Sampo - James Baldwin

The Field of Serpents

Yes, the master Smith was standing at the door. A hero, indeed, he appeared—tall, handsome, and brave. Over his shoulders was the sky-blue shawl which his mother had woven for him. On his head was the cap of his ancestors, and around his waist a golden girdle was buckled. His shoes of reindeer leather were highly polished and his stockings of silk were long and black. His embroidered coat was of yellow linen, very fine, and his trousers were of scarlet-colored flannel.

The Maid of Beauty blushed when she saw him; then her face grew white again, and again suddenly red. Her heart beat hard and fast, her hands trembled. Never in her life had she beheld a hero so finely clad, so perfect in form, so noble in feature. She would have swooned had not pride prevented.

"Poor men are always fond of gaudy garments," whispered the mother; and then remembering the law of the hostess she hastened to greet the unwelcome guest. She led the hero into the low-raftered hall and gave him a seat beside the smouldering fire. She stirred the coals and threw on wood; the flames leaped up and filled the room with brightness.

Then the Maid of Beauty came forward with the bowl of honey and the pitcher of milk, a smile on her lips and a sparkle in her eye. Welcome, weary traveller!" she said. "Eat, drink, and be refreshed."

"Nay, nay," answered the hero. "Never under the silver moon will I taste of food till my desire is granted me—till I have leave to take and wed the maiden who is the desire of my heart."

The grim old Mistress grew grimmer still as she answered him: "When wilful maidens choose 'tis folly for mothers to refuse. But never should suitor win his bride too easily, lest doing so he prize her too lightly. The Maid of Beauty is waiting for you, Ilmarinen, but before you take her your courage must be tested, you must perform the task that I require of you."

"Name the task, and I will do it," said Ilmarinen boastfully as of yore. "Was it not I who hammered the sky? Did I not forge the Sampo and shape its lid of rainbow colors?"

"But this task is different," responded the Mistress, "and if you fail your life is endangered."

"Tell me what it is and I will perform it," answered the hero. "I will drain the sea, I will level the mountains, I will snatch the moon from its place in the sky if you so command me. I will do anything to win from you the great treasure, the priceless Maid of Beauty."

"No doubt the feats you name are easy," said the Mistress; "but I shall require a harder one. Before you are permitted to take the Maid of Beauty you must plough the field of serpents that lies in the barren lands beyond the forest of pine. Twelve furrows you must make lengthwise of the field, and twelve furrows you must make crosswise; and you must plough it deep, without touching either beam or handles."

"I have heard of that fearful field," said Ilmarinen. "No man has ever yet gone into it and lived. It is more dreadful even than Tuoni's silent kingdom."

"Yes, one man has lived," then spoke the Maid of Beauty. "One man, in the old, old times, furrowed the field with a copper ploughshare drawn by horses of fire. The beam was of red-hot iron and the handles were of living flame. The name of that hero was Piru, and after he had performed his task he came from the field of horrors unbitten and unharmed. Surely, the task which he performed was hard, but if he succeeded why may not another hero do likewise?"

Ilmarinen made no answer. He rose silently, and with eyes downcast went out of the hall. His sledge was standing beside the door; the fleet-footed racer was pawing the ground; the cuckoos were calling, and the bluebirds were singing. He sat down upon the soft robes and took the reins in his hands. Then he looked up.

The Maid of Beauty was standing before him, her eyes were full of tears, her face betrayed the grief that was in her heart. Softly then the hero spoke to her:

"Tell me, princess of the rainbow, do you remember when I forged the Sampo and hammered out its lid of many colors? Then it was that I vowed a solemn vow. I swore by anvil and tongs, by hammer and smoke, by forge and fire, that I would some day win you to be my bride. Now, by the token of honey and milk, you have promised yourself to me. But your mother has set me a task that is full of peril. So, come now, maiden of the twilight. Come sit beside me in my sledge of magic, and I will carry you swiftly, safely to my own country, to my own dear fireside."

The Maid of Beauty drew back; her cheeks blushed crimson and her eyes flashed fire as she answered:

"Never will I wed a coward. Never will I wed without my mother's consent, for just punishment surely waits for disobedient daughters. You must plough the field of serpents, or I will never, never be your bride."

"The task is a hard one, it is full of peril," said Ilmarinen, as his courage came slowly back to him. "But I will perform it; I will plough the field of serpents, and no man nor maiden shall call me a coward."

"Then let me tell you something," said the Maid of Beauty. "You are a great smith and skilled in working with all sorts of metals. You are a cunning wizard and wise in magic. Your smithy still stands deep in the silent forest—the smithy which you built when you forged the Sampo. Go thither and make for yourself a golden plough wherewith to furrow the field of serpents. Make its beam of silver and its handles of red copper, and strengthen it throughout with spells of magic. Then go and do the task my mother requires of you."

"I thank you, maiden of the twilight," answered Ilmarinen.

