The Sampo: the constructor in the Kalevala

While on a recent visit to the Information Studies department at Oulu University, I happened to read an interesting article by Jorma Leppänen in the Finnish Airlines magazine. This dealt with the Kalevala, the Finnish epic poem, and my eye was caught by his mention of the Sampo, of which I have to admit I was previous totally ignorant.

A typical depiction of the Sampo
A typical depiction of the Sampo
The Sampo is a rather mysterious artefact, forged by the blacksmith Ilmarinen for Louhi, the Queen of the North. When the main protagonist of the saga, Väinämöinen, attempted to steal it, it broke into pieces and disappeared into the sea.

The nature of the Sampo is not clearly described, other than it brings prosperity to its owner. It is depicted in the original as a kind of mill, creating flour, salt and money. It has been interpreted in various religious and spiritual terms, and has appeared in a variety of popular culture presentations, as evidenced by its Wikipedia entry.

Alanen's 'Forging of the Sampo'
Alanen’s ‘Forging of the Sampo’
According to Elias Lönnrot, who originally complied the Kalevala in the nineteenth century, the Sampo embodied the highest scientific and technical understanding of the times, specifically technologies relating to agriculture. It was a system which, in current language, collected and refined knowledge. Perhaps with this in mind, its name has been used for a Finnish system for the analysis of needs for software for data reduction and analysis.

It could be seen, with an excess of imagination, as a sort of ur-3D-printer, or perhaps more conceptually as an expression of the constructor theory which David Deutsch proposes as an information-centered ‘theory of everything’.

Not being much of an advocate for ‘hidden ancient knowledge’ theories, I am not suggesting that the Finns many centuries ago really foresaw such developments. Rather that it is remarkable that we now in a position to begin to understand how some of these ancient dreams may be realized in theory and in practice.

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