Ancient Powers of the Baltic Sea
Ancient Powers of the Baltic Sea is a significantly updated version in English translation of Professor Matti Klinge's 1984 book <Muinaisuutemme merivallat in Finnish and Östersjövälden in Swedish. The volume was translated by Professor Ain Haas who is a prominent professor of sociology in the USA.
Finland's pre-eminent historian, Matti Klinge has enhanced the book with 75 wonderful historical documents and maps as illustrations. The book has generated some degree of controversy and serves as a thoughtful, eye-opening contribution to Mediaeval history and the European connections of old.
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The following is the Translator’s Foreword, wherein he notes that those interested in Estonian culture can use the book as a guide to interpreting certain enigmatic portions of the material in folklore archives or historical documents. Reprinted by permission.
This collection of essays on the ancient history of peoples living around the Baltic Sea was originally written for the 150th anniversary of the great epic Kalevala (1835). The latter work was compiled by Elias Lönnrot, mostly on the basis of folk poems sung in remote villages of the northern Finnish-Karelian border area, where old Finnic legends were better preserved than in the rest of Finland, Estonia, or Livonia. Lönnrot’s epic played a crucial role in the rise of Finnish national consciousness, in an era when a Swedish-speaking cultural elite and a Russian imperial administration dominated Finland.
Even today, Finnish writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types look to Kalevala for inspiration for new works. References to the characters, incidents, and themes of the epic are common in modern Finnish culture. So it is understandable why Matti Klinge, a professor of history at Helsinki University, would want to examine various aspects of the Kalevala epic and try to shed light on its historical context. As much of his original Finnish text deals with the relationship between the ancient Finns and Swedes, the publication of a revised Swedish version of it is also understandable.
The present volume is the first English-language version of Prof. Klinge’s book. Readers of Finnish or Swedish ancestry will undoubtedly find the material interesting, but what about others? For the wider readership of English-speakers, this volume provides unique insights into an epic that is recognized as a classic of world literature and has inspired important writers in other lands to compose similar poems on the basis of native lore (e.g., Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in America and Kreutzwald’s Kalevipoeg in Estonia).
Kalevala was truly a seminal work, leading many others in Finland and elsewhere to collect similar verses and tales from the bearers of a disappearing oral tradition, to compare alternate versions, and to speculate on the original setting and meaning of folk poems. This produced a wealth of carefully catalogued source material in extensive folklore archives, and provided a solid base for systematic studies of the preservation, diffusion, and modification of ancient lore. A groundbreaking classic work in the field of folklore studies, Kaarle Krohn’s Folklore Methodology, drew on this body of Finnic folk poems to illustrate how the points of origin of widespread themes might be discerned.
What Prof. Klinge’s book adds to the great mass of commentary and analysis of the Kalevala epic and related folklore is an unusually strong case for a realistic interpretation. Heretofore, the emphasis has been on the hidden symbolism, mystical nature, and fantastic aspects of the verses. In particular, the central concept of sampo (some kind of decorated column which could bring prosperity) has been the subject of much speculation and debate. Prof. Klinge offers an exciting new perspective on the matter, drawing on his vast knowledge of ancient Northern European trading networks. Tying together pieces of evidence from old sketches, carvings, and documents from many lands, he presents a most plausible argument that the sampo was a kind of pillar-statue monument that served as a navigation mark and symbol of a safe harbor and proper marketplace for seafaring merchants. He also makes clear why the Crusaders destroyed these monuments and how the original meaning of the term became distorted in the folk poems that preserved a hazy memory of them.
