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.
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....
(The entire section is 2,505 words.)