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Elias Lönnrot (1802 - 1884)


Collector of folklore, linguist, medical doctor, professor in Finnish philology at the University of Helsinki. Lönnrot compiled the Finnish national epic Kalevala (The Kalevala or Old Poems from Karelia telling the Ancient History of the Finnish People) for which he travelled for about ten years interviewing people and writing down the stories, poems and songs. Lönnrot was with J.L. Runeberg and J.V. Snellman one of the most important figures in the Finnish movement of national awakening.

"Kielen varsinainen perusta on sen kirjallisuus, joka ei ainostaan ole omansa kauemmin säilyttämään kieltä, vaan joka silloinkin kun se ei voi estää kielen lopullista häviämistä, itsessään jättää jäljelle siitä ihanoita, katoamattomia raunioita." (from Matkat 1828-1844 by Elias Lönntor, 1980)

Elias Lönnrot was born in Sammatti, the son of Fredrik Johan Lönnrot, a tailor, and Ulrika (Wahlberg) Lönnrot. Supported by his eldest brother, the family managed to send the young Elias to Tammisaari and Turku, where he studied the Swedish language and Latin. Due to lack of funds, Lönnrot worked as a tailor, and completed the studies required for university entrance after private tuition. In 1822 Lönnrot entered the Academy of Turku and received his M.A. in 1827. To finance his studies, Lönnrot worked as a tutor at the home of Johan Agapetus Törngren, then professor of surgery and obstetrics. Inspired by his teacher, Reinhold von Becker, Lönnrot had taken the Väinämöinen poems as subject of his master's dissertation, and made from 1828 a number of field trips to collect folk poetry. Between 1829 and 1831 Lönnrot published at his own expense four volumes of poetry, entitled Kantele

When the university moved its activity to Helsinki after the fire of Turku, Lönnrot began to study medicine. Though he was not an active member of Lauantaiseura (The Saturday Society), which had been established in 1830, he sometimes took part in the meetings. At its heyday, this small and informal group brought together such prominent figures as Runeberg, J.V. Snellman, Frederik Cygnaeus, J.J. Nordström, and M.A. Castrén for discussions on literature and topical issues.

Lönnrot's dissertation dealt with the magical medicine of the Finns. One of his trips was cut short, when cholera ravaged Helsinki in 1831, and he was needed to fight the epidemic. After graduating in 1832, he went to Oulu, where he worked as an assistant district medical officer and witnessed the consequences of famine, dysentery and typhoid. From 1833 to 1853 Lönnrot lived in Kajaani near Russian Karelia, earning his living as a district medical officer.

While in Kajaani, he made eleven field trips among the Lapps, the Estonians, and the Finnish peoples of northwest Russia to collect poems and study the relationships between Finno-Ugrian languages. On his fifth trip to Eastern Karelia, he met Arhippa Perttunen, perhaps his most valuable source. His last journey Lönnrot made in 1844-45 – it took him to Estonia.

In Kajaani Lönnrot began to edit his collections of folk poetry for publication, and at the same time created a new work from his materials. The first edition appeared in 1835 (The old Kalevala), then a collection of old songs and ballads, Kanteletar (1840), and in 1849 the second., enlarged edition of Kalevala. Lönnrot's work soon received the attention of foreign scholars. In 1845 L.A. Léouzon le Duc published French translation of the 1935 edition and the 1849 edition in 1867. An English translation, by M. Crawford, appeared in 1888. By publishing the poems Lönnrot wanted to tell the ancient history of the Finnish people along similar lines to Homer's Iliad or Edda and the German Nibelungenlied. Lönnrot also translated parts of the of Greek epics. According to his own interpretation, events described in the epic went back to the pre-Christian period when the Finns worshipped their own pagan god, Ukko. The epic ends with the victory of Christianity.

