Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117
The Kalevala is primarily the story of the relations—amicable at first but increasingly hostile— between the people of Kaleva and the northern tribe of Pohjola. Ihnarinen forges the Sampo for Louhi, Mistress of Pohjola, and weds her daughter. Later, when Louhi refuses to share the Sampo, Vainamoinen, Lemminkainen, and Ilmannen steal it, igniting a war between the Pohjola and Kaleva tribes. Interspersed with this central narrative are subplots recounting the exploits of Lemminkainen and the tragedy of Kullervo.
Magic and Ritual
Finnish poetry is steeped in magic. In the world of the Kalevala, knowledge of spells and skill in singing are prized above other qualities such as morality, valor, or strength. Scholars categorize the Kalevala as a "shamanistic" epic because its heroes are sorcerers and singers rather than kings and warriors. Almost every action in the poem is accomplished by incantation, even everyday activities like building a boat, brewing beer, or binding a wound.
Some critics complain that the charms and ceremonial songs are extraneous, and that they distract from the flow of the epic. However, spells and rituals pervade the Kalevala because they were a prominent feature of Finnish rural life.
Ldnnrot's own written comments make clear that one of his chief aims was to create for Finnish posterity a sort of poetical museum of ancient Finno-Karelian peasant life, with its farmers, huntsmen, and fishermen, seafarers and sea-robbers, the latter possibly faint echoes from the Viking Age, also housewives, with social and material patterns looking back no doubt centuries—all reflecting a quickly passing way of life.
Man and Nature
Many of the songs and rituals reflect human attempts to appease and control nature. The world of the Kalevala is marked by animism, the worship of nature spirits such as the forest god Tapio. Ilmarinen's wife chants spells to protect the cattle from wild beasts, Louhi conjures up a frost which Lemminkamen subdues with spells, and Vainamoinen's people sing a ceremonial song to welcome and placate the bear that Vainambinen has slain. Such rituals reflect the ancient Finns' daily struggle for survival in a harsh natural environment. For these people, the symbol of success and prosperity is the mythic Sampo, a magical mill which grinds out abundant food and wealth for the tribe that owns it.
Order and Chaos
Another recurrent theme is the creation of order out of chaos. In the creation poem, the water-mother shapes the sea and shoreline out of broken eggs. Vainamoinen turns a wilderness into a barley field, and he repeatedly takes shattered fragments (of wood, of the magic mill the Sampo, for example) and makes them into something useful. Lemminkainen's mother is even able to reassemble the pieces of her son's body and sing him back to life. In some ways, these actions parallel Lonnrot's own labors in creating a single coherent epic narrative out of scattered bits of folk poetry.
For Finns, the sauna is both a site and a symbol of this transition from chaos: "sauna bathing transforms situations of disorder to order—for example, it can change illness to health, drunkenness to sobriety, anger to calm, and weakness to strength" (Yvonne Lockwood, Immigrant to Ethnic, 1986). The sauna turns Ilmarinen from a soot-smeared laborer into a handsome suitor, and it delivers Marjatta from her labor pains.
Life and Death
Finnish people believed that the line between life and death was a fine one. A person's death was not seen as an ending, but rather as a transitional between physical life and the other realm, the honored community of the dead.
This realm is Tuonela or Manala—the realm of the dead, across the river of Tuoni. It is similar to Hades, the underworld or world of the dead described in Greek mythology, even to its encompassing border of a river. In the Kalevala, Tuoni's daughter plays the role of the Greek Charon the ferryman, who will not allow the living to enter Death's realm. Finnish mythology about Tuonela originally resembled Greek myths, too, in describing it as the realm of the righteous and unrighteous dead alike. Under the influence of Christianity, Tuonela came to be depicted negatively, as a gloomy, hell-like place, to which only the evil dead are sent.
Because of the cyclical nature of life and death in the Kalevala, and traditional attitudes toward death in ancient Finnish culture generally, death is often a transformation rather than an ending. Vipunen, "dead these many years," sleeps underground and can still speak and sing to Vainamoinen. Amo drowns in the sea but returns as a fish. Lemminkainen is not only murdered but dismembered and scattered in a river, but with the help of spells and ointments his mother is able to reassemble and revive him. The heroes themselves do not die: Vainamoinen has been alive since the beginning of the earth, and in the final poem he departs for another world "between earth and sky," promising to return someday.
Only in the Kullervo tragedy does a death have the air of grim finality; the many characters who die in the Kullervo cycle are neither transformed nor resurrected. Fate has made Kullervo a bringer of death. Ruin follows wherever he goes; he kills some people deliberately and others by accident, and in the end both he and his sister are driven to suicide by guilt.
War and Peace
As opposed to most oral traditions that have contributed to national epic literature, the Karelian-Finnish runes primarily depict peaceful labor. The heroism of the battlefield is given little place in these works. In many cases, rivals or enemies try to defeat each other with songs rather than swords. The fight between Lemminkainen and the master of Pohjola turns bloody only after a battle of spells ends inconclusively. Occasionally there is individual conflict: Vainamoinen and Lemminkainen are each ambushed by a resentful enemy who tries to kill them, and Lemminkainen starts a bitter blood-feud with Pohjola when he kills Louhi's husband. The major strife is the war that erupts between Pohjola and Kalevala after the theft of the Sampo.
Good and Evil
By the end, the war between Pohjola and Kalevala can be seen as a struggle between good and evil. Even after the reason for the war—the Sampo—has been lost at sea, the witch Louhi remains bent on the total destruction of Vainamoinen's people. Her weapons are the terrors of primitive people: disease, ferocious animals, and the extinguishing of fire and sun. Pitted against Louhi's evil are the cultural heroes whose actions protect the people and enhance their lives. Vainamoinen and Ilmarinen have brought fire, agriculture, knowledge, technology, and medicine to the Finns, and in the end they save the tribe from the malevolent schemes of its enemies.
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