The Kalevala

Posted by on Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006

The Kalevala transcribed by Elias Lonrot, translated by Keith Bosley

The Kalevala is Finland’s great national epic.  And I have a huge honking crush on Finland.  Do you think Finland will ask me to prom.  Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!  Finland is so cute!!!  Right.  Where was I?  For those of you who love to read for free, there’s a copy of the Kalevala available online here.  I can’t attest to the quality of either translation–I don’t know the first thing about Finnish.  Well, I know how to say one really inappropriate thing in Finnish, but that counts for nothing.  I’m absolutely sure I first found out about the Kalevala from my friend Karhu (who taught us said inappropriate phrase).  He speaks Finnish, of course, and can recite chunks of the Kalevala.  And he can joik (which is sort of like yodeling), and knows a ridiculous amount about all things Saami.   

Unlike the Iliad or some of the other great epics, The Kalevala wasn’t a whole narrative a few hundred years ago.  It was a series of separate stories that had been preserved through the oral tradition.  Elias Lonrot gathered them up and ordered them into a narrative whole.  The work made a huge impact on Finnish people, and helped spur the Finnish nationalist cause according to many historians. 

The Kalevala is largely the story of Väinämöinen, who is a god/bard/poet/musician/magician and his brother Ilmarinen the smith, who is also a god/magician (smiths are always gods in ancient myth, the world over), and who created the Sampo, which is a magic, well, something that really matters.  It’s the magic grindstone from which fortune flows, it’s the bright lid, it’s possibly some sort of nautical tool or part of the sky.  Here is one of the descriptions of the Sampo:
On one side the flour is grinding,
On another salt is making,

On a third is money forging,
And the lid is many-colored.
Well the Sampo grinds when finished,
To and fro the lid in rocking,
Grinds one measure at the day-break,
Grinds a measure fit for eating,
Grinds a second for the market,
Grinds a third one for the store-house.

There is a wonderful creation myth at the beginning of the Kalevala–if you don’t want to read the whole immense thing, at least read the creation.  Ilmatar, (I think that means all-mother) the Maiden of the Air, gives birth to Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen, the God of magic.  There are eggs involved.  It’s gorgeous.   

Fiber arts also come up repeatedly in the myths.   Several of the Finnish goddesses have connections to fiber arts, and they pop up within the narrative, tools in hand and with a touch of advice: 

When spinning-time comes
and cloth-weaving time, don’t go
to the village for wrinkles
beyond the ditch for guidance
to the next house for warp-thread
to a stranger for reed-teeth:
spin the yarn yourself, and with
your own fingertips the weft
make the yarn lightweight
the thread always tightly spun;
wind it into a firm ball
on the reel toss it
on to the warp beam fit it
then set it out on the loom.
Strike the reed smartly
and raise the heddles nimbly
weave homespun caftans
and make woollen skirts
from one strip of wool
the fleece of a winter sheep
from the coat of a spring lamb
the down of a summer ewe.

Pretty good advice, no?

A great deal of material and myth unfolds in the book: Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen feud over a woman, clash with the villains Joukahainen and with Louhi the Hag of the North, who steals the Sampo, seek  Lemminkäinen’s aid . . . it’s a huge tome of myth, but it’s wonderful.  And it’s also a great primer on oral tradition.  The memory tricks lay themselves out on the page.  People recite the entire Kalevala every year in Finland.  One of these days I’d like to be there to hear it.  In the meantime, I’m just trying to shove a good portion of it into my head.  I’ve been reading it for over a year, and I’m not likely to stop.  Some people sleep with a Bible on their nightstand.  I’ll keep the Kalevala there with the Tains instead. 

Filed in Books | 4 responses so far

4 Responses to “The Kalevala”

  1. sarahon 22 Nov 2006 at 6:40 am 1

    It’s a grand story and, as you say, it includes so much information about everyday life at the time. BBC Radio 3’s ‘CD Review’ includes a useful segment called ‘Building a Library’. Some time ago by sheer chance I caught a discussion of Sibelius’ Lemminkainen Suite, and had to pull off the road to listen, heart in mouth, to ‘Lemminkainen’s Return’. If memory serves they recommended Petri Sakari and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra as being the most passionate if not the most technically precise. You also get Finlandia, which brings tears to my eyes. Canada isn’t Finland, but the evocation of landscape is the same.

  2. The Fiddlin' Foolon 22 Nov 2006 at 8:01 am 2

    I do rather like joiking. It actually reminds me less of yodeling and more of American Indian singing.

  3. Gelsomina Lucchesion 22 Nov 2006 at 12:37 pm 3

    My mom is from Finland. If you ever want a to experience Finland in America, the Heikinpäivä is a good way to do it. They host it where I grew up, there’s a website at:

    Scroll to the bottom and look at the ice sauna and polar bear dive; I miss home!

  4. Cassieon 23 Nov 2006 at 8:12 am 4

    One more thing to read… I really have to learn to both read and knit simultaneously.

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