In 1849 Lönnrot married Maria Piponius, who was a Pietist, and over 20 years younger. Before marriage Lönnrot had several affairs. In the year when The Old Kalevala appeared (1835), Lönnrot spent 100 rubles on alcohol – he could have bought five cows with the money. After a long period of carefree drinking, he founded the first Finnish temperance society, Selveys-Seura ('Clearheads Club'), but it did not attract many members. To combat venereal diseases, he suggested the compulsory examination of all travellers. Lönnrot also started to publish the first magazine in Finnish, Mehiläinen (The Bee), edited a collection of riddles (1833), proverbs (1842), and produced Suomalaisen talonpojan kotilääkäri (1839, The Finnish Peasant's Home Doctor). Lönnrot's view of the Finnish people was realistic, although for some reason he noted that inland one does not see beautiful women as often as in the coastal areas. Otherwise he did not feel attracted to philosophical speculations, which marked the work of Snellman and Runeberg. With Runeberg he shared an admiration of folk poetry.

In 1853 Lönnrot was appointed professor of Finnish language and Literature at the University of Helsinki, after Mathias Alexander Castrés had died of tuberculosis. Lönnrot worked in this post until 1862. After retiring he spent his last years in the province of Sammatti in southern Finland. During this period Lönnrot compiled a Finnish-Swedish dictionary in two volumes (1866-1880), and published a collection of Finnish magical poems (1880). This was not enough: he also wrote and arranged psalms. In his writings he coined a number of Finnish words for many scientific and technical terms. Lönnrot's contemporaries occasionally enjoyed his skills as a musician and singer. On his travels he played a flute, and he could accompany himself on the traditional Finnish harp, the kantele. "Sorrow is the source of singing," Lönnrot wrote in the Kalevala, but he also believed in progress and in the bright future of the nation. Lönnrot died in Sammatti on March 19, 1884. The first statue of him, by Emil Wickström, was unveiled in Helsinki in 1902. 'Kalevala Day' is celebrated in Finland on the 28th of February.

For further reading: Lönnrotin hengessä, ed. by Pekka Laaksonen & Ulla Piela (2002); Elias Lönnrot ja ajan aaatteet by Pertti Karkama (2001); 100 Faces from Finland, ed. by Ulpu Marjomaa (2000); Kainuun ja Karjalan parantaja - Elias Lönnrotin Kajaanin aika by Heikki Rytkölä (1998); Finland: a Cultural Outline by Veikko Kallio (1994); Elias Lönnrot, monitietäjä by Raija Majamaa (1991); Lönnrotin Kalevala by Juha Pentikäinen (1985); Monena mies eläessänsä by Tuula Korolainen (1985); Elias Lönnrotin Kanteletar by Väinö Kaukonen (1984); Lönnrotin aika, toim.Pekka Laaksonen (1984); Lönnrot ja Kalevala by Väinö Kaukonen (1978); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaako Ahokas (1973); Elias Lönnrot, Elämä ja toimita, 2 vols., by Aarne Anttila (1931-35) - See also: Henry Longfellow´s The Song of Hiawatha, Matti Kuusi; Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm.  Jacob Grimm took up in 1845 the question of the origin of Kalevala. He considered the oldest layer of material as mythical and the heroic poetry dating from later development.

Selected works:

