The plot of the Kalevala is fairly complicated. However, it is made of passages or sequences of poems that revolve around one main character or focus on a course of events.
Keith Bosley suggests that the contents of the epic can be divided into cycles according to the main actor in the following way:
The first Väinämöinen cycle: poems 1–10
The second Väinämöinen cycle: 16–25
The third Väinämöinen cycle: 39–49
The first Lemminkäinen cycle: 11–15
The second Lemminkäinen cycle: 26–30
The Kullervo cycle: 31–36
The Ilmarinen cycle: 37–38
The Marjatta cycle: 50
The following outline provides a little more detail:
Poems 1–2: Väinämöinen’s birth, the origin of the world, and the beginning of growth.
Poems 3–5: Joukahainen and Väinämöinen’s singing match. Aino’s fate and death.
Poems 6–7: Joukahainen tries to kill Väinämöinen. Väinämöinen’s visit to Pohjola.
Poems 8–9: Väinämöinen’s knee is wounded and healed.
Poem 10: The Sampo is forged by Ilmarinen.
Poems 11–15: Lemminkäinen: courting in Pohjola, killed, resurrected.
Poems 16–17: Väinämöinen looking for spells: in Tuonela, inside Vipunen.
Poems 18–19: Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen wooing one of the daughters of Pohjola.
Poems 20–25: The wedding at Pohjola: preparations, wedding celebrations at the houses of the bride and the bridegroom.
Poems 26–30: Lemminkäinen: kills the master of Pohjola, escapes to Saari, from where he must flee.
Poems 31–36: Kullervo: as a serf in Ilmarinen’s house, takes revenge, seduces his sister, kills himself.
Poem 37: Ilmarinen makes the golden maiden.
Poem 38: Ilmarinen courting at Pohjola. Turns the maiden of Pohjola into a seagull.
Poem 39: Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen set out to steal the Sampo.
Poems 40–41: The first kantele is made of pike bones and played by Väinämöinen.
Poems 42–43: The Sampo is stolen. The struggle with the mistress of Pohjola (Louhi). The Sampo is destroyed.
Poem 44: The birch-wood kantele is made and played by Väinämöinen.
Poems 45–47: Louhi’s revenge: sends diseases, sends a bear and hides the sun and the moon.
Poems 48–49: Fire is caught by Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen. The sun and the moon are released.
Poem 50: Marjatta and her son. Väinämöinen leaves.
- The singer recounts how he learnt his songs. He describes the origins of the world and of the universe. Ilmatar (the Air Virgin), descends to the waters, becomes pregnant from the wind and turns into the Water Mother. A goldeneye lays its eggs on her knee. The eggs break and the world, the sun, the moon and the stars are formed from their pieces. She shapes the earth. After her long pregnancy, Väinämöinen is born.
- Väinämöinen calls Sampsa Pellervoinen to sow the trees of the forest. An oak tree grows so tall that it blots out the sun and the moon. A tiny man rises from the sea and fells the giant oak, allowing the sun and the moon to shine again. Väinämöinen cuts down a forest, makes the first burnt-over clearing and sows barley. A birch tree is left to grow for the birds, for the eagle to perch on and for the cuckoo to call from.
- Väinämöinen becomes famous for his songs and wisdom. Young Joukahainen from the North becomes envious of him, challenges him in a singing and wisdom contest and is defeated. The angry Väinämöinen uses his magic to make him sink into a swamp. Fearing for his life, Joukahainen promises his sister’s hand in marriage to Väinämöinen. When Aino hears about the promise, she bursts into tears, but her mother is happy about the prospect of a famous son-in-law.
- While mourning her fate in the forest, Aino meets Väinämöinen and refuses his proposal. She runs home in panic. Aino’s mother tries to encourage her to dress up and adorn herself. Aino roams the forest in despair, reaches the seashore, glides into the water and drowns. A hare takes the message to Aino’s mother, who begins to cry. From her tears, rivers start to flow, islets are formed, birches grow on them and cuckoos start to call, echoing her sorrow.
- Väinämöinen goes to the sea to look for Aino. He catches a fish and is about to kill it, but it turns out to be the drowned girl transformed into a fish. Mocking him for failing to recognise her, Aino returns to the sea. Väinämöinen feels sorry for himself, but his dead mother – from the water – advises him to woo a girl from Pohjola (Northland).
