This article was written for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs by Professor Michael Branch
Director, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.
The article was first included in the booklet "Kalevala 1835-1985; The national epic of Finland"
Publisher: Helsinki University Library
The views expressed in the article are solely the responsibility of the author.
On 28 February 1835, Elias Lönnrot signed the preface to the first edition of Kalevala. This collection of thirty two cantos had been compiled from oral poetry which for the most part Lönnrot himself had recorded among the unlettered folk in the backwoods districts of northeastern Finland and those parts of the Russian Province of Archangel where Karelian (a language closely related to Finnish) was spoken. Fourteen years later, in 1849, Lönnrot published an enlarged version of Kalevala, the edition which has become known to the world as the Finnish national epic.
The publication of both editions was widely acclaimed in Finland, for they fuelled the aspirations of the emerging national movement. Yet the first edition was read by only a very small number of Finns: those with sufficient command of Finnish to understand Kalevala were but few in number in 1835. Their realisation of the work's significance, however, won the support of others in positions of authority and means were found for Lönnrot to prepare the second edition. The readership of the 1849 edition was also small and remained so for more than twenty years after its publication, and for the same reason: few educated Finns were competent enough in language to savour the poetic quality of Kalevala in the original Finnish. Paradoxically until the later decades of the nineteenth century Kalevala was probably more widely read in translation than in the original. But for most Finns this did not matter. It was the 'myth' of Kalevala that was of paramount importance during those early years after first publication: the myth that Lönnrot had recovered from oblivion an ancient literary tradition of beauty and majesty. It was this myth that did so much to bring about the changes in hearts and minds necessary to open the way for the elevation of Finnish to a national language and the achievement of a Finnish national consciousness.
The compilation of Kalevala was a unique embodiment of a set of late eighteenth century ideas most closely associated with the German thinker, J.G. Herder (1744 - 1803). Herder argued that a 'nation' could exist only if it possessed a distinctive cultural identity founded on the language and oral literature of the ordinary people. In Finland, where Swedish was the principal language of government and education at the end of the eighteenth century (and was to remain so until the second half of the nineteenth century), such thinking fell on fertile ground, echoing ideas which the eminent Finnish professor H.G. Porthan (1739 - 1804) had himself been teaching to his students at the Academy in Turku. Following the establishment in 1809 of Finland as a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire, Finnish interest in Herder's and Porthan's ideas grew in strength, and the cultivation of a national identity became a veritable duty for many educated Finns despite the fact that most of them scarcely understood Finnish at all. Moreover, in the early years of the Grand Duchy their efforts met with tolerance, often support, from the imperial authorities in St Petersburg who saw an emerging Finnish national consciousness as a sure means of weakening age old and potentially dangerous links with Sweden.
The young educated Finns at the beginning of the nineteenth century identified the 'ordinary people' as the Finnish speaking population of the remoter parts of the Grand Duchy and the Karelians of Archangel Province just across the frontier in Russia. When these young Finns set about recording the oral traditions in those areas, they discovered a wealth of poems and stories, handed down from generation to generation, about ancient times when every aspect of man's life and environment was governed by a host of unseen gods and spirits. The collectors recorded myths about the origin of the world and about the forces and objects central to man's existence: light and darkness, fertility, fire, metals, plants, animals, the dead. They listened to stories about ancient heroes who determined the annual cycle of growth at the beginning of time and brought order into the primeval world. They saw workers of magic attempt to summon help from the Otherworld. Lönnrot was one of these young collectors, and it was from materials such as these that he composed his Kalevala.
