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LEMMINKÄINEN is one of the heroes of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Elias Lönnrot, who published his redaction of the Kalevala in 1835, composed those sections concerning the adventures of Lemminkäinen by combining elements from the stories of five other heroes, a process already begun by the traditional rune singers on whose songs his work was largely based. Lemminkäinen thus came to play such diverse roles as Don Juan, belligerent adventurer, skier, sailor, and witch.

The only poem incorporated into the Kalevala having Lemminkäinen as its original hero describes his journey as an uninvited guest to a place variously named Luotola ("homestead of the archipelago"), Pohjola ("homestead of the north"), or Päivölä ("homestead of the sun"). There he overcomes various supernatural obstacles: the fiery grave, the rapids, the fence coiled with snakes (or one giant serpent), and the fettered beasts that guard the yard. His host there serves him a flagon of beer with snakes hidden beneath the foam, which he nevertheless drinks. After this he kills his host in a battle of magical skills.

The description of Lemminkäinen's journey has features in common with medieval vision poetry and the visionary journeys described by arctic shamans. It also finds close parallels in the oral traditions of the Saami (Lapps) and others, which include poems about battles of magic between shamans of different communities.

A few of the three hundred variants of the Lemminkäinen poem contain a sequel that has attracted the attention of many scholars of mythology and religion. In one of its episodes a herdsman shoots (or, in some versions, stabs) Lemminkäinen with the only weapon against which he has taken no magical precautions and throws him into the black river of Tuonela (the realm of death). As Lemminkäinen dies, his mother notices that a brush has begun oozing blood, fulfilling Lemminkäinen's prophesy of his own death. Taking this as a sign that her son is in danger, she sets out in search of him. She rakes parts of his body out of the river, but, according to most versions, does not succeed in restoring him to life.

Scholars have noted the similarity of this story to the ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris, as well as to the religious legends concerning the death of Christ and Balder. The poem contains clear influences from the Russian bylina Vavilo i skomorokhi, a poem through which it is believed motifs from the Osiris myth were conveyed from Byzantium to northern Europe.

A Christian poet-singer has reshaped the poem, adding to it, among other things, a passage describing Lemminkäinen's power to cure the blind and the crippled. At the end of the poem, Lemminkäinen delivers a homily on the horrors that await the wrongdoer in the world beyond.

See Also

Finnish Religions; Ilmarinen; Tuonela; Väinämöinen.


Krohn, Kaarle. "Lemminkäinens Tod 'Christi' Balders Tod." Finnisch-ugrische Forschungen 5 (19051906): 83138. Includes a German translation of the last portion of the poem.

Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch, eds. and trans. Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic; An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki, 1977. Pages 205223 and 538540 contain three extensive variants with translations and comments in English.

Matti Kuusi (1987)

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