- Väinämöinen rides towards Pohjola with his magical horse. Joukahainen, eager to avenge his sister’s death, decides to kill Väinämöinen in spite of his mother’s warnings. He shoots Väinämöinen’s horse at sea with his arrow. Väinämöinen falls into the sea and is carried by the waves. Joukahainen’s mother condemns her son’s deed.
- The grateful eagle rescues Väinämöinen from a watery death and takes him to the shore of Pohjola, where Väinämöinen is left to long for home and cry. Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola, hears him sobbing. She promises to take care of him and feed him, to give him one of her daughters and to send him home, as long as he promises to make her a Sampo. Instead, Väinämöinen pledges to send the smith Ilmarinen to Pohjola, for he has the skills to forge the Sampo. Louhi promises her daughter to the one who forges the Sampo. Väinämöinen is allowed to return home.
- On his way home, Väinämöinen meets the beautiful maiden of Pohjola and proposes to her. She agrees to marry him, but first wants Väinämöinen to perform a few impossible tasks, such as making a wooden boat out of the bits of her spindle. Väinämöinen gets to work, but his axe slips and blood runs from his wound like a stream. Finally he finds an old man who promises to stop the blood flow.
- Väinämöinen tells the old man the incantations about the origin of iron. With these spells the wound is healed.
- Väinämöinen returns home. He tells smith Ilmarinen to go to Pohjola, to forge the Sampo and to marry the maiden of Pohjola as a reward. Ilmarinen is unwilling to go. Väinämöinen deceives him and sends Ilmarinen to Pohjola with magic means. Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola, treats him well, and Ilmarinen agrees to forge the Sampo. The Sampo is made, and it includes three mills that grind flour, salt and money. Louhi is pleased. She hides the Sampo inside a rocky hill, behind nine locks. Ilmarinen woos the maiden of Pohjola, but she rejects him. Ilmarinen returns home feeling dejected.
- Lemminkäinen sets off to woo Kyllikki, the famous maiden of Saari (Island), who has many suitors. His mother warns him not to go, for she fears the girls there might laugh at him. Lemminkäinen travels to Saari, where he is hired as a herder. He amuses himself with the girls, but fails to impress Kyllikki. He abducts her and takes her away on his sleigh. They promise to stay together, as long as Lemminkäinen does not to go to war and Kyllikki stays at home. Lemminkäinen’s mother receives her daughter-in-law with joy.
- Lemminkäinen goes fishing but fails to return home in the evening; Kyllikki goes to the village. Their bond broken, Lemminkäinen wants to go to attack Pohjola, against his mother’s words of advice. Irritated by her severe warnings, he departs, leaving his brush as an omen: if the brush begins to bleed, he is dead. Lemminkäinen strengthens himself with incantations, enters Pohjola and bewitches the people of Pohjola to faraway places. Only one person, a cowherd, does not fall under his spell; he begins to build up hatred towards Lemminkäinen.
- Lemminkäinen asks Louhi for her daughter; she refuses, reminding him that he has a wife at home. Lemminkäinen keeps insisting, so Louhi gives him a difficult task: to catch the elk of Hiisi (forest demon).
- With his incantations to the forest spirits, Lemminkäinen finally catches and kills the elk. Louhi asks him to perform a new task: to bring her the brown gelding of Hiisi, which he does. The last task is to shoot the swan that swims in the Tuonela River (the border between the land of the living and the dead). Lemminkäinen goes to the Tuonela River, unaware that he has been followed by the vengeful cowherd. The cowherd kills him and throws his body into the river, where it is cut into pieces.
- Lemminkäinen’s mother notices that the brush has begun to bleed. She goes out in search of her son. Louhi admits that she sent him to catch the swan in the Tuonela River. Lemminkäinen’s mother asks the trees, the road and the moon to tell her where her son might be. The sun tells Lemminkäinen’s mother that her boy is lying dead in the Tuonela River. She goes to the river and rakes up the pieces of her son’s body. She puts the pieces together, bringing him back to life with her incantations and prayers. They go home together.
