Today (28.2) is Kalevala Day (Kalevalan päivä) in Finland, which marks the anniversary of the first publication of the Kalevala in 1835. Now considered the epic poem of Finland, the Kalevala was compiled over many years by Elias Lönnrot, a physician who eventually followed his passion for his native Finnish language and contributed immensely to the sense of suomalaisuus or “Finnish-ness” in Finland. The Kalevala is comprised of folklore and songs Lönnrot collected mostly from the north and east of Finland.
More than just a brilliant union of Finnish folktales, the Kalevala’s initial publication and subsequent updates came at a time when Finland was experiencing something of an identity crisis. Tensions were still high after Russia took over Finland from Sweden in 1809 after the Finnish War. Up to this point, Swedish had been the language of the elites and culture, while Finnish was the language of the common man and the working class. However, it was in the mid-19th century that the Swedish-speaking elite moved to improve a sense of nationalism and promote Finnish culture and Finnish language for the purpose of nation-building. The Kalevala was the stone dropped into the waters Finnish consciousness that caused ripples of nationalism, eventually spreading leading to Finland’s independence in 1917.
The Kalevala itself is recorded in a consistent trochaic tetrameter, as sung by all the poem singers with whom Lönnrot worked. Major features of the Kalevala are the Finnish creation myth, singing spells and incantations for the purpose of learning skills essential to life in Finland, and interactions with the Sampo, a magical talisman with which the characters of the Kalevala interact and which causes both joy and strife before it is ultimately destroyed.
There is also talk of the publication of an “alternative Kalevala,” one that might reflect ancient Finnish beliefs even more accurately than Lönnrot’s version. Spearheaded by Juha Pentikäinen, a professor at the University of Lapland, he believes that Lönnrot’s Christian beliefs colored his choices as to what should be in the Kalevala and what should be left out, most notably omitting mentions of pagan Finnish bear cults.
While I have yet to read the entirety of it, the Kalevala speaks to me on many levels, most of all because of its reliance on nature and natural imagery and the interaction of man and god with the natural world. One of my favorite excerpts demonstrating this actually comes from the proem, the introduction before the official poems:
There are many other legends,
Incantations that were taught me,
That I found along the wayside,
Gathered in the fragrant copses,
Blown me from the forest branches,
Culled among the plumes of pine-trees,
Scented from the vines and flowers,
Whispered to me as I followed
Flocks in land of honeyed meadows,
Over hillocks green and golden…
For me, Kalevala Day is about more than just celebrating a beautiful piece of Finnish work - it is a day to remember the history of Finland and how the ancient Finnish spirit and lore has played such an important role for the Finnish people, even today.
[Above is the Aino Triptych by Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who painted many scenes from the Kalevala.]