Mieleni minun tekevi, I am driven by my longing, Aivoni ajattelevi And my understanding urges Lähteäni laulamahan, That I should commence my singing, Saa'ani sanelemahan, And begin my recitation. Sukuvirttä suoltamahan, I will sing the people's legends, Lajivirttä laulamahan; And the ballads of the nation. Sanat suussani sulavat, To my mouth the words are flowing, Puhe'et putoelevat, And the words are gently falling, Kielelleni kerkiävät, Quickly as my tongue can shape them, Hampahilleni hajoovat.... And between my teeth emerging.... Lyökämme käsi kätehen, Let us clasp our hands together, Sormet sormien lomahan, Let us interlock our fingers; Lauloaksemme hyviä, Let us sing a cheerful measure, Parahia pannaksemme, Let us use our best endeavours, Kuulla noien kultaisien, While our dear ones hearken to us, Tietä mielitehtoisien, And our loved ones are instructed, Nuorisossa kasuavassa, While the young ones are standing round us, Kansassa nousevassa, Of the rising generation, Noita saamia sanoja, Let them learn the words of magic, Virsiä virittämiä And recall our songs and legends, Vyöltä vanhan Väinämöisen, Of the belt of Väinämöinen, Alta ahjon Ilmarisen, Of the forge of Ilmarinen, Päästä kalvan Kaukomielen, And of Kaukomieli's swordpoint, Joukahaisen jousen tiestä, And of Joukahainen's crossbow: Pohjan peltojen periltä, Of the utmost bounds of Pohja, Kalevalan kankahilta. And of Kalevala's wide heathlands. Kalevala 1:110, 2136. English translation W.F. Kirby (1907)
In the opening lines of Kalevala Lönnrot introduces his readers to the traditional style of singing the highly formalised trochaic tetrameters in which Finnish Karelian epic poetry is east. The lines describe how the singers sit hand in hand helping and supporting each other in a performance that can last several hours. At the same time these opening lines also acquaint the reader with the heroes whose exploits were retold by successive generations of singers and which fill the pages of Kalevala. From the myths and legends about these and other characters Lönnrot constructed a new, ordered mythology to record the ancient history of the Finns from the creation of the world at the beginning of time to the coming of the modern era when the ancient heroes made way for a new hero, a boy miraculously conceived by the virgin Marjatta.
It is around Väinämöinen, the 'eternal sage', who exerts order over chaos and establishes the land of Kaleva, that so many of the events in Kalevala revolve. His search for a wife brings the land of Kaleva into friendly but later hostile contact with its dark and threatening neighbour in the north, Pohjola. Ilmarinen, the primeval smith, and Lemminkäinen, a stone age Don Juan, also seek wives from Pohjola, though with varying success, and large sections of Kalevala are devoted to the tasks they have to perform to acquire their wives.
Ilmarinen occupies the centre of the stage in several cantos as he forges the Sampo, a task set by the Mistress of Pohjola in return for her daughter's hand, and later in the epic as his wedding to her daughter is celebrated. The Sampo, a magic mill which ensures unending wealth for its owner, triggers the main sequence of events in the second half of Kalevala. It becomes the cause of strife between Pohjola and the land of Kaleva when Väinämöinen and his followers travel to Pohjola in an attempt to retrieve the Sampo forged by Ilmarinen. After a furious battle at sea the Sampo is smashed and lost overboard, although fragments washed ashore in the land of Kaleva bring Väinämöinen's people growth and prosperity.
In the closing cantos of Kalevala Väinämöinen has to defend his land from successive acts of destruction caused by the Mistress of Pohjola in revenge for the loss of her Sampo. Väinämöinen's powers as a worker of magic save his people from the ravages of disease; his prowess as a great hunter ensures his victory over a mighty bear sent to destroy his people's herds; finally, it is only Väinämöinen's mighty knowledge that can secure the recovery of the sun and moon after they have been carried off and hidden in a mountain by the Mistress of Pohjola. At the apotheosis of his powers, in the closing canto of Kalevala, Väinämöinen recognises Marjatta's son as the new leader of his people and departs, the messianic hero:
Siitä vanha Väinämöinen Then the aged Väinämöinen Laskea karehtelevi Went upon his journey singing, Venehellä vaskisella, Sailing in his boat of copper, Kuutilla kuparisella In his vessel made of copper, Yläisihin maa-emihin, Sailed away to loftier regions, Alaisihin taivosihin. To the land beneath the heavens. Sinne puuttui pursinensa, There he rested with his vessel, Venehinensa väsähtyi, Rested weary, with his vessel, Jätti kantelon jälille, But his kantele he left us, Soiton Suomelle sorean, Left his charming harp in Suomi, Kansalle ilon ikuisen, For his people's lasting pleasure, Laulut suuret lapsillensa. Mighty songs for Suomi's children. Kalevala 50:50112 English translation W.F. Kirby (1907)
Folklorists, anthropologists and literary scholars will recognise much in Kalevala that is comparable with folk cultures and literature in many parts of the world. Closer examination of the epic will add to the number of universal features. In the view of some Finnish scholars Lönnrot's original materials represent oral poems that despite evolution over many centuries still preserve fragments, oral fossils of beliefs and ritual practised as long ago as two thousand years. Evidence of ancient belief systems and world views may perhaps be deduced from the varying roles in which Väinämöinen and other heroes are cast. Sometimes they are depicted as gods at the beginning of time; in other poems they are cultural heroes bringing to their people the essentials of life; their exploits in the Otherworld would seem to indicate an age when shamanism of a northern Eurasian type was practised in the Finnish Karelian area, the belief that in special circumstances the soul could leave the body and travel to the Otherworld in order to seek help and advice from the spirits of the dead.
