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Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Kalevala

Mastered by desire impulsive,
By a mighty inward urging,
I am ready now for singing,
Ready to begin the chanting
Of our nation's ancient folk-song
Handed down from by-gone ages.
In my mouth the words are melting,
From my lips the tones are gliding,
From my tongue they wish to hasten;
When my willing teeth are parted,
When my ready mouth is opened,
Songs of ancient wit and wisdom
Hasten from me not unwilling.

Ilmatar, maiden of air, painted by Finnish artist
Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1860)

Written by Finnish physician and philologist Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), the epic poem Kalevala has a great influence on Finnish art and society. Carried out through several stages, the work was first published in 1835.

The poem is partly a heroic tale, partly an epic about the world's creation and the origin of Finnish culture, as well as a depiction of customs and way of life in ancient times. The old sage Väinämöinen is present in most parts of Kalevala, playing a variety of roles. He is the son of the Ilmatar, maiden of air – his magic birth is depicted in the first of Kalevala's 50 songs, and he then assists in the creation of the world. 

Väinämöinen is a warrior and a cultural hero, a wizard who can perform miracles with his songs. He is also a shaman who can travel to the underworld and back. He is an unsuccessful lover- the young maiden Aino even drowns herself, rather than be married to Väinämöinen. However, she returned to taunt the grieving Väinämöinen as a salmon.

The poem contains several myths of origin; first, the creation of the world, but also stories about how fire, beer, iron, the kantele (a Finnish plucked string instrument) and diseases are introduced to mankind. There are also myths about how the sun and moon are set free from captivity in the mountains of Pohjola. Several sections portray the relationship between Kalevala and Pohjola - the northern lands representing "the others," characterized by cold and sorcery, ruled by a Louhi, a wicked queen. In the course of action, Väinämöinen is at first friends with Louhi; but after he and Lemminkäinen rob the magic mill Sampo from its dwellings in Pohjola, enmity naturally arises. Within the ethnographic sections, there are distinctive depictions of weddings and bear hunting and reproductions of magic formulas. 

The title Kalevala in fact constitutes a place name, which is rarely found in folk poetry – directly translated, it means "The Land of Kaleva". Kaleva was a mysterious giant barely mentioned in the songs, yet whom Lönnrot nonetheless looked upon as a real person; a chief whom had once led his people to the Finnish mainland, like Moses had led Israelites to the Promised Land. 

Aino Myth, Triptych, painted by Finish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1891), showing his failed marriage proposal and Aino's suicide

Swedes we are no more, Russians we will not be - let us be Finns

The creation of the Kalevala must be reviewed in the light of Lönnrot’s day and age. Born in 1802 in the south of Finland, his interest in folklore was early established. After Finland became a Russian principality in 1809, the substantially Swedish speaking cultural elite grew isolated from the culture life in Sweden. The solution was to turn to Finnish culture and language, in order to gaining a sense of identity, of pride and belonging - in other words, establishing a Finnish nation. The new ideas were expressed in the motto "Swedes we are no more, Russians we will not be, let us be Finns."

A central element of romantic nationalism, or national romanticism, was the infatuation for an (more or less) imaginative glorious past, conveyed through ancient heroic tales, folk songs and sagas. In Norway, one sought inspiration and national self-esteem from the literary works of Edda and the Norse sagas, which admittedly was written down by Icelanders, but largely centered around Norwegians. Finland had no recorded saga literature, and how conditions had been in Finland before Christianity remained uncertain.

The nearest possible source for such knowledge, aside from a few historical documents, were found in the so-called runic poetry. This is a separate Finnish category within folk poetry, named after runo, which once meant “skald” (Eng. "poet"), and later "poetry". The runo poetry consisted of songs, as well as incantations, which were not sung, but recited - "read".

It was the epic runo songs, those that spoke of mythical heroes, that aroused the greatest interest. The content must nonetheless have seemed confusing to the scholarly Finnish elite of Lönnrot's time, with knowledge of
epic poems of other countries, such as The Works of Ossian in Scotland, Beowulf in England, as well as the Germans' Nibelungenlied. However, where these epics told of kings and aristocratic knights in a warlike world, the Finnish folk poetry were about peasants, hunters and fishermen in a world of magic and sorcery. 

