Every February 28th the publication of The Kalevala, The Finnish National Epic, is celebrated. Published this day in 1835 and again in 1849.
The Kalevala ( pronounced “KAH-lev-AH-la), is the great national epic of Finland.
Based on old stories that were sung and recited by the population of Finland, as well as the Baltic countries and Western Russia. The Kalevala itself was assembled from folk sources in the 1800s by Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884). He was a traveling physician who worked in the region of Karelia which is in Eastern Finland and Western Russia. While there he became aware of the old stories the people were told in song form called the Kalevala. He was an amateur folklorist and scholar and his medical circuits took him to the outlying villages of Karelia where he recorded the poems as the locals would sing them.
He combined the poems he collected along with others collected by other song gatherers into one book called The Kalevala. Lönnrot was its editor, deciding which order the stories would appear, creating an overall flow to the epic.
This was a very special time in Finnish history. Since 1100 Finland had been ruled by Sweden. In 1808, some of Finland was transferred to Russian jurisdiction. Finland for the first time ever became a country in 1809. At that time educated city-dwelling Finns spoke Swedish while the country folk spoke Finnish i.e. local dialects.
The Swedish speaking Finns looked down on their native culture. The Kalevala changed all that. It was a stunningly beautiful oral tradition that held noble deeds and impeccable values. It was a time when national pride was stirring and all of the people of the land could embrace a unified version of the stories which came from their newly formed nation. It was a time when embracing one’s national stories was popular. Lönnrot’s epic was the pillar of Finnish nationalism.
In my own life, The Kalevala has played a very important role during my graduate work. For 3 summers I lived in Finland working and living with the last known rune singers.
The Finns call one of their folk poems a Runo and or Rune, which is a cross between a poem and a song. The word rune can be found in other closely related traditions such as Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Goth, and Mongolia. The word rune can also mean a secret or something which is hidden.
The secret becomes revealed in the singing or chanting of the rune/runo. In the villages, the runo ( poems) were always sung. Individual poems did not have specific songs. There are several Kalevala melodies which the singer knows and chooses the tune that will work best with the poem and story they are singing.
Though there are several simple melodies one can sing runes with, they all are in a special meter called a trochaic tetrameter (“one and two and three and four and…”). Runes were sung everywhere. As people did their chores, at work, for special occasions, holidays, gatherings, festivals, song was at the center of their lives. It connected them to everything, not just the stories of heroes and great deeds found in the Kalevala, but to their culture and country.
Recently The Kalevala has opened up new pathways and learning in my life as I have picked up the singing traditions once again. Recently I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of songs and the tradition with Mitchell Clute on his Sounds True The Shamanic Path Program.
Mitchell interviews many interesting people and has created a gathering place for ceremony, practice, and connection over at Sounds True The Shamanic Path.
I sing a couple of songs on this video. The first one is the opening and introduction to The Kalevala. The second song is from Runo 40 and has to do with the creation of the magic harp called a Kantele.
The First Song Opening of The Kalevala
Mieleni minun tekevi,
I am driven by longing
To commence a wondrous singing
Of the legends of our people
And the ballads of our kindred.
-Excerpt from “The Kalevala”
Second Song Runo 40
Vaka vanha Väinämöinen
Väinämöinen, old and steadfast,
If you’ve never read the Kalevala I invite you to do. It’s a wonderful adventure filled with magic and mystery. Wishing you all a very happy and wonderful Kalevala Day.