“Many runes the cold has told me" - The Kalevala

28 February: The anniversary of the publication of the Finnish national epic, the “Kalevala”, by Elias Lönrot in 1835 is celebrated in Finland and elsewhere with the “Kalevala Day”

“Many runes the cold has told me, / Many lays the rain has brought me, / Other songs the winds have sung me. / Many birds from many forests, / Oft have sung me lays n concord / Waves of sea, and ocean billows, / Music from the many waters, / Music from the whole creation, / Oft have been my guide and master.” (The Kalevala)

Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865 – 1931): “The Forging of the Sampo” (1893)

Hegel once mentioned that a nation would count for nothing if it hasn’t produced an epopee, a national epic, but few of those texts proved to be as identity-establishing as the Kalevala. When the physician Elias Lönrot published the results of seven years of travelling the countryside and collecting folk tales and mythology, compiling it into a compelling tale known as “Kalevala”, the work dropped on the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland like a bomb. All of a sudden, a common background had been put into writing that was engaging for everyone who felt to be Finnish – a milestone for a region that was ruled by the Swedes and then the Russians since time immemorial and Lönrot wasn’t called the Second Father of the Finnish Language for nothing, after the first one, Mikael Agricola, who translated the New Testament into Finnish in 1548. The formative influence of the “Kalevala” on the nascent Finnish literature was a catalyst for Finnish identity and a stepping stone towards Finnish independence.

Robert Wilhelm Ekman (1808 – 1873):
"Väinämöisen soitto" (Väinämöinen's Play,1866)

The story itself revolves around the conflict of the people of Pohjala, probably Lapland, and the folks from Kalevala, the country of the hero Kaleva, and the possession of a cornucopia, the Sampo. And while working magic and sung language are almost identical, the tales’s most important protagonist, the first man Väinämöinen is, of course, a shaman as well as a singer. The rest is an epic succession of blood, thunder, seduction, romance and more magical feats that not only inspired the Finns to be Finnish but a lot of artists, local and from abroad, painters, musicians and authors, the most prominent of them probably being Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and J.R.R. Tolkien. The one copying the metre of the “Kalevala” for his own epic, the “Song of Hiawatha” while the other attributed Väinämöinen with a Germanic name, Gandalf, the elf with the staff, along with the many other influences the Finnish masterpiece exerts on the tale of Middle Earth.

Aksell Gallen-Kallela’s (1865 – 1931) triptych about the tale of Aino from the “Kalevala”

Depicted above is the Finnish painter Aksell Gallen-Kallela’s (1865 – 1931) triptych about the tale of Aino from the “Kalevala”: “ Aino was Joukahainen's sister who was promised to the old and wise Väinämöinen in marriage after Joukahainen lost a magic singing match against Väinämöinen. Aino instead decides to drown herself. The three pictures tell the story: the left panel one is about the first encounter of Väinämöinen and Aino in the forest, the right panel depicts mournful Aino weeping on the shore and listening to the call of the maids of Vellamo who are playing in the water. Aino has made her decision to choose death rather than her wizened suitor. The middle panel depicts the end of the story. Väinämöinen goes to fish for Aino in the lake that she entered. He catches a fish which he thinks to be a salmon and tries to cut her up with a knife, but the fish slips away from his hands and springs back into the water. Then the fish changes into Aino who proceeds to mock the old man, that he held her in his hand but couldn't keep her. After that she vanishes for ever.“ (wikipedia)

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