Everything you need to know about Kalevala

In the past, stories and poems served as great entertainment, which were sung in celebrations, weddings, and funerals. The recital of poems was akin to modern-day rapping, to tell different kinds of stories. If you wish to learn about the culture and curious habits of the Finnish people, you should get familiar with the Kalevala.

This blog presents a summary of the stories in Kalevala. Kalevala is the national epic of Finland, which consists of thousands of poems from the 19th century. Kalevala is an exciting tale about Finnish myths and heroes, who face great challenges during their lives.

If you are studying the basics of the Finnish language, you should get acquainted with the Kalevala by, for example, by reading the Canine Kalevala by the author Mauri Kunnas. The Kalevala epic has been translated to approximately 60 languages so you might be able to read it in your mother tongue! Kalevala is filled with proverbs and idioms, which are still present in the modern Finnish language. You can also practice Finnish by watching the four-episode drama series called Rauta-aika, which you can watch for free on the Yle Areena streaming service. It is easy to keep up with the story and dialogue because conversations proceed at a calm pace and subtitles are also available.

Kalevala has over 50 poems or chapters, which cover everything from the creation of the world, to different challenges, battling by singing, and occasional celebrations. The difference between Kalevala when compared to other epics, is that the battles waged in the stories are usually done by outsinging the opponent, rather than outgunning them. Influence from other epics can also be noticed within the Kalevala, for example, the relationship between humans and nature, the creation of the world, and the scary afterlife.

kalevala opaskirja
Photo: Flinit

The father of Kalevala, Elias Lönnrot

The author, doctor, and linguist Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884) compiled the Kalevala. His mother tongue was Swedish and he became interested in the Finnish language during his studies. During his life, he translated Finnish songs, wrote dictionaries, and acted as a reporter for numerous newspapers. Lönnrot had a significant role in the creation of the Finnish language because before the 18th century the Finnish language was purely in oral form.

Lönnrot traveled across Finland while gathering poems, songs, and stories from storytellers. His influence can be seen in many of the stories of Kalevala, but his name is not found on the first page of the book.

The characters of Kalevala and its most important symbols

Sampo is a machine that produces an infinite amount of riches, which was commissioned by Louhi from the smith Ilmarinen.

Kantele is the national musical instrument of Finland, which especially Väinämöinen plays in the Kalevala.

5 string and 10 string kantele
Kantele is the national musical instrument of Finland. Photo: TheYellowFellow

Aino is a beautiful blond-haired woman, who refuses to marry Väinämöinen. She escapes from Väinämöinen’s clutches and turns into a fish.

Antero Vipunen is a sage living in the forest, from which Väinämöinen asks for advice. Väinämöinen falls into a trap laid by Antero Vipunen but escapes by lighting a fire inside his belly.

Ilmarinen is a blacksmith, who forges the Sampo and asks daughters of the north to be his wives.

Joukahainen is an overconfident young man, who promises to marry his sister to Väinämöinen after losing against him in a singing bout.

Kullervo is an unlucky man, who is forced to become the slave of Seppo Ilmarinen.

Kyllikki is a beautiful woman living on an island, who is forcefully married to Lemminkäinen.

Lemminkäinen is a young man who is thirsty for battle and adventure. He eventually drowns in the Tuonela river.

Lemminkäisen äidillä (The mother of Lemminkäinen) has no name. She rescues her son from the river and brings him back to life.

Lemminkäisen äiti
The mother of Lemminkäinen is a painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Louhi is the lady of the north and a ruler, who has supernatural abilities. The men of Kalevala wish to marry her daughters and Louhi presents the men with impossible tasks to complete.

Marjatta is a servant, who eats a lingonberry in the forest and becomes pregnant. Her son becomes the King of Karjala.

Pohjolan tyttäret (The daughters of the north) are beautiful women, whom all the men in Kalevala wish to marry.

Väinämöinen, also know as Vaka vanha Väinämöinen is the Wiseman of Kalevala and one of the main characters. He uses magic to send competing suitors into the swamp and defeats the sea monster Iku-Turso in a battle.

The plot of Kalevala in short

Kalevala is a book, which consists of thousands of poems, songs, and incantations. It is no surprise, that the plot of Kalevala is a bit tricky to under-stand at times because the acts are not coherent. The epic of Finland has been compiled by combining different types of short and long texts, which have been partially modified to fit the general plot.