- Väinämöinen wants to build a boat. Sampsa Pellervoinen finds him an oak tree from which to make one. Väinämöinen cannot finish the boat, however, because he lacks the magic words. He goes to look for the words in Tuonela (the land of the dead). Although the people of Tuonela refuse to let him leave, he escapes by transforming himself into a snake and swimming through the fishnet in the Tuonela River.
- Väinämöinen continues his search for the missing spells. He is advised to enter the stomach of the gigantic sage, Antero Vipunen, who has long been dead and is covered by trees. Väinämöinen builds a smithy in the belly of the giant and begins to hammer away. Vipunen wakes up. After a while, Vipunen sings all the secret incantations to him and lets him go. Väinämöinen steps out from the giant’s mouth and finishes his boat.
- Väinämöinen sets sail to Pohjola to woo Louhi’s daughter. Ilmarinen’s sister, who happens to catch sight of him, goes to tell her brother about Väinämöinen’s voyage. Smith Ilmarinen, who has made the Sampo and to whom the girl has been promised, goes after him. They both arrive in Pohjola, where Väinämöinen proposes to the maiden.
- The daughter of Pohjola chooses Ilmarinen, who then has to perform difficult tasks set by Louhi. With advice from his bride, he is able to successfully fulfil the tasks: to plough a field teeming with vipers, to hunt down the bear of Tuonela and the wolf of Manala (another name for the land of the dead), and to fish the great pike out of the Tuonela River. Louhi gives her daughter to smith Ilmarinen. Beset with sorrow, Väinämöinen returns home. He cautions old men against competing with young men for the favour of young women.
- Preparations for the wedding at Pohjola begin. The slaughter of an enormous ox by a tiny man from the sea means plenty of meat. Beer and foods are prepared. Invitations are sent to all – except for Lemminkäinen.
- The bridegroom and his wedding party arrive in Pohjola. Food and drink is served to the guests in abundance. Väinämöinen entertains the guests with his singing.
- The bride is prepared to leave the house of her father and mother. The days of her childhood are praised, and her future in the bridegroom’s house is described. The bride weeps as she envisages her future life in a strange household, but she is reminded of the goodness of her husband-to-be and the comforts of the new house.
- The bride is given practical advice about life in the bridegroom’s house. A wedding guest, an old woman, tells her own life story and weeps about her fate.
- The bridegroom is advised on how he should treat his wife in marriage. An old beggar tells his own story of how he succeeded in pleasing his wife. The bride, in tears, bids farewell to her family and to her childhood home. Ilmarinen and his young wife leave Pohjola and ride home to Ilmarinen’s house.
- The bride is greeted in Ilmarinen’s house with mockery and praise. An abundant feast begins in Ilmarinen´s house. Väinämöinen extols the virtues of the groom in song. He thanks the master and mistress of the house for serving food; he also commends the spokesman, the matron and all the other wedding guests. Väinämöinen leaves the house, but breaks his sleigh on the journey. He needs to return to Tuonela once again for tools to repair the sleigh. Once the sleigh is fixed, he resumes the journey home.
- Lemminkäinen is vexed about not having been invited to the wedding; nonetheless, he wants to go to Pohjola. His mother warns him of the perils to be met on such a journey. Lemminkäinen sets off and encounters numerous obstacles on the way: a fiery eagle, a pit of burning stones, a bear and a wolf, an iron fence fortified with snakes and a giant snake. He overcomes all these obstacles with his magic skills and arrives in Pohjola.
- Lemminkäinen enters the house of Pohjola but is made to feel unwelcome. He demands food and drink, but is instead served a beer tankard full of vipers. Lemminkäinen engages the master of Pohjola in a magical singing contest and a swordfight. Lemminkäinen slays the master of Pohjola, cutting his neck with his sword.
- Lemminkäinen flees from the Pohjola house and returns home to his mother, who soon finds out what has happened. She advises him to flee over the seas to Saari (Island), where his father too once sought refuge.
- Lemminkäinen travels to Saari; once there, he meets the maidens of the island. After declaring himself a good singer, he is welcomed into their midst. Lemminkäinen enjoys himself with the maidens, having his way with all of them, except for one old maid who then curses him. When the men of Saari decide to kill Lemminkäinen, he must flee again. Lemminkäinen manages to sail off in his boat; he is shipwrecked but then rescued. He finds his way to his mother, who is reduced to hiding in a forest hut after the people of Pohjola had come and burnt their house down.
