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Literature / The Kalevala

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"Vaka vanha Väinämöinen..."

I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges
That I should commence my singing,
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people’s legends,
And the ballads of the nation.

The Kalevala (or "Land of Heroes") is an epic poem and book based on folk poetry collected by Elias Lönnrot. It is considered the national epic of Finland. Undeniably the most influential work of literature there, it's credited with initiating a national awakening that eventually led to Finland's independence and preserving the Finnish language. The Tales of Ensign Stål is probably the only piece of Finnish literature that even comes close to the status of the Kalevala. It also inspired others, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock and Don Rosa, so it's no coincidence that the stories of Kullervo and Túrin Turambar have many similarities.

The Kalevala is, first and foremost, the story of heroes and adventurers in mythic Finland, and the greatest of them all is Väinämöinen, the shaman hero born 700 years old to the Maiden of Air and gifted with a magic singing voice. There are great journeys, heroic deeds, tragic mix-ups, evil witches, magic poetry and something called a Sampo. But some of the best aspects are the delight in nature metaphors and the allusions to everyday Finnish life. The flair for natural beauty can delight even someone who doesn't take to the plot.


The Kalevala, as composed by Elias Lönnrot, is a product of the 19th century (published 1849). Lönnrot's source materials go back much farther; how much farther is not exactly known — the first description of Finnish mythology is that by bishop Mikael Agricola in 1551. It is thought that many of the folk traditions that Lönnrot cast into the Kalevala are Older Than Print, though Lönnrot modified them to weld them into a single coherent narrative.

Among more direct adaptations of the Kalevala are several of the musical compositions of Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius, of which the best known is probably Tuonelan joutsen — "The Swan of Tuonela" (or, if you prefer, "The Swan of the Underworld"). The work also inspired many of the canvases of the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, including Sammon puolustus, "The Defence of the Sampo", used above as the page image. Less happily, though more hilariously, it was made into the joint Finnish/Russian film Sampo, AKA The Day the Earth Froze, featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.


Perhaps the best-known translation of the Kalevala into English is that of William Fortsell Kirby (which gives the page quote). English-speakers have probably become familiar with the meter of the Kalevala more from its use by Longfellow in The Song of Hiawatha ("By the shores of Gitchee Gumee...") — or perhaps the parodies of the same by Lewis Carroll and others, such as "Hiawatha's Mitten-Making" by George A. Strong:

"Then he turned the outside inside
And he turned the inside outside..."

God help you if you confuse it with the flash game Legend Of Kalevala, or the iOS puzzle game, Heroes of Kalevala.

See also the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg.

