The cosmogonic comb and the celestial swing


Keywords: folklore, Kalevala-metric song, mythology, cosmogonic myths, ritual swinging, seasonal festivities

This article explores the potential connections between the well-known Kalevala-metric Estonian, Karelian, and Ingrian folk song type “Searching for the Comb” and the magical aspects of swinging, supernatural entities traversing between earth and sky in swings or cradles, ancient solar symbols and customs tied to the yearly cycle, along with motifs linked to divination. Through an examination of swinging’s significance in more distant cultures, I demonstrate that: (a) ritual swinging could be linked to creation myths, travel between worlds, the struggle against malevolent forces, and rites of fertility magic; (b) mythical swingers can be gods or symbolize them; (c) swinging could convey the transition of gods from the supernatural realm to the earthly plane and vice versa, as well as humanity’s aspiration to draw nearer to the gods; (d) swinging might affect the attainment of various benefits; (e) swinging and associated acts could also symbolically represent the movement of celestial bodies. Examples from Finno-Ugric folklore depict instances where both supernatural beings and humans traverse different realms using swings or cradles, with swinging often intertwined with practices of divination.

The apostles (John, Peter, Paul, Andrew), to whom entreaties for assistance are directed in the song “Searching for the Comb”, are linked through their feast days to the liminal periods of the winter and summer solstices. This connection validates the observation, shared by Mall Hiiemäe and others (including myself), that the comb or brush falling into the sea (the underworld) symbolizes the sun during the summer solstice, making the song particularly fitting for performance on a swing during this period. However, the comb falling into the sea may also signify descent into the underworld. This latter aspect seems to hold greater significance in Ingria and Eastern Finland, where variants of the song type “Comb into the Sea” frequently incorporate the motif of discovering a sword from the sea. While present in Estonia, this motif is not as consistently associated with “Searching for the Comb”. Often, these songs imply that the sword recovered from the sea has never been wielded in battle. Such a sword, not a tool of war, may simply serve as symbol of fate, as in tarot cards, dream interpretation guides, and elsewhere. The sword may offer protection against malevolent forces, yet also serve as a means of divination.

Sixty-five percent of song variants merging the themes of searching for the comb and discovering a sword from the sea originate from Virumaa and the eastern part of Harjumaa. Examination of the introductory motifs of these song variants reveals a significant correlation with the calendar. Specifically, 16 songs commence with references to upcoming holidays, while 9 mention the crafting of a sled for visiting a brother. In four instances, visiting a brother is mentioned without sled construction. Given the historical constraints on visiting relatives, such visits were typically reserved for the winter holidays. However, anticipation for these visits often began as early as the summer solstice. Thus, the beginnings of 29 song variants allude, in one way or another, to periods associated with divination. Taken together, these findings suggest that song variants combining “Searching for the Comb” with “Sword from the Sea” primarily reflect the magical rites of the solstice, with the cosmogonic aspect somewhat eclipsed. The lyrical protagonist frequently assumes celestial symbolism, whether climbing a tree on significant holidays, tending to children’s hair, or beseeching John (the Apostle) to make a sled.


Aado Lintrop (b. 1956), PhD, emeritus, Estonian Folklore Archives of the Estonian Literary Museum, aado.lintrop@gmail.com