Echoes of Finland – The Kalevala


Kalevala 1 - posted

Fifty songs divided into 22,795 verses. Can you imagine how looong that is?!  I can. I’ve been ploughing my way through it for the last few years. One bite at a time. I will have to admit it’s a tad tedious. But I am determined to finish it. The Kalevala, a significant national Finnish epic, was first published in 1849. Written by Elias Lönnrot, physician, philologist and collector of traditional  oral poetry from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, his research included eleven field trips over a decade venturing as far afield as Russia. It’s metre is a form of trochaic tetrameter that is known as the Kalevala metre. The poetry is often performed as a ‘singing match’ sung by a duo, sometimes with the backing of a kantele player. The kantele is a traditional Finnish plucked instrument, a version of the lap zither.

Up until the 18th century oral tradition was strong. The Kalevala, like many indigenous oral traditions, chronicles the origin of the Earth. Its roots can be traced back to unrecorded history. Some believe it could be as old as 3,000 years. It has had a major impact on Finnish culture and history.

Many musicians and composers have been influenced by The Kalevala. One of the most famous Finns, Jean Sibelius is the best-known Kalevala-influenced classical composer. Twelve of  his well-known works are based on or influenced by it.  Likewise it’s influence is evident in many business logos, modern culture and jewellery design.

Kalevala 2 - posted

The epic begins with a creation myth. This is followed by stories of the creation of the earth plants, animals, the sky. There are stories of hunts, battles, skills and crafts development such as boat building. Spell casting and magic feature throughout, as well stories of lust, romance, kidnapping and seduction. Characters are tasked with impossible feats. If they fail, the consequences lead to tragedy and humiliation. Much of the action centres around a magical talisman, the  Sampo.  It’s possessor has great fortune and prosperity.

There are many similarities with mythology and folklore from other cultures ranging from the Greek Oedipus to the arrival of Christianity in Finland.

Väinämöinen is the central character of The Kalevala. He is a shamanistic hero with the  magical powers of song and music, similar to that of Orpheus.

Lemminkäinen is a handsome, arrogant and reckless womaniser echoing the myth of Osiris.

Ukko (=Old man) is the god of sky and thunder, and is the leading deity.

There are many other flamboyant and colourful characters, ranging from the mentally ill and suicidal to the virginal and innocent.

The Kalevala has been translated into 61 languages. There are five complete translations in English. Of these only the older translations by John Martin Crawford (1888) and William Forsell Kirby (1907) attempt to strictly follow the original.

Here’s a sample – verses 221 to 232 of song forty.

Vaka vanha Väinämöinen

itse tuon sanoiksi virkki:

“Näistäpä toki tulisi

kalanluinen kanteloinen,

kun oisi osoajata,

soiton luisen laatijata.”

Kun ei toista tullutkana,

ei ollut osoajata,

soiton luisen laatijata,

vaka vanha Väinämöinen

itse loihe laatijaksi,

tekijäksi teentelihe.

Väinämöinen, old and steadfast,

Answered in the words which follow:

“Yet a harp might be constructed

Even of the bones of fishes,

If there were a skilful workman,

Who could from the bones construct it.”

As no craftsman there was present,

And there was no skilful workman

Who could make a harp of fishbones,

Väinämöinen, old and steadfast,

Then began the harp to fashion,

And himself the work accomplished.


In a moment of inspiration, I ventured to try writing a bit of a Kalevala type story  in response to a 3 word prompt last year.  It is called Dwarves Fighting Midgets.

Reference:  and various other web based sites

©  Raili Tanska


22 thoughts on “Echoes of Finland – The Kalevala

      1. No, it’s a collection of ancient Icelandic texts based on Norse Mythology, written around the 12/13th Centuries (but passed on before then!). The texts were found in a manuscript in Iceland called the Codex Regius. The parts I’ve read all point to an epic journey, but I haven’t read the whole thing. One day, I will!

  1. I totally love Sibelius, more and more in fact, so I was really fascinated by this post. Thanks so much for all this fascinating information, which I’m now off to investigate further…..

