The Kalevala is a 19th century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot from Finnish and Karelian oral folklore and mythology.
It is regarded as the national epic of Finland and is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature. The Kalevala played an instrumental role in the development of the Finnish national identity, the intensification of Finland's language strife and the growing sense of nationality that ultimately led to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917.
The first version of The Kalevala (called The Old Kalevala) was published in 1835. The version most commonly known today was first published in 1849 and consists of 22,795 verses, divided into fifty songs (Finnish: runot). The title can be interpreted as "The land of Kaleva".
Finnish folk poetry was first written down in the 17th century and collected by hobbyists and scholars through the following centuries. Despite this, the majority of Finnish poetry remained only oral tradition.
Finnish born nationalist and linguist Kaarle Akseli Gottlund (1796–1875) expressed his desire for a Finnish epic in a similar vein to The Iliad, Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied compiled from the various poems and songs spread over most of Finland. He hoped that such an endeavour would incite a sense of nationality and independence in the native Finnish people. In 1820 Reinhold von Becker founded the journal Turun Wiikko-Sanomat (Turku Weekly News) and published three articles entitled Väinämöisestä (Concerning Väinämöinen). These works were an inspiration for Elias Lönnrot in creating his masters thesis at Turku University.
In the 19th century, collecting became more extensive, systematic and organised. Altogether, almost half a million pages of verse have been collected and archived by the Finnish Literature Society and other collectors in Estonia and the Republic of Karelia. The publication Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (Ancient Poems of the Finns) published 33 volumes containing 85,000 items of poetry over a period of 40 years. They have also archived 65,000 items of poetry that remain unpublished. By the end of the 19th century this pastime of collecting material relating to Karelia and the developing orientation towards eastern lands had become a fashion called Karelianism, a form of national romanticism.
The chronology of this oral tradition is uncertain. The oldest themes (the origin of Earth) have been interpreted to have their roots in distant, unrecorded history and could be as old as 3000 years. The newest events (e.g. the arrival of Christianity) seem to be from the Iron Age. Finnish folklorist Kaarle Krohn proposes that some 20 poems of The Kalevala could be of Ancient Estonian origin or they at least deal with a motif of Estonian origin.
It is understood that during the Finnish reformation in the 16th century the clergy forbade all telling and singing of pagan rites and stories. In conjunction with the arrival of European poetry and music this caused a significant reduction in the number of traditional folk songs and their singers. Thus the tradition faded somewhat but was never totally eradicated.
Form and structure
The poetry was often sung to music built on a pentachord, sometimes assisted by a kantele player. The rhythm could vary but the music was arranged in either two or four lines consisting of five beats each. The poems were often performed by a duo, each person singing alternative verses or groups of verses. This method of performance is called an antiphonic performance, it is a kind of "singing match".
Despite the vast geographical distance and customary spheres separating individual singers, The Kalevala, as well as the folk poetry it is based on were always sung in the same metre.
The Kalevala's metre is a form of trochaic tetrameter that is known as the Kalevala metre. The metre is thought to have originated during the Proto-Finnic period. Its syllables fall into three types: strong, weak, and neutral.
Lönnrot’s contribution to Kalevala
Very little is actually known about Elias Lönnrot's personal contributions to The Kalevala. Scholars to this day still argue and hypothesise about how much of The Kalevala is genuine folk poetry and how much is Lönnrot's own work. During the compilation process it is known that he merged poem variants and characters together, left out verses that did not fit and composed lines of his own in order to connect certain passages into a logical plot. Similarly, individual singers used their own words and dialects when reciting their repertoire even going as far as performing different versions of the same song at different times.
The Finnish historian Väinö Kaukonen suggests that 3% of The Kalevala's lines are Lönnrot's own composition, as well as 14% being Lönnrot compositions from variants, 50% verses which Lönnrot kept mostly unchanged except for some minor alterations and 33% original unedited oral poetry. It is fruitless, however, to attempt to extrapolate concrete percentages of how much of The Kalevala is genuine word-for-word oral tradition and how much is fabricated by the compiler. A loose collection of mixed and varied poems all with many possible versions cannot be combined into a single and solid epic without some editing, otherwise The Kalevala would be an anthology and not a national epic.
To find related topics in a list, see List of Kalevala translations.
