The Fish Tales of Kalevala

Salmon  has had many different names. This reflects its significance. Salmon has been highly esteemed both on the dinner table and as a commodity for trade. Furthermore, it is associated with the rapids and the power of the rapids.

Lemminkäinen is the epitome of a salmon singer, who competes with the master of Pohjola by singing pools onto the floors. Väinämöinen and other salmon singers seek help from Melattaro, Sinervo, the Rapids Girl, and the Frothy Ones in navigating the rapids. The rapids boat is steered with a paddle, but ‘mela’ also means the tail of a fish. The strength of a salmon struggling in the rapids is tamed by lightning and a thunderstorm. During a thunderstorm, it is said that the fish becomes weak and feeble.

At times, a salmon struggling in the rapids tears its belly against sharp rocks, just as Lemminkäinen, the salmon singer, was mutilated in the River of Tuonela. The 16th-century historian Olaus Magnus referred to salmon as “louhikala,” and the connection to ‘Louhi’ is possible. In a slightly more worldly sense, salmon and whitefish are mentioned in the Kanteletar as the opposite of misery, as they were desired at the dinner table.

The relationship of salmon and whitefish in folk poetry is opposite. Whitefish is considered feminine, while salmon is considered masculine. Themes and attributes associated with salmon include spawning, strength, wealth, industriousness, and the ability to sing (incantations). Salmon is also visible in the sky, as one meaning of the Big Dipper is a salmon net. Therefore, the shimmer of the Milky Way can be thought of as resembling the glittering scales of a salmon.

Even the current Finnish name for rainbow trout comes from the verses of Kalevala:

“He began to cut the salmon, to slice the fish with his knife: the salmon flashed into the sea, the fish sparkled with colors from the bottom of the red boat, from Väinämöinen’s boat.”

Traditionally, whitefish has been highly esteemed in Northern Finland, unlike the contemptuously regarded pike. Whitefish has been offered in sacrifices on the rocky shores of the north from ancient times. In Kalevala poetry, whitefish is also a term of endearment for a bride and a maiden being courted.

In Kanteletar, Väinämöinen advises his brother and presents a food taboo: the lower part of perch, the roe, is not a healthy food:

“You shouldn’t eat it,

you, nor anyone else,

the roe of the whitefish,

the vent of the pike,

the lower part of the perch,

the spawn of the moonfish.”