  • Dissertatio academica de Väinämöine: priscorum Fennorum numine, 1827
    - Väinämöinen, muinaissuomalaisten jumala (suom. ja johdannon kirj. Iiro Kajanto, 1985)
  • Kantele taikka Suomen kansan sekä vanhoja että nykyisempiä runoja ja lauluja, 1-4, 1829-1831
  • Afhandling om finnarnes magiska medicin, 1834 (enlarged edition: Om Finnarnes Magiska Medicin, 1842)
  • Gustawa Schartau'n Hywäntahtoisia Neuwoja Katowuosina, 1834
  • Kalewala taikka Wanhoja Karjalan Runoja Suomen kansan muinosista ajoista, 1-2, 1835 (enlarged edition in 1849)
  • Mehiläinen, 1836-1840
  • Muistelmia Ihmisten Elosta Kaikkina Aikoina: 1-2, 1836
  • Suomalaisen Talonpojan Koti-Lääkäri, 1838 (3. uudestaan korj. laitos. 1867)
  • Kanteletar taikka Suomen Kansan Wanhoja Lauluja ja Wirsiä, 1840-41 (3. p. 1887; 8. p. 1825; 11. p. 1947)
  • Suomalaisten sanalaskuja, 1841
  • Suomalaisia arwoituksia, 1841
  • Wenäjän Historia lyhykäisesti kerrottu, 1842 (with Gustaf Ticklén)
  • Om närvarande tids poesie hos Finska Allmogen, 1842
  • Suomen Kansan Sanalaskuja, 1842
  • Muukalaisuudesta Suomessa, 1844
  • Suomen Kansan Arwoituksia, 1844
  • Kokeita suomalaisessa laulannossa, 1845
  • Svensk, Finsk och Tysk Tolk. Ruotsin, Suomen ja Saksan Tulkki. Schwedisch-Finnisch-Deutsches Wörter- und Gespräch-Buch, 1847
  • 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)
  • Suomen kansan arvoituksia ynnä 189 viron arvoituksen kanssa, 1851 (2. lisätty pain.)
  • Om det Nord-Tschudiska språket, 1853
  • Kolme Päiwää Sairion Kylässä, 1854
  • translator: Odysseen vastaanotto Faiakilaisten saarella, 1855
  • Ueber den Enare-Lappischen Dialekt, 1856
  • translator: Kauppakaari ja maakaari, 1857
  • Suomalaisia kielenoppi-sanoja, 1857
  • Kasvikon oppisanoja, 1858
  • Kalevala, 1862 (lyhennetty laitos)
  • Wanhoja ja Uusia Wirsiä. Suomalaisen Wirsikirjan korjaamista warten, 1865
  • Flora Fennica. Suomen Kasvisto, 1866 (2nd ed., with Th. Saelan)
  • Suomalais-Ruotsalainen Sanakirja. Finskt-Svenskt Lexicon, I-II, 1866-80
  • Kahdeksankymmentä ja kuusi Wirttä erinäisiä tiloja warten, 1867
  • Suomalainen Wirsikirja wäliaikaiseksi tarpeeksi, 1872
  • Lasta nukuttaissa ja Lähetyswirsi, 1875
  • Suomen kansan muinaisia loitsurunoja, 1880
  • Wäliaikainen Suomalainen Wirsikirja, 1883
  • Elias Lönnrotin matkat I-II, 1902
  • Jäkälät ravintona, 1904
  • Elias Lönnrots Svenska skrifter I-II, 1908-11 (edited by Jenny af Forselles)
  • Alku-Kanteletar, 1929 (edited by O. Relander)
  • Vaeltaja. Muistelmia jalkamatkalta Hämeestä, Savosta ja Karjalasta 1828, 1952
  • Kalevala: Karjalais-Suomalainen kansaneepos, 1956 (foreword by Otto-Ville Kuusinen, illustrated by G. Stronk)
  • Matkat 1828-1844, 1980
  • Valitut teokset. 1. Kirjeet, 1990 (edited by Raija Majamaa)
  • Valitut teokset. 2. Mehiläinen, 1990 (edited by Raija Majamaa)
  • Valitut teokset. 3. Kirjoitelmia ja lausumia, 1991 (edited by Raija Majamaa)
  • Valitut teokset. 4. Ohjeita ja runoelmia, 1992 (edited by Raija Majamaa)
  • Valitut teokset. 5. Muinaisrunoutta, 1993 (edited by Raija Majamaa)
  • Elias Lönnrotin Flora Fennica, 1-3, 2002 (edited by Kai Linnilä, Sari Savikko ja Terttu Lempiäinen)

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