This summary introduces the plot of Kalevala in a nutshell.

Poems 1-2:

The world is created, Ilmatar swims in the ocean while pregnant, and a bluebill builds a nest on her knee. Ilmatar gives birth to Väinämöinen. Sampsa Pellervoinen is cultivating the forests and a great oak grows to block the sun.

Väinämöinen wishes to marry Aino

Poems 3-5:

Väinämöinen and Joukahainen are battling each other through singing and Joukahainen loses. As a fair man, he promises his sister Aino to marry Väinämöinen. Väinämöinen proposes to Aino but refuses despite her moth-er pressuring her to do so. Aino drowns herself and the tears of her mother create beautiful scenery while the cuckoos sing.

Väinämöinen goes fishing for the drowned Aino, who has turned into a mermaid. Väinämöinen mistakes his catch for a fish and plans to eat it. Väinämöinen gets a message from his dead mother, who recommends him to go to the north in search of a new wife.

Poems 6-11:

Väinämöinen prepares to travel to the north, but Joukahainen who was sung into a swamp shoots Väinämöinen in revenge. Väinämöinen falls into the water from his horse. An eagle picks him up from the water and takes him to the north. Louhi, the powerful lady of the north, gives Väinämöinen food and promises the builder of Sampo one of her daughters. Väinämöinen falls for one of the daughters of Louhi, but Louhi asks Väinämöinen to do a bunch of tasks. While carving his boat, Väinämöinen gets a wound on his knee. The wound is healed with the use of powerful spells.

Poem 10:

Väinämöinen gets blacksmith Ilmarinen to build the Sampo and sings him to the north. Ilmarinen forges the Sampo, but the beautiful daughter of the north refuses to marry Ilmarinen.

Poems 11-15:

The handsome Lemminkäinen goes to an island to propose Kyllikki, celebrates with the ladies of the island, and captures Kyllikki. Lemminkäinen promises to give up his pillaging and Kyllikki promises to stay home. The couple immediately breaks their promises and Lemminkäinen leaves to pillage despite his mother warning him.

Lemminkäinen arrives in the north and asks for the hand of a daughter of Louhi. He is put to work immediately and his task is to catch and elk by skiing. Lemminkäinen hunts the elk down by using hunting spells and next he is told to capture the swan of Tuonela. Lemminkäinen is killed by hostile spells and he drowns in the river.

Kyllikki and the mother of Lemminkäinen become aware of the death of Lemminkäinen. The mother gathers the bodyparts of Lemminkäinen from the river and stitches Lemminkäinen back together again with the help of healing spells.

The wedding in the north (Pohjola)

Pohjolan emäntä ja tytär
The Lady of the North and the Daughter of the North are celebrating the Wedding of the North (Pohjola) in the movie Rauta-aika. Photo: Peda.net

Poems 16-17:

Väinämöinen builds a boat and has to leave for Tuonela to look for missing words. Väinämöinen leaves in search of the missing words to Antero Vipusen’s house and gets swallowed up in his belly. Vipunen conjures Väinämöinen out of his belly and finally agrees to sing his knowledge to Väinämöinen.

Poems 18-25:

A suitors contest follows, in which Väinämöinen and the smith Ilmarinen try to marry a daughter of the north. The daughter refuses Väinämöinen’s proposal, Ilmarinen also proposes to her but is put to work. He is tasked with three different tasks: plowing a field full of vipers, hunting down the bear of Tuonela, and fishing a pike. The preparations for a wedding starts in the north, but Lemminkäinen is not invited.

The bride and groom are given advice for a good life. The celebrations are continued at the home of Ilmarinen. After this, Väinämöinen visits Tuonela again to fix his broken sleigh.

Poems 26-30:

Lemminkäinen gets mad and leaves to raid the wedding celebrations in the north. He demands food and gets a pint full of snakes. Lemminkäinen makes The Lord of the North angry and kills him after battling him with spells. Lemminkäinen runs away and his mother advises him to hide on an island.

Lemminkäinen sings the ladies of the island into a trance, but being homesick and chased by the men on the island forces him to leave the island. Lemminkäinen finds his home destroyed and his mother hiding in a secret cabin. He leaves to the north for revenge with his friend called Tiera. A hexed frost forces the warriors to return home.