    1. Cool. I listen to a classical FM radio station when driving, and always amazed at how often Sibelius’ work is featured there. He was very influenced by nature in his music. have fun investigating 🙂

  2. Honestly this is one of my favorite posts of yours. I would usually say your poetry which stands true, but this taught me a lot and made me want to live in those ancient days. I know little of this part of the world aside the Scandanvian folk lore and the Icelandic Sagas – I learned so much from this. I am reading a book called The Son of Odin and in it they talk a lot about how Scandanavians moved to Iceland which had been uninhabited, then to Greenland (ditto) and finally set up in Vinland (America) before succumbing to unknown end in Vinland (but it was thought famine and war with local Native American’s could have been the biggest reason) and how they would go to Finland because it had trees and Sweden because it had trees and Ireland because it had trees – or they would not be able to build any homes in Iceland and Greenland. I find it all so amazing. The book said that there is less connection in Viking terms with Finland that it was more related in history to Russia BUT that the Vikings had helped form a more modern Russia. What I found really interesting as well – that the Genome Project in the UK showed that few native UK people have Viking blood which makes NO sense really as both the Normans were of Viking descent as were of course, the other Viking settlers. The UK is mostly French with some German – I just cannot really believe this. I’m half-French/half-Egyptian and so I probably share quite a bit with the UK DNA because of the dominance of French blood but I think being Jewish it may also differ. Do you know if Finnish people share mostly Russian blood or are like the Welsh and unique? Or some other DNA? I would say probably based on language it would be Asian?

    1. I thought you might enjoy it 🙂 Language wise Finnish is closest to Estonian.It is a complex language, with 14 different tenses. ALthough phonetic in pronunciation, gramatically it’s not! I have read somewhere that Finns may have migrated from the north of India at some stage. I’m not aware that there are links to Russia, other than they have been at war with Finland. It was originally under the dominion of the Swedish king, who converted to Christianity and imposed it on the Finns as well. To this day the Lutheran Church in Finland is a state church in so much as the government collects a church tax.People can choose not to pay it of course by submitting the requisite application. And the church is responsible for keeping records of births, deaths, marriages etc. My married surname, literally means Denmark. Hb’s family has some links to the vikings in the dim distant past. That’s a bit of rambled facts which probably don’t answer your questions at all

      1. Estonian? I would NEVER have known that! No they are not rambled facts first off I love facts and information and history and I know so little of it from that part of the world so I find it fascinating and secondly I like how your tangents take you to other interesting titbits so it’s all good and I learn a lot! Who knew though. I also didn’t know they were not linked to Russia, (throws History book out of the window)

      2. History books are skewed in more ways than one! My father fought against Russia in what is known as the Winter War along the border between Russia and Finland. It was savage, depraved, so bad he couldn’t talk about it – and the thought of it reduced him to tears. He suffered nightmares all his life and chronic war veteran’s PTSD. Post war he was so traumatised he was suicidal. Finland works hard to keep peace between the two countries for its own safety.

      3. omg I had no idea your dad had fought against Russia in the Winter War! I am actually reading a book about this at the very moment, how weird is that? I mean it doesn’t talk much of the Winter War but it mentions the various wars between the Tsar successions and those outside Russia coming in (Paris at the moment) to try to unseat them etc, and then the internal strife. Wow I had no idea that must have been an AWFUL war, was it because Russia was trying to take over Finland? I can’t imagine how bad it was, and he must have been so traumatized to never speak of it. That is so sad. What a brave, brave man. Is there still the unrest and risk of war? Wow – see – I learn SO much from you

      4. My knowledge is a bit hazy but the Winter War happened when Russia attacked Finland. There were horrific atrocities (as there are in all wars). The Russians even shot their own soldiers in battle. Food was scarce too. That’s when Dad learned to eat blue vein cheese. It was part of the ration pack but everybody thought it had gone mouldy so he got it all! Finland won and is the only country that paid off its war debts. Lost a big chunk of land to Russia along the border. The ‘skirt’ was larger and from memory there were 2 ‘arms’ at the top. The fighting in Lapland was particularly gruesome. In the early 1900’s when Finland gained independence, there was a civil war between the Reds and the Whites (political parties). Dad was a machine gunner. Lied about his age to get in – he was only 16. Said he had flashbacks of all the faces of soldiers he had gunned down. Finland and Russia are not at war now – there’s a lot of cross country tourism. I think the unrest, what there is of it, is behind closed doors politically. Finland has to be diplomatic in its relationship with the bigger country. It was allied with Germany in WW2.

      5. he was only 16? ??? NO WAY! OMG! that’s unreal! have you written about this? can I read it if you have?

      6. Raili I SO hope you write about it. I think it would be so important. If you do decide to, please tag me so I am sure not to miss it?

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