The practice of magic pervades Kalevala. One event after another illustrates its central role in ancient societies. The events in Kalevala's opening canto, the creation of the world, are central to the successful practice of magic: the association of spells with the acts which occurred at the beginning of time was the surest way for a worker of magic in the Finnish Karelian area to ensure that his magic would be effective. It is to such acts that Lönnrot's singers return time and again as they seek through their songs to assert control over their fate.
So many of the materials collected by Lönnrot are a vivid reminder of the horrific uncertainties which pervaded and conditioned every moment of human life. Frequently we glimpse in the lines of Kalevala the multitude of rites with which men and women attempted to come to terms with uncertainty, practising them to appease the omnipresent spirits, to protect their families and livestock whenever they had to leave the safety of the home, and to ward off illness and disease. With its accounts of struggles between shamans, its wealth of seasonal rites, its colourful descriptions of wedding ceremony, its innumerable spells, and its elaborate chronicle of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the bear, the most revered and the most feared creature in the northern forest, the materials of Kalevala are a stark monument to 'ritual man'.
Kalevala can of course be read without reference to its anthropological connections. Considered as a piece of imaginative literature it invites comparison with other great epics of world literature as a means of gaining deeper insight into the creation of epic. Some critics have even been tempted to see in Kalevala an example of how other great epics could have been composed in a more distant past. Similarly the characters, events, poetic imagery and prosody of Kalevala provide a rich field for literary criticism and aesthetic appreciation. Yet our detailed knowledge of why and how Lönnrot compiled his epic brings a further dimension to the assessment of the work's significance linking the analysis of Kalevala to the phenomenology of the emerging nation state: Kalevala represents an unique attempt in Lönnrot's time to transform the poems of the 'little tradition' of ordinary folk into national literature in the 'great tradition' of education and civilisation.
From Lönnrot's papers it is possible to see how he used classical and other literary models to develop the innate characteristics of his Finnish Karelian poetic materials and work them into a series of self-contained but linked narrative sequences. Where occasion demanded he did not hesitate to bring inner coherence to his materials by reordering them, by composing new lines and by merging several different characters into a single composite figure. Lönnrot's classical models are particularly evident in the way in which he moulded the materials of the oral singers according to the sensitivities and criteria of the educated man of his own day. Lönnrot's creation of the two tragic characters in Kalevala, the girl Aino and the boy Kullervo, illuminates this process at work. Their tragic lives exist only in the pages of Kalevala, created by Lönnrot from a cluster of poems about unrelated characters and events which in authentic performance were sung in wholly different circumstances and for wholly different purposes.
Lönnrot's adaptation of his materials in line with contemporary criteria also introduces to Kalevala various levels of allegory, but frequently at the expense of the symbolism which permeates the authentic poems and is so central to the thinking of 'ritual man'. Thus the struggle between the land of Kaleva and Pohjola is presented to allow interpretation as the eternal struggle between light and dark. The interplay of pagan and Christian ideas common in authentic folk materials is removed in Kalevala to bring into focus, through the allegory in the concluding canto, the distinction between the two belief systems. Lönnrot's classical models and his use of allegory underlie the six Kullervo cantos. The tragic hero's enslavement, brutalisation, his unwitting incest with his sister and his suicide have easily identifiable counterparts in European literature. The epilogue with which Lönnrot concludes Kullervo's story can be interpreted as a warning addressed by Lönnrot to his contemporaries as the struggle for a Finnish national identity entered a bitter, internecine phase (and which was also the subject of allegory in the works of other nineteenth century Finnish writers). At yet another level, all fifty cantos of Kalevala can be seen to allegorise in their account of the growing prosperity of Väinämöinen and his people the significance of a cultural tradition as a means of defining and holding together a national group.
