Themes and worldview

Although the fraught relationship between the people of Kalevala and Pohjola is a leading theme in the epic, it is connected to the quest for happiness through material well-being (of which the Sampo is the most important symbol), love and justice. Characters seek to achieve these goals through various means. One of them is magic, the power of the word, which has a central role in the Kalevala. Magic leads to success, unlike violence, which regularly spells disaster. A distinguishing feature of the Kalevala is the animate quality of the natural world and its inhabitants: animals and plants speak and act, and so do objects such as boats and swords.



The bear is referred to in the Kalevala about sixty times, and no wonder: in earlier times it was a respected and feared animal. Nowadays it is the national animal of Finland. Stone Age weapons found in Finland and Karelia were decorated with the head of a bear or elk. The bear and the elk may have been totemic animals. The bear figures prominently in numerous Finnish-Karelian folklore genres, such as animal tales and charms; of course, the bruin is the main character in poems depicting the bear ritual.

The bear is the central figure in poem 46. Louhi ‘raises’ the bear by magic means. She sends it to kill the cattle of Kalevala. According to magical thought, it was possible to hurt other people and their belongings by indirect means. In the spring, rites were performed, when the cattle were let out to the forest. Protective charms and prayers were recited and magic procedures were used to keep the cattle unharmed. An example of this ritual can be found in poem 32, when Ilmarinen’s wife sends her cattle to the pasture. Lönnrot took the origin myth of the bear, which used to be one of the poems usually performed in the cattle ritual, and incorporated it into the context of Väinämöinen’s bear hunting feast.

In the Kalevala, the bear hunt takes place in the winter (as it used to), and the hunter wakes up the sleeping bear with his songs.

The arctic bear ritual has also been richly imbued with drama among the Ob-Ugric peoples. In the Kalevala, the dead bear is carried to the house with cherishing words, and poems explaining the origin of the bear are performed. Lönnrot presents here three variations of the myth of origin: the bear was born from the wool thrown into water; it was born in the dark North; the bear was born in heaven, ‘on the shoulders of Otava’ (the constellation of the Great Bear). Singers from Archangel Karelia and Finnish North Karelia sang about how the bear was rocked in a golden cradle in heaven, and lowered down to earth with golden chains. Throughout the bear ritual, participants treated the animal with reverence; in fact, singers disassociated themselves from the killing of the bear, suggesting that others had slain the animal or that the creature had somehow caused its own death. The procedure of returning the bear’s remains back to nature is meticulously described in the Kalevala. Väinämöinen takes the bones ‘on a clean tree, a fir with a hundred sprigs’. This part of the bear hunting rite was performed in order to ensure the bear’s rebirth and more bears in the future.


Death is encountered in the Kalevala in a variety of ways – and mostly with violence: as a suicide (Kullervo, and maybe Aino); murder (Lemminkäinen is killed by Pohjola’s cowherd, the master of Pohjola is killed by Lemminkäinen and the death of Ilmarinen’s wife is instigated by Kullervo); and slaughter (Untamo destroys Kalervo’s household, Kullervo destroys Untamo’s family). The dead will end up in Tuonela, the place of the dead, which is structurally analogous to the world of the living (there are houses, animals and people), but it is cold and dark.


Although numerous families and relationships between family members are poetically portrayed in the Kalevala, mothers – the mother of Aino, the mother of Kullervo and the mother of Lemminkäinen – emerge as the most powerful figures of the families. The Kalevala poems were filtered from the folk poems through nineteenth-century thinking and values. Lönnrot put his imprint on the family relations of the epic, stressing the mother’s importance according to the ideals of the nineteenth-century family. Mothers in the Kalevala try to listen to their children; they console, counsel and caution their children against reckless or destructive behaviour. Hence, their roles have become even more substantial than in the original folk poems. Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola is also a mother. Though her relationship with her daughters receives little attention, she deeply regrets handing her daughter over to Ilmarinen, and refuses to give her other daughter to him.

The relations between fathers and their children in the Kalevala are rather vague and lifeless. While Kullervo’s father unequivocally denounces his son, no mention is made of the father of either Joukahainen or Lemminkäinen. The absence of fathers is further underscored by virgin births: the birth of Väinämöinen, and, in the end, the birth of Marjatta’s son.

Brother and sister relationships end disastrously for both Joukahainen and Kullervo. Joukahainen treats his sister as if she was his property. The fateful encounter between Kullervo and his sister is more like an accident. Annikki, Ilmarinen’s sister, supports and helps her brother.


