusive place or time when hops began to be used in the brewing process. Based largely on the premise that the lore in the Kalevala come from much earlier oral traditions, some have proposed that the Scandinavians were the first to grow hops specifically for beer. [For more on this debate see Ian S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing, London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2004. Pps. 303-14]
“Takes the golden grains of barley,
Taking six of barley-kernels,
Taking seven tips of hop-fruit,
Filling seven cups with water,
On the fire she sets the caldron,
Boils the barley, hops, and water,
Lets them steep, and seethe, and bubble
Brewing thus the beer delicious,
In the hottest days of summer,
On the foggy promontory,
On the island forest-covered;
Poured it into birch-wood barrels,
Into hogsheads made of oak-wood.”
Thus far so good, but the beer does not ferment. So growing troubled she queries, “What will bring the effervescence, Who will add the needed factor, That the beer may foam and sparkle, May ferment and be delightful?” Enlisting the help of Kalevatar, the magical maiden, they conjure creatures to fetch ingredients to ferment the beer. The first is a snow-white squirrel which is sent into the forests of the mountains to retrieve cones from a fir tree. Sadly, when they “Laid them in the beer for ferment, But it brought no effervescence, And the beer was cold and lifeless.”
The second creature, a golden-breasted marten, was sent on the unenviable mission of fetching foam from the mouths of bears in battle (presumed to contain yeast). The marten returns successful and unscathed, yet the foam “brought no effervescence, Did not make the liquor sparkle.” Finally a honey-bee is summoned and is instructed to fly to an island in the ocean, and to collect the sweetened juices from the flowering grass beside a sleeping maid. Upon the bees return, the pollen is added to the birch-wood barrels, and the fermentation takes off in earnest, overflowing the barrels and runs in streams into Pahjola.
Osmata is distraught, believing she has failed and that the wedding feast will be a failure. But the birds in the trees assure her that the beer is good, and so she barrels some more and the feast is a great success.
Thus, the Finnish origin of beer:
“Great indeed the reputation
Of the ancient beer of Kalew,
Said to make the feeble hardy,
Famed to dry the tears of women,
Famed to cheer the broken-hearted,
Make the aged young and supple,
Make the timid brave and mighty,
Make the brave men ever braver,
Fill the heart with joy and gladness,
Fill the mind with wisdom-sayings,
Fill the tongue with ancient legends,
Only makes the fool more foolish."
And for Lord of the Rings fans – Tolkien stated that the Kalevala saga was one of his sources that inspired the Silmarillion. You’ll find that several characters and events in the book are readily identifiable in the epic.
* All quotes from the Kalevala are taken from John Martin Crawford’s 1888 English translation.