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The first chapter of the Kalevala always gives a specific number of years (sometimes multiple numbers) when describing time skips. The three examples I saw are quoted below. Is there any known significance to these numbers or time periods?

  1. After the Air-daughter becomes pregnant:

She bore a hard womb
a difficult bellyful
seven hundred years
nine ages of man;
but no birth was born
no creature was created.

  1. When the Air-daughter starts her creation after the incident with the scaup's eggs:

Now in the ninth year
in the tenth summer
she raised her head from the sea
she lifts up her poll:
she began her creation
forming her creatures
on the clear high seas
upon the open expanse.

  1. When Väinämöinen is born:

Then he tripped head first seaward
hands first he tumbled waveward
the man stays in the sea's care
the fellow in the billows.
He lolled there five years
both five years and six
seven years and eight.

The first one ("seven hundred years") in particular feels like it might mean something, but I don't see translation notes on any of them, and they clearly have nothing to do with how long a real-world pregnancy would last.

P.S. If it matters, I'm reading the Oxford World's Classics edition translated by Keith Bosley.

  • 1
    Yes the edition does matter. I vaguely recall that those numbers are just a conventional way to say a long time, but I gave my source back to the library. – Nemo Oct 17 '15 at 19:19
4
+50

The numbers likely have no special significance.

The quoted passages all share one feature: they use parallelism, specifically one in which a number is named in one line, and then in the next line the next higher number is used instead. This is an interesting feature of the text which occurs many times. One can also find similar features in old Semitic literature. I started looking for examples for this when I by chance came across this paper, which discusses this very feature of Kalevala, as well as its possible relation to Semitic literature.

In short, the author argues that this type of parallelism is used for three different purposes in the Kalevala: the first is to intensify what is said, the second is alliterative effect, the third is straight enumeration (as this sentence is an example of). The third is obviously not relevant here.

The second and third example seem to be pretty straightforward intensification. However, the first example does not follow the pattern exactly, since it has seven and then nine as the important numbers (the translation given agrees with my Swedish translation, so there was likely no change in that process). This makes me suspect that it is likely due to the structure being use for alliterative effect. I searched for the line here (I don't speak Finnish, so I did this by identifying the quotation marks and the appellation to Ukko in the following stanzas, and then put the relevant stanza through translation software to check), and found the following:

vuotta seitsemän satoa, yheksän yrön ikeä;

Thus, we do indeed have an alliteration in the line.

To conclude: the numbers used does not seem to have exact or even symbolic meaning. They are poetic examples of long times, on a form that is chosen more to fit the verse than for any other qualities.

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