Study Guide

Kalevala

by Elias Lonnrot

Kalevala Summary

Introduction

The Kalevala is Finland's national epic, drawn from a rich oral tradition with roots stretching back more than two millennia. Its compiler was Elias Lonnrot, a physician and folklorist who travelled throughout the Finnish-Russian borderlands recording the lyrics, ballads, charms, and epics sung by the rural people. From these poems (called runes) he assembled a coherent whole, a literary epic which fired the imaginations and the national consciousness of the Finnish people.

Steeped in magic, by turns dreamlike and dramatic, the Kalevala recounts the mythic history of the ancient Finns in a series of fifty poems. Its heroes are the sons of Kaleva: the wise shaman Vainamoinen, the skillful smith Umarinen, and the feisty warrior Lemminkainen. Stories of their interactions with one another, the spirit world, the natural world, and with their northern neighbors, the tribe of Pohjola, unfold in the resonant, musical cadences of Finnish oral poetry.

The Kalevala became the foundation of Finnish cultural identity. Published in its final form in 1849, Lonnrot's epic immediately took its place alongside the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the German Nibelungenlied, and the Norse Eddas. It established Finnish as a literary language and inspired a flowering of Finnish art and music, and also played a crucial role in the Finns' struggle for independence, giving them a heroic history and a focus for their national pride.

Kalevala Summary

Creation (poems 1-2)
The world is young and empty, and the Air-daughter, weary of being alone, steps down into the ocean. Impregnated by the wind and sea, the Air-daughter/water-mother floats for seven centuries without giving birth. A sea-bird nests on her knee and lays seven eggs. When they begin to hatch, the water-mother jerks her knee, scattering the eggs into the water and smashing them to pieces. From the egg fragments are formed the earth and the heavens, the clouds and the stars, the moon and the sun. The water-mother shapes the shoreline and seabed. Finally she gives birth to Vainamoinen, who floats to shore.

Finding himself in a treeless land, Vainamoinen has the boy Sampsa Pellervoinen plant all kinds of trees. Only the oak refuses to sprout. A creature arises from the sea, burns a pile of hay, and sows the acorn again in the ashes. This time the oak grows so tall that its branches overshadow the whole earth, blocking out the sun and moon. Vainamoinen calls upon his mother, who sends a tiny sea-creature to cut down the oak with three strokes of his axe. Those who gather fragments of the fallen oak are blessed with magic, happiness, and love.

Now the sun and moon shine once more. Birds sing and berries ripen, but the barley does not grow. Vainamoinen cuts a great clearing in the forest but leaves one birch tree standing so that the birds will have a place to rest. The eagle, grateful for this kindness, strikes a fire to help Vainambinen burn the clearing. Vainambinen plants his barley in the ash-rich soil, prays to the earth and the clouds, and comes back a few days later to find that the barley has taken root.

Aino (poems 3-5)
Vai'nambinen's fame as a singer and wise man spreads to the Northland, arousing the envy of a young Lapp named Joukahainen. Heedless of his parents' warnings, Joukahainen sets off for Kalevala to challenge Vainambinen. Vainamoinen easily defeats the young upstart, backing him into a swamp. As Joukahainen sinks up to his neck in the mire, he offers his sister Aino to Vainamoinen as a bride. Vainamoinen releases Joukahainen, who flees back north and tells his family the story. Though his mother is overjoyed at the prospect of having such a famous son-in-law, Aino is miserable.

Vainamoinen encounters Aino while she is out cutting leafy birch twigs to use as whisks in the sauna. When he asks her to be his wife, she tears off her jewelry and ribbons and runs home weeping. Her mother urges her to cheer up. Tearfully insisting that she does not want to be the wife of an old man, Aino runs off and loses her way in the woods. Finally she reaches the sea, where she goes for a swim and drowns. Her mother mourns.

Vainamoinen, also distraught at Aino's death, goes to the water to search for her body. He catches a strange fish and is about to cut it open when it leaps back into the water and reveals that it is Aino. He begs her to come back into the boat, but she refuses, leaving the old man disconsolate. Vainamoinen returns home, wondering aloud how he will get over his grief. His mother speaks from beneath the waves, advising him to travel northwards and woo the maidens of Pohjola.

The Forging of the Sampo (poems 6-10)
Aino's resentful brother Joukahainen lies in wait with a crossbow and tries to shoot Vainamoinen, but the arrow hits Vai'nambinen's horse instead. Vainamoinen falls into the water and is washed out to sea.
Vainamoinen drifts for many days. An eagle spots him and, remembering the birch tree that Vainamoinen spared, carries him to the shores of Pohjola. The Mistress of the Northland (Louhi) receives him well, but Vainamoinen is homesick for Kalevala. Louhi promises she will return him to his homeland and give him her daughter in marriage if he will forge a Sampo for her. Vainamoinen pledges he will send the master smith Ilmarinen to make the Sampo, and Louhi sends him home in her sleigh.

On his way, Vainambinen meets Louhi's daughter and asks her into his sleigh. She assigns him several seemingly impossible tasks, which he performs without difficulty. The maiden then challenges him to carve a boat out of pieces of her spindle and launch it into the water without touching it. When Vainambinen begins carving, his axe slips and cuts a deep gash in his knee. Unable to remember the charm for healing wounds made by iron, Vainambinen limps away, bleeding heavily, and eventually finds an old man who can heal him. Vainamoinen sings about the origin of iron, and the old man weaves this information into a charm that stops the flow of blood.

Vainambinen returns home and tries to convince Ilmarinen to go to Pohjola and forge a Sampo. When Ilmarinen refuses, Vainambinen sings up a wind to carry the unwilling smith to Pohjola. Ilmarinen forges the Sampo, a bright metal mill that magically produces salt, money, and endless bins of grain for the people of the North. When he asks to marry Louhi's daughter, though, the maiden says she has too many tasks at home and cannot leave with him. Dejected, Ilmarinen sails back to Kalevala.
Lemminkainen's Adventures (poems 11-15)

The wanton young Lemminkainen goes to woo the island maiden Kylhki, who has refused all suitors. He gets work as a herdsman on the island and manages to seduce all the other women living there. Kylliki is the only maiden he cannot charm, and he finally abducts her. Kylliki weeps, saying she does not want a husband who is forever going off to war. Lemminkainen swears he will not go to war as long as Kylliki refrains from visiting the...

(The entire section is 2283 words.)