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.
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.
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
kun oisi osoajata,
soiton luisen laatijata.”
Kun ei toista tullutkana,
ei ollut osoajata,
soiton luisen laatijata,
vaka vanha Väinämöinen
itse loihe laatijaksi,
|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.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalevala and various other web based sites
© Raili Tanska