The Soma-Sampo Connection and “Louhi Gazes Deep”
John Major Jenkins
Part of this material was cut from the Galactic Alignment book (2002) and picks up from page 171 in the published version:
The visual resemblance to the Amanita muscaria mushroom is more than a coincidence. Among Siberian shamans, Amanita mushrooms with seven little white spots are especially prized, as they embody the seven stars of the Big Dipper. Thus, the inverted bowl shape of the mushroom reflects the dome-shaped sky, the kirjokansi of the Sampo. In the Sampo, we find a cosmological model common to all Asian, Indian, and Siberian shamanism as well as a picture of Soma-as-mushroom. The model is even found in the Nordic mythology, where Yggsdrasil is the cosmic tree. At the base of Yggsdrasil three goddesses, the Norns, can be found. They symbolize past, present, and future. These goddesses are deities of the magic tree, and offer travelers an elixir to refresh them on their journey. The Mordvin people of eastern Europe tell a story of a giant birch tree growing on a hill in the depths of the forest, the roots of which ring around the world. (The mycelial mat of mushrooms can stretch for miles, and Amanita prefers to grow in the roots of birch trees). The branches of this tree surround the heavens. Ethnographer Uno Holmberg reports:
At the root of the birch is a spring, roofed over with carved boards and white sheets, on its edge a red wooden can, in the can a sweet honey drink, and in the liquid a silver ladle, the bottom of which is decorated with the sun and the moon, the handle with smaller stars . . . As the sun moves in the heavens, the handle of the ladle turns with it.
The birch tree is the World Axis or cosmic tree. The ladle is clearly the Big Dipper; the red wooden can evokes Amanita itself; the sweet honey liquid therein is the sacrament, the roofed over magic “spring” with boards and sheets is the little séance hut, where your friendly local witch woman awaits your visit! Tales recall healings and passersby who drink of the tree’s “magical sap” having been “refreshed,” “satisfied,” or even “strengthened nine-fold.” The scenario recalls the mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatec curandera, Maria Sabina. The witch/goddess/norns at the base of the cosmic tree are equivalent to the Finnish Louhi, the turner of the milling stone and keeper of the Sampo. These are all equivalent to the Goddess Kundalini, at the base of the seven-layered spinal tree.
The Theft of the Sampo, on one level of interpretation, involves the removal of the polar axis to another location, thus implying precession or perhaps even a pole shift. The pertinent passage from the Kalevala reads:
And convey the ciphered cover
To that misty point of land
At the head of Foggy Island
It is tempting to interpret the “head” of Foggy Island as the “top” of the Milky Way, and the polar Sampo’s relocation there as being the Finnish equivalent of a polar-to-galactic shift.
As can be seen, the connections between Soma and Sampo are strong and deep. Much more could be explored in this direction. The Finnish Theft of Sampo story is, like its Vedic counterpart, rich in symbolic associations on many levels: sexual connotations, cosmology, sacred plants, male-female dynamics, the spiritual quest—even intimations of precession—wrapped into a seamless whole. Ruminations aside, what will concern us the most is the Theft of the Sampo story retold from Louhi’s viewpoint. A little background first.
In the process of studying the Kalevala and editing Pekka Ervast’s book The Key to the Kalevala, it became apparent to me that the “official” story was lacking, and the episode should be retold from the viewpoint of the deity from whom the life-nectar was stolen. This perspective emerged in my poem “Louhi Gazes Deep,” in full below. Coomaraswamy points out that the Garuda bird or Prometheus are celebrated as heroes from the viewpoint of mortals here on earth, but from the viewpoint of the Gods they are condemned as demons or at least rascals, undeserving of the prize of heaven, who will get their due in the course of time. A foray into Finnish myth may seem digressive here, but connections between Vedic and Finnish mythology run deep, and my poem will illustrate very clearly the metaphysics of spiritual transcendence that Coomaraswamy sought to elucidate in the Theft of Soma doctrine. The problem is the tendency of human beings to steal wisdom rather than embrace it, compounded by the apparent “barriers” set up by heaven which are actually barometers of a soul’s preparedness.
