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Kalevala Themes

(Epics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,117 words.)