Experiencing the magic of Kalevala

By | March 17, 2021

Last Saturday, the 13th of March – a dark night of the new moon – I received a copy of Kalevala from a friend of mine who can best be described as an Icelandic poet. This was not a gift; only a loan. A tattered copy published in the 80s – purchased secondhand – this most excellent translation by Keith Bosley belongs to his wife, an established author in Finland.

Bosley’s introduction serves to frame the setting for the word songs of Kaleva, but it was his notes that opened up a whole new world of the mind for me. In particular, the annotation against one word – sang – the past tense of the English language verb to sing – struck me forcibly. I quote Bosley’s note below:

sang: bewitched. The verb often connotes magic. When its object is a person it is sometimes rendered ‘sing at’; when the object is a thing, this being called into existence.

About two weeks previously, I had already felt compelled to go looking for a copy of an old book – The New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology – to refresh my memory of the tales I grew up reading. My own copy, a gift received as a child in the 1970s, was far away and inaccessible in my mother’s attic. When Bosley’s words on singing magic caught my attention, I was unexpectedly well prepared to look up the chapter on Finno-Ugric mythology and the magic of Kalevala, without relying on chancy content from the internet. Let me quote here the relevant sentences:

It is, in fact, rather curious that one of the chief magic formulas in the Kalevala consists of retracing the origin of the things over which one wishes to have a hold. It is only thus that one can subjugate them. […] Every time that a man, in work, had to deal with matter he must, in order to deal with it successfully, know the formula.

That is, as far as I am able to tell without longer and deeper study and discussion with someone learned in the language of Kaleva and its mythical concepts, it is the use of efficacious words – most often in the form of word songs – that give man power over things. Not unlike Ursula K. Le Guin’s far better known stories on magic centered on the power of names, and thus their unbinding.

I went back to Bosley’s notes to understand the concept of framing wisdom as the knowledge of the origin of things – of knowing the right words to use – before one could have the power to effect change upon them, in some form or the other – the conceptual definition of magic that I was gleaning from the Kalevala. And, here is his annotation on patterns:

patterns: kirja and related words refer to patterns both natural and man-made, often with magical significance. (In modern Finnish kirja and kirjoittaa mean ‘book’ and ‘to write’, but the old meaning survives in kirjava, ‘many-coloured, mottled, speckled, brindled’.)

This, then, is the introduction or background to the increasing sense of creative inspiration and the urge to explore it further that I’ve been feeling since the 14th of March 2021. Last night, I first spoke about these seeds of thought with a Finnish friend calling in from Tampere whose inputs encouraged me to start with writing this today. And so, I begin by quoting Kalevala‘s opening line based on his intuitive interpretation as “I’m thinking about thinking…”

Mieleni minun tekevi, aivoni ajattelevi…

For the longest time, at worst one could say stretching back to the December of 2010, I have felt blocked from experiencing the rhythm of my words as my fingers flew over the keyboard whilst writing. It felt as though the music of my words had been lost to me. The pleasure I used to feel in the first five years of blogging had been stolen somehow, and thereafter, it was always a painful struggle to write and to compose, whether a short blogpost, a few scraps of words tumbling out to capture a momentary experience, or an analytical article on a subject matter I have long studied. So much so that I had even forgotten about the pleasure of playing the computer’s keyboard with my touch typing trained fingers until the Kalevala resurrected the memory within me.

“What is to be done?” must acknowledge the force of writing, its metaphoricity and its rhetorical discourse, as a productive matrix which defines the ‘social’ and makes it available as an objective of and for, action. ~ Homi Bhabha, quoted September 2005.

This blogpost might be the first of more, or it might end here for now. I can already tell that it will not be a literary analysis, although I’ve found myself quoting Bhabha above. For now, what I feel I need is a way to express myself in words again, and to attempt to capture or grasp the core essence of what the Kalevala is speaking to me.