In the middle of the nineteenth century Kalevala provided supporters of the Finnish nationalist cause with a confidence in their indigenous language and culture which encouraged political change. In the 1860s, Finnish was granted equal standing with Swedish as a language of education, administration and government. During the following decades it gradually adapted to meet the new demands on it as successive generations of school children received their education in the mother tongue; by the 1880s it had become possible even to continue the study of certain subjects at the university in Finnish. For these and later generations Kalevala was not a myth; by the turn of the century it was well nigh every young Finn's duty to study the epic, committing long passages to memory. Added impetus was given to this duty by Tsarist attempts to curtail the scope of Finnish autonomy and to introduce various Russification measures.
In the remarkable flowering of Finnish art, music, writing, design and architecture that took place at the turn of the century, Kalevala became a source of inspiration, context and substance, as Finns sought for a Finnish form in which to express mainstream European art forms: realism, naturalism, expressionism, symbolism. Frequently known as the 'Golden Age of Finnish Art', the twenty years from 1890 to 1910 saw the influence of Kalevala and its inspiration spread beyond art into every walk of life. The characters of Kalevala have their namesakes in the first names of several generations of children; the names of streets, ships, buildings, offices, shops, companies, factories, newspapers, theatres, and clubs are a permanent reminder of the need to assert the strength of one's patriotism through association with a powerful symbol.
Kalevala, however imperfectly its nature and significance were understood, also became and remains for many people around the world a symbol of Finland. It is the most translated work of Finnish literature, with complete versions in almost forty languages. Its first impact on the English speaking world came very early, in 1855, through H.G. Longfellow, who had acquainted himself with the Finnish epic through a German translation. The verse form of his Hiawatha is a halting imitation of the Kalevala tetrameter; Longfellow's work also contains various themes reminiscent of Kalevala. The first English translation of Kalevala, published by John Martin Crawford in New York, did not appear until 1888 when it stimulated great interest among specialists in the religions of 'primitive peoples'.
In the same year these same interests stimulated an extensive public debate about the scientific and literary importance of Kalevala in the columns of the London Athenaeum; indicative of the importance of this debate are contributions from such leading figures of the day as Andrew Lang, Sir Edmund Gosse and Max Müller. It was the same early anthropological interest that led an Englishman, W.F. Kirby, to take up the challenge of producing a new English translation based on the original Finnish text. By the time Kirby began his translation, after many years of preparation, interest in the epic was growing apace, but for other reasons. Russification measures in Finland had led members of the Finnish opposition to look abroad for ways of arousing public sympathy for Finland's cause. Numerous books about Finland were the fruits of their efforts. Among these were Kirby's Kalevala. Land of the Heroes, published in 1907 and reprinted many times. There is no sign yet that Kalevala has lost any of its power to fascinate and challenge artists, writers, musicians and scholars outside Finland. Other translations followed Kirby's and new English translations are currently being undertaken in the United States and the United Kingdom. Opera and ballet based on themes from Kalevala have recently been produced separately and independently of each other in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
The influence of Kalevala on Sibelius at the turn of the century has done much to establish a symbolic association of Kalevala with Finland in the minds of many people in the English speaking world. The popularity of Sibelius' music in the United Kingdom and North America ensures that large audiences are continually reminded of Kalevala and its contents. It is no exaggeration to claim that many people in the English speaking world acquaint themselves with Finland proper only after an introduction effected by Sibelius and Kalevala in the concert hall. This symbolic association of Kalevala and Finland is yet another facet of the fusion of the national and the international that is represented so succinctly and at so many levels in Kalevala.
Kalevala: summary of contents
According to W.F. Kirby, Kalevala. The Land of the Heroes. First printing 1907 (London, Dent)
Poem 1. After a preamble by the bard, he proceeds to relate how the Virgin of the Air descended into the sea, was tossed about by the winds and waves, modelled the earth, and brought forth the hero Väinämöinen, who swims to shore.
