Friday, September 24, 2010

What's this Kalevala you speak of?

New to Spirit of Place - Spirit of Design? What in the world is the Kalevala we've been incessantly posting about? Fear no more, Kalevala 101 to your rescue. We were lucky enough to get a hold of the text from the curator from the Ateneum Art Museum's fabulous Kalevala exhibition last year to answer all of your Kalevala related questions and then some. For more information feel free to visit the Kalevala Society fantastic webpage. Browse around and once you've soaked it all in, ask yourself, "What's MY kalevala?" You can find this permanent post by clicking on this link.

About the Kalevala
(source:  Kalevala Exhibition at the Ateneum Art Museum, 2009)


The Kalevala was published for the first time in 1835 and in a revised edition in 1849. The publisher was the Finnish Literature Society, which promoted the collection of old folk poetry.

Finnish rune-singing has a tradition going back over 2000 years. The poems are in a distinctive alliterative four-beat metre (trochaic tetrameter) that came to be known as 'Kalevala metre'.

They were sometimes sung to a kantele accompaniment. The ancient singing tradition was strong throughout the country up to the 16th century but began to weaken after the Reformation.

Elias Lönnrot gathered some of the poems together to form a single epic narrative. The result was a story with a continuous plot, held together in places with new additions.

When the Kalevala was published, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire. Right from the start, the work played a major role in strengthening the standing of the Finnish language and culture. The Kalevala began to be thought of as the country's national epic, and its publication aroused immediate interest abroad, too. To date, it has been translated into over 60 languages.

The Kalevala story begins with a description of the creation of the world and ends at the beginning of a new cultural era, when Christianity reaches Finland. It describes mythical events, the battles and heroic deeds
of two warring clans, the peoples of Kalevala and Pohjola.

The Kalevala has inspired artists in many disciplines. Its stories have been turned into not only visual art but also opera, comic strips, heavy rock, poetry, prose, drama and dance.


Towards the end of the 19th century, Finns began to be interested in their own ancient history. Elias Lönnrot and other scholars had collected folk poetry from parts of Finnish and Russian Karelia.

In the 1890s, especially, artists and academics visited the same regions, finding people in remote villages who could still sing the old poems. Overall, this movement is described as Karelianism.

Artists were fascinated by the concept of a primeval Kalevala culture and of its close link between man and nature. It was also believed that the prime sources of 'Finnishness' could be found in the rune-singing,
way of life, buildings and objects still to be found in Karelia.

One of the first artists to visit Karelia, in summer 1890, was Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Other artistic Karelianists included the photographer I. K. Inha, artist Louis Sparre, sculptor Emil Wikström, composer Jean Sibelius and writers Eino Leino and Juhani Aho. They had all studied in art centres on the Continent where, like many of their European contemporaries, they embraced the dream of an unspoiled 'natural' way of life

160 years of artistic interpretations

forging of the Sampo
The revised edition of the ancient folk poems that make up the Kalevala was published in 1849. From then on, subjects from the epic were to play an important role in Finnish visual art right up to the present.
Naturally enough, the Kalevala's popularity as an artistic source has experienced ups and downs. Artists' interpretations over the years also reflect changes in taste, artistic movements, and current expectations
and apprehensions. Certain Kalevala images have become great cultural icons.

The Kalevala elements in art are a one symbol of what it means to be Finnish. They are representations of the bond between people and natural forces, great emotions and adventures, mysticism and tragedy.

The sections of this exhibition deal with myths, tales of heroic deeds, and turning points in human life.
Similar universal themes can be found in the legends and mythologies of many cultures. They strike a chord with all of us, whatever our nationality.


Väinämöinen playing the kantele
Väinämöinen playing the kantele was the most popular subject in the earliest Kalevala art. All of creation gathers round to hear the sage's spellbinding music.

The compiler of the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot, turned the traditional kantele into the symbol at the heart of the epic.  Väinämöinen's kantele represents both creativity and the social significance and power of art.

The story of the creation of the kantele is one of the oldest of all Kalevala myths. It was built first from the great jawbone of a huge pike and later from birch wood. Its strings were hairs from a young girl's head. At the end of the epic Väinämöinen goes away, leaving his kantele behind for later generations.

In the 19th century, with the aid of Väinämöinen, the Finns started to build a distinctively Finnish culture.
The same theme also recurs later in socially critical art.


Myths about the creation of the earth explain events at the beginning of time. The main feminine birth stories
take place in the first and last cantos of the Kalevala.