In contrast to the original epic poetry, Lönnrot incorporated more feeling and passionate emotion into the poems of the Kalevala. He did so by drawing heavily from lyric poetry, the language of emotions. As indicated below, the whole scale of emotions is present:

Envy: Joukahainen envies Väinämöinen for his knowledge and fame; Väinämöinen envies Louhi for the Sampo; Louhi envies Väinämöinen (and the people of Kalevala) for their good life.

Rage: Lemminkäinen’s rage in Pohjola; Kullervo’s rage and revenge.

Anger: Väinämöinen’s anger towards Joukahainen.

Shame: Väinämöinen’s shame in front of Marjatta’s son.

Sorrow: the sorrow of Aino’s mother; the sorrow of Väinämöinen; the sorrow of Ilmarinen; the sorrow and despair of Aino.

Jealousy: the men of Saari, because of Lemminkäinen.

Inspiration: Väinämöinen’s inspiration as a singer and player.

Love: Lemminkäinen’s mother; Kullervo’s mother

Erotic desire: Lemminkäinen, Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, Kullervo, Kullervo’s sister, maidens of Saari, the daughter of Pohjola (the one turned into a seagull).


It is not always easy to identify or even to appreciate all the potential humour to be found in the Kalevala. The reasons are numerous. The epic certainly includes mentions of joy and laughter. What is more, the original folk poetry must have been funny, eliciting laughs when performed by skilled singers. Finding the comic elements was – and remains – the task of the audience. People are amused by different things. The material that is humorous to the present reader may differ from those that entertained Lönnrot and his nineteenth-century readers, not to mention the singers of the folk poems.

One of the humorous elements lies in the hyperbolic treatment of some themes: for example, the exhaustive account of Joukahainen’s defeat under Väinämöinen’s powerful spells, or the over-the-top description of the great ox’s size: ‘For a week a stoat turned round in the space of one tether; for a day a swallow flew between the horns of the ox…’

Humour is present whenever characters either make fools of themselves or are ridiculed by others, especially when the target of ridicule is a figure of power, strength or authority. Väinämöinen, the great man of wisdom, is made a fool of by Aino, a mere girl. Indeed, by the end of the epic, Marjatta’s baby boy makes the wise old sage feel truly small. Present-day readers may chuckle to themselves at the notion of the widowed Ilmarinen making a golden bride for himself. Upon discovering the coldness of his creation, he hands her over to his friend Väinämöinen. Even the lonely old man discards her, calling the golden thing a ‘bugbear’.

Situational humour also features in the Kalevala. Take, for example, the poem about stealing the Sampo from Pohjola. In the end, it is Lemminkäinen’s poor singing – after Väinämöinen has forbidden him to make a sound – that catches the attention of a crane. The sound of the bird’s ‘weird croak’ wakes up the people of Pohjola, who then set off to pursue the robbers. This detail, however, was introduced by Lönnrot in order to flesh out the character of the defiant Lemminkäinen. The folk poems are even more humorous: there an ant, ‘a pismire, wretched fellow’, pisses on the legs of the crane, which then lets out a nasty noise, waking the people of Pohjola. Seemingly inconsequential incidents can set the plot in motion, leading to momentous consequences.


Folk conceptions of illness are articulated most clearly in two Kalevala poems: Väinämöinen visiting Vipunen (poem 17) and Louhi’s revenge by sending illnesses to Kalevala (poem 45). Replete with a variety of charms, these extensive sections reveal ideas about the origin of diseases. There were basically two explanations for disease: Illness was either sent by God, or it was caused by some magic force in the outside world. Human beings were basically powerless to combat diseases sent by God. Diseases originating in the world, however, could be beaten, as long as the original source and its nature could be determined. The evil magic forces could be other people, nature (earth, air, water, forest) and its spirits, or the dead; even holy places, such as village churches (in Orthodox Karelia), could be infectious. According to the folk explanations of illness, some afflictions were possibly caused by offending the spirits. It was the task of the sage or the healer to find out the cause of the disease. When doing this, he had to fortify his own power by boasting. When the origin of the disease had been determined, the disease was verbally banished with powerful images to the place it had come from, for example: ‘I will banish you – to the furthest North, to Lapland’s vastness, to the barren glades, to the unsown lands, where there is no moon, no sun nor daylight for evermore’ (poem 17).