A Child of Romantisicm - and Enlightenment 

When Lönnrot was 26 years old and still a poor student, he embarked on his first collection journey, making his first notes. Unlike most of the cultural elite, his mother tongue was Finnish, not Swedish, which made it easier for him to instill confidence among the peasants, having them sing and tell their stories. It was not something they did to anyone, as songs and incantations of pagan origin were deemed shameful. When he began medical studies in Helsinki in 1828, Lönnrot was given the opportunity to immerse himself in folk medicine and set out on the first of a total of 11 collecting missions, mostly in Karelia (currently divided among the northwestern Russian Federation and Finland). 

Professor Elias Lönnrot, painted by 
Bernhard Reinhold (1872),
Helsingsfors museum
Much of Lönnrot's life work consisted in public education, to lift especially the peasant population out of poverty, disease, filth and ignorance. Later, as a district physician, superstition and sorcery, which were still important components of folk medicine, annoyed him, while his inner folklorist was fascinated by the same phenomena. As a child of both Romantisicm and the Enlightenment, he had an attraction to the mysterious and enigmatic in popular culture, while simultaneously being a respected scientist. Lönnrot did not believe in the magic power of the spell, yet may have muttered an occasional incantation while treating superstitious and fearful farmers, to make them feel secure.

Lönnrot had many aspirations with the Kalevala. An important part of that project was to give a comprehensive image of the Finnish people, in celebration and in everyday life – at least as Lönnrot imagined it to have been in the old days - and as it could still be in the East Finnish and Keral countryside of his time. In several parts of the work, women’s place in society is evident, where mothers appear to play the most important role in the family in terms of managing and mentoring sons and daughters. Fathers are virtually absent. This aspect reflects actual conditions in the East Finnish and Karelian communities, where the mother played the dominant role in the family; among other things, she was the one deciding whom her daughters were allowed to marry.

On one level, the Kalevala depicts a society characterized by hard work, harsh words and tough love. At the same time, there is a much mystery in the poem; the storyline rarely follows the laws of logic. It is the logic of dreams that prevails, where inanimate objects can speak, and humans can readily transform into animals. His interest for folk medicine is to a large extent also reflected in the Kalevala, as the work contains many incantations, as well as descriptions of healing and prevention of illness. The heroes of Kalevala are not heroes because they capable swordsmen, but because they are skilled in sorcery. When singing in the Kalevala, it usually involves wielding the song as a magic instrument, not to create beautiful music. In the old Finnish agrarian community, knowledge of the old songs and the incantations implied an ability to rule the world. 

The Defense of the Sampo (1896) by Finnish painter Akseli Gellen-Kallela. 

The scene portrayed is taken from the 43rd song of the epic, where the hero Väinämöinen, seen wielding a sword, has stolen the precious artifact Sampo from the evil witch Louhi, and she, having taken the form of a giant bird, is trying to reclaim it. The battle for the Sampo is also given a deeper connotation as a battle for the soul of Finland.

The fact that the Finns were skilled sorcerers was well known to Norwegians in the Viking era, if one is to believe Snorri Sturluson. In the saga of the Saintly Olav, he describes how  King Olav ravaged the Finnish coast, encountering resistance from the locals. When the Norwegian Vikings finally had to flee, the retreat was close to failure, due to a sudden severe storm. Nowadays we would probably say that they had bad luck with the weather, but according to Snorri, it was the Finns who had created the storm, with the help of sorcery.

In some Icelandic sagas - that is, ancient and often imaginative sagas originating from Scandinavia - there are some striking parallels to Finnish mythology. It often involves journeys to a magical land in the north, where the trolls live. It's about stealing back a treasure, an ornate golden egg, about rescuing a beautiful maiden, about being persecuted and attacked by a winged monster on the way back. And so on. Finnish researchers have explained that the similarities between the ancient sagas and Finnish folklore exist due to legends and fairytales that have come from Scandinavia to the Finnish area during the Iron Age – as a result of trade.