Poem 2. Väinämöinen clears and plants the country, and sows barley.
Poem 3. The Laplander Joukahainen presumes to contend with Väinämöinen in singing, but is plunged by him into a swamp, till he pledges to him his sister Aino; after which he is released, and returns home discomfited. But Aino is much distressed at the idea of being obliged to marry an old man.
Poem 4. Väinämöinen makes love to Aino in the forest; but she returns home in grief and anger, and finally wanders away again, and is drowned while trying to swim out to some waternymphs in a lake. Her mother weeps for her incessantly.
Poem 5. Väinämöinen fishes up Aino in the form of a salmon; but she escapes him, and his mother advises him to seek a bride in Pohjola, the North Country, sometimes identified with Lapland, but apparently still further north.
Poem 6. While Väinämöinen is riding over the water on his magic steed, Joukahainen shoots the horse under him. Väinämöinen falls into the water, and is driven onwards by a tempest, while Joukahainen returns to his mother, who upbraids him for shooting at the minstrel.
Poem 7. Väinämöinen is carried by an eagle to the neighbourhood of the Castle of Pohjola, where the chatelaine, Louhi, receives him hospitably, and offers him her beautiful daughter if he will forge for her the Sampo. [ He replies that he cannot do so himself, but will send his brother Ilmarinen, so Louhi gives him a sledge in which to return home.
Poem 8. Väinämöinen, on his journey, finds the daughter of Louhi sitting on a rainbow weaving, and makes love to her. In trying to accomplish the tasks she sets him, he wounds himself severely, and drives away till he finds an old man who promises to stanch the blood.
Poem 9. The old man heals Väinämöinen by relating the origin of Iron, and by salving his wounds.
Poem 10. Väinämöinen returns home, and as Ilmarinen declines to go to Pohjola to forge the Sampo, he causes a whirlwind to carry him to the castle. Ilmarinen forges the Sampo, but the maiden declines to marry him at present.
Poem 11. The early adventures of Lemminkäinen. He carries off and marries the beautiful Kyllikki.
Poem 12. He quarrels with her, and starts off to Pohjola.
Poem 13. He woos the daughter of Louhi. Louhi sets him the task of catching the Elk of Hiisi.
Poem 14. He captures the Elk, but is slain, cast into the river of Tuoni, the deathgod, and is hewed to pieces.
Poem 15. But he is rescued and resuscitated by his mother.
Poem 16. Väinämöinen regrets having renounced the daughter of Louhi in favour of Ilmarinen, and begins to build a boat, but cannot complete it without three magic words, which he vainly seeks for in Tuonela, the death kingdom.
Poem 17. He jumps down the throat of the dead giant, Antero Vipunen, and compels him to sing to him all his wisdom.
Poem 18. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen travel to Pohjola, one by water and the other by land, and agree that the maiden shall make her choice between them. She prefers Ilmarinen.
Poem 19. She aids him to perform all the tasks set by Louhi.
Poem 20. At Pohjola an immense ox is slaughtered for the wedding feast; after which ale is brewed by Osmotar, "Kaleva's most beauteous daughter." Every one is invited, except Lemminkäinen, who is passed over as too quarrelsome and ill-mannered.
Poem 21. The reception of the guests. Väinämöinen's wedding song.
Poem 22. The bride prepares for her journey, with misgivings. The guests comfort her.
Poem 23. Advice to young wives, and the beggar woman's story.
Poem 24. Advice to young husbands, and the beggar's story. Ilmarinen takes his bride home.
Poem 25. Feast at the house of Ilmarinen. Second song of Väinämöinen, who returns to his own home.
Poem 26. Lemminkäinen, in his rage at not being asked to the wedding of Ilmarinen and Louhi's daughter, journeys to Pohjola castle.
Poem 27. He enters the castle by force and insults and slays the Son of the North.
Poem 28. Escaping from the witch Louhi and her retainers he seeks refuge with mother, who directs him to the Island Women.
Poem 29. Forced to flee from the Island of Women he returns home to find his house burned down by raiders from Pohjola, but his mother alive.
Poem 30. Lemminkäinen and his companion Tiera set out against Pohjola but are defeated by frost.
