Finnish Mythology in Context
Finnish mythology, like that of many other cultures, tells the stories of gods and legendary heroes . Most of the myths date from pre-Christian times and were passed from generation to generation by storytellers. A work called the Kalevala (pronounced kah-luh-VAH-luh), which the Finnish people consider their national epic, contains many of the legends. Compiled by Finnish scholar Elias Lönnrot in the early 1800s, the Kalevala is based on traditional poems and songs that Lönnrot collected over a long period of time.
The myths of the Kalevala reflect several unique aspects of Finnish culture. First, they suggest a long-standing conflict with a neighboring cultural group, referred to in the epic as Pohjola. Second, the tales of the Kalevala focus on characters who exhibit many human characteristics, as opposed to just the heroic ideals of so many other mythologies. The stories also emphasize violence and the search for love. This seems to suggest a lack of cultural unity among early groups, with the stories of the Kalevala perhaps documenting real conflicts between groups and even building on actual events of the ancient past. The doomed search for love may reflect the uneasy relationship between cultural groups, with individuals attempting to marry outside their group but finding themselves blocked by conflicts between groups.
Core Deities and Characters
The word Kakvala, which means “land of the descendants of Kaleva,” is an imaginary region associated with Finland. The epic's fifty poems or songs—also known as cantos or runes—recount the stories of various legendary heroes and of gods and goddesses and describe mythical events such as the creation of the world.
Vainamoinen (pronounced vye-nuh-MOY-nen), one of the heroes in the Kakvala, is a wise old seer who can see the future and work magic through the songs that he sings. His mother is Ilmatar (pronounced EEL-mah-tar), the virgin spirit of air, who brought about creation. Another great hero of the epic, Lemminkainen (pronounced LEM-in-kye-nen), appears as a handsome, carefree, and romantic adventurer.
Vainamoinen and Lemminkainen have certain experiences and goals in common. In their adventures, both men meet Louhi (pronounced LOH-hee), the evil mistress of Pohjola (the Northland), and both of them seek to wed Louhi's daughter, the beautiful Maiden of Pohjola. A third suitor for the maiden's hand, Ilmarinen (EEL-mah-ree-nen), is a blacksmith who constructs a sampo, a mysterious object like a mill that can produce prosperity for its owner.
A number of other figures become involved with these leading characters. Kuura, another hero, joins Lemminkainen on his journey to Pohjola. Joukahainen (pronounced YOH-kuh-hye-nen), an evil youth, challenges Vainamoinen to a singing contest. His sister Aino (pronounced EYE-noh), who is offered in marriage to Vainamoinen, drowns herself rather than wed the aged hero. Another character, Kullervo (pronounced KOO-ler-vaw), commits suicide after unknowingly raping his own sister. Marjatta (pronounced MAR-yah-tah), the last major character introduced in the Kakvala, is a virgin who gives birth to a king.
The Kakvala begins with the story of Ilmatar, who descends from the heavens to the sea, where she is tossed about for seven hundred years. During that time, a seabird lays eggs on her knee. When Ilmatar moves, the eggs break, and the pieces form the physical world and the sun and the moon. She then has a son, Vainamoinen, who begins life as a wise old man.
Soon after Vainamoinen's birth, the evil Joukahainen challenges him to a singing contest after hearing that the hero is noted for his magic songs. Vainamoinen accepts the challenge and wins the contest, causing Joukahainen to sink into a swamp. Fearing that he will drown, Joukahainen offers Vainamoinen his sister Aino in exchange for his rescue.
Vainamoinen plans to marry Aino, and her parents encourage the match. But she refuses to wed the old man. When her mother tries to persuade her to change her mind, Aino goes to the sea and drowns herself. Vainamoinen follows the girl and finds her in the form of a fish. He catches the fish, but she slips back into the water and escapes.
Unhappy that he has lost Aino, Vainamoinen sets off for Pohjola, the Northland, in search of another wife. Along the way Joukahainen, still bitter over losing the singing contest, shoots at the hero but only hits his horse. Vainamoinen falls into the sea and escapes. He finally arrives at Pohjola, where the evil Louhi promises him her daughter, the Maiden of Pohjola, if he will build a magic sampo for her. Unable to do this by himself, Vainamoinen seeks help from Ilmar-inen, the blacksmith. However, after Ilmarinen completes the sampo, Louhi gives her daughter to him instead of to Vainamoinen.
The Adventures of Lemminkainen The next section of the Kalevala recounts the adventures of the hero Lemminkainen, who marries Kyllikki (pronounced KYOO-luh-kee), a woman from the island of Saari. But she is unfaithful to him, and he leaves her and goes to Pohjola to find a new wife. When he reaches his destination, Louhi promises him her daughter if he can complete several tasks. While Lemminkainen is working on the last task, he is killed by a blind cattle herder whom he has insulted. The herder cuts the hero's body into many pieces, but Lemminkainen's mother manages to collect the pieces and restore him to life with magic spells. Meanwhile, Louhi gives her daughter to Ilmarinen as a bride. Angry at not being invited to the wedding, Lemminkainen storms Louhi's castle, kills her husband, and then returns home. Discovering that his house has been burned by raiders from Pohjola, Lemminkainen returns there with his companion Kuura. They try to destroy the land but are defeated.
