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Kalevala - Kalevala Day (February 28)


The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic, compiled by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) from ancient oral poetry. The material, old ballads and lyrical songs depicting "the sons of Kalevala", were published in two editions, first in 1835 with 35 cantos, and the enlarged edition with 50 cantos in 1849. Lönnrot's aim was to arrange the mythological and other poems into a single volume, comparable to the Icelandic Edda, and tell about the past heroes like Homer did in Iliad and Odyssey. The Kalevala itself is based principally on poems collected from the Finnish-speaking regions beyond the eastern frontier of Finland. Between 1831 and 1835 Lönnrot undertook three collection journeys to Archangel Karelia and arranged his materials into an epic whole. The revised Kalevala was elaborated with the new material that Lönnrot and other collectors had amassed since 1835.

Dear my kinsman, friend fraternal,
You my fairest foster-brother!
Come and sing with me in concord,
Let us sing and say together,
Since together we have got here
Coming from two different quarters!
Seldom do we see each other,
Rarely reap the fruits of friendship,
Here within these barren borders,
In these careful Northern confines.

transl. by Cid Erik Tallqvist

The compilation of a "national epic" was part of a patriotic movement. The Swedish poet Esaias Tegnér (1782-1846) had showed a model with his Frithiofs saga and Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-77) had translated into Swedish selections from Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic's Serbian folk poems. In Poland Mickiewicz composed the epic Pan Tadeusz (1834). However, in Finland the impact of the Kalevala, as an example of the heroic past of the people, was far deeper that in any other country. For a period, Lönnrot believed that the epic poems he had found, were fragments of a great masterpiece. Lönnrot's work launched a vogue called Karelianism and became part of the emerging Finnishness.

The Kalevala begins with an account of the Creation – from a broken egg – and ends with an interpretation of the Virgin Birth. In the second edition of the Kalevala the blundering expeditions, centered around the mysterious Sampo, its manufacure, its theft, and loss in a battle, arise in the forefront. At the beginning of the arrangement of the material, Lönnrot believed that the events of the old poems rested more or less on historical facts. Later he let an aesthetic principle guide his work. From the beginning, Lönnrot kept records of folk poems and his own compositions so that no shadow over the genuine folk origins of the finished epic could fall, as in the case of J. Macpherson's Song of Ossian. Modern reseach has shown that the texts, however, were based on genuine material.

The central characters in The Kalevala, or Old Poems from Karelia telling the Ancient History of the Finnish People, are the old and wise Väinämöinen, skilled smith Ilmarinen, adventurer-warrior Lemminkäinen, Louhi, the female ruler of Pohjola, and the tragic hero Kullervo. In the center of the song cycle is the magic-laden conflict between Kalevala and Pohja or Pohjola (Northland); the latter is ruled by the enchantress Louhi, who commands storms and deep cold. Väinämöinen is the master of the universal magic of music, he can gain power over persons and things by knowing their genealogy or origins. The epic ends with decline of paganism: maid Marjatta gives birth to a son who is baptized king of Karelia and Väinämöinen departs the land of heroes.

The Sampo, the magic mill, which has some similarities with the miraculous Celtic cauldron of plenty and regeneration, is the most fascinating mystery of the epic. It is the ultimate source of prosperity, a kind of primitive Philosophers's Stone. Ilmarinen, the smith, who resembles in some respects Vulcanus (Hepaestus), the god of fire, makes the Sampo to have a wife. Väinämoinen, his consultant, tells him: "If you can forge the Sampo / brighten the bright-lid / you'll get the maid for your pay / for your work the lovely girl." Ilmarinen pushes the raw stuffs in the fire, works several days, the smoke thickens to the clouds, and finally sees the Sampo being born. "And then the new Sampo ground / and the bright-lid rocked; / ground a binful at twilight – / one binful to eat / another it ground to sell / and a third to store at home." The Sampo has been interpreted in many ways: a world pillar or tree, a chest containing a treasure, or a mint stolen by Vikings from Byzantium as the poet Paavo Haavikko has suggested.

After its appearance, the Kalevala quickly attracted attention abroad, and scholars first studied it as genuine folk poetry. In his lecture in 1845 German philologist Jakob Grimm considered that the oldest layer of material in the epic was mythical, while the heroic poetry represented a later development. Such characters as Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen, had also much similarities with many other mythological gods. Kalevala's hypnotic metre, basically a trochaic tetrameter, inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855). Later W.B. Yeats thought that the Kalevala was an especially good source for the ancient world view, and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both drew from it in their own works. The heroes of Kalevala and their stories have also connections to the Arthurian legends.