At the beginning, Ilmatar, Virgin of the Air, descends into the primeval sea and is made pregnant by the wind.
A scaup makes a nest on her knee and the eggs hatch into earth, sky, sun, moon and stars. Ilmatar creates fishing grounds and seashores. Later, she gives birth to Väinämöinen.

The end of the Kalevala makes references to the arrival of Christianity. Marjatta becomes pregnant from a lingonberry and gives birth to a son.

Iron is created in the breasts of three Luonnotars (Daughters of Creation). From there it flows into the ground and lies hidden in a peat bog.


At the beginning of the world, Ilmarinen the smith forges the heavens and sets the heavenly bodies in place. He also knows the spells needed to create fire and how to release iron from the earth for the use of man.
His ambitions test the very limits of the possible.

Of Ilmarinen's deeds, the most frequently depicted by artists is the forging of the Sampo. This was intended as a gift for the mistress of Pohjola, whose daughter was sought in marriage by Ilmarinen.  Ilmarinen used simple materials to devise a magic mill that would yield its owner good fortune, riches and power for ever.

The Kalevala' s Sampo has come to be the symbol of Finnish well-being. Even so, we do not know just what the Sampo is, or even what it looks like. The problem has prompted endless interpretations, learned debate and literature ever since the early 19th century.


Stories about frontiers between this world and the next are common to world myths. In Greek mythology, Orpheus the lyre-player visited the Underworld and returned safely. Väinämöinen, too, visits Tuonela, the Kalevala's Underworld, to get the three vital words missing from his boat-building spell, and also gets back to his own world.

The story of Lemminkäinen is one the most moving in the Kalevala and the survival tale that has inspired artists most. The great adventurer dies when he encounters the swan, holy bird of the river of Tuonela. His mother sets off in search of him, and with a great rake draws Lemminkäinen's body to the river bank.
Nature comes to the grieving mother's aid when a bee fetches healing honey with which she anoints him to bring him back to life.

The River of Tuonela


The Kalevala has been illustrated in many different ways over the ages.  In the late 19th century, Louis Sparre aimed at naturalism, basing his costumes and implements on historical findings.  Matti Visanti worked in a modernist spirit. His works make references to nature mysticism and sometimes also to theosophical interpretations of the Kalevala.

The clashes and battles depicted by Erkki Tanttu and Aarno Karimo reflect a view of the Kalevala imbued by nationalist ideals. Their reading converts the work into Finland's heroic epic. Tapio Tapiovaara's illustrations in turn reflect a Leftist and Marxist interpretation.

Aleksander Lindeberg's illustrations are an example of the highly stylized approach of the 1960s. Björn Landström and Pirkko-Liisa Surojegin approach the epic as a land of fairytale.  Hannu Väisänen, in turn, bases himself on the structure of the poetry.  The four-foot metre and repeated eight-syllable rhythm are represented through eight items or objects.


Light – the essential for growth and life. At the beginning of the Kalevala an enormous oak blots out the sun, but is felled by a man who rises from the sea to Väinämöinen's aid. Later, Louhi the mistress of Pohjola imprisons the moon and sun deep in the rock, but is forced to release them so that life can go on.

Trees are important in the Kalevala. A great fir tree flies Ilmarinen to Pohjola to wooLouhi's daughter and forge the Sampo. The holy rowan is inviolate and its branches must not be broken.

At the beginning of time, Sampsa Pellervoinen sows tree seeds and the lifeless earth begins to put forth. Väinämöinen fells trees, burns over the first land, sows seeds and produces the first grain crop, leaving one tree as a place for birds to rest and sing.


At the end of the 19th century a number of Finnish artists made expeditions to Finnish and Russian Karelia, visiting areas where people still knew the old folk poetry. First to go was Akseli Gallen-Kallela in summer 1890. Later travellers included I. K. Inha, Louis Sparre, Emil Wikström and Jean Sibelius.

The 'Karelianists' were inspired by the great wilds of these distant regions, by Karelian domestic architecture and everyday objects, and by local ornamentation and decorative motifs. They were thrilled by what they believed to be primeval Karelian culture and by the close link between man and nature. They had studied
in the art centres of Europe and shared with many contemporaries the dream of an unspoilt 'natural' lifestyle.


The tale of a young man: a spiral of homelessness, rejection, failure, revenge and violence. Elias Lönnrot greatly reworked the Kullervo story in putting together his Kalevala. The complex character of Kullervo has been one of the most popular subjects for Kalevala art, particularly around the turn of the century
and in the 1930s. It has generated a wide range of artistic interpretations.

