gisbert jšnicke  / vorlesung

european kalevala

kalevala, the finnish national epic

the first edition of the kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled and edited by elias lönnrot on the basis of the epic folk poems he had collected in finland and karelia.

this poetic song tradition, sung in an unusual, archaic trochaic tetrametre, had been part of the oral tradition among speakers of balto-finnic languages for two thousand years.

when the kalevala appeared in print for the first time, finland had been an autonomous grand duchy for a quarter of a century. prior to this, until 1809, finland had been a part of the swedish empire.

the kalevala marked an important turning-point for finnish-language culture and caused a stir abroad as well. it brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other europeans, and bolstered the finns' self-confidence and faith in the possibilities of a finnish language and culture. the kalevala began to be called the finnish national epic.

lönnrot and his colleagues continued their efforts to collect folk poetry, and new material quickly accumulated. using this new material, lönnrot published a second, expanded version of the kalevala in 1849. this new kalevala is the version which has been read in finland ever since and upon which most translations are based.

information centre of kalevala:

finnish literature society:

about the metre:

reijo virtanen:

the plot of kalevala

kalevala is the finnish-karelian national epic, completed by dr. elias lönnrot in 1835. there are many heroes in kalevala, and also several parallel plots intertwined with each other. the most important character in the epic is väinämöinen, an old sorcerer and the leading persona at the kalevala region. in the beginning, the world emerges from the pieces of a huge bird’s egg, and soon after, also väinämöinen is born.

by singing and spelling, väinämöinen is able to control other people’s behaviour, and he can also defy laws of nature. a younger hero, joukahainen challenges väinämöinen to a contest of wisdom, but will not be able to beat him. the old sorcecer recies his spells so that joukahainen sinks into a swamp. in order to save his own life, joukahainen promises his sister aino to väinämöinen. anyway, aino is not willing to marry such an old man, and she drowns herself.

the old sorcerer starts searching for aino. soon, he is confronted with the girl who has changed into a fish. after his sister’s death, joukahainen thirsts for vengeance. he deliberately arranges an accident to cause injury to väinämöinen. louhi, the mistress of pohjola (northern region), saves the old sorcerer from the sea. after recovering from his illness, väinämöinen is eager to return home. as a return present, he gives louhi a promise to send the blacksmith ilmarinen to pohjola to produce a sampo, a magic machine. louhi promises her daughter to the maker of the sampo.

väinämöinen uses magic in order to transfer ilmarinen to pohjola. the skilful blacksmith manages to build the sampo, but the deceitful louhi will not give up her daughter to him. she also hides the sampo deep in the solid rock.

soon after, väinämöinen decides to leave to pohjola to ask louhi’s daughter to marry him. still, ilmarinen has got the same idea, so the two men have to come to an agreement. the maid herself must make a choice between the two heroes. at pohjola, louhi’s daughter arranges a test which includes three almost impossible tasks. it is ilmarinen, who finally manages to pass all the tests and gain the maid as his wife. a luxurious wedding banquet is arranged at pohjola.

later, the heroes of kalevala find out that the sampo has become a source of enormous wealth for the people of pohjola. they decide to steal the sampo and bring it home to kalevala. during a series of battles between the heroes of kalevala and pohjola, sampo is shattered into pieces. some remains of it sink to the bottom of the sea, and some will be taken to kalevala to promote their welfare. only one totally worthless part will be returned to pohjola.

in the last battles, louhi uses her magic tricks in order to hide the moon, the sun, and the fire from the people of kalevala, but she is forced to bend.

besides the main plot, there are some digressions in the epic. one of these extra stories tells about lemminkäinen who is a womanizer and a troublemaker. he is also one of the rival suitors wooing the daughter of louhi. during his adventures, lemminkäinen becomes murdered, but his loving mother is able to revive him. later, he rages at pohjola, and he also takes part in the expedition to steal the sampo.

another digressive story tells about kullervo, a tragic hero. the brothers untamo and kalervo hate each other, and their quarrels leads to severe consequences. untamo sells kalervo’s son kullervo as a serf to ilmarinen. the blacksmith’s wife makes a practical joke at kullervo, and the young man will revenge. he sends a herd of beasts to kill the mistress. several fatal incidents occur: he is driven to an incestuous relation with his own sister; his whole family perishes; and finally he commits suicide.

in the final chapters of the epic, the rise of a new hero is predicted. a virgin marjatta has given birth to a son, who is appointed as the king of karelia. this boy will become the most powerful of all men. the old heroes will be displaced and väinämöinen has to go into exile, too. a new era begins.