Eino Friberg, Finnish-American Poet and Translator

In the translation work of elder Finnish-American song bard Eino Friberg, the ancient stories of Finland come alive for modern english-speaking readers. In the 1800's an effort was made to preserve the ancient songs. Folklorists like Elias Lönnrot travelled around remote areas of Border-Karelia and Ostrobotnia recording large amounts of poetry from rural peasants, rune singers, with names that evoke a strange language and an ancient race: Arhippa Perttunen of Latvajärvi, Timo Lempitsa, Ontrei Malinen the Pack Peddler, Simana of Mekrijärvi, Okoi Audista and Valpuri Vohta. The collected songs of Finnish oral tradition are known together as the Kalevala, the National Epic of Finland. Eino Friberg graduated from Harvard in 1930 with an M.A. in philosophy and social ethics. He wrote poetry and plays on topics relating to Finnish culture, and won an award for his translation of Horace from Latin. He served as a minister in the Unitarian-Universalist church for seven years. Now in his nineties, Eino Friberg began his Kalevala translation work at the age of 75. His Magnum Opus was completed and published, with the help of a grant from the Finnish parliament, in 1988. It is truly an astonishing work, all the more amazing because Mr. Friberg has been blind since age 10. The entire Finnish text of the Kalevala was rendered into Braille for him so he could work on the english translation at his own pace. But Eino's deep love of the Kalevala, his intimacy with its subtleties, stems from the fact that much of it over the years he committed to memory. And it is a huge text. The Kalevala consists of over 22,000 lines of poetry, delivered in the pleasing rhythm known as the trochaic tetrameter. This is sometimes called the "Hiawatha" meter. In fact, Longfellow based his popular "Indian Edda", some of the imagery as well as the meter, upon an early German translation of the Kalevala. With alliteration and parallelism throughout the Kalevala, it also contains motifs appearing in dyadic and triadic couplings. For example, in the largest structural interpretation of the Kalevala (offered by Friberg and Scott Davis), the fifty chapters are divided into three parts, and each of the three contain interwoven dualistic themes. Sun and moon, man and woman, and life and death are common themes. Another dualism is between the matriarchal inhabitants of Northland (Pohjola), and the patriarchal Viking-like Heroes of Kaleva. In fact, the Heroes determine to steal the Sampo - which also has the general attribute of fertility - from Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola. In this sense, the fertility of the Sampo may refer to sexuality. Obviously there are some very interesting quasi-historical things going on here. In phone conversations with Eino last summer, he shared with me his favorite lines, the words of the shaman-hero Väinämöinen just prior to his magical birth from the cosmic egg:

"Free me, Moon, and Sun, release me!
Thou, Great Bear, do ever guide me,
Lead a man here through strange doors,
Through these unfamiliar gates.
Release me from this narrow nest,
From this shut-in dwelling place!
Child of mankind to the open
To behold the moon in heaven
and to wonder at the daylight,
Get to know the Great Bear's grandeur
Or just to stare up at the stars!"

Eino considers this the core of the Kalevala's message, the great affirmation of life. Eino Friberg just might be the last in a great line of Finnish bards, the rune singers of an oral tradition extending back thousands of years. With his amazing translation work completed, these artifacts of ancient Eurasian shamanism live on. In the excerpt from Friberg's work that follows, the uprooting of the Sampo and its theft heralded the end of a World Age, the twilight of pre-Christian gods, and the dawning of civilization as we know it.

This was an excerpt from The Finnish Sampo: The Stellar Frame and World Ages, an article published in the Chicago Arts and Music paper, Scenezine.

Note. Friberg's 1988 translation of the Kalevala is currently out of print, though copies may be available at John Virtanen's Kalevala site. In 1995, Eino Friberg granted me permission in writing to use his translation, in recordings or in whatever way I felt would help share the Finnish wisdom. After his death I was appointed executor of his literary estate, and set to editing his unpublished poems. Friberg is the author of Sparks, a book of poetry published in 1926, as well as The Presence, an unpublished account of his spiritual visions in the 1950s which the noted Christian theologian Reinhold Niebur called "a most vital and moving document... I know of no record of a spiritual pilgrimage more authentic." I am looking into having this published; excerpts will be available on this website soon.