How to Helsinki: Kalevala

The Defense of Sampo (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
The Defense of Sampo via Wikimedia (Turku Art Museum; 1896; tempera on canvas; Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Erik here. You may have heard of Kalevala before. It has inspired English-speaking authors from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to J. R. R. Tolkien. If Kalevala is new to you, it’s well worth knowing something about before heading to Helsinki for Worldcon. Kalevala has an important place in Finnish culture and fandom alike.

Origins of Kalevala

In the mid-1800s, with the rise of national romantic movements across Europe, there was a passion for rediscovering and recording oral literature and folk traditions before they were wiped away by modernity. The Grimm brothers in Germany may be the most famous collectors, but similar efforts were happening in many pats of Europe, including Finland. Elias Lönnrot, a rural doctor in eastern Finland, began collecting old songs and stories from the people in the villages he served. Numerous characters and themes were woven through these tales: wizards and warriors, love and longing, mayhem and magic. Many of the characters seemed to be versions of pre-Christian gods and spirits who had survived the the coming of Christianity by being turned into heroes or fitted into Christian stories. Lönnrot also learned the techniques that master singers used to weave one tale into another, building up a larger story out of a common store of incidents and refrains. After many years in the field, he put these techniques to use himself, stripping away Christian elements and assembling a wide variety of the stories he had collected into one grand epic. He called this tale Suuri Kalevala, or “The Great Land of Kaleva.”

Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia
Brothers Poavila and Triihvo Jamanen reciting traditional Finnish folk poetry in the village of Uhtua, 1894, photograph by I. K. Inha via Wikimedia

At the time, Finland was part of the Russian Empire (having been under Swedish rule since the twelfth century and conquered by Russia in 1809), but an independence movement was stirring and many people were beginning to pay attention to the elements of a unique Finnish identity. Kalevala became one of the focal points of this movement. By reaching back to pre-Christian history, almost a thousand years before, it promised a validation of Finnish identity grounded in primordial origins free of Russian or Swedish interference. Finland gained its independence in 1917 (happy centennary!) and Kalevala has remained a vital part of Finnish culture ever since.

Kalevala has an earthy immediacy. The poetic language of Kalevala is colloquial and its heroes, despite being magical warriors, live rustic lives as farmers and fishers not much different from the village folk Lönnrot collected the tales from. There are occasional mentions of wars and great battles and one daring Viking-like raid, but more often the tales revolve around such tasks as chopping down trees, mending horse-drawn sledges, and pulling in fishing nets. The power of nature is ever-present, from the summer sun and the winter frost to the trees of the forests and the water of Finland’s ten-thousand lakes.

Characters of Kalevala

The three main heroes of the epic are:

  • Väinämöinen – An old wise man (perhaps originally a water god), who wields the magic power of words and song. His songs can do everything from building a boat to sinking his enemies into the earth.
  • Ilmarinen – A smith (perhaps originally a sky god), who can craft fabulous things from metal.
  • Lemminkäinen – A brash warrior and adventuresome lover who tends to get into trouble and have to be rescued by his mother, another wielder of song-power like Väinämöinen.
Lemminkäinen's Mother via Wikimedia (Ateneum, Helsinki; 1897; temepra on canvas, Akseli Gallen-Kallela)
Lemminkäinen’s Mother via Wikimedia (Ateneum, Helsinki; 1897; tempera on canvas, Akseli Gallen-Kallela)

These three heroes represent the southern land of Kalevala, which throughout the epic is in a long-simmering conflict with the northern land, Pohjola. Pohjola is represented by:

  • LouhiThe witch of the north, a wielder of powerful magic with armies of warriors at her command.
  • Louhi’s daughter – Never named or given any particular powers, but important in the story nonetheless.

A few other characters of note:

  • Joukahainen – A bold young warrior who tries to go up against Väinämöinen, only to discover that some powers shouldn’t be messed with.
  • Aino – Joukahainen’s sister, promised in marriage to Väinämöinen to save Joukahainen’s neck, but she drowns herself rather than be married against her will.
  • Kullervo – An angry young man whose family (he believes) was all killed in war. He ruins everything he touches, including his family when he discovers them still alive.

The story

Since it was built up of many separate stories, there is no simple narrative to follow through the epic, but there is one major storyline about the conflict between Kalevala and Pohjola along which many of the epic’s tales are strung:

Joukahainen, an ambitious youth, challenges old Väinämöinen to a singing contest and fares very badly. Väinämöinen’s magical song nearly kills Joukahainen until Joukahainen promises his sister Aino in marriage to the old man. Aino, however, refuses to have any part of the arrangement and drowns herself, which makes Joukahainen even more furious and he attacks Väinämöinen while Väinämöinen is sailing to Pohjola. An eagle rescues Väinämöinen from the sea and takes him to Pohjola.