First, my interpretation of the concept of magic in the form of word song formulae that describe the heart of what is being addressed – the origin, as the Finnish word synty is described, or genesis – as the foundation on which one then acquires the power to transform it in some manner goes one step further to frame it as a deep understanding or knowledge of what is, as the starting point, before one can conceive of transmuting it into what could be; resonates deeply with my earliest thinking and writing on the power of design, as captured in my first blog Perspective back in 2005-2007. All the links in this blogpost are taken from there.

Second, when I add the fact that patterns, in Finnish, have their basis in the word form for both writing as well as books, that is, the idea that ideas are patterns formed with words; it touches me deeply within – scraping the keloid scars grown over a long held belief – that I could only design with words. That my creative ability to envision and give form – to manifest tangibly the visions seen in my mind’s eye – were only possible through the descriptive power of my words, in the form of my writing; and, that I was forever to remain crippled as a designer by never having practised enough nor perfected the model making and rendering skills expected in industrial design.

Even now, the words aren’t flowing as they should, in the patterns and rhythms that I made my own, by blogging daily for years decades ago. I stop and edit and rewrite and it feels clunkier than the textual forms I made my own way back then. For perfect grammatical english was not my goal, so much as a voice of my own, in a medium stripped of all nuance and personality. That’s part of the frustration I feel when I approach writing on the blog these days. It was around June 2011, that I first remember experiencing the constraint of moving away from my personal signature style – a personal voice speaking to my readers in an intimate setting – to a colder more impersonal professional voice to be used for public writing.

At this point, just days away from my 55th birthday, I don’t know if I want to go back to the writing style of 15 years ago, or if its even possible to do so – how much of our voice in written form is a reflection of who we are at that point, as a person? And, it would be foolish to think that one can turn back the clock of time to return to age 39 or 40 again, without a lifetime’s experiences across continents and countries and cultures collected since then? On the other hand, I am tired and frustrated of never feeling the music of my words again the way I used to feel back when i first started blogging in San Francisco, spending my days in thinking and writing, exploring the interstitial spaces between business and design, as I used to claim on Core77 back then.

It is the memory of this word song, the rhythm of my writing, the way the words would flow, the music that made me return over and over again to read my own words, that opening the Kalevala has brought forth like a long dormant seed after a harsh and cold winter. Only yesterday, I was saying to my friend that reading it has made me feel like the ice might be melting in my veins and that I was beginning to clumsily sense hints of spring moving long frozen blood inside of me again, though I felt trapped still within the cage of silence and did not yet have the words or colours with which to paint the warm.

“… don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you. ~ Rumi, borrowed from Evelyn’s blog

As someone who consciously took the decision to make a living based on the ability to recognize patterns, and then articulate them, in context, for value creation, and the greater good, Kalevala’s magic based on words and their meanings, their choices and the concepts which they described – all conferring the ability to shape and create – to give form, once understanding the function – is one that I already know speaks to my doctoral dissertation research exploring the adaptation of methodology for complex and different operating environments of varied uncertainty and inadequacy of knowledge and data.

How I will be able to bring to life these new fruits of an old memory of a long forgotten song I am still yet to discover. And, what role, if any, it will play in my own future work is still unknown.

But explore this direction I must, if I am to find the music of my words again, the rhythm in my mind’s ear and the fingers flying across the keyboard, if nothing else, than to be able to conceive of and complete the written requirements of my PhD.

Already, I can tell that I am not happy with what I’ve written down today – far too clumsy and too slow to manifest. Maybe if nothing else, I can try to come back to this seed of creation again and again, with different life forms for the words in music. Perhaps that will be the task I set myself this week, as the foreword to the writing I must complete this year.

Can my fingers make music on the keys again like I used to do so long ago? And, even if I have grown much much older now, and cannot return to the freshness of discovery of those long ago and well explored ideas – now stale words and concepts – can I find the music in the novelty of research insights, or the rhythm in deeply exploring the concepts and methods that will make up the academic articles I must write?

I miss the music of my words, and most of all, I miss the pleasure of sitting down to write and to create and shape my dreams of a world and the future simply with my words. Where has my magic gone lost, Kaleva, and can your land’s poetry help me find it again?



It seems I have been moved into writing more, collected under tag Kaleva’s songs 

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