A long narrative charm, ‘The Emergence of Nine Diseases’ forms a segment of poem 45. Lönnrot has taken the blind girl of Tuonela (‘the worst of Tuoni’s daughters, wickedest of death-daughters’) from other contexts, turning her into the one who gives birth to nine nasty diseases (stitch, colic, gout, rickets, boil, scab, cancer, plague and one unnamed). In folk poetry the ‘hag of Pohja’ is the source of diseases.

Väinämöinen, a shaman and a healer, uses charms to fight the diseases Louhi sent to his people. The Ache-girl, who collects the aches and pains and grinds them away with her stone, is a compelling image; indeed, the Ache-girl has an equivalent in Scandinavian mythology. To heal his people, Väinämöinen appeals to God for help, just as healers did with their incantations.


The kantele is an instrument with a varying number of strings (5, 8, 10, 12 etc.), which has been known and used by peoples around the Baltic Sea. Earlier kantele instruments were carved into a piece of wood, but some 300 years ago a change occurred: someone built a kantele with planks of wood. The prototype had been known among the Baltic-Finnic ethnic groups for about 2,000 years, and the name kantele has parallels in Baltic languages (Lithuanian ‘kankles’, Latvian ‘kokle’). In the Kalevala, the mythical origin of the kantele is told in the language of poetry. There are two versions of the origin of the kantele: the first one was made out of the jaw of a giant pike, the second one of birch. The fish-bone kantele has its equivalent in the myth of the Celtic lyre, the cwryth, which was made out of the bones and sinews of a huge fish. Folk poetry mentions a variety of imaginative materials: all kinds of horns and bones (elk, deer, ram, cow, eagle, duck, finger bones) and parts of fish (fins, salmon tails), birch, oak and maple, even steel. The birch-wood kantele first appears in Mythologia Fennica by Christfrid Ganander (1789).

Väinämöinen, as a great singer and kantele player, has been connected with the myth of Orpheus. Although the kantele could be used to accompany singers, it was not customary; however, there is little information on this. The kantele was primarily played by soloist, who improvised an endless continuum of melodies. Players never stopped a string but let it sound until he touched it the next time. The five-string version of the kantele relates to the pentatonic nature of ancient Finnish rune-singing.

The kantele became the Finnish national instrument in the nineteenth century. Elias Lönnrot gave his collection of lyrical folk poems the name Kanteletar. (The ending –tar is the feminine ending in a name.) Nowadays new electric kantele instruments even have 39 strings. Many modern Finnish composers (e.g. Kalevi Aho, Pekka Jalkanen, Pehr Henrik Nordgren) have written music for the kantele.

Myths of Origin

The Kalevalacontains many origin myths about various natural and cultural phenomena, namely, the world, fire, iron, beer, the kantele, diseases and the snake. All of these myths constitute the fundamental layer of an ancient Finnish worldview. For example, wise men had to have a command of this knowledge in order to cure diseases. Besides having a mastery of the magical power of the word (i.e. spells, charms, incantations), it was also necessary for the healer to know the ultimate cause of the disease; only then was it possible to eradicate it. Keith Bosley writes: ‘The antiquity of Finnish myth is perhaps most evident in spells, in which a shaman would recite to an offending object its history in order to control it.’

In the list above, some of the myths – for example, the origin of the kantele and the origin of beer – are called culture myths. The myth of the origin of iron was used for healing wounds caused by a tool made of iron. The origin of fire was used for healing burns. Knowing the origin of the snake was needed to heal snake bites (the adder is the only poisonous snake in Finland and Karelia).

There are also other myths in the Kalevala: for instance, the myth of releasing the sun and the moon from the mountain of Pohjola. We do not know if this myth narrative was sung in a ritual context. However, if it was, the context might have been the end of the winter, the dark period of the North. When that time is over, the returning light in spring is a source of joy. According to one Ingrian singer, this poem was sung during the Shrovetide carnival in February when people were enjoying sleigh riding; this was the time when the days were getting longer again. Or perhaps the myth could explain the eclipse of the sun?


In the storyworld of the Kalevala, nature is animate and can even feel compassion for human fates. This is one of the entrancing features of the epic. Animals and plants speak and interact with humans. They offer their help and advice: an eagle strikes the first spark of fire for Väinämöinen, thus helping him to burn the clearing so that seeds of grain can be sowed. A hare takes word of Aino’s death to her mother. Without the help of animals there would be no beer in the world.