Of the five complete translations into English, it is only the older translations by John Martin Crawford (1888) and William Forsell Kirby (1907) which attempt to strictly follow the original rhythm (Kalevala meter) of the poems. Eino Friberg's 1988 translation uses it selectively but in general is more tuned to pleasing the ear than being an exact metrical translation also often reducing the length of songs for aesthetic reasons.
A notable partial translation of Franz Anton Schiefner's German translation was made by Prof. John Addison Porter in 1868 and published by Leypoldt & Holt.
Edward Taylor Fletcher, a British-born Canadian literature enthusiast, also translated selections of The Kalevala in 1869. He read them before the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec on the 17 March 1869.
Francis Peabody Magoun published a scholarly translation of the Kalevala in 1963 written entirely in prose. The appendices of this version contain notes on the history of the poem, comparisons between the original Old Kalevala and the current version, and a detailed glossary of terms and names used in the poem. Magoun also translated The Old Kalevala which was published six years later entitled The Old Kalevala and Certain Antecedents.
The two most recent translations were both published in 1989 by Keith Bosley (Oxford University Press) and Eino Friberg (Otava).
So far The Kalevala has been translated into sixty-one languages and is Finland's most translated work of literature.
The Kalevala begins with the traditional Finnish creation myth, leading into stories of the creation of the earth, plants, creatures and the sky. Creation, healing, combat and internal story telling are often accomplished by the character(s) involved singing of their exploits or desires. Many parts of the stories involve a character hunting or requesting lyrics (spells) to acquire some skill, such as boat-building or the mastery of iron making.
As well as magical spell casting and singing there are many stories of lust, romance, kidnapping and seduction. The protagonists of the stories often have to accomplish feats that are unreasonable or impossible which they often fail to achieve leading to tragedy and humiliation.
The Sampo is a pivotal element of the whole work. Many actions and their consequences are caused by the Sampo itself or a character's interaction with the Sampo. It is described as a magical talisman or device that brings its possessor great fortune and prosperity.
There are also similarities with mythology and folklore from other cultures, for example the Kullervo character and his story bearing some likeness to the Greek Oedipus. The similarity of the virginal maiden Marjatta to the Christian Virgin Mary is also striking. The arrival of Marjatta's son in the final song spelling the end of Väinämöinen's reign over Kalevala is similar to the arrival of Christianity bringing about the end of Paganism in Finland and Europe at large.
The first Väinämöinen cycle
Songs 1 and 2: The poem begins with an introduction by the singers. The Earth is created from the shards of a duck egg and the first man (Väinämöinen) is born to the goddess Ilmatar. Väinämöinen brings trees and life to the barren world.
Songs 3 to 5: Väinämöinen encounters the jealous Joukahainen and they do battle. Joukahainen loses and pledges his sister's hand in return for his life, the sister (Aino) drowns herself in the sea.
Songs 6 to 10: Väinämöinen heads to Pohjola to seduce the maiden of the north. Joukahainen attacks Väinämöinen again, he floats for days on the sea until he is carried by an eagle to Pohjola. He makes a deal with Louhi to get Ilmarinen to create The Sampo. Ilmarinen refuses to go to Pohjola so Väinämöinen forces him against his will. The Sampo is forged. Ilmarinen returns without a bride.
The first Lemminkäinen cycle
Songs 11 to 15: Lemminkäinen sets out to Saari (English: The Island) in search of a bride. He and the maid Kyllikki make vows to each other but the maiden repudiates hers so Lemminkäinen discards her and sets off to woo the Maiden of the North. He asks Louhi for her daughters hand and she assigns tasks to him. Lemminkäinen is killed while attempting the tasks and thrown into the river of death. His mother goes in search of him and revives him.
The second Väinämöinen cycle
Songs 16 to 18: Väinämöinen builds a boat to travel to Pohjola once again in search of a bride. He visits Tuonela (English: The land of Death) and is held prisoner. Väinämöinen uses his magical powers to escape and warns his people of the dangers present in Tuonela. Väinämöinen now sets out to gather the necessary spells from Antero Vipunen. Väinämöinen is swallowed and has to torture Antero Vipunen for the spells and his escape. His boat completed, Väinämöinen sets sail for Pohjola. Ilmarinen learns of this and resolves to go to Pohjola himself to woo the maiden. The Maiden of the North chooses Ilmarinen.
