“It is my desire, it is my wish
To set out to sing, to begin to recite,
To let a song of our clan glide on, to sing a family lay.
The words are melting in my mouth, utterances dropping out,
Coming to my tongue, being scattered about my teeth”
So begins the first poem of the Kalevala, the national heroic epic of the Finnish people. The tales depict numerous universal subjects such as failed marriage proposals, death, sorrow, the miscommunication between parents and their children, love, hope, and war over wealth and power. Before being documented upon paper, the stories had traveled throughout Finland by song and tale telling for thousands of years. The poems were learned by heart and passed on through oral tradition, since books in the Native Language of the Finns did not yet populate that nation (nor had Finnish yet been standardized for script). The poem chroniclers not only sang the tales to entertain, but also to teach the lessons of life, morals and customs. Despite the oral tradition of the tales, and their recounting, dying out around the 18th centrury, the growing desire to restore and cherish the ancient stories blossomed in the early 19th century.
The one who set out to re-discover and collect the poems was Elias Lönnrot, a highly educated young man, who not only was an explorer but also a doctor and scientist. Lönnrot is often credited as the father of developing and reinventing (standardization of the scriptural form of the language which had yet to see the written page) the Finnish language – and indeed, after working as a doctor he moved on to becoming a professor of the Finnish tongue and spent his retirement working upon the Finnish dictionary. While traveling, Elias Lönnrot collected many of the old myths and legends. He used the known poems in his work while also adding more characters and events to the original tales.* Thus the first volume of the epic, titled “The Old Kalevala”, was published in 1835, soon followed by the second volume, “The New Kalevala” in 1849. “The Kalevala” has by today been translated into over fifty different languages and is the only national epic which is honored with a flagging day.
Since today, the 28th of February, is the national day for the Kalevala, I should probably say what the Kalevala means to me as a fellow (Half) Finn. The Classic book is historically important for the development and growth of the Finnish language. The language in question had weakened and been held back for quite a while, so one could argue that “The Kalevala” and Lönnrot basically saved the Finnish tongue. To me, a speaker of fluent Finnish and one who finds some sort of personal subjectivity in the use of this tongue, “The Kalevala” stands out as a form of linguistic savior. But beyond the importance of the text to Finnish national identity and the personal subjectivity this engenders, the book further explores the realms of the broad-spectrum human condition and metaphors and fantasies which form the collective insights and narratives of the human tale and the abode of nature in which we find ourselves.
In addition, “The Kalevala” is interesting in its portrayal of the female characters. For the Era in which the epic was published, not to mention when the myths-singings and tellings were communally recounted, one could argue that the tales are surprisingly feminist. One of the most famous stories found in the epic is Väinämöinen’s (the Kalevala’s leading character, and the oldest being in the world) ill-fated wooing of the young maiden Aino. The legend begins with Väinämöinen getting promised the hand of Aino from her brother Joukahainen through the machinations of a lost duel. The mother of Aino and Joukahainen is thrilled with the idea of her daughter saying “I do” to Väinämöinen (as he is considered very old and wise, perfect husband material), but Aino is not. After Väinämöinen’s persistent chase of Aino, she, in absolute despair, drowns herself. In the aftermath of her child’s suicide, Aino’s mother woefully exclaims : “Do not, wretched mothers, ever , ever at all lull your daughters, rock your children into a marriage against their will as I, wretched mother, lulled my girls, brought up my chicks”. The Aesop of the myth is clearly that children, especially young women, should not be forced into marriage. Even if it’s peculiar that the Aesop only targets mothers instead of both parents, it’s really fascinating and wonderful to hear such an enlightened, modern moral from a story that probably was told thousands of years ago. The poem is a manifest to a woman’s right to choice.
The epics women are also portrayed as just as wise, if not sometimes wiser, than “The Kalevala’s” men. Lemminkäinen, an ambitious and notorious ladies man, is rescued from death by his wise mother who often gives him life-saving advice. Louhi, the powerful mistress from the North, is shown having more smarts then any of the men and being more handy of life-important objects. Even the creation story depicted at the beginning of the Kalevala is credited to a woman: the maiden of the air, who grew tired of living her life as a virgin in the sky and came down to the sea. She created land when she, out of kindness, befriends a bird and helps it to fabricate a nest in order to lay and nurture its eggs. After land was formed, the maiden gave birth to Väinämöinen. (If you’re wondering: yes, the sea somehow manages to impregnate the maiden of the air). Basically: land is born through a maiden’s curiosity and kindness and we are shown how the open and inquisitive woman can accomplish great things.
The Kalevala is a lyrical, tragic, comic read, and the varied and multiple characters and story lines yield themselves easily to a re-reading, re-immersion and re-interpretation many times over of this wondrous text. A book that saved a language, offers great entertainment and insights for today, and flows as both great literature and narrative folk-art —– A day for “The Kalevala”!
Information on “The Kalevala” and Lönnrot token from educational site here.
For those interested, you can read “The Kalevala” online here. You can even download it as a e-book!
*This has spawned lively and numerous debates about what is in actuality the Finnish Folktale and what the imaginings of the “neutral anthropological scholar” in the beloved Lönnrot.