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Impact of <I>The Kalevala</I> on Finnish Arts and Nationalism Impact of The Kalevala on Finnish Arts and Nationalism

In Finland stories were passed through the generations through song and poetry. This vertical transmission was done orally through the use of runes, poems. The runo singers of Karelia created through song an oral history of the culture of Finland. “...the oral tradition was a uniquely effective means of transmitting the cultural heritage and wisdom gained through experience from one generation to the next. Poem-singing, proverbs, fables and fairy-tales, or starinas, were the means by which that life experience was passed on” (Nieminen). The rune songs of Karelia began to be compiled into written word by Elias Lonnrot and other song-collectors and the first volume was published in 1835. This version is known as the Old Kalevala. Lonnrot states that his wish was to “...create for Finnish posterity a sort of poetical museum of ancient Finno-Karelian peasant life...” (Lonnrot xiv).

In 1849, a second edition, containing more runes and songs collected from another song-collector, David E. D. Europaeus (Lonnrot xiii) was published. Lonnrot added considerably to the rune songs, organizing them and creating an epic comparable to the Greek’s Oddessy. The first edition of the Kalevala “...caused a huge stir in artistic circles in the 1890s” (Asplund) and impacted the future of the arts in Finland for centuries to come. The Kalevala’s stories of magic, shamans, larger than life dieties, and tales of war and peasant life have impacted every aspect of Finnish culture, especially the arts and creating a growing nationalism.

The rune songs collected from the rune singers of Karelia tell of a way of life vastly different from modern culture. The word ‘rune’ means ‘a secret thing’ and has was thought to have magical overtones. Through the many magic charms in the rune songs, we are able to peek at the social life surrounding the peasant community. The charms themselves were, depending on the circumstance, short, humble, and prayer-like or long, fanciful, commanding charms. The charms regarding the creation of a thing (the ocean, the trees, etc.) are imaginative and poetic narratives. By singing a charm about the origin of a thing, the people were able to conquer that thing through the power of the spoken word.

In the wedding lays, also called Bride Lamentations, we learn of the traditions and beliefs surrounding the life of women and the role of domestic life. Many charms (lays) are used in the courtship and marriage ceremonies. The Lay of the Coming of a Bridegroom descrives the betrothal feast (Lonnrot 140-145). The Lay of the Handing Over of a Bride illustrates the despair of the bride at having to bid her family goodbye forever ( Lonnrot 146-152). These lays in the Kalevala give us an idea of the beliefs and customs of the ancient Finnish people. In addition to the Bride Lamentations, there are magic charms for every nuance of Finnish life. There are exorcism charms, traveling charms, huntsman’s charms, charms for times of illness and times of prosperity, charms for animals and people and natural disasters.

These charms are sung and sometimes they are accompanied by the kantele, a kind of harp or fiddle with magical powers. Väinämöinen sings into existence a beautiful kantele made of pikebone when he sets off to steal the Sampo from the Underworld. With this background in the magic of music it is no wonder that the runos of the Kalevala has had such an impact on the music of Finland. A researcher for the Finnish Literature Society, Anneli Asplund writes, “The kantele (or kannel) and rune-singing both symbolise ancient Finnish culture. In the Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot had constructed an image of a mythic kantele, made of the jawbone of a pike, as the typically Finnish musical instrument of the epic hero Väinämöinen. In the final stages of the work, the kantele is an essential part of the power of Väinämöinen's song. It was thus, through the Kalevala, that the kantele became, in the 19th century, the Finns' national instrument” (Asplund).

The magic of the lays have their roots in the shamanistic beliefs that play a large role in the superstitions of the Finnish mythology. “By conjuring or "singing" incantations the seer sends the misfortunes back to the gloomy north” (Nenonen). The shamans would sing themselves into a trance, which was thought to be falling into the crack between the worlds. Once in the trance, the shaman was able to converse with the gods and goddesses of the Underworld and with the dead. The Finnish epic, The Kalevala, is peopled with these gods, goddesses, and shamans. The hero of the Kalevala, “Steadfast Väinämöinen” is imbued with the power to change forms, himself and other people and things, by singing or chanting. The gods are forever singing something into or out of existence. Väinämöinen peoples a ship by singing, “...old Väinämöinen quietly sings...First he sang one side full of...youths,...He sang the other side full of maidens..Väinämöinen further sang the rowers’ benches full of people;” (Lönnrot 268).

The runos of the Kalevala reach across time to impact every aspect of Finnish life. The magic found in music by the old runo singers has been handed down through the generations as a lasting legacy of their beauty and power. “...the roots of Finnish music go deep down into a unique national heritage. We may say without exaggeration that the national epic, the Kalevala (1835), forms the basis of all Finnish culture - including music” (Hako). It is in through these roots that the Finnish people found their identity. After centuries of having their country controlled by Sweden and Russia, the Finns finally obtained control over Finland. It was, in part, because of the Kalevala national epic. The epic gave the Finns a feeling of oneness, of identity, which gave rise to Finnish Nationalism.

According to an article on the rise of Finnish Nationalism, “A famous phrase of uncertain origin that was coined in the early nineteenth century summed up Finnish feelings as follows: "We are no longer Swedes; we cannot become Russians; we must be Finns” (Author Unidentified). An important step in creating a distinct Finnish identity was to foster the use of the Finnish language instead of using Swedish or Russian language. To accomplish this it was important that the Finns have access to literature created in the Finnish language. The Kalevala accomplished this task, providing the Finns with access to their own language and, ultimately, their own identity. While many other factors contributed to the political and artistic climate of the Finnish culture, Lönnrot’s Kalevala was by far the most important facet of change for Finland.

Works Cited

Asplund, Anneli. “The Kantele - Finland’s National Instrument”. Virtual Finland. 3 December 2001. Accessed 26 March 2003. Virtual Finland

Asplund,Anneli . “Finnish Folk Singing”. Virtual Finland. 03 July 2000. Accessed 26 March 2003. Virtual Finland

Author Unidentified. “The Rise of Finnish Nationalism.” 1UpInfo. 1988. Accessed 29 March 2003. The Rise of Finnish Nationalism

Hako, Pekka. “Finnish Music in a Nutshell”. Virtual Finland. 22 August 2002. Accessed 26 March 2003.Virtual Finland

Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala. Trans. Magoun, Jr., Francis Peabody. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1963.

Nenonen, Marko. “The Shaman’s Journey to the Underworld”. Witchcraft, Magic, and Witch Trials in Finland. 15 May 2001. Accessed 18 March 2003. Witchcraft, Magic, and Witch Trials in Finland

Nieminen, Markku. “Introduction.” The Viena Karelian Folklore Villages. 1999. Accessed 30 March 2003. The Viena Karelian Folklore Villages



K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006


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