VÄINÄMÖINEN is the protagonist of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and an important figure in ten ancient Finnish poems in Kalevala meter. He is the inventor of the kantele (the ancient psaltery used to accompany the chanting of the Kalevala epics), an expert singer, and a master musician. Väinämöinen has taken part in the primeval acts of creation; were he to be killed, joy and song would depart this earth.
Väinämöinen's name is derived from the word väinä, meaning a strait or a wide, slowly flowing river. The derivation seems to indicate that Väinämöinen was originally associated with water, but scholars are not in agreement about this or any other explanation of the hero's original character. He often goes by the epithet "the old one," and he is repeatedly characterized as "the everlasting wise man."
The images of Väinämöinen that occur in folk poetry can be grouped into four basic types: (1) creator of the primeval sea, (2) culture hero, (3) shaman hero, and (4) sea hero and suitor.
As creator of the primeval sea, Väinämöinen shapes the seabed by creating holes and shoals in it. Once his work is done, a bird—an eagle, a scaup duck, or a goose—makes a nest on his knee and lays an egg (in some versions, eggs). When Väinämöinen shifts his knee the egg breaks, and the pieces become the various elements of the world:
What was the egg's upper shell
became the heavens above
what was the egg's lower shell
became mother earth below
what was the white of the egg
became the moon in the sky
what was the yolk of the egg
the sun in the sky
what on the egg was mottled
became the stars in heaven
what on the egg was blackish
became the clouds in the sky.
(Bosley trans., in Kuusi et al., 1977)
Väinämöinen then joins his brother Ilmarinen in the upper aerial regions to strike a spark that falls through the nine heavens to Lake Alue. Väinämöinen's association with celestial bodies is reflected in the old Finnish names for Orion and the Pleiades, which mean "Väinämöinen's scythe" and "Väinämöinen's birchbark shoes," respectively.
As culture hero, Väinämöinen builds the primeval boat, which one day strikes a great pike from whose bones he makes the first kantele, which he uses to enchant the world. In Ingria (the region between Estland and Lake Ladoga) various goods are made from the great oak felled at Väinämöinen's command. In some regions Väinämöinen was believed to be the first cultivator of flax and hemp as well as the inventor of the fishnet. He is also credited with concocting various ointments and curing diseases and with the ability to stop the flow of his own blood. Like most culture heroes, Väinämöinen departed from the world, in his case in an iron-bottomed boat, once humanity had reached a certain level of development, and is prophesied to return in the future.
As shaman hero, Väinämöinen uses his singing to charm the young Saami (Lapp) Joukahainen, a rival shaman, into a swamp, where he abandons him by revoking his magical song. Other shamanistic motifs include Väinämöinen's crossing a river to visit Tuonela (the land of the dead) and returning as a snake, and his obtaining knowledge from Antero Vipunen, a dead wise man. Väinämöinen also resorts to shamanistic power in his quest for the sampo, a support of the world. A belt worn by Finnish shamans up to the nineteenth century, from which magic objects were hung and which was used as an aid in incantation, was known as "the belt of old Väinämöinen."
As sea hero and suitor, Väinämöinen appears in those parts of the extensive Sampo epic cycle concerning his theft of the sampo and the contest among heroes for the mistress of Pohjola ("homestead of the north"). In one episode a Saami shoots Väinämöinen, who falls into the sea and drifts until he is rescued by the mistress of Pohjola. At other times he engages in a dispute with Ilmarinen's sister Anni or makes an unsuccessful attempt to capture a mermaid. Finally, he orders the killing of a fatherless half-month-old boy in a marsh. When the baby suddenly begins to speak, deprecating the old man, Väinämöinen is compelled to rescind his order. In Elias Lönnrot's redaction, this final scene of the Kalevala is intended to be an allegory for the retreat of paganism and the rise of Christianity.
The tradition of poem-cycles and miniature epics with Väinämöinen as chief protagonist began in the distant past. The oldest stratum of this tradition represents Väinämöinen as an epic or cosmological figure. The newer stratum depreciates his role, or even satirizes him. The two strata tended to mix during the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries; Lönnrot brought this process to its logical conclusion when he compiled and edited the Kalevala. At the same time, he strengthened Väinämöinen's central position by casting him in roles originally occupied by other characters. He also divested him of mythological features and endowed him with human, though manifestly heroic, traits.
Haavio, Martti. Väinämöinen, Eternal Sage. Translated by Helen Goldthwaite-Väänänen. Folklore Fellows Communications, no. 144. Helsinki, 1952. An essay in which the shamanistic traits in the poems on Väinämöinen are emphasized.
Krohn, Kaarle. Kalevalastudien, vol. 5, Väinämöinen. Folklore Fellows Communications, no. 75. Helsinki, 1928.
Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch, eds. and trans. Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic; An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki, 1977.
Matti Kuusi (1987)