Kalevala – a Finnish Creation Epic

Yesterday I posted about the Australian Aboriginal songlines. Today, I offer you another form of creation myth from across the other side of the world, Finland. My birth country and my homeland heritage.

Kalevala 1 - posted

Fifty songs divided into 22,795 verses. Can you imagine how looong that is?!  I can. I ploughed my way through it over a few years. One bite at a time. I will have to admit it’s a tad tedious.  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 duel’  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 brooch

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.

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

©  Raili Tanska

Reworked from a post in  June 2016

Steps for Peace

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13 thoughts on “Kalevala – a Finnish Creation Epic

  1. I love these creation myths. Every culture has one. There is something inherent in human beings that we try to make sense of life and the universe. Thanks Raili.

  2. Fascinating. I have often listened to Sibelius’ Karelia Suite with great pleasure, but was unaware of the wealth of myth and poetry beneath and behind the music. Btw. your video was not available to me but Youtube has plenty of versions that are. I love your Dwarves and Midgets.

  3. Hi Raili, you’ve written another superb article, and so painstakingly detailed, well done 😆
    And I’m sending you a link for the song Hailie wrote for me. Hope it works 😊
    Listen to Words – Acoustic Live With Claire L. by Hailie Andersen #np on #SoundCloud

  4. I really liked this! It reminds me of something Gandalf might have sung in LOTR. A lot of poetry from that region is long and hard to get through. Like Beowulf. I finally made it through that but had to see a movie of it to really understand it.

    1. It gets a bit tedious it! I guess back then oral history and singing was the only way of preserving history and mythology, and would have enraptured the audience.

  5. The Finns are a unique people, akin to Magyars, but definitely on a separate path for so many centuries. Every nation’s Creation myth is worth reading and pondering. There are, as noted above, so many commonalities.

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