Kullervo's family were ruled by envy and brotherly hatred.  From birth, he had the strength of a grown man and was unable to control it. Kullervo is sold as a slave and sent out to live in the forest to watch over the cattle. There he breaks his knife on a stone baked into the bread he was given, and curses his master's household.  Bent on revenge, he is aided by the beasts of the forest, which help him to kill the whole family and their animals.  At the end of the story he falls on his own sword.


The tale of a young woman. A popular theme among artists towards the end of the 19th century and later.
Elias Lönnrot edited the story considerably for the Kalevala.

Aino is the sister of Väinämöinen's rival Joukahainen.  Joukahainen saves his skin by promising Aino to Väinämöinen as his bride. Aino objects, but her mother is also in favour of the match and orders her not to grieve. Aino weeps for days and leaves home.  At the lake she removes all her jewellery and clothes and joins the realm of the water nymphs.

Among artists, Aino naked at the water's edge is the part of the story chosen most frequently as a subject. Many interpretations are reminiscent of the Venus and water nymph themes popular throughout the history of art.

Elias Lönnrot included many tales of adventure in his Kalevala.  These have also inspired many artists, though mostly men.  The men and women of the Kalevala are driven by powerful emotions
and passions. The hero characters are expected to perform great and amazing deeds. Lemminkäinen, for instance, succeeds in catching the elk of Hiisi, and at the river of fire he defeats the fiery eagle. Ilmarinen ploughs a field of vipers. Joukahainen takes revenge for his sister Aino's death.

The women of the Kalevala are the cause of or expected reward for the heroic deeds. They may also be a grieving mother or the figurehead of threatening forces.

Lemminkäinen seduces maidens of the Isle and abducts Kyllikki. He promises to stop fighting and she promises to be faithful. Both break this agreement.

Väinämöinen and Louhi, mistress of Pohjola, engage in a furious struggle for ownership of the Sampo, the magic mill of good fortune.

The role played by Kalevala art in building the Finnish identity peaked around the end of the 19th century. The Grand Duchy of Finland had its own pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1900, the joint work of several artists. Akseli Gallen-Kallela painted frescoes on themes from the Kalevala on its ceiling, and numerous pieces of embroidery, a rya rug, furniture and pottery employing national motifs were on show.

Around the same period a rune-singing cult also developed. Exponents of this ancient art were invited to perform at song festivals in various parts of Finland. For the nationalist-minded intelligentsia, rune-singers were the voice of the past, a living link with the roots of Finnish culture. This admiration is documented in the numerous portraits produced of them, which reflect the mystery of artistic creation and the imagined origins of Finnish culture.


Elias Lönnrot
Compiler of the Kalevala and Kanteletar, linguist, reformer of the Finnish language, physician and pioneering Finnish botanist.

Born Sammatti, April 9.

A pupil at Tammisaari lower school and Turku Cathedral School.

Master's thesis at Turku Academy: "De Wäinämöine priscorum Fennorum numine" (Väinämöinen, god of the ancient Finns).

First poetry-collecting expedition.

Founding meeting of the Finnish Literature Society, with Lönnrot as Secretary.  Cholera physician in Helsinki; later practised in Kuopio and Kajaani.

More poetry-collecting expeditions. Makes altogether nine such expeditions over fifteen years, mainly on foot and skis and by rowing boat. Farthest points reached Petsamo, Arkhangelsk (Archangel), Viena, Estonia and Ingria.

On his fifth expedition in spring 1834, in the village of Latvajärvi in Viena Karelia, Lönnrot is sung to for three days by rune-singer Arhippa Perttunen (1762–1841), one of the most productive episodes on his journeys.

Is granted a doctorate in medicine by the Imperial Alexander University (now the University of Helsinki).

The first part of the 'old Kalevala' is published, the second part in 1836.

The Kanteletar, the Kalevala's sister work, is issued.

The 'new Kalevala' appears.

Lönnrot marries Maria Piponius (1823–1868). Children: Elias (1850–52), Maria (1852–74), Ida (1855–1915), Elina (1858–76) and Thekla (1860–79).

Appointed Professor of Finnish Language and Literature at the University of Helsinki.Retires from the post in 1862.

In retirement works as a lexicographer, is active in academic societies and committees, and is awarded several honorary memberships and other honours, also abroad.

Dies in Lammi, Sammatti, on March 19.

The Finnish government acquires Lönnrot's birthplace in Sammatti, now known as Paikkari Cottage and run as a museum.

The Elias Lönnrot statue by Emil Wikström is unveiled in Helsinki.

For more info, please look at the Kalevala Society.

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