“Kouta” is a poem by Eino Leino, perhaps the single most appreciated Finnish poet, who was deeply touched by early theosophy and dealt with many of its subjects in his works. Leino’s Kouta is a black magician, “the greatest wizard beyond the Turja mountain,” that is, in the mythic North of Lapland. The wizards of Finland were appreciated highly in the earliest of sources, and the Kalevala depicts the people of the North especially gifted in black magic.1
Kouta is a “grim man,” from whose gaze spawned vipers, from whose mouth flew bats, from whose steps rose wolverines, upon whose hand ran weasels, on whose head sat a crow, and upon whose shoulders sat scavenger birds. In other words, Leino’s necromancer has attained a state where he is no longer separated from nature and its spirits; but his soul is the one of the dark side of nature. Kouta “knew all that men knew, could do everything that deities can” – except, he is not able to “bind the blue flame, open the ancient barrows.”
Here we see the eternal nostalgy of the lonely pratyêka buddha, who has claimed his union with nature one-sidedly. By pressing the control aspect, he has apparently become one with everything, but he still misses the vital point, and therefore cannot be happy. This is the eternal archetype of the black magician, known in every culture. In a human being, such is âtma-manas without fully awakened buddhi; in a magical tradition, it is the Left Hand Path without its opposite, the Right, or the Black aspect without White. These legends teach us that mastery over occult nature can indeed be gained one-sidedly, but such a forcing will leave one in eternal longing.
Thus Kouta begins a journey to learn also this one last wisdom, to invoke the past he has lost. Leino gives so beautiful a depiction of this wizard’s journey that it rarely fails to impress me to tears.
“He walked the pathless paths,
Distances without measure,
As ice he went across the lakes,
as frost he went through storms,
Mountains he crossed as thunder;
Children cried in Lapland,
Hounds barked in fright as he went,
As a wind near the door,
And fires went out in the hut.”2
Finally, Kouta comes across Maahinen, which literally means “an earth-being,” and is used for many kinds of gnomic, chthonic creatures in Finnish folklore. This dweller in the ground is clearly no lesser an entity than the Devil itself; “the Infernal One” is the quintessential force of earth (matter) and its condensed magical power.3 He rises from the ground, swallowing everything, but, to his surprise, fails to swallow Kouta. Hearing of his quest, Maahinen asks the necromancer three questions: Did he give his own blood? Did he murder all his other joys? Did he curse the mother who gave him birth?
In the books of Fosforos, we can see a black magician going through all these left hand initiations.4 So has Kouta, and thus he has gotten “three words” – three Logoi of initiatory knowledge – but in a form that is always more and more hard and intense. When hearing this, Maahinen names him Kouta the Thrice-Locked One. Thus it becomes obvious that by taking his initiations in a forced manner, the magician has actually locked something out and away from him. He is a “Trismegistos,” Thrice-Greatest, but in a way that has closed him in instead of opening him up. A black magician is an eclipsed shadow of the actual hermetic initiate, filled with unreleased and unfreed intensity.5
Kouta then receives instructions from the Devil6 on how to learn the one last thing he is unable to do: become omniscient. He must travel to the gorge of Rutimo – the river of death – to meet the Lady of Time, who there conjures the blue flame upon the sacred barrow.
Once again, Kouta’s journey is depicted as a journey through and in the elements, which is also how human beings’ atoms circulate their age-long exodus – whether the integrating principle is conscious (as it is in an adept’s case) or unconscious (as it becomes in the periodic disintegrations of the profane). Leino’s beautiful language far surpasses such primitive ways of depicting this journey:
“Kouta went a-going,
Lapland’s castle moving,
Stream of hell foaming,
Night of Turja rushing;
Stars fell from the sky,
Dead trembled under the earth,
There was pain in the underworld,
Fear in the gods’ houses”
Finally, Kouta comes to Ajatar, the Lady of Time. Her voice echoes from the underworld’s eternal night and dark woods, telling that only the dead are interested in the things already gone. The poem ends with Kouta thus leaving behind him the land of the living:
“That Kouta, the grim man,
Felt that he knew everything,
Stepped into the gorge of Rutimo,
Walked the stairway of death
Like a long brink of a cloud,
Like a freeze on an icy river;
He did not look back,
He looked upon the door of Death,
He did not hurry,
Walked one step at a time,
For it was hard to walk the Death’s walk,
Even harder to live.”
There are many ways to open this occult saga correctly. I have already mentioned the interpretations of the “sideway initiations” of a pretyêka, and another of the initiatory challenge before the fourth initiation of an ascending adept. Also, by his entering the underworld after being locked three times in order to gain power by and over himself, Kouta becomes a symbol of the first, matter-delving arch of emanation before it – by dying from elemental spirit and being born as a humble human being – starts its slow, ascending arch of remanation. For in the distant past, we have all been spirits of such an elemental kind; slowly following the vortex of transmigration and, finally, incarnation. Thus, emanation flows downwards into matter and condensed intelligence, which is in the possibility of individuating and truly becoming a personality, a self-reflecting Ego.
But however we choose to interpret this great poem, its message is clear: one’s magic power remains unperfected as long as the realization of death and disintegration is not amalgamated into it. Kouta, the black magician, unable to die unless by extraordinary adventure, is a fascinatingly self-sacrificing version of his Slavic version, Koshei the Deathless, and other great necromancers of old.
- A great part of the Kalevala discusses a magical war of sorts between the “white magicians” of southern Finland and the “black magicians” of the North. Such a culturally depicted antagonism is very usual in old epics (cf. Ramayana). North is also seen as the direction of evil in many cultures since the peoples of old saw east – the sunrise – as the major point of their mythological compass, and when heading east, north is at one’s left hand, the direction that was likened to death, shadow and regression to the past. But it is interesting also to note that the “undying lands of Hyperborea,” the mythical land of immortal adepts, was located to the far north – perhaps to the precise spot of the magnetic north pole. Yet, this was seen as a fertile, green island far beyond even Lapland. As one may easily see, all of this is symbolic, and the “north” and “south” of the old epics and poems are cardinal directions in one’s soul and not in outer geography.
- Translations of Leino’s Kouta (published in Helkavirsiä 1903) are mine.
- A Finnish occultist, Pekka Ervast, incidentally a friend of Leino’s (albeit not a close one), said about Satan that he “lives at the center of planet earth, differentiating prâna into kundalinî.”
- See Fosforos, p. 131 (giving one’s blood), 82 (murdering one’s joys), 91 (cursing one’s birth).
- This is also a state where thrice initiated stands before their fourth initiation, which is the initiation of death, resurrection and release. A magician who goes one’s initiations in old systematic order will become such a Thrice-Locked One in this stage and must learn to release themself.
- Maahinen is now called “Peri-isäntä” in the poem. “Isäntä” is simply “master,” but “peri” has many meanings. It means something utmost, primal, but also holds allusions to heritage, inheriting, and collecting debts. When Maahinen mocks Kouta about his fleeting fear of giving up his life, he clearly plays the part of Devil Woland or the collector of the warlocks’ debts of power.