Professor Anna-Leena Siikala, however, advocated that the ancient sagas telling of the mysterious place Trollebotn originate in the stories the Vikings heard on their travels to Finnish areas, and that the stories have thus traveled the opposite way. There may also be another possibility; whether the Scandinavians came to Finland to ravage or trade, they gladly brought young girls home with them, either as wives, concubines or slaves. As a result of these circumstances, a great deal of these girls had children, telling them stories they had brought with them from their childhood home. These stories in turn were passed on by their children, to their children, often mixed with tales their fathers had told about their adventurous journeys. Stories that in turn became ancient sagas, written down in the 13th century.

Folklore - or fakelore?

Later research on the poem has been concerned with the relationship between the collected folklore and Lönnrot's edits, and to what extent Lönnrot believed he reconstructed a comprehensive, authentic epic. One notable feature with the Kalevala is that Lönnrot washed away all traces of Christian influence – names of saints and references to orthodox religious practices – from the texts he made use of. He wanted to create an image of a mythical, religious-religious pagan Finnish culture from the time before Christianity’s accession. Of that reason, the view on Lönnrot's role as the originator has changed since Kalevala first came out. His contemporaries saw him as an editor more than a poet, and at Kalevala as an anthology of folk songs. Today, the epic is regarded as Lönnrot's main work of literary fiction. Although American folklorist Alan Dundes in 1985 described Kalevala as "fakelore", Lönnrot took meticulous care of his notes so that posterity could study them and compare with the final result.

When he was this thorough in documenting the source material, he probably had the fate of James Macpherson (1736-1796) in mind. The Scottish poet in 1760 published a collection of allegedly authentic Gaelic folk songs, translated into English, known as The Works of Ossian. The publication became immensely popular in many countries, but at Lönnrot's time it had become evident that most of the work was a product of Macpherson's own imagination. What might have been genuine folk songs in Ossian's epic poems could not be verified, for Macpherson had no specific sources to show for. On his part, Lönnrot made sure that he did, although he rarely noted the source of a distinct material – however, this was the usual approach in Lönnrot's time. One explanation is that the individual source was unimportant, as the songs from the contemporary view virtually had arisen from the very "depth" of the common folk. Another explanation, as Lönnrot himself mentioned, is that the sources themselves wanted to remain anonymous.

In sum, the Kalevala remains a respectable artistic presentation of the Finnish runo tradition. Several writers have in turn been inspired by Lönnrot’s work, of which the most famous is most likely to be a man named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973). The fascination of the Kalevala, Tolkien shared with his good friend C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), known for his books about Narnia; it hardly coincidental that the white witch whom at some point ruled Narnia - with frost as her weapon - bears some resemblance to Louhi, the ruler of Pohjola.

In 2016, the first known manuscript Tolkien wrote, sometime between 1912 and 1916, was published for the first time. The title is Kullervo, and is Tolkien's own version of the story of Kullervo, as he had come to know it from Kalevala. Also included in the book are notes for a lecture he gave on the Kalevala, describes the encounter with the epic as coming to a new world:

After the country and its manners have become better known to you, and you have got on speaking terms with the natives, you will, I hope, find it jolly to live awhile with this strange people and these new gods, with this race of unhypocritical low-brow scandalous heroes, and sadly unsentimental lovers - some there may be who will think with regret that they have ever to go back from that land at all. 

Väinämöinen's farewell, painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1906) - depicting the scene of the last of the songs, where the old sorcerer leaves his country, leaving it to the new king, Väinämöinen farewell depicting the scene in the last of the songs, where the old sorcerer leaves his land, and leave it to the new king, a virgin son with distinct commonalities with Jesus Christ.

The Kalevala (translations)


  • Elias Lönnrot, Kalevala. Gjendiktet av Mikael Holmberg, med innledning av Mikael Holmberg. Orkana, 2017.