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The Kalevala is an epic poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century from Finnish folk sources. It is commonly called the Finnish national epic and is one of the most significant works of Finnish-language literature. The Kalevala is credited with inspiring the nationalism that ultimately led to Finnish independence from Russia in 1917. The name means "land of Kaleva". The text of the Kalevala consists of 22,795 verses, divided into 50 poems or chapters (finnish runot, singular runo, from Germanic rune).


Writing the Kalevala

Lönnrot was a physician by profession but his passion for the traditional oral stories of his native Finland led him to travel extensively to acquire new material. He collected most of the poems from the region of Karelia. He believed that the small poems he collected were fragments of a once-continuous epic. He published the first Kalevala, the "old" Kalevala, in two volumes in 1835-1836. The old Kalevala consisted of thirty-two poems first collected by Lönnrot from about 1829, which he then edited and expanded with connecting material to make a continuous story. Lönnrot continued to collect new material, which he integrated into a second edition of the Kalevala, published in 1849. This "new" Kalevala contained fifty poems, and is the standard text of the Kalevala read today.


"The defence of the Sampo" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
"The defence of the Sampo" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

The main character of the Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a shamanistic hero with the magical power of songs. He is born of the primal Maiden of the Air and contributes to the creation of the world. Many of his travels resemble shamanistic journeys, especially the one where he visits the belly of a ground-giant, Antero Vipunen , to find the words of boat generation. He plays the kantele, a Finnish string instrument that is played like a zither. One of his kanteles is made of the jawbone of a giant pike. He never finds a wife (one of the women, Aino, drowns herself instead) and steals the Sampo, a magical mill, from the people of the north.

Other characters, some of whom have their own chapters, are Seppo Ilmarinen, a heroic artificer-smith (comparable to the Germanic Weyland) who crafted the sky dome, the Sampo and more; the Hag of the North, a shamanistic matriarch of a people rivaling those of Kalevala who at one stage pulls the sun and the moon from the sky; Väinämöinen's young rival, Joukahainen , who promises his sister Aino to him when he loses a singing contest; vengeful, self-destructive Kullervo who is born as a slave, goes into berserk rage and commits suicide; and handsome but arrogant Lemminkäinen, whose mother has to rescue his corpse from the river of Death which runs through Tuonela, and bring him to life, echoing the myth of Osiris.

Some of the chapters describe ancient creation myths, a long wedding ceremony, and the right words for magical spells of healing and craftsmanship.


  1. Birth of Väinämöinen.
  2. Väinämöinen's Sowing.
  3. Väinämöinen and Youkahainen.
  4. The Fate of Aino.
  5. Väinämöinen's Lamentation.
  6. Väinämöinen's Hapless Journey.
  7. Väinämöinen's Rescue.
  8. Maiden of the Rainbow.
  9. Origin of Iron.
  10. Ilmarinen Forges the Sampo.
  11. Lemminkainen's Lament.
  12. Kyllikki's Broken Vow.
  13. Lemminikainen's Second Wooing.
  14. Death of Lemminkainen.
  15. Lemminkainen's Restoration.
  16. Väinämöinen's Boat-building.
  17. Väinämöinen Finds the Lost-word.
  18. The Rival Suitors.
  19. Ilmarinen's Wooing.
  20. The Brewing of Beer.
  21. Ilmarinen's Wedding-feast.
  22. The Bride's Farewell.
  23. Osmotar the Bride-adviser
  24. The Bride's Farewell.
  25. Väinämöinen's Wedding-songs.
  26. Origin of the Serpent.
  27. The Unwelcome Guest.
  28. The Mother's Counsel
  29. The Isle of Refuge.
  30. The Frost-fiend.
  31. Kullervoinen Son of Evil.
  32. Kullervo As A Sheperd.
  33. Kullervo and the Cheat-cake.
  34. Kullervo Finds His Tribe-folk.
  35. Kullervo's Evil Deeds.
  36. Kullervoinen's Victory and Death.
  37. Ilmarinen's Bride of Gold.
  38. Ilmarinen's Fruitless Wooing.
  39. Väinämöinen's Sailing.
  40. Birth of the Kantele.
  41. Väinämöinen's Kantele-songs.
  42. Capture of the Sampo.
  43. The Sampo Lost In the Sea.
  44. Birth of the Second Harp.
  45. Birth of the Nine Diseases
  46. Otso the Honey-eater, telling of a bear hunt.
  47. Louhi Steals Sun, Moon, and Fire.
  48. Capture of the Fire-fish.
  49. Restoration of the Sun and Moon.
  50. Mariatta — Väinämöinen's Departure.

Influence of the Kalevala

The effect of the Kalevala upon later art in Finland has been tremendous, inspiring composer Jean Sibelius, modern poet Paavo Haavikko, painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and many others.

There are two English translations of the Kalevala. The older translation follows the original rhythm of the poems that may sound cumbersome to English ears. Poet Keith Bosley has written another version in a more fluid linguistic style.

J.R.R. Tolkien claimed the Kalevala as one of his sources for the writings which became the Silmarillion. It was an inspiration for Longfellow's 1855 poem, The Song of Hiawatha, which is written in the same metre, and also inspired the British science fiction writer Ian Watson to write the Books of Mana duology: Lucky's Harvest and The Fallen Moon.

The quest for Kalevala

Some parts of the epic probably capture ancient conflicts between Finnics and Samis. In that context, the country of Kalevala is usually understood as Southern Finland and Pohjola as Lapland. However, the place names in Kalevala seem to transfer the Kalevala further south, which have been interpreted as support for theories of a Finnic migration from the South that came to push the Samis further to the north, while some scholars locate the country of Kalevala to East Karelia, where most of the Kalevala stories were written down. In 1961 a small town of Uhtua in East Karelia was renamed to "Kalevala", perhaps to promote that theory.

Proponents of a Southern Kalevala argue, that the name Kaleva probably was first recorded in an atlas of al Idrisi of year 1154, where a town named Koluvan is mentioned. This is probably present day Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, known in old Russian sources as Kolyvan. The Finnish word Kalevan ("of Kaleva") has almost the same meaning as Kalevala. The Saari (literally "the island") might be the island of Saaremaa in Estonia, while the people of Väinöla has strong resemblance with the Livonian tribe of Veinalensis in present-day Latvia, that is mentioned in the 13th century chronicle connected to Henry of Livonia. The ancient Finns, Estonians and Livonians spoke similar Finnic dialects and share common ancestry.

See also


  • Vaka vanha Vainamoinen.ogg - "Vaka vanha Vainamoinen" Finnish poetry from the Kalevala from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by John Soininen on November 5, 1939 in Berkeley, California

External Links

Online versions of the Kalevala

Articles and Papers


  • The Kalevala by Keith Bosley (Introduction) and translations by Albert B. Lord, A contemporary English translation: ISBN 019283570X
  • The Kalevala: Epic of the Finnish People, translations by Eino Friberg, Bjorn Landstrom, George C. Schoolfield, ISBN 9511101374
  • The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland translations by John Martin Crawford, ISBN 0766189384

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