Elias from Sammatti village

Elias Lönnrot was born on the 9th of April, 1802, in the parish of Sammatti in the south of Finland. He was the eighth child of tailor Frederik Juhana Lönnrot. The fact that Elias was a gifted child was spotted early in his childhood. He learned to read at the age of five, and books became the boy's great passion. In his home region, anecdotes and tales sprung up concerning his desire to read. "Get up already! Elias Lönnrot has long been sitting on a tree branch reading", said the mother of a neighboring croft as she woke her children. According to another story, a hungry Elias once asked his mother for bread, which she did not have to give him. "Alright, then I'll go and read", was the boy's response.

Elias Lönnrot, a drawing by G. Budkowski,1845. - SKS

Elias Lönnrot, a drawing by G. Budkowski,1845 (SKS)

His parents decided to send the boy to school, even though they were in fact quite poor. Elias' studies began at the age of twelve in Tammisaari. For a monolingual speaker of Finnish, learning to function in the Swedish language was difficult at first, since at that time there were no Finnish-language schools.

Through perseverence and a zeal for learning, however, the boy nonetheless struggled through and continued his studies by entering the Cathedral School of Turku in 1816. Studying in a strange city required money. Occasionally the money ran out, and Elias was forced to take up his father's trade and earn his living with a tailor's needle and scissors. The priest of his home parish nonetheless helped the boy continue his studies, this time in Porvoo. Lönnrot entered the University of Turku in 1822.

Lönnrot's university studies

At the University of Turku, Lönnrot studied a number of different subjects at first. In addition to medicine, he studied Latin, Greek, history and literature. He also became acquainted with a small circle of nationalist-thinking teachers and students whose primary aim was to promote the status of the Finnish language.

In connection with his studies, Lönnrot also became acquainted with newly-published folk poetry. It soon became clear that Eastern Finland and particularly Archangel Karelia on the Russian side of the border were areas in which the older song tradition still lived on.

Under the guidance of his mentor Reinhold von Becker, Lönnrot wrote a doctoral thesis on a subject from Finnish mythology, Väinämöinen. This small monograph in Latin appeared in 1827.

Lönnrot then continued his studies in the field of medicine and received his medical degree in 1832. Like many of his fellow students, he worked as a private tutor in order to support himself. In this way he found himself in the summer of 1824 in Laukko manor in Vesilahti, Western Finland. In this area a few Kalevala-metre songs were still sung, which the interested tutor jotted down on paper. In Laukko he also met travelling peddlars from Karelia who were versed in the art of singing the old poems.

In 1827, catastrophe struck Finland. Turku, the capital of Finland, burned to the ground. No university instruction was available during the academic year 1827-1828, and so Lönnrot spent the entire winter as a tutor in Vesilahti. The idea of a trip to collect folk poetry in Karelia began to take root in his mind.

Lönnrot decided to spend the summer of 1828 on a folk poetry collecting trip to Savo and Karelia. In his own words, he wanted to "see more of his own country, learn to know its language and its different dialects, but most of all to gather the products of its remarkably beautiful folk poetry."