Songs 19 to 25: Ilmarinen is assigned dangerous unreasonable tasks in order to win the hand of the Maiden of the North. He accomplishes these tasks with some help from the maiden herself. In preparation for the wedding beer is brewed, a giant steer is slaughtered and invitations are sent out. Lemminkäinen is uninvited. The wedding party begins and all are happy. Väinämöinen sings and lauds the people of Pohjola. The bride and bridegroom are prepared for their roles in matrimony. The couple arrive home and are greeted with drink and viands.
The second Lemminkäinen cycle
Songs 26 to 30: Lemminkäinen is resentful for not having been invited to the wedding and sets out immediately for Pohjola. On his arrival he is challenged to and wins a duel with the Master of the North. An army is conjured to enact revenge upon Lemminkäinen and he flees to his mother. She advises him to head to the Island of Refuge. On his return he finds his house burned to the ground. He goes to Pohjola with his companion Tiera to get his revenge, but Louhi freezes the seas and Lemminkäinen has to return home. When he arrives home he is reunited with his mother and vows to build larger better houses to replace the ones burned down.
The Kullervo cycle
Songs 31–36: Untamo kills his brother Kalervo’s people, but spares his wife who later begets Kullervo. Kullervo is sold as a slave to Ilmarinen. Ilmarinen's wife torments and bullies Kullervo so he sends a pack of wolves and bears to tear her to pieces. Kullervo escapes from Ilmarinen's homestead and learns from an old lady in the forest that his family is still alive, he is reunited with them. While returning home from paying taxes he meets and seduces a young maiden only to find out that she is his sister, she kills herself and Kullervo returns home distressed. Kullervo decides to wreak revenge upon Untamo and sets out to find him. Kullervo wages war on Untamo and his people laying all to waste, he then returns home to find the farm deserted. Filled with remorse and regret he kills himself in the place where he seduced his sister.
The second Ilmarinen cycle
Songs 37–38: Grieving for his lost love, Ilmarinen forges himself a wife out of gold and silver, but finds her to be cold and discards her. He heads for Pohjola and kidnaps the youngest daughter of Louhi. She is outraged and insults him badly so he sings magic and turns her into a bird. He returns to Kalevala and tells Väinämöinen about the prosperity and wealth of Pohjola's citizens because of The Sampo.
The plunder of the Sampo (the third Väinämöinen cycle)
Songs 39–44: Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen sail to Pohjola to recover The Sampo. While on their journey they kill a monstrous pike and from its jaw bone the first kantele is made. The heroes arrive in Pohjola and demand a share of The Sampo's wealth or they will take the whole Sampo by force. Louhi musters her army however Väinämöinen lulls to sleep everyone in Pohjola with his music. The Sampo is taken from its vault of stone and the heroes set out for home. Louhi conjures a great army, turns herself into an eagle and fights for The Sampo. In the battle The Sampo is lost to the sea and destroyed.
Louhi's revenge on Kalevala
Songs 45–49: Enraged at the loss of The Sampo, Louhi sends the people of Kalevala diseases and a great bear to kill their cattle. She hides the sun and the moon and steals fire from Kalevala. Väinämöinen heals all of the ailments and, with Ilmarinen, restores the fire. Väinämöinen forces Louhi to return the Sun and the Moon to the skies.
The Marjatta cycle
Song 50: The shy young virgin Marjatta becomes impregnated from a lingonberry she ate while tending to her flock. She begets a son. Väinämöinen orders the killing of the boy, but the boy begins to speak and reproaches Väinämöinen for ill judgement. The child is then baptised King of Karelia. Väinämöinen sails away leaving only his songs and kantele as legacy.
The poem ends and the singers sing a farewell and thank you to their audience.
Väinämöinen is the central character of The Kalevala, he is a shamanistic hero with the magical power of song and music similar to Orpheus. He is born already ancient to Ilmatar and contributes to the origin of Earth. Many of his travels resemble shamanistic journeys, most notably one where he visits the belly of a ground-giant, Antero Vipunen, to find the songs of boat building.
Väinämöinen created and plays the kantele, a Finnish stringed instrument that resembles and is played like a zither. The kantele is very important in Finnish folk music and myth.
Väinämöinen's search for a wife is a central element in many stories; although he never finds one. One of his potential brides, Joukahainen's sister Aino, drowns herself instead of marrying him. He is the leading member of the group which steals the Sampo from the people of Pohjola.