Then he hastened to the gloomy forest and to the smithy strong and roomy, in which he had forged the magic Sampo. Again the bellows roared, again the flames leaped up in the ample forge, again the black smoke poured from the chimney top. And the Smith, with many a magic incantation, hammered out a golden ploughshare, he shaped the handles of copper and the beam of shining silver. A wonderful thing it was, slender and strong and well fitted for the work it was designed to do.

"Truly, with such a plough I shall not fail to stir up a host of hissing serpents," said Ilmarinen; "but how shall I protect myself from their fury while I am furrowing the field?"

He threw both fuel and metal into his forge, and while he recited one magic rune after another he thrust his long tongs into the roaring fire. Presently, when the smoke subsided and the coals were white with heat, he drew forth a great mass of half-melted iron. This he laid upon the anvil. With short, quick strokes he hammered it; he turned it and twisted it; he shaped it according to his will. He separated it into parts, and of each part he formed something that would be of use in the great task that was before him.

First, he made a pair of iron shoes to wear upon his feet; then he forged ten long chains, slender and delicate, and these he wove together and shaped into pliant greaves to cover his legs. After this he wrought for himself a coat of mail, and gauntlets of iron, and strong gloves which no tooth nor sting could pierce. Then he made a belt of hardest iron, sky-blue and brilliant, to be buckled around his waist.

Lastly, in its place within the furnace, he hung the magic caldron from which he had once drawn the wonderful Sampo. Into this caldron he threw many strange and potent things: the hoof of a reindeer, the tail of a horse, a bag of wind, a flash of lightning, a shooting star. With these he made a mixture such as no other wizard had ever compounded, and as he stirred it he repeated the runes, the songs of mystery that he had sung while forging the Sampo.

All day and all night and far into another day the master Smith toiled and sang, blew his great bellows, and threw fuel into the furnace. Then with caution he drew the caldron from the flames, he lifted the lid and looked warily inside. At first nothing but boiling vapor, scalding steam, shapeless white clouds could be distinguished. The next moment a horse sprang out, beautiful, shapely, and strong. Its body was glittering bright like fire, its mane and tail were glowing red like the sun when it shines through the mists of the morning. It leaped out and stood, docile and obedient, beside the mighty wizard, the master Smith.

"What will you have me do, my master?" it asked.

"Draw my plough through the field of dreadful serpents," answered Ilmarinen.

"I am ready," said the horse.

Forthwith the hero harnessed the fiery steed to his plough of magic. He donned his coat of mail and drew on his greaves and his shoes of iron and his wonderful gloves which no weapons could pierce. Then he drove with speed, out through the shadowy pine woods and across the desolate plains, till he came to the field of serpents—a barren waste lying cold and dreary under the empty sky.

The field was full of horrid reptiles, crawling, writhing, hissing. They reared their heads high and looked at the hero, they licked out their tongues and threatened him. But he, no whit afraid, paused in the midst of them and spoke these words of warning:

"O ye snakes, so vile, so wise! Jumala made you, and therefore you are not wholly bad. Put your proud heads down, quit your hideous hissing, cease your wriggling and your writhing. Creep away into the bushes, hide yourselves in your loathsome dwellings. Dare not touch me, dare not threaten me, lest Jumala smite you with his swift and flashing arrows!"

Then fearlessly he drove his steed of fire through the dreadful field, and skilfully he guided his golden plough, touching neither beam nor handles. On this side and on that the earth was heaped up, nor did rocks or roots stand in the way of the cleaving ploughshare. The serpents were lifted from their holes, they were torn in pieces, they were buried deep in the ground. Twelve mighty furrows did the hero plough lengthwise of the field, then, turning, he made twelve other furrows across the width of it. No barren spot nor stony space was left unturned, no blasted shrub nor baneful vine was unuprooted. Thus the haunts of the serpents were broken up, and the field of dread was made fertile and safe, a fit place for trees to grow and grass to flourish.

The last furrow was completed, and Ilmarinen rested from his labor. He loosed the long reins with which he had guided his steed and lifted the plough from the ground. He spoke lovingly to his faithful helper:

"O wonderful plough-horse of fire! Your task is finished and you are free. Go! Fly away! Henceforth you may wander unrestrained in the boundless pastures of the North."

The horse bounded away. It rose in the air, higher, higher, until it looked like a cloud of fire-dust floating in the sky; then it faded away and Ilmarinen saw it no more. But it did not remain invisible; for often, even in our own times, it may be see during the silent winter nights leaping and prancing, shaking its fiery mane and shooting beams of golden light athwart the northern sky.

Ilmarinen tarried not a moment. With long, impatient strides he hastened away from the field of victory. For two weary days he travelled through trackless ways and along forgotten paths where bears used to amble and wolves pursued their prey. For three long and painful days he toiled among bogs and fens and across the lonely, never-ending meadows. On the sixth day, however, his eyes were gladdened by the sight of the shores of Pohyola and the weather-stained dwelling of the Wise Woman of the North. Pale and wan and weak from hunger and long exposure, he approached the house and opened the door.

The Mistress was reclining upon her couch beside the hearth.