The question of whether the heroes of the epic should be seen as gods or historical figures was taken up again in 1950 by professor Martti Haavio in his study Väinämöinen. He saw that because the Kalevala combines primitive beliefs and international myths and legens, it is impossible to give an absolute answer.

Since its publication the Kalevala has been translated into some 45 languages and inspired many Finnish artists, the most prominent among them the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela and the composer Jean Sibelius, althougth the majority of Sibelius's work is without specific literary refence. Among the Finnish poets Eino Leino is considered the most distinguished inheritor of the Kalevala. Five separate translations have been published in English – three in the United States, two in Great Britain. L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt took their Incomplete Enchanter sequence to the Kalevala world in Wall of Serpents (1960). Emil Petaja (1915-2000) wrote a series of science fiction books inspired by the epic, such as Saga of Lost Earths (1966), The Star Mill (1966), The Stolen Sun (1967), Tramontane (1967), and The Time Twister (1968). Michael Scott Rohan's The Winter of the World makes Louhi one of the chief powers behind the threatening ice age. Ian Watson's The Book of Mana offers a science-fantasy reworking of numerous Kalevala strands.

For further reading: The Kalevala and the World's Traditional Epics, edited by Lauri Honko (2002); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Finland: a cultural encyclopedia, ed. by Olli Alho (1997); Finland: a cultural outline by Veikko Kallio (1994); The Uses of Tradition, ed. by Michael Branch and Celia Hawkesworth (1994); Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World's Epics, ed. by Lauri Honko (1990); Kalevala Mythology by Juha Y. Pentikäinen (1989); The Kalevala: An Epic Poem After Oral Tradition by Elias Lönnrot, transl. by Keith Bosley, foreword by Albert B. Lord (1989); Studies in Finnish Folklore by Felix J. Oinas (1985); Finnish Folk Poetry, ed. by Matti Kuusi et al. (1977); Folklore and Nationalism in Modern Finland by William A. Wilson (1976); Epic of the North by John I. Kolehmainen (1973); Väinämöinen, Eternal Sage by Martti Haavio (1952); Sammon arvoitus by E.N. Setälä (1932); Kalevala, the Land of (the) Heroes, transl. by W.F. Kirby (1907) - See also: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used Kalevala's meter and style in his poem The Song of Hiawatha. Paavo Haavikko's scenario for Rauta-aika (The Age of Iron), a four-part television film (1982), was loosely based on Kalevala. Otto Ville Kuusinen underlined that Kalevala was born in Russian Carelia, not in the Western Finland. - Other writers inspired by Kalevala: J.R.R.Tolkien, Eino Leino, Matti Kuusi, Lennart Meri 


  • Kalewala, taikka wanhoja Karjalan runoja Suomen kansan muinosista ajoista, 1-2, 1835 (enlarged edition in 1849)
  • Kalevala, 1849
    - The Kalevala (translated by John Martin Crawford, 1888) / Kalevala: The Land of the Heroes (translated by W. F. Kirby, 1907) / Kalevala or Poems of the Kaleva District (a prose translation with foreword and appendices by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., 1963) / Old Kalevala and Certain Antecedents (prose translation with foreword and appendice by Francis Peabody Magoun, jr., 1969) / Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition (translated from the Finnish with an introduction and notes by Keith Bosley and a foreword by Albert B. Lord, 1989)
  • Kalevala: lyhennetty laitos, 1862 (tärkeämmillä selityksillä koulujen tarpeeksi varustanut E. Lönnrot)
Illustrated editions:
  • Kalevala: Suomen urostarina = Finnsche National-Epos = Finsk national-dikt = Epopée finnois. 3. häftet / kuvittanut = in Zeichnungen vorgestellt von = framställd i teckningar af = illustrée par R. W. Ekman, 1860
  • Kalevala, 1922 (illustrated by Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
  • Kalevala, 1938 (illustrated by Matti Visanti)
  • Kuva-Kalevala, 1952-53 (illustrated by Aarno Karimo)
  • Kalevala, 1956 (illustrated by A. Stronk)
  • Kalevala, 1985 (illustrated by Björn Landström)
  • Kalevala, 1998 (illustrated by Jukka Salminen)
  • Kalevala, 1999 (illustrated by Hannu Väisänen)

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