Lemminkäinen’s Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897
(A scene from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala)
The story of Lemminkäinen is grim and it has fascinated me since I was little. The main events leading up to the scene depicted in the painting go as follows:
Lemminkäinen travels up north to propose to the daughter of Louhi, a powerful witch. But Louhi won’t give up her daughter easily and makes him do tasks which he successfully fulfills one after another. One day, he is sent to kill the swan of the black river of Tuonela - the underworld. He takes his arrows and his bow but as everyone who tries to kill a sacred bird, he is sure to face doom.
A man sees Lemminkäinen and throws a small, enchanted rod through his chest, causing him to fall in the river. Lemminkäinen drowns and the bloody son of Tuonela lifts him up from the river with an iron net only to mock him, cut him into pieces with a sword and throw his body parts in the river.
Meanwhile Lemminkäinen’s mother begins to worry about his son and is alarmed when blood starts to drip from her son’s brush. She searches heaven and earth to find him. When she learns of her son’s fate, she asks Ilmarinen - the immortal blacksmith and one of the creators of the world - to fashion her a rake she can use to find her son’s pieces from the river.
Piece by piece, cloth by cloth she finds all of Lemminkäinen and by connecting the muscles and the veins mends his body back together. His body now seems intact but life is still not in him. The mother begs and prays for Ukko - the god of thunder and the highest of them all - to send her honey from the heavens to restore her son’s life. Ukko hears her plea and sends a bee to deliver this ointment to the grieving mother who rubs the lotion on her son. Lemminkäinen comes back to life, yet will never marry the daughter of Louhi.