The Singers

The connection between the poems of the Kalevala and reality was established through the singers whom Lönnrot had met and interviewed on his journeys, and whose songs he actually used for his book.

Although Lönnrot listened to scores of singers during his travels, there are 70 individuals that he met who have later been later identified. He characterised and made notes about 48 singers in his travel diaries and letters, and he mentions 13 of his singers by name. Most of the singers he met and interviewed were men, but he also encountered some outstanding female singers, whose voices can mainly be heard in the Kanteletar, a collection of lyrical songs.

Lönnrot crafted many fascinating observations of the singers he met. In the preface to the Kalevala (1849), he divides the singers into two types: those who remember and memorize the songs they have heard and learnt in childhood, and those who have learnt the songs later, in adulthood, but who remember the themes and lend variation to the songs in a creative way. When he was shaping the Kalevala, Lönnrot also came to see himself as a singer, a colleague of the singers he had worked with; thus, he would fall into the latter category. But thanks to the will of the singers who cherished the songs of their elders, poems survived from generation to generation.

The following paragraphs will briefly introduce some of the singers Lönnrot met personally and who were especially important in making the Kalevala. Lönnrot became acquainted with these singers in the midst of their everyday toil: fishing and hunting, working in the fields, logging, weaving and knitting, tending children. He occasionally felt the need to pay his singers, enabling them to take time away from their work to sing for him.

Juhana Kainulainen

Lönnrot met Juhana Kainulainen in 1828, on his first collecting trip in Kesälahti, Finnish North Karelia. Thanks to his detailed travel diary, we know a great deal about their acquaintanceship and collaboration. At the time, Kainulainen was 40 years old, an active man in his prime. He was, above all, a specialist of charms: healing charms; and charms for hunting the bear and the deer, the fox and the hare, birds and squirrels. These remarkable hunting charms appeal to the forest spirits, which are numerous, both Christian saints and spirits from the ethnic religion. In his travelogue, Lönnrot makes it clear that Kainulainen was an ‘enlightened’ man and a church board member, who nevertheless considered his charms a ‘holy inheritance’ from his father, a man once famed as an expert hunter. Kainulainen also sang about Lemminkäinen, thus furnishing Lönnrot with the basic scheme for the Lemminkäinen poems in the Kalevala. His repertoire included wedding songs as well as lyrical songs from a male perspective. In addition to Kainulainen’s manly style, Lönnrot plainly appreciated his ability to memorize and preserve the charms and poems he had learnt from his father. Lönnrot thoroughly enjoyed living in Kainulainen’s house. Lönnrot’s gratitude to the whole family for their kindness and concern for his welfare is apparent in his travel report.

Ontrei Malinen

In 1833, in the village of Vuonninen, Archangel Karelia, Lönnrot came to know another able singer. His name was Ontrei Malinen; he was just over 50 years old. Even though he performed only seven or eight poems for Lönnrot, all of them represented the later essential themes of the Kalevala, and moreover, they were clear and aesthetically pleasing poems. His 365-line song about the Sampo amounts to a miniature epic with the following plot: Väinämöinen is shot and he falls into the sea. When he is moving in the sea, the cosmos takes shape: the earth and the sky are formed, islets in the sea, the sun and the moon, and the stars. Väinämöinen ends up in Pohjola, and in order to get back home, he promises that Ilmarinen will come and make the Sampo. The Sampo is then stolen from Pohjola, and the mistress of Pohjola and her men pursue the robbers. A battle at sea ensues, but Väinämöinen defeats her and her people. His last words promise abundant crops and the beginning of agriculture. Three myths of origin are present in this poem: the origin of the world, the origin of the Sampo, and the origin of agriculture, thus emphasizing Väinämöinen’s role as a culture hero. Väinämöinen clearly emerges as Malinen’s chief hero and the main figure; and so he is in Lönnrot’s Kalevala.

Malinen was renowned for being a great wise man and sage. According to the testimony of another singer, Malinen’s magic was so powerful that he could sing ‘the teeth out of a bear’s mouth – and then put them back again’.

According to Lönnrot’s writings, Malinen was an accomplished kantele player. Lönnrot was also something of a musician, for he played the flute and the kantele, but he could not write down music from the singers. Nonetheless, his own musicality informed his appreciation of the poetry, making him understand that the vitality of the folk poems arose from the inextricable bond between words and melody.

Vaassila Kieleväinen

Lönnrot also interviewed Vaassila Kieleväinen, another inhabitant of Vuonninen, when Malinen had to go fishing. Kieleväinen had been renowned as one of the most powerful wise men in Archangel Karelia, but when Lönnrot met him, he was no longer at the height of his powers.

The most significant outcome of their encounter turned out to be an extensive poem about Väinämöinen. Kieleväinen was a poor singer, whose performance did not flow; in fact, he sometimes had to narrate in speech instead of singing. For Lönnrot, however, what really mattered was capturing the order of events in Kieleväinen’s performance. There was logic in the way the poems were linked up to each other – for example, Väinämöinen chasing the ‘woman of the water’, Väinämöinen in the sea creating the islands and islets, making the golden maiden, Ilmarinen forging the Sampo, followed by wooing at Pohjola, and the wedding thereafter, Ilmarinen’s homecoming after the wedding and, finally, Kullervo’s revenge on Ilmarinen’s wife.

Now Lönnrot had a rough idea of how the poems about Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Kullervo could be combined.

Arhippa Perttunen

In April of 1834, Lönnrot met the greatest of singers, Arhippa Perttunen, of Latvajärvi, Archangel Karelia. Within just a matter of days, Perttunen sang to him long poems in their entirety in a coherent order – over 4,000 lines in total. Arhippa Perttunen was close to 70 years old. He also provided his careful listener with a charming childhood memory: he had gone fishing with his father and with another man.

Sitting by the campfire in the evening, the young boy listened to the men talking and singing. They sang through the night,and ‘not once with the same words’. In Arhippa’s view, the songs and the singers deteriorated since his childhood days. According to his values, the poems needed to be long and slow, and they had to be chaste. His long and beautiful epic songs told about Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen, the Sampo, building the pike-bone kantele and Väinämöinen’s skilful playing. He sang about finding the missing words from Vipunen’s stomach. He sang about Lemminkäinen’s death, and about Tuiretuinen and his sister (this poem was made part of Kullervo’s story in the Kalevala ). The Song of Mary performed by interpretation of the birth of Christ – and Lönnrot used parts of it for the final poem of the Kalevala.

Perttunen’s poems were metrically almost flawless, and he had a solid command of the poetic language of formulas and parallelism. Lönnrot obtained so much poetic material from him that he could now expand his sketch into a poetic work. In less than year after listening to Arhippa Perttunen, Lönnrot’s first Kalevala was completed.

Prior to the Kalevala ’s publication, Lönnrot paid little attention to women’s songs. Their time came later. Nonetheless, Lönnrot did meet with a number of competent female singers; for instance, he appreciated the artistry of Arhippa Perttunen’s sister, Moarie, and a famous performer of lyrical songs, Mateli Kuivalatar, in Ilomantsi, Finnish Karelia. Moarie’s song about a girl who hangs herself and about her mother’s sorrow found its place in the Kalevala, in the Aino-poem.