Seppo Ilmarinen, is a heroic artificer (comparable to the Germanic Weyland and the Greek Daedalus). He crafted the dome of the sky, The Sampo and various other magical devices featured in The Kalevala. Ilmarinen is the second member of the group who steal the Sampo.
Ilmarinen, like Väinämöinen, also has many stories told of his search for a wife, reaching the point where he forges one of gold.
Lemminkäinen is a handsome, arrogant and reckless ladies-man, he is the son of Lempi (English: lust or favourite). He shares a very close relationship with his mother who revives him after he has been drowned in the river of Tuonela while pursuing the object of his romantic desires. This section of The Kalevala echoes the myth of Osiris. Lemminkäinen is the third member of the group which steals the Sampo from Pohjola.
Ukko (English: Old man) is the leading deity mentioned within The Kalevala. His character alludes to Thor and Zeus. John Martin Crawford wrote that the name may be related the obsolete Hungarian word for an old man (agg).
Joukahainen is a base, unintelligent young man who arrogantly challenges Väinämöinen to a singing contest which he loses. In exchange for his life Joukahainen promises his young sister Aino to Väinämöinen. Joukahainen attempts to gain his revenge on Väinämöinen by killing him with a crossbow but only succeeds in killing Väinämöinen's horse. Joukahainen's actions lead to Väinämöinen promising to build a Sampo in return for Louhi rescuing him.
Louhi the Mistress of the North, is the shamanistic matriarch of the people of Pohjola, a people rivalling those of Kalevala. She is the cause of much trouble for Kalevala and its people.
Louhi at one point saves Väinämöinen's life. She has many daughters whom the heroes of Kalevala make many attempts (some successful) at seducing. Louhi plays a major part in the battle to prevent the heroes of Kalevala from stealing back the Sampo which as a result is ultimately destroyed. She is a powerful witch with a skill almost on a par with that of Väinämöinen's.
Kullervo is the vengeful, mentally ill and tragic son of Kalervo. He was abused as a child and sold into slavery to Ilmarinen. He is put to work and treated badly by Ilmarinen's wife whom he later kills. Kullervo is a misguided and troubled youth often at odds with himself and his situation. He often goes into berserk rage and in the end commits suicide.
Marjatta is the young virgin of Kalevala. She becomes pregnant from eating a lingonberry. When her labour begins she is expelled from her parents' home and leaves to find a place where she can sauna and give birth. She is turned away from numerous places but finally finds a place in the forest and gives birth to a son. Marjatta's nature, impregnation and searching for a place to give birth are in allegory to the Virgin Mary and the Christianisation of Finland. Marjatta's son is later condemned to death by Väinämöinen for being born out of wedlock, the boy in turn chastises Väinämöinen and is later crowned King of Karelia. This angers Väinämöinen who leaves Kalevala leaving his songs and kantele to the people as his legacy.
Influence of The Kalevala
The Kalevala is a major part of Finnish culture and history, and has impacted the arts in Finland, and in other cultures around the world.
The influence of The Kalevala in daily life and business in Finland is tangible. Names and places associated with The Kalevala have been adopted as company and brand names and even as place names.
There are several places within Finland with Kalevala related names, for example: the district of Tapiola in the city of Espoo; the district of Pohjola in the city of Turku, the district of Metsola in the city of Vantaa and the district of Kaleva in the city of Tampere; the historic provinces of Savo and Karjala and the Russian towns of Hiitola and Kalevala are all mentioned within the songs of The Kalevala.
The banking sector of Finland has at least three Kalevala related names: Sampo, Pohjola and Tapiola.
The jewellery company Kalevala Koru was founded in 1935 on the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Old Kalevala. It specialises in the production of unique and culturally important items of jewellery. It is co-owned by the Kalevala Women's League and offers artistic scholarships to a certain number of organisations and individuals every year.
The Finnish dairy company Valio has a brand of ice-cream named Aino, specialising in more exotic flavours than their normal brand.
The construction group Lemminkäinen was formed in 1910 as a roofing and asphalt company, the name was chosen specifically to emphasise that they were a wholly Finnish company. They now operate internationally.
The Kalevala Day is celebrated in Finland on the 28 February, to match Elias Lönnrot's first version of The Kalevala in 1835.
Several of the names in The Kalevala are also celebrated as Finnish name days. The name days themselves and the dates they fall upon have no direct relationship with The Kalevala itself however the adoption of the names became commonplace after the release of The Kalevala.
