Poetry, swords and the Finnish National Epic—the mystical roots of HEMA

What does the Kalevala have to do with longsword fighting? It’s Finnish, longsword sources are in German and Italian, what’s up? When reading about the Kalevala I realised a number of things about magic in pre-industrial societies. I think I’ve realised what, in a very real sense, it was for. Or at least one part of it. I’m excited to share my thoughts with you so let’s get into it.

We’ll start with Liechtenauer’s recital. That’s what it’s often called. See, modern HEMA has largely grown around one main tradition: German Longsword. That tradition goes back to one master: Johannes Liechtenauer. He didn’t write a book though; what we have from him is effectively a poem, and a rather confusing one at that. Most German sources we use quote his poem then try to explain what it means, often with pictures too. Let’s take a moment to actually look at the start of the poem though:

Zorñ haw krump twer
hat schiler mitt schaitlar
Alber vorsetzt
Nach reysen vber lauff häw setzt
Durch wechsel zuck
durchlauff Abschneid hende druck
heng wind mit plösen
Schlach vach streich stich mit stössen

If you’re interested in the translation, feel free to see multiple versions at Wiktenauer. Here we’re going to be looking at the poetry itself. Try saying this poem out loud for a second. Obviously this will be easier if you have some German but, even if you don’t, it’s still helpful. Give it ago. You’ll notice if you do so that you’ll naturally fall into a kind of rhythm. The lines actually rhyme and there’s all the other kinds of poetic techniques like assonance and alliteration. It’s called a recital for a reason; this thing was designed to be read out loud and these poetic techniques help you keep the flow and remember where you’re up to. Big deal though, right? Surely it’s just a bunch of people who didn’t really have books so they had to memorise things. Perhaps. But I’m pretty sure it goes much deeper than that.

Let’s turn to the Kalevala—the Finnish National Epic. For those of you who don’t know much about it, here’s a brief overview: In the 19th Century, Nationalism was spreading all over Europe. Lots of different Nationalities were inspired by, at first the Iliad and the Odyssey, and then each other as each one began creating their own National Epic. The thought basically went, if we have a single unified set of tales we can tell ourselves in our own language, we have a bedrock to build our identity upon. The Kalevala is the Finnish version of this. Now it’s quite interesting in its own right—some of the most unique tales I think I’ve come across in mythology—but that’s not what caught my eye the most. What caught my eye was how it dealt with magic and song.

In the Kalevala, magical skills are often learnt through song. When you want to use them, you then sing that song you learnt and the magic works its way on the world. Sounds very Legend of Zelda doesn’t it? It finally struck me though, after coming across this motiff of magical song in other cultures, I finally realised with the Kalevala what I think it’s representing. In pre-industrial societies, especially pre-literate ones, you need to transmit knowledge in an oral way. But you also want to jealously guard your secrets. If you know which rocks to melt down so you can make bronze weapons, maybe that saves you from having to work in the fields all day. Maybe it means in times of hunger, people may sure you get fed. Maybe it just means people respect and fear you, because you can do things no-one else understands how to do. Knowledge, as they say, is power. I reckon what we see reflected in traditions like the Kalevala is this very ancient attitude towards knowledge. Transmitting it through a “magical” song uses both the core aspects of communication: the ability to transmit knowledge from one person to another but, equally important, to hinder those you don’t want to know from sharing in that understanding. These songs are deliberately confusing and shrouded in magic and mystery precisely so only the initiated can truly understand them.

Now I know I’m not the first person to make this point in the discipline of History. I’m not trying to claim that. Just letting you know when and how that realisation fully sunk in. I do think, however, that few people who practice HEMA consider Liechtenauer’s recital in the light of this tradition. And I think it fits it so very well.

Think about it. My biggest clue as to why I think the recital is in this magical tradition is just how confusing it actually is. It barely explains itself. The first two lines are just a list of the Meisterhaue. When in the next stanza it says Inndes vnd var nach, it’s listing the principles of indes (meanwhile), var (before) and nach (after) but doesn’t actually explain what they mean. Even when it does say something in more detail like,

Wer dir öberhäwt
zorñhaw ort dem drawt

(Who strikes at you above,
the Wrath stroke threatens him with the point)

It’s actually a paradox that you don’t realise until you test it out. See, the Wrath strike (Zornhau) is a cut but you’re saying you counter their cut with a cut but it’s the point/tip that threatens them, not the big, scary blow itself. And it works, see my take on it here, but it’s not clear until you unpack it. So if we have an oral tradition of a worthwhile skill given in a poetic way so it’s easy to remember but in an ambiguous and undefined way so it’s thoroughly confusing to those who don’t understand it, does that sound familiar? Liechtenauer’s recital fits the pattern of magical song so completely that I’m driven to steal a quote from John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was referring to Newton regarding his contributions to science but I think we can equally apply this to Liechtenauer in the art of sword fighting:

“Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists… [he] was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians”

What does this mean for HEMA and the rest of us more broadly? Firstly, I think it’s deeply fascinating to see the start of our rationalistic, scientific re-discovery of sword fighting ultimately stemming from a tradition of mysticism and hidden knowledge. Does it change how we do our techniques? No. It even, I would argue, pardons us for getting them wrong now and then, given that the lineage between Liechtenauer and the modern world has died off and we’re working off translations of interpretations of his recital. I think the biggest value in seeing Liechtenauer’s recital in this way isn’t actually for HEMA itself but for historians studying this tradition of magic song in oral societies. While some of the stories themselves have survived of these people and how they remember the past, very few examples of hidden wisdom have been passed down. Think about it. We hear about the Eleusinian Mysteries or the Cult of Mithras but nobody really has any hard evidence for what they truly believed. We’re left with interpreting art and references to their practices by others. For how the first metallurgists saw their craft and taught it down the generations, it’s lost to the winds of time. But  here, if I’m right—and I think I am—we have an example of a mystical, a magical song that ironically became so popular it’s been immortalised forevermore. We can learn from this rare example how this magical tradition may have worked. So thank you, o discipline of History, those of us who wanted to learn to fight with longswords have learnt a lot from you, now perhaps we can give something back.

(Photo of Kalevala scene sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Keynes quote sourced from here)

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