- Lemminkäinen wants to take revenge on the people of Pohjola. He takes his friend Tiera with him. Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola, casts a cold spell on them, freezing their boat. Lemminkäinen and Tiera are forced to return home.
- Two brothers, Kalervo and Untamo, are hostile to each other. Untamo sends his troops to destroy Kalervo’s house and people. Only one pregnant woman is spared and taken to Untamo’s house. She soon gives birth to a boy, who is called Kullervo. The child, who incidentally happens to be endowed with superhuman powers, is set on taking his revenge. Untamo tries to kill him but fails, keeping the boy as his serf. Kullervo is given various tasks, but he violently botches up each and every one. Eager to rid himself of the boy, Untamo sells Kullervo as a serf to smith Ilmarinen.
- Ilmarinen’s wife makes Kullervo work as a cowherd. She bakes a loaf of bread for Kullervo to take with him to eat while out in the forest. She bakes a stone inside. Uttering protective incantations, she sends her cattle to the forest.
- While cutting the bread given to him by Ilmarinen’s wife, Kullervo breaks his knife on the stone within. Enraged by this insult and the destruction of his knife, Kullervo drives the cows into the swamp and brings home a pack of bears and wolves. Ilmarinen’s wife mistakes them for cows, and tries to milk them. She begs Kullervo to undo his charms but is mauled to death by the beasts.
- Rejoicing, Kullervo flees Ilmarinen’s house, while the smith mourns the death of his wife. Kullervo laments his own life, longing to take revenge on Untamo. From the thicket, an old woman clad in a blue coat tells him that his parents are still alive, hiding in the borderlands of Lapland. Her directions lead him to his parents. His mother tells Kullervo that his sister went berry-picking in the forest and never returned.
- Kullervo’s father puts him to work, but the boy messes everything up. His father then sends him to pay the taxes. On his way back, Kullervo meets a girl and seduces her. The next morning they find out that they are brother and sister, for she is the girl who has been lost in the forest. She runs into the river and drowns herself. Kullervo weeps bitterly. He goes home to tell his mother what has happened. She advises him to go and hide himself for a while; still, Kullervo remains bent on taking revenge on Untamo.
- Kullervo asks his family members whether any of them will mourn him if he dies. Only his mother responds, saying that she would cry. Kullervo, on his way to settle his score with Untamo, receives news that his entire family has died. After crying over the death of his mother, Kullervo then goes and kills Untamo’s folks and burns down their houses. He returns home to find the place empty and desolate. Kullervo takes his dog and heads into the forest, back to the spot where he had seduced his sister. He kills himself with his sword. Väinämöinen hears about Kullervo’s death and makes this pronouncement: a mistreated child can never grow up to be a man of understanding.
- Smith Ilmarinen mourns the death of his wife. Lonely and grieving, he decides to forge himself a new mate, a woman made of gold. After a few unsuccessful efforts he manages to make his golden bride. When he gets into bed with the golden bride he finds her chilly and unresponsive. Ilmarinen offers his bride to Väinämöinen, who rejects the offer; Väinämöinen then cautions his people against worshipping gold or wooing women of gold.
- Ilmarinen travels to Pohjola to woo the younger sister of his dead wife. Both Louhi and the maiden reject his proposal. Ilmarinen abducts the girl, stealing away with her in his sleigh. The girl is full of despair. They stay overnight in a village, and while Ilmarinen sleeps, the girl amuses herself with other men. When Ilmarinen wakes up and discovers what has happened, he uses his spells to turn her into a seagull. Ilmarinen comes home and tells Väinämöinen that the people of Pohjola are wealthy and living well because of the Sampo. He also tells Väinämöinen what he did to the girl.
- Väinämöinen gets the idea of stealing the Sampo from Pohjola. Ilmarinen forges a magic sword, and Väinämöinen finds a boat bemoaning its fate, for it has not been at sea for a long time. Väinämöinen pushes the boat to the sea; his song fills it with people. They set off at full speed, with Ilmarinen rowing and Väinämöinen steering. Lemminkäinen happens to catch sight of the boat from ashore; he is called to join them.