Unlucky Kullervo

Poems: 31-36:

The brothers Kalervo and Untamo are arguing, during which Untamo kills his brother and his folk. The son of Kalervo, Kullervo, is forced to be a slave and is an attempt on his life is made. Kullervo wants to have his revenge, but he is sold as a slave to Seppo Ilmarinen to be his shepherd.

One day, Kullervo breaks his knife while cutting a bread baked out of stone by the wife of Ilmarinen. He is infuriated and sends bears and wolves to attack the wife of Ilmarinen. Kullervo escapes and finds his mother, who tells that his sister was lost in the forest.

Kullervo bumps into his sister by accident and falls in love with her. The sister drowns herself when the truth comes out and Kullervo plans to revenge Untamo. Kullervo destroys Untamola and finally commits suicide.

The capturing of Sampo

The defense of the Sampo is famous painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

A battle takes place in Kalevala for the ownership of the machine of infinite riches, the Sampo. Sampo is a miraculous machine, which produces riches but ultimately sinks to the bottom of the sea. You can watch a video about the capturing of Sampo in English here.

Poems 37-40:

Blacksmith Ilmarinen mourns for his wife, who was killed by Kullervo. He tries to soothe himself by conjuring a golden maiden but is disappointed by how cold it feels. Ilmarinen leaves for a revenge to the north and steals the reluctant daughter of the north, whom he eventually turns into a flock of seagulls.

Ilmarinen and Väinämöinen finally decide to steal the Sampo from the north, and Lemminkäinen joins them. Their boat crashes onto the shoulders of a pike and Väinämöinen turns the bones of the fish into a Kantele.

Väinämöinen uses a spell to put the people of then north to sleep while stealing the Sampo. Louhi conjures up a mist, a storm, and the sea monster Iku-Turso to catch the thieves. A battle takes place and Sampo ends up on the bottom of the ocean.

The return of the lights in the sky

Poems 44-49:

The kantele which was lost in the sea is searched for and a new one is built in its place from a tree that moans and mourns, the hairs of a singing maiden and golden nails sung by a cuckoo. Nature rejoices when hearing the instrument.

Louhi summons pestilence to Kalevala, which is dispelled by Väinämöinen with his spells. Next, Louhi sends her bear to pester the cattle in Kalevala. Väinämöinen defeats the bear and a celebration takes place in its honour.

The music of Väinämöinen tempts down the lights in the sky and Louhi hides them in Pohjola. The lord of the skies, Ukko creates a new fire and the spark is thrown into the water, which is when a whitefish swallows it. The whitefish gets eaten by another fish, which gets eaten by an even bigger fish.

A big fishing net is made out of linen, which is used to capture the fish that swallowed the spark to release the fire. The fire manages to burn down some of the forests before it is captured in the homes of Kalevala. The smith Ilmarinen cures his burns with spells and conjures the sun and the moon in the sky, but they provide no light. Finally, Louhi releases the lights that she had captured.

The Son of Marjatta, The King of Karjala

Marjatta rannalla
Marjatta is painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Poem 50:

Marjatta eats a lingonberry and becomes pregnant. Väinämöinen condemns the bastard to die, but the son is crowned as the king of Karjala. Väinämöinen leaves and the song ends.

Read Kalevala piece by piece

As you can tell by looking at the plot, it is not very coherent, but merely introduces scenes on after another. If you wish to get more familiar with Kalevala, I recommend you to read the SKS published book ”Kalevala ja opas sen lukemiseen” (Kalevala and a guide how to read it). Every poem has been turned into a summary, which makes it easier to understand the chapters.

Even for native Finnish speakers, the Kalevala structure is challenging to read, due to the old-fashioned language and dialect words. Originally, the poems and spells in Kalevala were sung, in which the poem structure helped to pace the songs and remember the plot. Kalevala also includes a lot of folklore and keys to a good life.

You can get familiar with the story bit by bit, and you do not necessarily need to read the Kalevala in chronological order. There is enough material enough to challenge even the one thousand and one nights.

Have a great time in the world of the national epic!

P.s. Get familiar with The Kalevala kartalle initiative, which aims to create a travel concept based on the story and Kalevala. You can also follow the Kalevala kartalle Instagram and join our Facebook group, where people share links about interesting travel destinations in Finland.