Several artists have been influenced by The Kalevala, most notably Akseli Gallen-Kallela who has painted many pieces relating to The Kalevala.
Iittala group's Arabia brand kilned a series of Kalevala commemorative plates, designed by the late Raija Uosikkinen. The series ran from 1976 to 1999 and are highly sought after collectables.
One of the earliest artists to depict a scene from The Kalevala is Robert Wilhelm Ekman. One of his drawings from 1886 depicts Väinämöinen playing his kantele.
Aarno Karimo was a Finnish artist who illustrated the Kuva Kalevala (Published by Pellervo-Seura in 1953). He died before completing it. Hugo Otava finished it using original sketches as a guide.
In 1989 the fourth full translation of Kalevala into English was published, richly illustrated by Björn Landström.
The Kalevala has been translated over one-hundred and fifty times into over sixty different languages. For more details about the translations into English please see the translations section.
Franz Anton Schiefner's translation of The Kalevala was one inspiration for Longfellow's 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha, which is written in a similar trochaic tetrameter.
Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald's Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg was inspired by The Kalevala. Both Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen are mentioned in the work and the overall story of Kalevipoeg (Kalev's son) bears similarities with the Kullervo story.
J.R.R. Tolkien claimed The Kalevala as one of his sources for the Silmarillion. For example: Kullervo's story is the basis of Túrin Turambar in Narn i Chîn Húrin, including the sword that speaks when the anti-hero uses it to commit suicide. Echoes of The Kalevala's characters, Väinämöinen in particular, can be found in Tom Bombadil of The Lord of the Rings.
Finnish cartoonist Kristian Huitula illustrated the comic book adaptation of the Kalevala. The Kalevala Graphic Novel contains the storyline of all the 50 chapters in original text form.Finnish cartoonist and children's writer Mauri Kunnas wrote and illustrated Koirien Kalevala (The Canine Kalevala). The story is that of The Kalevala with the characters presented as anthropomorphized dogs, wolves and cats. The story deviates from the full Kalevala, presumably, to make the story more appropriate for children.
The Kalevala also inspired the American Disney cartoonist Don Rosa to draw a Donald Duck story based on The Kalevala, called The Quest for Kalevala. The comic was released in the year of the 150th anniversary of The Kalevala's publication.
The Neustadt Prize-winning poet and playwright Paavo Haavikko who is regarded as one of Finland's finest writers, has also taken influence from The Kalevala.
Emil Petaja was an American science fiction and fantasy author of Finnish descent. His best known works known as the Otava Series make up a series of novels based on The Kalevala. The series brought Petaja readers from around the world; while his mythological approach to science fiction was discussed in scholarly papers presented at academic conferences. He has a further Kalevala based work which is not part of the series, entitled The Time Twister.
The British science fiction writer Ian Watson's Books of Mana duology: Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon both contain references to places and names from the Kalevala.
British fantasy author Michael Moorcock's sword and sorcery anti-hero, Elric of Melniboné is influenced by the character Kullervo.
A world egg or cosmic egg is a mythological motif found in the creation myths of many cultures and civilizations. Typically, the world egg is a beginning of some sort, and the universe or some primordial being comes into existence by "hatching" from the egg.
Other cultures: World Egg
In the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, there is a myth of the world being created from the fragments of an egg laid by a diving duck on the knee of Ilmatar, goddess of the air:
One egg's lower half transformed
And became the earth below,
And its upper half transmuted
And became the sky above;
From the yolk the sun was made,
Light of day to shine upon us;
From the white the moon was formed,
Light of night to gleam above us;
All the colored brighter bits
Rose to be the stars of heaven
And the darker crumbs changed into
Clouds and cloudlets in the sky.
The story of the Sampo, the magical object that produces riches, from a Finnish-Soviet movie from 1959. The story is based on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. Notice that almost all the characters have some sort of magic or act as shamans. The women of Kalevala have very strong personality, like Louhi, the sorceress of the Pohyola ('The North-Country'). Pohyola may be thought of as a real place in the north or as a world in a totally different reality.
The Sampo (1959) - Part 1 of 6
The Sampo (1959) - Part 2 of 6
The Sampo (1959) - Part 3 of 6
The Sampo (1959) - Part 4 of 6
The Sampo (1959) - Part 5 of 6
The Sampo (1959) - Part 6 of 6
Kalevala a Finnish Mythology