The Kalevala is the Finnish National epic, consisting of some 24,000 lines of epic poetry preserving an oral traditions thousands of years old. It tells of the adventures of three brothers from the clan of Kaleva and their constant battles with the evil witch, Louhi, who lives to the north. The three brothers have their own virtues and vices; Ilmarinen is the primeval smithy who forged the magical Sampo, Lemminkainen is the adventurous and rascally Arctic Don Juan, and Vainamoinen is the wise and powerful first shaman who helped with the creation of the world. Though cast in the Kalevala as an evil enemy, the figure of Louhi (pronounced Low-hee) derives from the older Mother-Goddess tradition that existed in the Far North, and she is associated with the Polestar as a source of life and power. Shamans in the Far North would often journey into this cosmic center, and pre-Christian Finland represents a late survival of these matrifocal (or partnership) values. In fact, shamanism still survives in northern Finland.
Ancient Mycenaean culture on the island of Crete is often considered to have been the last stronghold of the Goddess-worshipping partnership style, a window into a Neolithic substratum of modern civilization that finally, and dramatically, came to an end some 3,000 years ago. (The Eleusinian Mysteries of Greece are believed to have come from Crete.) However, Finland and various Siberian societies should be recognized as a much more recent survival of the Mother Goddess civilization. The Kaleva brothers who attack Louhi might even be understood, on a certain level, as symbolic of the new dominator style that arrived with Vikings invading Finland from the west.
The three brothers are determined to steal from Louhi the Sampo, a magical mill that can deliver anything you wish, from gold to grain to money. Its theft will herald a new World Age, and if Louhi will not share the Sampo, the Kaleva brothers will take it by force. Alas, she denies them access. In the rhythmic couplets of the Kalevala poem, Vainamoinen responds:
Give us just the other half
Then we’ll take the whole Mill with us
Take it all off, to our vessel.
After magically enchanting all of Louhi’s warriors to sleep, the brothers make their way to the Copper Mountain where the Sampo is kept hidden. (Soma is sometimes hidden in a bronze fortress.) With the aid of a plow and an ox (the Little and Big Dippers), Lemminkainen attempts to uproot the Sampo, which was rooted down “nine fathoms deep.” In one of the best eschatological pole-shift scenes in world literature:
Lemminkainen took the ox,
Took the great ox from the pasture,
Plow too from the meadow’s edge;
With it plowed the Sampo’s roots up,
Fastenings of the ciphered cover.
Then the Sampo started moving,
as the ciphered cover loosened.
The Kaleva heroes succeed in snatching the Sampo, and they sail away with it, but Louhi wakes up, pursues them, and the Sampo is smashed to pieces in the ocean, its magic thus being spread out for all humanity to benefit from. In this sea fight for the Sampo, Louhi transforms into a bird and, as with Indra in the soma theft, a claw is smashed off. The details of the story do not concern us here; rather it is the perspective of the telling of the story. For, instead of telling it from the viewpoint of the three heroes, as the Kalevala does, new insights unfold if we tell it from the perspective of the violated deity, in the voice of Louhi herself. The meaning of the real story is hidden “between the lines” of the Kalevala’s Runo 42.
Louhi waits upon the landing,
She, the Mistress of Far Northland,
Stares into the churning seawaves
Anticipates the fated meeting.
Boat of plunder plunging shoreward,
Coming to her very feet
And she knows, she feels it in her,
Väinämöinen, with his brothers—
Have come to steal her precious grinder,
Magic Mill they call the Sampo.
And why should they desire the Sampo,
Why pursue the Magic Maker?
The Sampo spins upon the Polestar
Ciphered Cover is the Star Dome,
Brightly colored in the springtime
Among the roots of Sacred Tree
Runs the streaming Juice of Heaven
Always ready to anoint us
With its speckled velvet cover
Oven belly of the Mother
In her navel, a churning furnace,
Making more of everything:
Time and Space and people borning
From the Magic Mill of Northland
In the Sacred Copper Mountain
Protected from the death of Tuoni
Who boils the barley to feed the darkness.
No, the Sampo doesn't conceal
With numbing nectar of the cornfield
Instead, it shows the many levels:
Realms of three or five or nine
interweaving planes of vision
Or maybe seven by the counting
of the shaman who, there, journeys
to the Polestar, hinge of heaven,
Gullet of the spinning mælstrom,
Umbilicus of the swirling cauldron,
Stomach of old Vipunen,
Pillar of the ancient Sampo.