Likewise, Prof. Klinge shows how references to travelers’ flying in the old verses were evidently metaphorical allusions to sailing in fast-moving Viking-style ships, and finds hints of ancient sea routes in the oral tradition. He is not the first to argue that many of the events, scenes, and personages described in the verses of Kalevala and related folk poems—most of which were collected far inland--actually reflect a coastal setting. Nor is he the first to posit that this environment included areas of Finnic settlement far south of modern Finland. But he presents new evidence for such interpretations. Moreover, he draws on his knowledge of old seafaring networks and empires to clarify how the ancient Karelians, Finns, Votes, Estonians, Livonians, and other peoples of the Baltic Finnic family could develop and maintain close links with each other and become respected trading partners within an international system that predated the medieval Hanseatic League.
The Baltic Finns’ openness to adoption of inventions and ideas from other seafaring peoples of Northern Europe, particularly the Swedes, Danes, and Germans, is thus shown to be something that has deeper roots than is commonly realized. It did not begin with their subjugation by the Crusaders. At best, the conquest accelerated processes that were already well established centuries earlier. The Western orientation and maritime culture of the coastal Finnic peoples in modern times can be traced far back into antiquity, which helps explain the difficulty of their incorporation and assimilation by a land-based empire to the East. The ease with which they have interacted with their neighbors on the western and southern shores of the Baltic is therefore not puzzling, and their contemporary integration into the European Union is no aberration, from the perspective of their earlier course of development.
Prof. Klinge’s book also compels us to reexamine the problem of nationalism in this part of the world. The ethnic identities and national boundaries of today are shown to have had little relevance to the distinctions made in olden times. While terms like “Finns” and “Swedes” have a long history, the scope of their application was once quite different from the “Finland” and “Sweden” of today. The old documents must therefore be interpreted with caution. For example, the “Finns” may in some sources refer to groups that lived a considerable distance from the territory of Finland (e.g., Estonians or Livonians), while the “Swedes” may include residents of central Sweden or western Finland, but not the Goths of southern Sweden. The ethnic groupings that we recognize today as being fairly congruent with their namesake countries were in ancient times less clearly demarcated, internally more diverse, and less isolated from other nationalities than is generally assumed.
The book also demonstrates how careful attention to the traditions of other lands can shed light on a given nationality’s customs. This is especially important when there is a lack of written records and engravings, as was the case with the elusive ancient Finnic peoples. Prof. Klinge’s familiarity with the better-documented past of the ancient Germanic peoples makes it easier to understand what their Finnic neighbors of the time were doing. Cryptic passages in Finnic folk poetry thus begin to make sense, and the lost meanings of archaic verses can be recovered to some extent.
The insights the book offers into Finnish-Karelian folk poetry can also be applied to verses from their cultural cousins. For example, those interested in Estonian culture can use the book as a guide to interpreting certain enigmatic portions of the material in folklore archives or historical documents. The plentiful variants of poems about human-figure statues of wood and/or precious metal (see M.J. Eisen at al., Eesti rahvalaulud dr. Jakob Hurda ja teiste kogudest, 1926, pp. 73-109, 472-473) may have some connection to the sampo tradition. Occasionally one finds even explicit references to such statues “rising” from the sea (see the poem “Mis mees merest tõuseb?” in L. Vihalem’s collection, Valimik eesti rahvaluulet keskkoolile, 1958, p. 5), which is how they would appear to those aboard a ship approaching a harbor with such a navigation mark. Descriptions of trips abroad tend to mention the same routes that Prof. Klinge lists in his description of the ancient Finnic coastal trading network, including the crucial Saaremaa-Finland artery (H. Neus, Estnische Volkslieder, 1850-52, pp. 366, 428-430). References to Estonian sailors’ taking wives from these places suggests that the relationships with their trading partners were intimate and long-lasting.
Finally, Prof. Klinge shows how ancient maps and sketches, for all their inaccuracies and distortions, can be mined for valuable information. Seemingly insignificant details from various drawings can be combined into an exposition that clarifies the social organization, national symbols, and world views of yore. We thus get a better understanding of how the nations around the Baltic Sea developed, what the sources of major similarities and differences are, and how the interrelations between the nationalities in the area today reflect contacts between their ancestors.