The poems of Finland's national epic, the Kalevala, were
collected by Elias Lönnrot, a medical doctor and a linguist,
from the people of the eastern part of present-day Finland and Russian
Karelia in the 1820s and 1830s. He arranged them into an epic with
a plot; what is known as the 'Old' Kalevala was published
in 1835–36, while the extended 'New' Kalevala appeared
in 1849. This edition, whose 150th anniversary falls this year,
contains 50 poems and almost 23,000 lines.
The story of the Kalevala begins
with the birth of the world from a teal's egg and depicts an ancient,
heroic period of pre-Christian paganism, albeit with a Christian
flavour; the epic ends with the arrival of Christianity among the
The heroes of the Kalevala
fight, travel and plunder, and women are anxious about them, as
in epics the world over. The most important object of plunder is
the mysterious Sampo, wrought by a smith, a magical object,
some kind of mill, whose owner will grow rich in every way.
The central characters of the Kalevala
are Väinämöinen, the culture hero, god and seer;
Joukahainen, Väinämöinen's unlucky young rival -
he promises his sister Aino to Väinämöinen, but she
drowns herself rather than submit to the old man's embraces; Lemminkäinen,
an adventurer who survives many perils, but who is rescued from
the Tuonela river – the river of death – by his mother;
Kullervo, a tragic anti-hero, a slave, who accidentally seduces
his sister and finally throws himself on his own sword; Ilmarinen,
a smith who tames iron and forges the Sampo; Louhi, the witch
of Pohjola, the land of the North, a mighty woman from whom
the heroes of the land of Kalevala steal the Sampo.
The Kalevala has been translated,
in part or whole, into 47 languages so far. The best-known
English verse translation is by William Forsell Kirby (1907; Kalevala.
The Land of the Heroes. Introduced by M.A. Branch, The Athlone
Press, 1985); the most recent translation is by Keith Bosley (The
Kalevala, Oxford University Press, 1989).
Information on the Kalevala in English,
Swedish, French and German and its translations as well as
the entire text in the original Finnish, are to be found at www.finlit.fi/kalevala.
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