And they've come to steal it,
Rip it out from root of tree
Flip the Ciphered Cover sideways
Stow it in their birchwood boat
And take it from this land forever,
Stolen from the land of Louhi
Pohjola—home of Soma.
They want to drink from Louhi's fountain
Bridesmaid of the forest spirit
Turner of the milling stone
And drain the blood from glowing features
Dry the rivers with their damning
Sing the Goddess into serving
Hungry weapons of the smithy
Her golden tresses torn to pieces
Like the fragments of our knowing
From a former Age of Wisdom.
Louhi gazes deep.
They're coming closer, and she sees
the blowing beard of the great
Väinämöinen, steering sternly,
And Lemminkäinen, rowing proudly.
Ilmarinen fronts the crew
Rowing full with bent knee forward,
Pushing the boat through chest-high billows
Closer to the shores of Louhi
Closer, with each beat of heart.
And she knows: she will not do it
Won't surrender precious Star Mill
Will not lay down without fight
Won't hand over Juice of Heaven
To those who drink not with their hearts.
Multiple soma themes are embedded into this poem, most of which should be fairly self explanatory. Louhi, like all Defenders of the Gate, serves the higher purpose of heaven, and denies entry to those incapable of integrating the inner knowledge, for their own good and for the well-being of the true denizens of Paradise. Unfortunately, it is still possible for unworthy interlopers to break through and seize the treasure, enslaving it to their earthly desires. This is possible because willpower, ambition, and intense desire can bring about anything, even if right intention is not present. But like the dragon who guards the gold and the virginal maiden, and can do nothing with either, so too the delusional hero will find the trophy spoiled and useless, bringing temporary rewards and ultimate misery. For he chose the path of power, a path leading to apparent success by the standards of earthly life, but nothing planted and nothing sown for the spiritual heart. Louhi refuses the nectar to those who can’t drink it with their spiritual hearts, for to enslave the life energy to the ambitions of ego is to close the door on divinity.
The Path of Knowledge and the Path of Power—one leads to higher spiritual planes and the other leads downward into deeper soul loss. In service to self or in service to other—a choice that each of us must make that seems to be the core of Coomaraswamy’s metaphysical reading of the North Gate in Sagittarius. However, his message goes deeper, to a paradox at the heart of all reality. He frames the two “paths” or positions as the Vedic conflict between the Asura and Deva spirits (the Titans and Angels), and helps us realize that they both, ultimately, spring from the same source. They are therefore not mutually exclusive opposites, but, being united on a higher plane, complement one another. Like the yin-yang symbol, each pole contains the seed of the opposite, otherwise there would be no basis for relationship. Said another way, it takes both sides playing their roles in order for the nectar of consciousness to be generated. How the nectar is used or “imbibed” by each side is a function of their inherent natures, which defines very different results. Ultimately, at the end of time the Titans will be subsumed into Angelic functions. It can’t work the other way around although during certain phases the Titans are on the rampage.
In 1997 Princeton University Press republished some of Coomaraswamy’s essays in a book called The Door in the Sky. The Sundoor of the title is illustrated on the book’s cover with a painting by Hieronymous Bosch called Entrance to the Celestial Paradise. The image expresses well a passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: “He reaches the Sun, it opens out for him like a hole in a drum.”
15-4. Entrance to the Celestial Paradise, Hieronymous Bosch.
Even though the title and the cover art provide explicit clues, one might read the book cover to cover several times and not understand where the door is located and how it is opened. This door is the North Gate activated by the solstice alignment with the Galactic Center, the “Sun Door at World’s End” discussed at length in Coomaraswamy’s work. But even when the door is open, welcoming all those desiring freedom, it still takes an act of self-sacrifice and active discernment for any soul to get beyond the Defenders of the Gate. For most of us, we cling too strongly to the world, to illusion. Like the flock of sheep who fail to leave the pen even when the gate is left open, the modern world has rendered human beings unconscious enough so that even when the ultimate spiritual goal of human life is splayed open for all to see, it yet goes ignored. The Symplegades open but briefly, and in that brief moment the fate of worlds is determined.