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Lonnrot, Elias

Elias Lonnrot

Finnish physician, philologist, and professor Elias Lonnrot (1802–1884) was best known as the compiler and editor of Finland's national epic, the Kalevala. First published in 1835, it was a compilation of folk poetry that was instrumental in establishing Finnish as a literary language and cultural medium. Lonnrot went on to contribute other significant writings on folklore, medicine, language, and science.

Born to Change

Lonnrot was born to Fredrik Johan Lonnrot, a tailor, and Ulrika (Wahlberg) Lonnrot in Sammatti, Finland on April 9, 1802. Just seven years after his birth, the Finnish people underwent a great transformation with the signing of the 1809 Treaty of Hamina. The treaty broke ties of nearly seven centuries between Sweden and Finland, attaching the latter to the Russian Empire as a self–governing Grand Duchy. The long–assimilated Finns were thrown into a state of flux as they struggled to build a new history and culture, while honing their language (the educated spoke Swedish, not Finnish, at the time) into one that was equal to the task. The small tailor's son in Sammatti would prove to be invaluable to this nationalist effort.

Although Lonnrot's eldest brother and parents provided the financial assistance they could, Lonnrot's education was often interrupted when funds ran short. He contributed as well, working as a tailor, tutor, or apothecary's assistant when the situation demanded it. In the autumn of 1822, Lonnrot enrolled at the University of Turku. Interestingly, his class also included Johan Vilhelm Snellman, who would go on to be a prime mover in the nationalist movement, and Johan Ludvig Runeberg, who was destined to become the national poet of Finland. Indeed, the coincidental freshman triumvirate would be fundamental to their country's burgeoning sense of culture, identity, and pride.

Lonnrot pursued his studies and academic degrees, along with intermittent bouts of necessary employment, for the next ten years. He eventually gained a medical diploma. Along the way, his Finnish language teacher, Reinhold von Becker, stirred in Lonnrot an interest in folk poetry. Thus inspired, Lonnrot set out, shortly after receiving his initial degree in 1828, on his first of many expeditions to collect material. He became a physician in 1832, but his true life's work had already begun.

Folklore and Medicine

Lonnrot rapidly became immersed in Finland's rich oral tradition, publishing his first collection of folk poetry before he graduated from medical school. The four booklets, collectively called Kantele, were released from 1829 to 1831. A fifth was never published, although the manuscript was completed. In 1831, Lonnrot was also one of the founding members, and inaugural secretary, of the Finnish Literature Society. That same year Lonnrot attempted another gathering mission, but a cholera epidemic in Helsinki cut the trip short. (Although he did not yet have his M.D., he did hold a master's degree in medicine as of 1830, thus enabling him to assist in such medical emergencies).

After graduating from medical school in 1832, Lonnrot was hired as an assistant district medical officer in Oulu. The following year, he took a job as a district medical officer in the rural area of Kajaani, near Russian Karelia. Kajaani was to be his home base for the next 20 years. Part of what suited Lonnrot in both his roles as country doctor and gatherer of folk tales was his social background and innate understanding of the lives of ordinary people. In his beginning years as a doctor, he also saw sufficient suffering from such natural horrors as famine and typhoid to bolster that instinctive empathy.

Lonnrot was not all about work, however, he was also in favor of a bit of fun. He did not marry until he was 47and his wife, Maria Piponius, was over 20 years his junior. He was fond of playing cards, sometimes augmenting his travel budget with his winnings, and was even known to gleefully overindulge in drink from time to time. He stopped imbibing in his later years, and even founded Finland's first temperance society, the not very popular "Clearheads Club," but those days were still ahead. Until his late middle years, Lonnrot was apparently something of a jolly rake.

The Kalevala

From his base in Kajaani, Lonnrot continued his folklore research in earnest. He built upon his original field trip in 1828 and the interrupted one in 1831 to go on nine more expeditions in search of the remnants of ancient Finnish society and culture. Those remnants were found in the sung poetry, or "runo," tradition that was still in force in the outposts of the country. Lonnrot traveled the borderlands of Finland and Russia from Estonia to Lapland to Russian Karelia, and beyond, in his quest. He recorded lyrics, charms, fables, riddles, proverbs, along with the poetry. His fourth trip, in September of 1833, was especially notable because it was the one during which it occurred to him to compile an epic from his collection. The idea of the Kalevala was thus born.

Lonnrot's journeys were somewhat epic in themselves, given the transportation and travel conditions of his day. Roads were few and poorly maintained, so boats and feet were the favored transportation modes. In the winter, sleds were preferred. The website Lonnrot and Kainuu's "Travel in Lonnrot's Time" quoted Lonnrot on his favorable view of winter travel. "If one is interested in undertaking such a trip, I recommend he do it in winter. He will have an easier time getting all of his baggage where he is headed because he can have his own horse and sledge (toboggan). In addition, at that time of year he is more likely to find people at home and less occupied in their work." Water travel had its own hazards, and the same website offered some of Lonnrot's thoughts on that subject. "There are pilots for the most dangerous rapids, who live along them and are bound for a fee to steer a boat through and, if a mishap should occur, to compensate the traveller (sic). One can tell from the expression on these helmsmen how important this undertaking is." Perhaps because of his proclivities at the time, Lonnrot went on to note, "When one has made it safely and successfully, it is customary to have a drink. Some rapids have such a reputation that more than one drink is in order." In short, his research was often hard–won.

