The Sea King

The Sea King (A Finnish Tale From the Kalevala)

Long ago a fisherman and his wife lived on a tiny island known as Ahtola. Matte and Maie fished for salmon and herring, and every Saturday they sailed to town and sold their fish. They were poor, but they had food and cresting waves and the bright blue sky and each other’s company. They even had a little yellow dog.

All would have been fine if Maie had not longed for a cow. Matte laughed at her dream. Maie knew a cow could not survive upon their tiny island, but still, she grew restless with longing for warm milk and fresh butter.

One day as they were cleaning herring upon the shore, a tiny boat rowed toward them.

“Mother, have you any fresh milk?” the young men in the boat called ashore.

“Oh,” Maie sighed, “we have no such treats. We have the only herring to offer.”

“Fine!” the young men said and rowed to shore. They looked around and asked, “What’s the name of your little rock here?”

“Ahtola,” Matte answered.

“The Sea King’s dominion,” the young men cried. “So you live in Ahti’s realm. You must have everything you need and more.”

Matte said that he’d never heard of Ahti.

“Oh, surely you’ve heard of him,” the young men said. “Ahti possesses every imaginable treasure in his kingdom at the bottom of the sea. He is rich beyond compare, and anyone who treats him kindly soon becomes rich too. He’s temperamental, though. Anyone who dares offend him is soon sorry.”

Maie began to recall stories of the Sea King that she had learned in her childhood.

The young men ate heartily and said farewell, and Maie started to daydream of Ahti. By late afternoon she had devised a plan.

“Let us go to sea, Matte,” Maie said. “We must set a net today, for the sea is calm and we’ll gather many herring in the morn. We need fish.”

Matte did not like to fish on Sundays, but Maie begged him, and he gave in.

They rowed out with their net, and when they reached the deep sea, Maie started to chant rhymes she recalled from childhood stories. She sang the praises of the Sea King, but she added a twist of her own. She promised she would give Ahti a slice of sun and a sliver of the moon if only he would give her a cow.

That night as Matte and Maie went to bed, a fierce storm blew up from the sea. “I told you there is no luck fishing on Sunday,” Matte declared as they listened to the waves crash upon the shore.

By dawn all was calm, and when Maie looked outside, she could not believe her eyes. The most beautiful cow in the world stood upon her shore. From that moment on, whenever either Matte or Maie wished for something, it was theirs. Their little island overflowed with milk, and every net was always filled with fish. They grew rich, and so they built a large house to replace their tiny cottage. Before long they even hired men and women to help them with their work.

One day Maie said, “One cow is not enough for folks as rich as we are.”

“We have more than we need,” Matte protested, but Maie was not satisfied, and so once more she sang her rhymes until 30 cows lived on their island. The creatures thrived on seaweed.

“I hope you are satisfied,” Matte said to his wife, but Maie was not. “We need a bigger island,” she said.

“There’s nothing to do but build a dam and pump out the sea,” Matte joked, and though Maie knew he was teasing, she decided she would do just that. She loaded their boat with stones and sailed to sea. A fiddler went along with her to entertain her, but he fiddled so beautifully that Ahti and his wife, Queen Wallamos, and all the sea’s daughters rose to the surface to listen.

Maie, not seeing them, began to throw her stones into the water to build her dam. One stone grazed Wallamos’ cheek and another tore off half of Ahti’s long beard.

Suddenly Maie’s boat was spinning and bouncing as waves rose up and foam sprayed over her. Ahti rose out of the water. “Why do you throw stones at me?” he roared.

“Your majesty, forgive me. It was a mistake.”

“And where are the sun and moon you promised?”

She thought quickly. “Your majesty, every day they are scattered upon the waves of the sea.”

Ahti was furious. He blew a wind so hard that Maie was tossed from her boat. She flew through the sky and landed with a thud upon the island. When she looked up, she saw her tiny cottage and her little dog gnawing on a bone. She saw Matte wearing his ragged old jacket, sitting on the shore mending a net.

“Where are our big house and our maids and my 30 beautiful cows?” she asked Matte.

“Wife, you sang a silly rhyme last night while we were out rowing, and then you could not sleep all night for the raging storm. I didn’t bother to wake you this morning when I rowed out to rescue our net.”

“I’ve seen Ahti,” Maie cried. “I’ve seen the Sea King!”

“You were dreaming,” Matte said. “Foolish fantasies, and in your sleep, you walked into the sea, which is why are you now soaking wet.”

Maie looked around and suddenly realized that her tiny cottage, her loving husband and her little dog were all she needed in the world.