However, by means of magic, animals can be used as agents of evil deeds (e.g. Kullervo sends bears and wolves to Ilmarinen’s house to kill Ilmarinen’s wife). Väinämöinen soothes the sorrows of the weeping birch, honouring the tree by making a kantele out it. Väinämöinen’s playing of the kantele makes all living beings rejoice, whereas all of nature, even plants and grasses, mourn the death of Kullervo’s sister. Other kinds of inanimate phenomena (e.g. a road, a boat, the sun and the moon) are also endowed with the gift of speech.

Of the many birds mentioned in the Kalevala, the cuckoo receives the most attention. Väinämöinen leaves a birch standing in the clearing for the cuckoo to call from and for all birds to rest on. The cuckoo has a special significance in Finnish bird lore. People once listened with great interest to its call; young girls counted the number of times the bird would call to predict the number of years until marriage; older people used its call to count the years of a person’s lifetime. The overwhelming sorrow of Aino’s mother upon her daughter’s death is given further expression when her ‘whole body is blighted’ by the call of the spring cuckoo.


Lönnrot erased Christian features – for example, the names of Catholic saints or references to Orthodox Christianity – from the folk poems when he used them in creating the Kalevala. He wanted to construct the world of the old Finnish religion just before the arrival of Christianity. The song material he used had been collected mainly in the nineteenth century, and thus was full of Christian references, especially the charms. Lönnrot explained these as later additions. Thus he replaced the saints’ names with the names of the heroes, or with the names of spirits, sometimes with the word ‘god’, which could mean a god of the old religion as well. Lönnrot believed that the primordial religion of the Finns had been monotheistic, but that they had later developed a polytheistic religion, while still retaining a belief in one chief god. The god of weather in ancient Finnish ethnic religion was Ukko, and ‘god’ has been used by Lönnrot as a parallel word for the name Ukko. Lönnrot made him the ‘chief god’ in the Kalevala by generalising some references to him in the folk poems. Lönnrot actually created a ‘Finnish Olympus’, a system of lesser gods (Tapio, the forest spirit, Ahti, the water spirit, etc.).

An interesting example of Lönnrot’s way of working with the Christian elements can be seen in the poem about the oath of Lemminkäinen and Kyllikki (poem 11). In the folk poem, they make their oath in front of a Russian Orthodox icon: ‘An eternal bond was formed, an eternal vow was taken before the copper icon: Ahti would not go to war, Kyllikki would not go out.’ In the Kalevala, the icon (a holy image of Christ, Mary or a saint) is replaced by the Almighty God.


The Sampo-myth is perhaps the greatest mystery in the Kalevala, and through the ages, it has been explained in a multitude of ways. When considering the Sampo, we first need to look at the facts presented in the Kalevala: the Sampo is forged by a smith, a task involving several days of work. It is called ‘good’. It has a decorated lid, handles (like a chest) and roots that go deep. It can be moved from one place to another. It grinds plenty of something: to be eaten, to be sold or to be kept at home; it creates wealth and well-being. When it breaks into pieces, even the pieces are powerful: they make the sea ‘rich’, salty and full of life; what is more, the pieces can be sown to foster even more growth.

In folk poetry, the Sampo appears in the epic poems about Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen, and it is forged as a continuation after the cosmic deeds of creation, which emphasizes its value. According to Matti Kuusi, singers have either explained or transformed the Sampo into a sturgeon, a mill, a boat, an oak, a kantele, a kiln full of game, a bride, a flying creature with toes, a sleigh, an otter, a pole, a tree stump, a castle… Some explanations maybe caused by the phonetic similarity of the words. Thus, it becomes evident that there is no simple and undisputed explanation for or meaning of the Sampo. New explanations keep appearing each year, even nowadays. ‘The Grotte Song’ of the Edda has a similar magic mill, which sinks into the sea and grinds salt there.

Today the Sampo is understood as a symbol that has had various meanings in different contexts through the ages; it is a mythical and many-sided image. The word ‘sampo’ is related to the word sammas, which means a pole or a statue. An explanation (by Uno Harva) connects it to the mythological central pole of the world which is at tached to the North Star and around which the stars rotate; a variation of this interpretation explains the Sampo as the mythological tree of life.


