Raising the Dead: Medicine Women Who Revive and Retrieve Souls II

by Max Dashu


In the 15th Rune of the Kalevala (Finnish folk tradition) a valiant witch-mother brings her son back to life. She is not named, but other clues in the tradition identify her as Ilmatar.  She notices baleful omens –the hairbrush of her absent son Lemminkäinen’s is exuding blood . Knowing something is amiss, she rushes north to Pohyola, the northern land of the dead, where her son had traveled on a rash quest, against her advice.

She travels in a shamanic manner:

On her arm she throws her long-robes,
Fleetly flies upon her journey;
With her might she hastens northward,
Mountains tremble from her footsteps,
Valleys rise and heights are lowered,
Highlands soon become as lowlands,
All the hills and valleys leveled.

Louhi spins on a hillside, painted by the Finnish artist Gallen-Kallella
Louhi spins on a hillside, painted by the Finnish artist Gallen-Kallella

Ilmatar interrogates Louhi, mistress of the dead, whose daughter Lemminkäinen had come to court, to discover what became of her son. Three times she asks before she gets a straight answer, and she goes to find him. Again she travels in a shamanic manner:

Now the mother seeks her lost one,
For her son she weeps and trembles,
Like the wolf she bounds through fenlands,
Like the bear, through forest thickets,
Like the wild-boar, through the marshes,
Like the hare, along the sea-coast,
To the sea-point, like the hedgehog,
Like the wild-duck swims the waters…”

She questions the forest, the pathways, and the golden moon, but all answer that they don’t know, being preoccupied with their own concerns. Finally the sun answers her, saying that Lemminkäinen disappeared into the whirlpool of the river Tuoni.

The mother goes to a smith, asking him to forge a special rake she can use to plumb the waters. She takes it to the river Tuoni, calling on the sun for strength, and rakes the waters looking for her son’s body. She finds his clothing, then his parts of his body—dismembered by animals—and continues until she has found them all. “Then the mother, well reflecting, Spake these words in bitter weeping: ‘From these fragments, with my magic, I will bring to life my hero’.”

Now the poem evokes a very old healing incantation. It resonates with the chant of “bone to bone, flesh to flesh” that is found across northern Europe, including in a rare 10th century pagan incantation in Old German—the Merseberg Charm. Ilmatar

Shapes her son from all the fragments
Shapes anew her Lemminkainen
Flesh to flesh with skill she places
Gives the bones their proper stations
Binds one member to the other
Joins the ends of severed vessels
Counts the threads of all the venules
Knits the parts in apposition…

Then the healer invokes Suonetar, goddess of the veins, to reunify the severed parts, using charms of spinning, sewing, and rowing to call up the desired transformation:

Skilful spinner of the vessels,
With thy slender, silver spindle,
With thy spinning-wheel of copper,
Set in frame of molten silver,
Come thou hither, thou art needed;
Bring the instruments for mending,
Firmly knit the veins together,
At the end join well the venules,
In the wounds that still are open,
In the members that are injured.

The shaman-mother performs a ceremony to bring her child back to life. Gallen-Kallela has painted small bronze medicine objects that she has thrust into the pebbled shore.
The shaman-mother performs a ceremony to bring her child back to life. Gallen-Kallela has painted small bronze medicine objects that she has thrust into the pebbled shore.

Then the healer invokes a maiden in a copper boat, floating in the ether, to come “from the belt of heaven”:

Row throughout these veins, O maiden,
Row through all these lifeless members,
Through the channels of the long-bones,
Row through every form of tissue.
Set the vessels in their places,
Lay the heart in right position,
Make the pulses beat together,
Join the smallest of the veinlets,
And unite with skill the sinews.
Take thou now a slender needle,
Silken thread within its eyelet,
Ply the silver needle gently,
Sew with care the wounds together.

For good measure, Ilmatar calls on the heavenly god Ukko to mend the wounds. She succeeds in restoring the integrity of her son’s body—but he is still lifeless. Now the medicine woman asks, “Where may I procure the balsam, Where the drops of magic honey,” with which to anoint and restore Lemminkäinen. She sends a bee to gather honey from sacred forests, but to no avail. She sends the bee again to fetch a stronger honey, across the seven oceans to a magic island (a staple of Russian healing charms, too). Still the inert body cannot speak. So she dispatches the bee to the seventh heaven, and tasting the honey, finds it full of healing virtue. She anoints her son’s body and this time succeeds in fully restoring him to life.

She asks Lemminkäinen how he came to this pass, and before long is reproaching his foolhardiness: “O thou son of little insight/ Senseless hero, fool-magician/ Thou didst boast betimes thy magic / To enchant the wise enchanters/ On the dismal shores of Lapland.” The Kalevala contains several of these female commentaries on the recklessness of male heroes, the harms of war, and attempts to dissuade men from battle.

Like Isis, Ilmatar gathers up the parts of her loved one, and like her, uses charms—words of power—to restore him. Also like Auset, she is a goddess—another avatar of the creation goddess Luonnetar—who is represented as a living woman. As in the tradition of Pa Sini Jobu, Lemminkäinen’s body is represented as hopelessly beyond repair: dead for days, rent by beasts. These accounts highlight the revivifying power of the female shaman; even in the direst of circumstances, she is able to resurrect the dead.

We will see this theme repeated in the Manchu epic Nishan Shaman, in the next installment.

The Kalevala translations used here are from John Martin Crawford, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, 1888 Rune XV. Online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm

© 2013 Max Dashu