A divine maiden of the air descends to undifferentiated waters. She becomes pregnant from the wind and a duck lays an egg on her leg. Incubating, it grows too hot to touch. When she flinches, it falls, and the world, sun, and moon are formed from the shards. Then comes her son, Väinämöinen, who sows the forests. And things take a turn for the worse. He gets into a contest with a wiseman from the North, captures him in a mire. As a last resort, the defeated offers his sister’s hand in marriage. But Aino would rather drown than wed Väinämöinen. And from her mother’s tears come the rivers, come the birches, come the cuckoos, who still sing these songs of sorrow.
This is how the world begins in the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, first published in the nineteenth century. Later in the text, there will be talking salmon, forest demons, wolves that stalk the deadlands, incest, suicide, and a mysterious artefact called the Sampo, forged by a legendary blacksmith, which acts like an anchor for the universe. After more than twenty-thousand lavish verses, the poem ends with modesty and apology: perhaps the singer droned on too long. And perhaps it was a wretched performance. If so, this could not be helped — he never had proper training. Maybe someone else will sing it better in the future.
Much like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Kalevala finds its roots in an oral tradition. During a period of famine and cholera in the early nineteenth century, the Finnish physician Elias Lönnrot travelled through Karelia, an ethnic region that now straddles the border of Finland and Russia. Here he heard folk singing, backed by an instrument called the kantele (a zither formed from pike bones in the Kalevala). Noticing common patterns and themes, Lönnrot began to transcribe the music, sorting the myths and lore intoned by local bards. The richness of this tradition almost defies description. Arhippa Perttunen (1769-1840), an important source for Lönnrot — who was supposedly undefeated in village song competitions — remembered fishing trips in his childhood as impromptu concerts that explained the cosmos. “They often sang all night hand in hand by the fire, and the same song was never sung twice”.
Here the history of Finland’s national poem becomes indistinguishable from the kind of myth-making it contains. Was Lönnrot unearthing the fragments of a single, scattered story? Or imposing cohesion where there was previously none? According to some, the physician pieced back together the fractured narrative, as if mending a bone, which had been shattered across the tongues of rural singers. “There was no problem of personal style”, writes the British translator Keith Bosley, “the ancient poetry which is now called Kalevala poetry has a single style transcending not only individual talent but even region and century”. Others, like the Finnish historian Timo Vihavainen, offer a more skeptical genealogy: “Finnish folklorists arrived at the conclusion that Kalevala had not been born in any particular part of Finland but on Elias Lönnrot’s writing table”.
The impact of the Kalevala has been outsized, at home and abroad. Ending with an invocation of “the rising folk of Suomi” (the country’s name in Finnish), Lönnrot’s poem helped invent and recover the mythology of a people who had been under Swedish rule since the twelfth century and absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1809. Inspiring a revival of the Finnish language among educated, wealthy citizens, the Kalevala had a curiously democratizing effect, as the burgeoning interest in Finnish required crossing class lines to obtain linguistic proficiency. Beyond Fennoscandia, the Kalevala offered a blueprint for national becoming. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow based The Song of Hiawatha, his troublesome attempt to craft America’s “first” epic, on the meter of the Kalevala — a rhythm known as trochaic tetrameter, which sounds slightly stilted in English (and famously reserved by Shakespeare for fairy speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It may come as no surprise, then, that J. R. R. Tolkien’s elvish was also inspired by the poem and its language. “It was like discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before”, he wrote in a letter to the poet W.H. Auden.
After eleven song-collecting field trips, Lönrott published a version of the Kalevala in 1835 and a revised, expanded edition in 1849. The text led to an outpouring of paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808-1873), and Joseph Alanen (1885-1920) — and continues to inspire contemporary Finnish artists such as Hannu Väisänen (b. 1951) and Sirpa Alalääkkölä (b. 1964). John Martin Crawford first translated the Kalevala into English in 1888, a project that arose from his desire “to lay before the English-speaking people the full treasury of epical beauty, folklore, and mythology”. Noting that Finnish is a language where “every word [is] connected with the powers and elements of nature”, his preface describes the “great care” taken “in rendering these finely shaded verbs”.