Poem 31. Fraternal strife of Untamo and Kalervo; Untamo sells Kalervo's son Kullervo into slavery.
Poem 32. Kullervo herds the cattle of his master Ilmarinen, whose wife plays tricks on him.
Poem 33. In revenge he causes her death.
Poem 34. He returns to the home of his parents, who tell him his sister is dead.
Poem 35. He meets and seduces a girl in the forest; both realize, too late, that she is Kullervo's "lost" sister; she kills herself.
Poem 36. Kullervo raids and wastes the lands of his enemy Untamo, but afterwards finding his own home ruined and desolate kills himself.
Poem 37. Ilmarinen's wife being dead he mourns her, then forges himself a wife of gold and silver; but is not comforted.
Poem 38. Ilmarinen woos the second daughter of Louhi, Mistress of the North. But his new wife so provokes him that he turns her into a seagull. He tells Väinämöinen of his unlucky love affairs, and of the magic Sampo, treasure of Pohjola.
Poem 39. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen set out for Pohjola, to rob it of the Sampo. They are joined by Lemminkäinen.
Poeln 40. The three champions catch a huge pike, from whose jaws Väinämöinen makes a harp (kantele) which no one can play
Poem 41. except Väinämöinen, who produces such music from it that all living things gather round him to listen.
Poem 42. Arrived at Pohjola castle, the three champions challenge Louhi. She summons her retainers, but Väinämöinen charms her and them to sleep with the pikebone kantele. Returning with the Sampo they are overtaken by a storm raised by Louhi; during which the kantele is lost overboard.
Poem 43. Louhi pursues them in a galley, and there is a battle between the forces of Kalevala and Pohjola, in the course of which the Sampo is broken. Louhi retires defeated with one small fragment of its cover. Väinämöinen collects and plants the other fragments.
Poem 44. Väinämöinen, unable to recover his pikebone kantele, makes a new one of birch.
Poem 45. The maledictions of the witch Louhi bring pestilence on the land of Kalevala, which Väinämöinen heals with his drugs.
Poem 46. Väinämöinen slays the bear sent by Louhi to harry the cattle of Kalevala; he plays at the ensuing feast of bear's flesh an accompaniment to songs in praise of the bear
Poem 47. which by its sweetness draws down the moon and sun from the sky. Louhi captures and hides them and quenches all the hearthfires of Kalevala. But Ukko the creator kindles fire for a new sun and moon. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen go to fetch it.
Poem 48. After rescuing the fire from drowning it almost escapes them and causes a great conflagration; but at last is tamed and brought to Kalevala.
Poem 49. Ilmarinen makes a new sun and moon which will not shine for him. He goes to Pohjola and forces Louhi to release the old sun and moon.
Poem 50. The immaculate conception of the virgin Marjatta. Her son baptized and hailed as King of Karelia. Väinämöinen departs from Kalevala, bequeathing his songs and music to the people.
Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884)
Translated by J.E.O. Screen
Elias Lönnrot, the creator of the Kalevala, was born at Sammatti in southern Finland on 9 April 1802 and died in the same parish on 19 March 1884. He was one of seven children in the family of a poor tailor.
Lönnrot entered the University of Turku in October 1822, a few days after J.L. Runeberg and J.V. Snellman. He passed the examination for the degree of candidate of philosophy in the spring of 1827. After the transfer of the University to Helsinki in the autumn of 1827 following the fire at Turku, Lönnrot continued his studies in Helsinki and began to read medicine. He became a doctor of medicine in 1832.
In the autumn of 1832 Lönnrot was appointed doctor in Oulu and in 1833 district doctor in Kajaani. He held this appointment until 1853, admittedly with frequent and long periods of leave of absence for his field trips to collect poetry. In 1853 Lönnrot was appointed to succeed M.A. Castren as professor of Finnish language at the University of Helsinki. He retired from that appointment in 1862 and spent the remaining twenty years of his life in his native parish of Sammatti actively engaged in scholarly and other literary work.
Between 1828 and 1844 Lönnrot undertook eleven extensive field trips for the collection of poetry in eastern Finland and especially in eastern Karelia; during his last field trip he went also to Estonia and Ingria. In addition he collected poems in the course of the long journeys of inspection which he undertookas a district doctor.