Lonnrot's fifth excursion, in April of 1834, was significant in that he met one of his most fertile sources, the great bard Arhippa Perttunen. The trip produced more poems than the four previous trips combined, and prompted Lonnrot to take a leave of absence from his physician's duties upon his return in order to work the Kalevala's manuscript. The Kalevala was a merger of ancient folklore and Lonnrot's efforts. Simply put, Lonnrot compiled the epic by arranging the material he had collected into one cohesive poem. He chose the best versions of each tale, inserted the necessary connective passages and overall timeframe, and transformed local dialect into a hybrid that became literary Finnish. Along the way, he edited characters and the story for flow and consistency. The result was a sweeping saga of the mythical people of Kaleva, full of magic and drama, and incorporating such heroic characters as the shaman Vainamoinen, the blacksmith Ilmarinen, and the warrior Lemminkainen. The first edition, now called the Old Kalevala, was completed on February 28, 1835. From that time forward, February 28 has been celebrated in Finland as Kalevala Day, the birthday of Finnish culture.

Lonnrot completed an expanded version of his historic epic, called the New Kalevala, in 1849, and the story began to resonate around the world. In Finland, of course, the tale was regarded as the cornerstone of Finnish culture because it marked the onset of Finnish as a literary language. But it went on to influence artists far beyond its time and place. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow borrowed its rhyming meter for his Song of Hiawatha, for instance. Many also saw parallels between the Kalevala and J.R.R. Tokien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Closer to home, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius based such works as Kullervo (1892) on Lonnrot's epic, both establishing the musician's international reputation and helping to shape a Finnish musical identity as well. Even over a century after its publication, the Kalevala held sway over artists in mediums from jazz music to heavy metal, and popular culture such as comic books. By January of 2005, the chronicle had been translated into 51 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Swahili, and Yiddish. Lonnrot clearly had made his mark with the Kalevala, but his contributions did not end there.

Shown to Be Multi – Talented

In 1840, Lonnrot published a companion to the first edition of his epic. It was a collection of lyric poems and ballads called the Kanteletar, and became one of his other seminal works. Among his further writings on folklore were Proverbs of the Finnish People (1842) and Riddles of the Finnish People (1844). However, Lonnrot was not limited to the subject that had made him famous.

Lonnrot was a prolific journalist who submitted articles to 11 different newspapers and magazines, including Helsingfors Morgonblad, edited by his old schoolmate, Runeberg. He also founded the first Finnish language magazine, the Bee, in 1836. Another major project was a Swedish–Finnish–German dictionary (1847), which he followed up with a Finnish–Swedish dictionary that remained the standard through the beginning of the 21st century. Further, Lonnrot published one of the first short stories in Finnish literature, the Tale of Vorna, and coined many new Finnish words, including those for literature, grammatical ending, and chapter.

As Lonnrot was a practicing physician, it is not surprising that he also contributed to the world of science. His publications in that field included the Finnish Peasant's Home Doctor (1839), Advice to the People in Ostrobothnia on Rearing and Feeding Children (1844), and a book on botany called Flora Fennica—Suomen Kasvio (1862). Moreover, Lonnrot was a talented musician, and was adept at writing psalms.

In 1853, another dimension was added to Lonnrot's battery of skills when he was appointed professor and chair of Finnish language and literature at the University of Helsinki. He relocated to the Finnish capital and remained at the university until his retirement in 1862. He then moved to Sammatti, where he had been born, and continued to keep himself busy with such endeavors as a book of Finnish magical poems that was published in 1880. After a long and productive life that left a deep and lasting imprint on Finnish culture and identity, Lonnrot died in Sammatti on March 19, 1884. The first statue in his honor, by Emil Wickstrom, was unveiled in Helsinki in 1902. And Kalevala Day marches on.


Scandinavian Studies, Fall 2004.

UNESCO Courier, August 1985.


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"Lonnrot, Elias." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Lönnrot, Elias

Elias Lönnrot (ĕlē´äs lön´rōōt), 1802–84, Finnish philologist, compiler of the Kalevala. Although he was trained as a physician, he spent his life, after 1828, traveling through Finland, Lapland, and NW Russia, collecting fragments of the Kalevala from the rune singers. Of these he published in 1835 about 12,000 lines. A second edition of nearly 23,000 lines appeared in 1849. To Lönnrot must go the credit of creating a national epic from the scattered fragments sung or recited.

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"Lönnrot, Elias." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 21 Aug. 2017 <>.

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