The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After his mother created the land, the sun, and the moon out of sea duck eggs, Väinämöinen is born, and with the help of Sampsa Pellervoinen he makes the barren land fruitful, sowing seeds and planting trees. By the time Väinämöinen is an old man, he gained great fame as a singer and charmer. When a brash young man named Joukahäinen challenges him to a duel of magic songs, Väinämöinen wins easily and forces the young man to give him his sister Aino for a wife. Aino is greatly saddened, however, at having to marry an old man, and so she drowns herself, to Väinämöinen’s sorrow. He looks all over the sea for her and finds her at last in the form of a salmon, but in that form she escapes him forever.

In time he hears of the beautiful daughters of Louhi in the far North Country, and he decides to seek them out. On the way to Pohjola, the land of Louhi, his horse is killed by the bold young man whom he defeated in the duel of songs, and Väinämöinen is forced to swim to Pohjola. Louhi, the witch, finds him on the beach, restores his health, tells him that he will have to forge a magic Sampo (a mill that grinds out riches) in order to win a daughter, and then sends him on his way.

Väinämöinen finds one of Louhi’s daughters seated on a rainbow and asks her to become his wife. She gives him three tasks to do. After completing two, he is wounded in the knee while trying to complete the third. The wound, which bleeds profusely, is healed by a magic ointment prepared under the directions of an old man skilled in leechcraft. Väinämöinen goes home and raises a great wind to carry Ilmarinen, the mighty smith who forged the sky, into the North Country to make the Sampo for Louhi. Ilmarinen forges the Sampo, but still Louhi’s daughter refuses to marry and leave her homeland. Ilmarinen, who is also in love with the maiden, goes sadly home.

A gallant youth, Lemminkäinen, is famous for winning the love of women. Having heard of Kyllikki, the flower of Saari, he determines to win her for his wife. When he arrives in Esthonia she refuses him, and he abducts her. They live happily together until one day she disobeys him. In retaliation he goes north to seek one of Louhi’s daughters as his wife. In Pohjola, Lemminkäinen charms everyone except an evil herdsman whom he scorns. Like Väinämöinen, he is given three tasks and performs the first two without much difficulty; but while trying to complete the third he is slain by the evil herdsman. Alarmed by his long absence, his mother goes searching for him, finds him in pieces at the bottom of a river, and restores him finally to his original shape.

Meanwhile, Väinämöinen is busy building a ship by means of magic, his third task for Louhi’s daughter; suddenly he forgets the three magic words needed to complete the work. He searches everywhere for them and is almost trapped in Tuonela, the kingdom of death. Then he hears that the giant Vipunen might know them. When they meet, Vipunen swallows him, but Väinämöinen causes the giant so much pain that the creature is forced to release him and reveal the magic charm. With the charm Väinämöinen completes his ship and again sets sail for Pohjola.

Ilmarinen, learning of Väinämöinen’s departure, starts after him on horseback. When they meet they agree to abide by the maiden’s choice. On their arrival at Pohjola, Louhi gives Ilmarinen three tasks to perform: to plow a field of snakes, to capture a bear and a wolf, and to catch a great pike. Ilmarinen performs these tasks. Since Väinämöinen is old, Louhi’s daughter chooses Ilmarinen for her husband. There is great rejoicing at the marriage. Väinämöinen sings for the bridal couple. A gigantic ox is slain and mead is brewed, and the bride and groom are both instructed in the duties of marriage. At last Ilmarinen takes his new bride to his home in the south.

Lemminkäinen is not invited to the festivities because of his quarrelsome nature, and he is therefore angry. Although his mother warns him of the dangers he will have to face on the journey and of Louhi’s treachery, he insists on going to Pohjola. With his magic charms he is able to overcome all dangers along the way. In Pohjola, Louhi tries to kill him with snake-poisoned ale, but Lemminkäinen sees through the trick. Then he and Louhi’s husband engage...

(The entire section is 1775 words.)

Historical Context

(Epics for Students)

The Kalevala was a part of a project of independence, providing the social mandate of the nationalist period in Finland' s history...

(The entire section is 1315 words.)

Literary Style

(Epics for Students)

In 1835 Elias Lonnrot wrote, "Already while reading the songs previously collected, particularly those collected by...

(The entire section is 877 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Epics for Students)

Kalevala Period (c. 500 B.C.-c. 1200 C.E.): The Finns lived in a largely classless society organized by tribe. Tribes (like the...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Epics for Students)

Various political factions have re-interpreted the Kalevala to suit their own ideological purposes. What elements of the...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Epics for Students)

The music of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) has introduced countless non-Finns to the Kalevala. Sibelius visited Karelia...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Epics for Students)

Elias Lonnrot's Kanteletar, a collection of lyric poems and ballads, was published in 1840-41 as a companion work to the Kalevala. The...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Epics for Students)

Sources for Further Study
Aaltonen, Hilkka (compiler). Books in English on Finland: A Bibliographical List of Publications...

(The entire section is 1632 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Ahokas, Jaakko. A History of Finnish Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Demonstrates the importance of Lönnrot’s compilation of traditional Finnish folktales in giving the impetus for the formation of a Finnish literary tradition.

Honko, Lauri. Religion, Myth, and Folklore in the World’s Epics: “The Kalevala” and Its Predecessors. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990. Collection of scholarly essays that takes a comparative and analytical focus. Occasionally difficult, but worthwhile for its illumination of how much intellectual reflection and debate the Kalevala is capable of inspiring among...

(The entire section is 259 words.)