The Kalevala

The first edition of the Kalevala came out in 1835. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from folk poetry recorded into notebooks during his collection trips among poetry singers in 1828–1834. At the time of publication of the Kalevala, Finland was an autonomous grand duchy, and before that, until 1809, Finland was part of the Swedish Kingdom. Especially for Finnish intellectuals, the Kalevala became a symbol of the Finnish past, Finnishness, the Finnish language and Finnish culture, a foundation on which they started to build the fragile Finnish identity. It also aroused much interest abroad, and brought a small, unknown people to the awareness of other Europeans.

The effect of the Kalevala on Finnish culture, arts and sciences has been significant. It has left its mark on the fine arts, literature, theatre, dance and music. It lives on in popular culture, films, comics, games and commercials. During different periods, the Kalevala has been significant in different ways, and has given birth to different, strong interpretations. There is no one way to interpret the Kalevala.

Lönnrot’s Collection Trips

Lönnrot made five poetry collection trips in 1828–1834. In 1835, after the first edition of the Kalevala was published, he carried out five more trips. His journeys were mainly to Savonia, Karelia and Lapland. In Viena, he visited Uhtua and Vuokkiniemi, but also traveled to distant Kola, Archangelsk and Olonets Karelia. His eleventh and final collection trip was to Estonia, in 1844–1845.

Lönnrot Compiled Five Different Kalevalas

Proto-Kalevala (Sikermä-Kalevala)
What has later been dubbed the Proto-Kalevala came out in 1833, and included three short poetic works:
– Lemminkäinen, 825 verses
– Väinämöinen, 1867 verses
– Wedding verses, 499 verses

Collected Songs about Väinämöinen (Runokokous Väinämöisestä)
Collected Songs about Väinämöinen, later dubbed the Pre-Kalevala, came out in 1833. This work combined the earlier three collections and continued the story, with a total length of 5042 verses.

The Old Kalevala
The first edition of the Kalevala came out in 1835. Lönnrot dubbed the work the Kalewala or Old Karelian Poems from the Ancient Days of the Finnish People (Kalewala taikka Wanhoja Karjalan Runoja Suomen kansan muinosista ajoista), and signed it in Kajaani, on 28 February 1835. This work, later called the Old Kalevala, contained 32 poems and 12 078 verses. This edition had a print run of 500. It was admired, there was much discussion and many wrote about it, but it was not widely read outside a narrow circle of intellectuals: the small print run lasted for ten years. However, it was not insignificant: the Finnish people had received what was considered at that time to be the most valuable treasure possible, an ancient epic reflecting their national, mythic history. Word of the epic spread around the world. In 1841, M. A. Castrén translated it into Swedish, and it was translated into prose French in 1845.

The New Kalevala
After the first edition of the Kalevala, Lönnrot collected a further 130 000 verses of poetry. Based on these, and the Old Kalevala, he set about compiling a new, more extensive work. The second edition of the Kalevala, which is now known as the New Kalevala, came out in 1849. It was even more a creation of Lönnrot than the first Kalevala. This edition contained 50 poems and 22 795 verses. The New Kalevala is the same work that Finns have since then read in school and also the basis for the great majority of the approximately 60 translations of the Kalevala.

The School Kalevala
After the New Kalevala, Lönnrot made one final pass at the epic, publishing the School Kalevala in 1862. In this work, Lönnrot reduced the 22 795 verses of the Kalevala into an abridged version with 9 732 verses.

The Kalevala is an Epic “Sung” by Lönnrot

Elias Lönnrot has been referred to as the compiler of an ancient, once fragmented epic, as a diligent collector of folk poetry, as a scribe and as a creative poet. In reality, the Kalevala was precisely Lönnrot’s work, a work of art. Lönnrot’s creative work was based on the view that only verses that had come from folk singers were valuable. Therefore, he avoided making up verses, instead combining verses and groups of verses from different singers in a way that maintained a genuine connection with the tradition of sung folk poetry.

In this way, the Kalevala can be seen as an epic “sung” by Lönnrot. Lauri Honko, who in the manner of Lönnrot recorded and studied Indian oral epics, has stated: “Let us allow Lönnrot to freely sing his great story, drawing on material from tradition, in exactly the same manner as folk singers and creators of folk epics have done ever since the days of Homer.”

Kalevala Day

Kalevala Day is celebrated on 28 February, as that was the day that Elias Lönnrot signed the preface of the Old Kalevala, on 28 February 1835. Kalevala Day was celebrated for the first time in 1865 by the students of the Savonian-Karelian Nation of the Imperial Alexander University, i.e. the current University of Helsinki. It has been an unofficial flag day from 1950 onward, and was in 1978 recognised as an official flag day. At the same time, it was confirmed by Government Decree as the day of Finnish culture.