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.
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.
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"Lonnrot, Elias." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias
"Lonnrot, Elias." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias
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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.
"Lönnrot, Elias." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias
"Lönnrot, Elias." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias
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LÖNNROT, ELIAS (1802–1884), Finnish folklorist and philologist, the compiler of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Lönnrot was born in the parish of Sammatti, province of Uusimaa, Finland, as a son of a tailor. In a childhood full of poverty, his schooling was difficult and often interrupted. In 1822 he became a student at the University of Turku, where he supported himself as a private tutor. He received his M.A. degree at Turku in 1827 with his thesis "On Väinämöinen, a Divinity of the Ancient Finns." After the university was destroyed in the fire of Turku, Lönnrot undertook a folklore collecting trip across Finland as far as Finnish Karelia. Part of the material he collected was published under the title Kantele (The harp, 1829–1831).
In 1828, Lönnrot resumed his studies, this time in medicine at Helsinki University. There he came into close contact with a number of young literati who were filled with the national spirit. In 1831, the Finnish Literature Society was founded to further the development of Finnish culture and to collect and study folklore. Lönnrot became its first secretary. This society financed Lönnrot's numerous folklore collection trips. After defending his thesis, "The Magical Medicine of the Finns," he received the M.D. degree in 1832 and was assigned as the district physician in Kajaani, northern Finland.
Lönnrot then got the idea of combining the folk songs of Finland into bigger units. Thus came about the cycles of songs about the major Finnish heroes that constitute the first stage of the Finnish epic. A journey during which he met the greatest folk singers of Karelia yielded a rich harvest that was incorporated into the first version of the Kalevala, the so-called Old Kalevala (1835–1836), which consisted of thirty-six songs comprising 12,078 lines. From extensive additional folk song material, recorded partly by Lönnrot himself but mostly by others in eastern Karelia and eastern Finland, Lönnrot prepared a greatly expanded and changed version of the Kalevala. Published in 1849, it has 22,795 lines and is divided into fifty songs. It is this so-called New Kalevala that is considered the Finnish epic.
In the 1830s, Lönnrot published a few popular books on food substitutes and health care and edited some journals. He compiled a large collection of lyrical songs and ballads, titled Kanteletar (The spirit of the harp; 1840–1841), which was followed by books of proverbs (1842) and riddles (1844). In 1844 he was granted a leave for five years for the preparation of a comprehensive Finnish-Swedish dictionary.
After defending his inaugural thesis on the Vepse language, Lönnrot was named professor of the Finnish language and literature at Helsinki University in 1853. In this capacity, he had greater significance as a practical linguist than a theoretical scholar. He retired in 1862 and settled down in his native parish of Sammatti, to continue his work. He revised Finnish hymns, completed the Finnish-Swedish dictionary (1866–1880), and published a collection of Finnish charms (1880). His last years were spent in conducting religious services in his community, treating people without charge, and participating actively in numerous charitable enterprises.
The Kalevala is not only Lönnrot's greatest accomplishment; it is the most important work in Finnish literature. It is, in its entirety, Lönnrot's compilation, based on the best and most complete variants of about thirty folk songs. Lönnrot made certain changes and modifications in them, adding verses from other variants and even from other songs, increasing the parallelism, and creating linking verses. He had a tendency to reduce the Christian and legendary features while strengthening the heathen and the historical-realistic elements. The songs are, however, not copies of reality, but instead they convey a fictional picture of the ancient Finns' way of life. While the Kalevala itself cannot be used as material for folklore study, its heroes and problems have strongly stimulated research into Finnish folklore and mythology.
The Kalevala has been called a shamanistic epic, since its great deeds are accomplished by magical means—by the power of words and incantations. All the heroes of the Kaleva group—Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen—are mythic and/or shamanistic figures and, as a group, are opposed to the people of the North, headed by the witch Louhi. The plot, created by Lönnrot, centers on fights over the possession of a fertility-promoting object, the Sampo, and competition for the Maiden of the North.
The Kalevala, according to Martti Haavio, was not only "the symbol of Finnish nationalism, but it was actually its crown symbol." The Kalevala gave faith and confidence to the people living under Russian rule. It influenced the development of the Finnish language, literature, and arts, and it played a substantial role in the adoption of Finnish as the language of the country.
Anttila, Aarne. Elias Lönnrot: Elämä ja toiminta. 2 vols. Helsinki, 1931–1935. A detailed and very broad survey of Lönnrot's life and work, presented against the background of his time. An excellent work.
Anttila, Aarne. Elias Lönnrot. 2d ed. Helsinki, 1962. An abbreviated version of the preceding work.
Fromm, Hans. "Elias Lönnrot als Schöpfer des finnischen Epos Kalevala." In Volksepen der uralischen und altaischen Völker, edited by Wolfgang Veenker, pp. 1–12. Wiesbaden, 1968. A survey of Lönnrot's work on the compilation of Kalevala.
Haavio, Martti. "Elias Lönnrot." In Leading Folklorists of the North, edited by Dag Strömbäck, pp. 1–10. Oslo, 1971. A splendid essay about Lönnrot.
Honko, Lauri."The Kalevala and Myths." Nordisk Institut for Folkedigtning Newsletter (Turku, Finland) 12 (1984): 1–11. Discusses the interpretations of the Kalevala and the authenticity of the epic.
Magoun, Francis P., Jr. "Materials for the Study of the Kalevala." In The Kalevala, or Poems of the Kaleva District, compiled by Elias Lönnrot; prose translation with foreword and appendixes by Francis Magoun, Jr., pp. 341–361. Cambridge, Mass., 1963. A concise biography of Lönnrot and discussion of his work on the Kalevala.
Wargelin Brown, K. Marianne. "Kalevala as Western Culture in Finland and America." In Finnish Americana 7 (1986): 5–12.
Felix J. Oinas (1987)
"Lönnrot, Elias." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias
"Lönnrot, Elias." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/lonnrot-elias