Kalevala contains examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: In Finnish, alliteration is one of the main characteristics of the Kalevala meter. For example the opening quote of this page (and also the first lines of the Kalevala):
    Mieleni minun tekevi,
    Aivoni ajattelevi
    lähteäni laulamahan,
    saa'ani sanelemahan,
    sukuvirttä suoltamahan,
    lajivirttä laulamahan.
  • Animorphism: Väinämöinen transforms into a snake to escape the underworld.
  • Arranged Marriage: Joukahainen promises that Väinämöinen can marry his sister Aino. His mother is just happy for having a powerful sorcerer as a son-in-law. Aino doesn't take it as well and is Driven to Suicide. Later, Louhi strongly suggests her daughter to marry Väinämöinen, but doesn't object when she chooses Ilmarinen instead. She is forced to chose, though.
  • Berserk Button: Slave boy Kullervo's knife breaks on a stone which Ilmarinen's wife has baked into his bread. The knife being the only possession he still had from his family, he snaps and summons packs of bears and wolves from the forest, which tear the jerkass mistress to pieces.
  • Blow You Away: Väinämöinen makes winds to blow Ilmarinen to Pohjola.
  • Composite Character: Lemminkäinen is a combination of epic war-heroes Kaukomieli and Ahti Saarelainen.
  • Death Is Cheap: The beginning of the Kullervo arc establishes that all of Kullervo's clan is dead except Kullervo's mother. Yet after Kullervo has run away from slavery, he suddenly discovers that his parents, as well as a brother and a sister, are alive. No explanation is given of how they did survive, why everyone thought they were dead, or how his mother escaped from slavery. But it's good for the plot.
  • Diseased Name: Loviatar's nine sons, fathered by either the wind or the sea-monster Iku-Turso, named Colic, Pleurisy, Fever, Ulcer, Plague, Consumption, Gout, Sterility, and Cancer.
  • Driven to Suicide: Aino drowns herself rather than marry Väinämöinen. Kullervo kills himself with his sword.
  • Filk Song: Finnish melodic-metal band Amorphis write most of their songs/albums based on different parts of the Kalevala. Probably to a lesser extent, but Finnish folk-metal bands Turisas, and Ensiferum are also heavily influenced by the Kalevala. Ensiferum even named a track after the whole work.
    • A complete (metal) list will probably get longer than the Kalevala itself, but still Korppiklaani deserves a mention, due to use of archaic Finnish and alliteration:
    "Veti miekan, riisti rauan,
    tempo, tuisko, terävällä!
    Väisi, viilti, veisti, voitti!
    Maistoi mustaa mahtia."
  • Genocide Backfire: Untamo killsnote  his brother Kalervo and his family over petty neighborhood squabbles, leaving only a pregnant woman alive. The woman gives birth to Kullervo, who later kills Untamo in vengeance.
  • Götterdämmerung: The Kalevala ends with Christ being appointed King of Finland, and Väinämöinen sailing away to an unknown land across the sea.
  • I Am One of Those, Too: Joukahainen claims he was present when the world was created. Too bad he tells this to Väinämöinen who actually was there.
  • King in the Mountain: The Kalevala ends with a mysterious child being declared king of Kalevala (a thinly veiled allegory on Christ and the conversion of Finland to Christianity). The disgruntled Väinämöinen sails away in his boat to an unknown destination, leaving only his kantele behind, but not without the promise that he will some day return.
  • Lipstick-and-Load Montage: A male example, as an entire chapter is devoted to Ilmarinen the smith bathing and dressing up to go court the Maiden of Pohja.
  • Longest Pregnancy Ever: Ilmatar carried Väinämöinen for centuries.
  • MacGuffin: The Sampo is a powerful magical artifact that everyone covets, but it is never actually described. It has been depicted as pretty much everything from a sword to a pitcher. The most common interpretation is that Sampo is a mill that produces money, grain and salt out of thin air.
    • The mythological Sampo (as opposed to the Sampo from The Kalevala) is most often interpreted as a pillar that holds the sky up (with Pohjantähti (Polaris, the North Star) as the pin that fastens it to the sky). That would also relate to the mill imagery as both turn around. Supporting this theory is the alternate name "sammas", an old word meaning pillar, and the connection to the north where the these kinds of world trees and pillars are often located in northern mythology (understandably so, since in the northern hemisphere the sky appears to spin around its northernmost point) and the references to the multicoloured lid which is a phrase also connected to the sky (which is even in modern Finnish often symbolically referred to as a "lid"). Also, both the sky and Sampo were made by Ilmarinen. Apparently there are also songs that refer to the "roots" of Sampo, connecting it to the world tree idea. (There is also a separate World Tree type of story, or at least something close, in The Kalevala.) However even if this theory is true, it was in later folk stories reinterpreted as an object and the original meaning was lost. In any case it's an allegory for good fortune.
  • Magic Music: as used by the sage Väinämöinen, whose kantele is made from the jawbone of a giant pike.
    • He's so good, he once almost sang Joukahainen into a swamp. (It takes special mythological training to understand just what that's supposed to mean.)
      • In modern Finnish "singing/playing into a swamp" means Curb Stomping someone in a debate or competition thoroughly. In the epic it means just what it sounds like; Väinämöinen sings such a powerful song that the earth swallows Joukahainen, until he agrees to pay any price to be released.
  • Named by the Adaptation: The sister of Joukahainen was not named in the original songs and stories. The name Aino comes from the word "aino" (in plain language usually "ainoa") which means "only one", as in, Joukahainen's only sister. Despite this, the name is now very popular in Finland.
  • The Night That Never Ends: In vengeance for the loss of the Sampo, Louhi steals the Sun and the Moon and locks them up inside a mountain.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: Eagle saves Väinämöinen from drowning.
  • Noodle Implements: The Sampo is the perfect MacGuffin because, thanks to the ambiguity of the poems Lönnrot was collecting, none of the poem's readers have been able to conclusively figure out what the hell it is.
  • One-Winged Angel: Louhi turns into a kokko (sort of a big mythical eagle) to hunt down the heroes of Kalevala who have stolen the Sampo.
  • Oral Tradition: Lönnrot created the Kalevala by combining folk ballads which had been passed down from singer to singer for centuries, possibly more.
  • Passing the Torch: The book ends with Väinämöinen sailing away and implied-to-be-Jesus becoming the king of Kalevala.
  • Plot Hole: Due to having been compiled from folk legends sung around the country, the Kalevala has several plot holes as a result of combining different versions. For example, Kullervo eventually finds out that his parents are alive, even though they were killed by Untamo when he was an infant.
  • Power Trio: Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen, when they finally team up to retrieve the Sampo from Pohjola.note 
  • Public Domain Artifact: The Sampo.
  • Replacement Goldfish: After his wife's death, Ilmarinen makes himself a new one out of gold and silver, but discards her soon afterwards.
  • Revenge: Like in many myths, revenge is a recurring motif in the Kalevala; but it is an overarching theme in the story of Kullervo, who is more than anything driven by his (eventually self-destructive) desire for revenge.
  • RevengeSVP: Lemminkäinen gatecrashes the wedding feast in the Northland, where they successfully tried to kill him last time when he himself wooed the Northland Maiden. He soon provokes the bride's father, the Master of the Northland, into a swordfight duel, which ends lethally for the latter.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What is the Sampo actually, and what exactly does it do?
  • Sea Monster: Iku-Turso. Also, the giant pike from whose jawbone Väinämöinen makes a kantele - a dulcimer-like musical instrument.
  • Spoof Aesop: When Ilmarinen makes his golden replacement bride, she is extremely cold and not truly alive, and so he gets rid of her. Väinämöinen's words of wisdom? "Let no man ever again marry a woman made of gold or silver."
  • Suicide by Sea: Aino drowns herself because she does not want to marry Väinämöinen.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The Northland Maiden, Louhi's daughter, was a recurring character in Lönnrot's source material; however, the folk songs contradicted each other in what was her eventual fate. Lönnrot solved the problem by giving Louhi two daughters and thus, there are two Northland Maidens, the second one only appearing after the first one is out of the story.
  • Swallowed Whole: Väinämöinen gets swallowed by giant Antero Vipunen.
  • Talking Weapon: Kullervo's black sword, which indicates it is perfectly willing to kill him. This is possibly the Ur-Example of this trope.
  • To Hell and Back: Väinämöinen travels to Tuonela, the realm of the dead, and escapes even though they try to keep him. Almost true for Lemminkäinen, too, when he hunts for the Swan of Tuonela, but Lemminkäinen does not enter Tuonela proper.
  • Wicked Witch: Louhi, Mistress of Pohjola, also known as Hag of the Northland.
  • World Tree: The great oak that grows so big that it covers the sky and must be cut down. After some failed tries a little man dressed in metal rises from the sea, grows into a giant and finally chops it down.

Alternative Title(s): Kalevala


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