Gods and Spirits
Finnish mythology includes many gods and spirits not mentioned in the Kalevala. One of the most important gods was Ukko, the god of thunder, whose rainfall helped nourish crops. The god of the forest was Tapio (pronounced TAH-pee-oh), sometimes depicted as a fierce creature, part human and part tree. Many spirits with very changeable natures also lived in the forest. Hunters used to make offerings to these spirits and avoided making loud noises so as not to anger them.
The Tragedy of Kullervo The Kalevala next tells the tragic tale of Kullervo, who is sent by his family to the home of Ilmarinen and the Maiden of Pohjola. The Maiden takes a strong dislike to the youth, and one day she puts a stone in his bread. In revenge, Kullervo kills the Maiden and flees. After wandering for some time, he finds his family and works for them. On his way home one day, he meets a woman and rapes her. Later he finds out that the woman is his sister. When the sister discovers that she has been raped by her own brother, she throws herself into a river and drowns. Kullervo also kills himself because of what he has done.
Battle for the Sampo In the next section of the epic, the three heroes— Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen—travel together to Pohjola to steal the magic sampo, which has brought great riches to the evil Louhi. They succeed in stealing the mysterious object, but Louhi and her forces pursue them. A great battle takes place, during which the sampo is lost in the sea. Furious at the loss, Louhi tries to destroy Vainamoinen and his land. In the end, however, Vainamoinen emerges victorious.
Major Characters of the Kalevala
Aino: Joukahainen's sister, drowns herself after being offered in marriage to Vainamoinen.
Ilmarinen: blacksmith, makes a magical object called a sampo that brings prosperity to its owner
Ilmatar: virgin spirit of the air and creator goddess.
Joukahainen: evil youth, challenges Vainamoinen to a singing contest.
Kuura: hero, joins Lemminkainen on his journey to Pohjola.
Lemminkainen: hero, handsome adventurer.
Louhi: evil woman and mother of the Maiden of Pohjola.
Maiden of Pohjola: beautiful young woman sought in marriage by Ilmarinen, Lemminkainen, and Vainamoinen.
Vainamoinen: hero, wise old seer who sings magical songs.
A Virgin Birth The last story of the Kalevala deals with the virgin Marjatta and the birth of her son. As the time approaches for the boy to be baptized, Vainamoinen arrives to investigate. He decides that the boy must be put to death, but the boy scolds him severely. Later the boy is baptized and becomes king. An angry Vainamoinen leaves the land. Most of the characters and tales in the Kalevala reflect pre-Christian ideas, but the story of Marjatta and of Vainamoinen's flight suggests a transition from non-Christian to Christian beliefs since it is similar to the virgin birth of Jesus.
Key Themes and Symbols
One recurring theme in the Kalevala is revenge. Joukahainen tries to kill Vainamoinen after losing a singing contest against him. KuUervo kills the Maiden of Pohjola after she puts a stone in his bread. Lemminkainen is killed as an act of revenge by a man he insulted, though he is later brought back to life. Later, Lemminkainen kills Louhi's husband after she fails to invite him to her daughter's wedding. Lemminkainen also seeks revenge against raiders from Pohjola after they burn down his house.
Another recurring theme in the Kalevala is unfortunate romantic entanglement. Vainamoinen wishes to marry Aino, but she refuses because he appears to be an old man; she decides to drown herself rather than marry him. Lemminkainen's first wife, Kyllikki, is unfaithful to him so he leaves her. Three men—Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemmin-kainen—all seek the hand of Louhi's daughter, and Louhi promises her to all of them. In the end, Ilmarinen claims her. And in perhaps the darkest tale, Kullervo rapes a woman who he later discovers is his own sister. Both end up committing suicide.
Finnish Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The Kalevala helped create a national identity for the Finnish people by presenting a common mythology filled with familiar heroes and gods. The work also inspired many literary and artistic works by Finns and others.
Among the most famous individuals to make use of the Kalevala was Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, who wrote a number of symphonies and other musical works based on its characters and tales. Another Finnish composer, Robert Kajanus, also created several pieces of music inspired by the Kalevala, and Finnish artist Akseli Gallén-Kallela painted many works based on its stories. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the rhythmic patterns of the Kalevala as the basis for his poem The Song of Hiawatha. Some of the scenes and events in the poem are modeled after the Finnish work as well.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The Songs of Power: A Finnish Tale of Magic, Retoldfrom the Kalevala by Aaron Shepard (2007) offers a retelling of the Kalevala aimed at young readers. Shepard is the author of several books based on mythological tales from around the world.