Even today, the sauna endures as an important feature in Finnish social life and culture, and some of the traditional significance of the sauna can be observed in the Kalevala poems. In the Kalevala, the sauna is heated and the sauna bath is taken to prepare for great events and adventures as a purification ritual. When Ilmarinen decides to go and compete with Väinämöinen for the hand of the maiden of Pohjola, Annikki carefully gets the sauna ready for her brother (poem 18). The description of this particular preparation of the sauna beautifully emphasizes the harmony and appeal of the sauna experience; the water is fetched from a pleasant spring, even the bath-whisks are soft and honey-sweet, and the soap she makes is sparkling and lathering. Smith Ilmarinen washes himself absolutely clean: ‘Washed his eyes until they glistened, his eyebrows until they bloomed, his neck until it was hen’s eggs, all his body white.’ In the wedding passage (poem 23), the bride is advised on how to prepare the sauna for her father-in law. It was a woman’s responsibility to get the sauna ready, carry the water, make the bath-whisks and ventilate the smoke sauna properly before bathing. The sauna was also the place for childbirth; Marjatta looks for a sauna where she can give birth (poem 50). The sauna was used for healing rituals, and for love-raising (lempi) rituals. It was a place for preparing foods, for example, for making malt and smoking meat.

The sauna as a healing place is exemplified in Väinämöinen’s fight against diseases (poem 45). The sweetness of the steam, löyly (meaning a soul or spirit in Finno-Ugric languages), is compared to the flow of honey and mead.


Lönnrot incorporated a long sequence of wedding poems (21–25) into the Kalevala, illustrating the wedding of Ilmarinen and the daughter of Louhi. He wanted the Kalevala to provide a vivid picture of ‘the old Finnish culture’; thus he chose to include a Karelian wedding ritual with many instances of singing, even though its depiction interrupts the epic’s flow of events. Lönnrot’s poetic construction of the wedding chiefly adheres to the customs practised in Archangel Karelia. Although wedding rituals varied from area to area – for example, on the Karelian Isthmus and in Ingria (the area around St. Petersburg, and on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland) – there are many similarities among the wedding songs.

The wedding ritual, after the betrothal, followed a certain pattern. It began when the bridegroom and his party, among whom the spokesman was the most important, appeared at to the bride’s house to fetch her. The bride’s kin welcomed the bridegroom and his people with great kindness and generosity; they also spoke highly of the bridegroom. The bride was made ready, and her future life in the bridegroom’s house was described. Laments figured prominently in this part of the wedding. The bride laments her future fate and the loss of her childhood home. There was a saying that if there were no tears at the wedding, there would be many in the marriage. Lyrical poems, songs of sorrow, expressed the wistfulness and sorrow of the bride. Songs of advice for the bride and for the bridegroom were performed. Songs emphasised the importance of treating the bride well – not only by the bridegroom but also by all the members of her new family. Before the departure, the bride sang to her family, thanked them and bade her old home farewell.

The second part of the wedding took place at the bridegroom’s house, where many songs were performed. The bride was welcomed with songs, and she greeted her new home. The wedding guests would ask the bridegroom if his visit to the bride’s house was successful, and he answered. At the end of the wedding, the participants of the wedding were given thanks: the master and the mistress of the house, the spokesman, the bridesmaids (actually there was an elderly woman and young bridesmaids) and all the wedding guests.

Above all, the purpose of the extensive wedding ritual was to join two families. Essentially, the entire process served to spell out the agreement between the families, which involved giving dowry and an exchange of gifts. Charms and magic were used to safeguard the young couple’s happiness. For the bride, the wedding was a rite of passage involving many phases – transforming her from a maiden in her father’s house to a wedded woman in that of her husband.


Although mothers emerge as the most compelling and powerful female figures in the Kalevala, the epic also features active and strong-willed young women – such as Kyllikki (Lemminkäinen’s wife), Annikki (Ilmarinen’s sister) and the daughters of Pohjola. Even Aino, Joukahainen’s sister, who has been romantically idealised by earlier interpreters as a fragile and vulnerable young girl, shows signs of a steely determination and will.

Smith Ilmarinen’s creation, the woman of gold, comes across as a truly tragicomic feat. After his wife is slaughtered by wolves and bears, Ilmarinen weeps bitter tears. He then resolves to make himself a new bride of gold. There is poignancy in his endeavour to overcome the irrevocability of death. Yet Ilmarinen’s observation – that gold is cold, unlike a human being – and his decision to pass the golden woman over to Väinämöinen produce a comic effect.

The idea of making a female image and longing for ‘her’ to come to life is expressed in the Pygmalion myth by Ovid in The Metamorphoses. Ilmarinen failed, for his golden woman disappointed him with her coldness and inability to respond to him. In the folk poetry, Väinämöinen and Iivana, the Son of Kojonen, also make brides of gold for themselves.