Monument of the Finnish identity The epic “Kalevala” unveiled as a road to initiation, part 1

The Iliad as Finnish Kalevala is sometimes called. The epic has a firm place in world literature. More than one hundred years ago, on the 6th of December, 1917, Finland became a sovereign state and the epic played an important role there.

Monument of the Finnish identity The epic “Kalevala” unveiled as a road to initiation, part 1

In this article, we will shed light on this epic from two different angles. We will first describe the life and work of the editor of Kalevala, the physician and botanist Elias Lönnrot. Subsequently the groundbreaking spiritual interpretation of the Finnish philosopher and writer Pekka Ervast will be addressed.

Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884)

There is a tiny cottage with no direct neighbors in the southwestern part of Finland. Behind it is a big lake. The horizon is far away. Surprisingly, the spiritual foundation of the Finnish state lies here, which was declared one hundred years ago in Helsinki, seventy kilometers from that place. In that cottage, the editor of Kalevala [1] grew up: Elias Lönnrot, son of a poor tailor. He lived there for many years in one room, together with his six sisters.

One day in April in 1802, when father Lönnrot sent his fourth child on a long journey along with his neighbor to baptize him, they got lost in a severe snow storm, and she had forgotten the child’s given name upon arrival. Therefore, the pastor took a look at the calendar of saints, and named the boy Elias, the saint of the day.

This distinct simplicity and poverty characterized Elias Lönnrot’s childhood. In that poor cottage, flour was blended with lichens and pine cone remains, and when this bread was gone, they were hungry, very hungry. When the war broke out, the children had to beg. The six year old Elias did this by standing silently in front of the door and waiting… This did not make him embittered, however, as he forgot that he was hungry when he was walking or swimming. If it was all too much, he started reading in the three books they had at home: the Bible, the hymnbook, and the catechism, and then all was well again…

The ten year old was allowed to go to school for a while to learn the mysterious Swedish language, but he had to go home quickly to help his father with his work. Yet he managed to get to a school again, this time in the capital Helsinki. Due to the fact that he had no books, he sat on the stairs with the books of his friend when he was having lunch, and he was not bothered by the freezing cold. He managed to do this for three years, while he earned money by helping the university staff with various chores. Then he was called home for a second time to help out.

Eventually, an assistant preacher of the Lutheran congregation was concerned about the young Elias. He suggested that the seventeen year old should go door-to-door like the old custom—just like Luther once did. He got rid of his extreme shyness, and he started to sing psalms and collected grain, so a bread could be baked at home. This ensured that his family would have food on the table, so he signed up for a gymnasium. When the bread stock had shrunk, Elias started working in an apothecary. He had no time off during the day, but he studied so successfully and intensively at night that he could go to university by the age of twenty. The student society he wanted to join declined him at first, because of the inferior jobs he had earlier when he attended school [2].

A second Orpheus

Six years later, during the summer of 1828, the physician Lönrott graduated from medical school, and was ready for his first gathering: on tarry bare feet, his savings in his bag, dressed as a farmer, a firm walking stick in his hand, a pipe with tobacco in his mouth, with a solid backpack, a shotgun on his shoulder, and in his buttonhole a sash with his flute. He introduces himself as a farmer’s son who wants to visit his family in Karelia [3]. However, people often think he is a bandit, although he is warmly welcomed most of the time. When he arrives in a village and people gather around him, he plays his flute, and therewith alluring even more people…

He then feels like—as he writes in his diary—“like a second Orpheus, or, to say it in a patriotic manner, like a new Väinämöinen”. After making music, he asks his audience about the song experts and singers among farmers (the Laulajat), and he pays them a visit. He takes a notebook of the newly published collection of folksongs out of his bag, and reads them aloud. The farmers already know what he reads, they become excited, and soon sing along. This does not always succeed, as not everyone can resist the brandy!

However, slowly but surely, a rich collection arises…

Ten more journeys follow… It takes him sixteen years to travel 20 000 kilometers by foot or with skis to record folk songs of the Karelian region.

The sources of Kalevala, also known as the Finnish Iliad, took shape gradually.

Later on he got support of the linguist and journalist David Europaeus (1820-1884) who collected 2.800 songs during several journeys. That’s why we may call it a collective work. The so called Old Kalevala (12.000 lines) appeared in 1835; the New Kalevala or the standard book (22.800 lines) was published in 1849.


Read part 2

[1] The term “Kálevala” – the emphasis is on the first syllable – actually means “the Land of “Kaleva”, a heroic tribe, only known in myths, and with no historic reality. The name can thus be translated as “the Land of Heroes”. The Finnish Kalevala inspired the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write the famous Native American epic Hiawatha. Its content parallels the story of Kalevala. Hiawatha was translated to Dutch “in an inimitable manner” (according to Jan H. Eekhout) by Guido Gezelle. The epic was also partly the model for Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”.

[2] The student society members now celebrate their annual feast on Lönrott’s birthday!

[3] Historical border area between Finland and Russia that was captured by Russia to a great extent after the Second World War. The Karelians that were driven away spread through Finland—one million in total are left of them today. Approximately 5 000 of those inhabitants of Finland can speak Karelian.

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Date: June 24, 2018
Author: Dick van Niekerk (Netherlands)
Photo: Pixabay CCO

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