In Pohjola, Väinämöinen asks for Louhi’s daughter’s hand in marriage, but Louhi demands a steep price: a magical device to make her rich. Väinämöinen cannot give her what she wants, but he promises to send Ilmarinen to Pohjola to make it for her. In Pohjola, Ilmarinen forges Sampo, the magical treasure that Louhi wanted, but he, too, is refused a bride.

Ilmarinen at work via Wikimedia (Helsinki; sculpture; Robert Stigell)
Ilmarinen at work via Wikimedia (Helsinki; 1888; Robert Stigell)

Lemminkäinen now tries his hand at wooing Louhi’s daughter. Louhi sets him various impossible tasks which he gamely undertakes, but when he tries to catch the swan of the River of Death, he falls into the river and dies. His mother comes to rescue him and brings him back to life.

Väinämöinen builds himself a new boat to sail to Pohjola and try his luck at wooing Louhi’s daughter again. Ilmarinen gets word of it and heads off to Pohjola himself. In Pohjola, Louhi’s daughter chooses Ilmarinen and preparations are made for the wedding. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen patch up their differences and Väinämöinen offers to sing at the wedding. The union promises peace between Kalevala and Pohjola.

When Lemminkäinen learns that he wasn’t invited to the wedding celebration, he heads to Pohjola to stir up trouble. He wins a duel with Louhi’s champion, but Louhi then summons an army to chase him away. Lemminkäinen is rescued by his mother. Again.

Ilmarinen and his bride get on happily at first, but then they take on Kullervo as a farmhand. Ilmarinen’s wife bullies and torments Kullervo until he strikes back and kills her.

Väinämöinen, hoping to get a new wife for Ilmarinen, discovers that Sampo has made the people of Pohjola rich. He gathers Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen to sail to Pohjola and steal Sampo for Kalevala. Väinämöinen puts the people of Pohjola to sleep with his magic and the heroes remove Sampo from Louhi’s fortress, load it on their ship, and start to sail home. When Louhi awakes, she summons her warriors and sets off in pursuit. Väinämöinen conjures an underwater rock to smash the Pohjola ships, but Louhi transforms herself into a monstrous bird and carries her soldiers to the heroes’ ship. There, in a great battle, the heroes defeat Louhi, but the Sampo is lost overboard and vanishes from the world, leaving only fragments behind.

Louhi returns to Pohjola and plots revenge, sending diseases and a terrible bear to Kalevala, stealing fire from Kalevala’s hearths and taking the sun and moon from the sky. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen defend Kalevala, restore fire, heal the sick, and force Louhi to return the sun and moon.

Influence of Kalevala

To this day, Kalevala remains a strong part of Finnish life and culture. Its themes and characters are well known in Finland. It’s hard to think of any work in the English-speaking world to compare with it. Imagine some kind of a cross between the legends of King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars and you’ll start to get the general idea.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela produced a number of paintings representing stories from Kalevala. His paintings have come to define the classic depictions of many of the epic’s characters and incidents.

Shops and companies, both big and small, take their names from Kalevala. There is an insurance company called Sampo and a bank called Tapiola (the name of a forest realm). You’ll find Lemminkäinen Streets and Ilmarinen Roads in towns all over the country. Helsinki is full of public art referencing the epic and its heroes. Characters like Väinämöinen and Kullervo are invoked in popular media.

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via Finnish Problems

Childrens’ book author and illustrator Mauri Kunnas created a kids’ version of the epic with all the characters as dogs (except Louhi, a wolf, and Lemminkäinen, a cat). The book was turned into an opera and performed at the nation’s premiere opera festival in Savonlinna in 2004. Other Finnish musicians, from classical composer Jean Sibelius to folk metal band Korpiklaani have referenced Kalevala in their compositions.

Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela via Reuben Markham

Manala – Track by track by Korpiklaani

If you’re visiting Finland for Worldcon, you will almost certainly come across images and references drawn from the national epic and its related oral traditions. Knowing a little about Kalevala will help you get the reference.

Plus, Febrauary 28 is Kalevala Day, a national holiday celebrating the epic and other great works of Finnish literary culture. Happy Kalevala Day!

Here are a few helpful links for further information or for Kalevala-related things you might like to do in Helsinki:

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

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