- Using his incantations, Lemminkäinen helps steer the boat through fiery rapids. The boat gets stuck on a rock, which turns out to be an enormous pike. Väinämöinen kills the pike with his sword. The fish is cooked and eaten; then Väinämöinen builds the kantele instrument out of the pike’s jawbone. The strings are made from the hairs of Hiisi’s (demon’s) gelding. Though they try, others are unable to play the kantele. The instrument is brought to Väinämöinen.
- Väinämöinen plays the kantele. His playing arouses great joy among all living things; animals, birds and spirits of nature gather round to listen to him. All the listeners begin to cry, including Väinämöinen himself. His tears flow into the sea; the goldeneye fetches them, for they have turned into pearls.
- Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen row to Pohjola to steal the Sampo. Louhi arms her troops. Väinämöinen lulls the people of Pohjola to sleep with his kantele playing. The Sampo is firmly rooted in the rocky hill of Pohjola, but Lemminkäinen ploughs its roots with an ox, enabling them to carry the Sampo to the boat. On the way back at sea, Lemminkäinen begins to sing, but he wakes up a crane at Pohjola; the bird cries out so loudly that the people of Pohjola are awakened. Louhi sends obstacles to block their way and raises a storm, but the raiding seafarers survive.
- Louhi and her troops pursue the invaders. Väinämöinen uses magic to raise a rock in the sea, causing the people of Pohjola to shipwreck. Louhi transforms herself into a giant bird of prey and collects her troops under her wings. A fierce battle ensues. Drawing his paddle from the sea, Väinämöinen crushes Louhi and her men. The Sampo falls into the water and breaks into pieces, increasing the wealth of the sea. Though Louhi is beaten, she threatens to avenge Väinämöinen and his people with troubles. Carrying only the lid of the Sampo with her, she returns to the now impoverished Pohjola. Väinämöinen finds some fragments of the shattered Sampo; he sows them, giving growth to barley and rye. Väinämöinen prays for good fortune, prosperity and happiness for Finland.
- Along with the Sampo, the fish-bone kantele has been swallowed by the sea. Väinämöinen searches in vain for his beloved instrument. Pausing to listen to the sorrows of a birch, he then fashions a new kantele from birch wood. He makes the strings from the hair of a young maiden. When he plays, men and women, animals, and all of nature rejoice.
- Louhi sends ‘nameless diseases’ to wreak devastation on the people of Kalevala. Väinämöinen first fortifies himself in the sauna with incantations, and then heals the people.
- Louhi sends a bear to kill the Kalevala cattle, but Väinämöinen slays the bear. A bear-killing feast is organised with songs in praise of the bear.
- As Väinämöinen plays the kantele and sings, the sun and the moon come to listen to him. Louhi catches the heavenly bodies and hides them inside a mountain. She also steals fire from the people of Kalevala, leaving them in complete and utter darkness. Ukko, the supreme god, makes a spark of fire. The spark falls down from the heavens. After reaching the earth and scorching vast tracts of land, it finally sinks into the Alue Lake. A whitefish swallows the spark, a salmon swallows the whitefish, and a pike swallows the salmon. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen make a net and try to catch the pike.
- A better net is made of linen. With the help of a tiny man from the sea, Väinämöinen gets a good catch and finds the pike. He cuts the fish open and discovers the spark of fire, which burns not only his beard but also Ilmarinen’s cheeks and hands. Väinämöinen catches the fire and places it in the service of the people. Väinämöinen heals Ilmarinen’s burns.
- The world is still dark. Ilmarinen forges a new sun and moon, but they do not shine. Väinämöinen travels to Pohjola to find out where the sun and the moon might be. He hears the truth from the men of Pohjola, fights with them and finds the mountain wherein the heavenly bodies are imprisoned. He cannot open the lock. Ilmarinen forges him a set of keys. Louhi, in the form of a hawk, comes to Ilmarinen’s smithy. Ilmarinen tells her that he is forging a chain to restrain the mistress of Pohjola. Frightened, she releases the sun and the moon from their prison. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen are pleased; they greet the sun and the moon.
- Marjatta, a chaste and virtuous maiden, lives in the house of her mother and father. She goes to the forest to herd the cattle. Marjatta sees a lingonberry, eats it and becomes pregnant. Her parents accuse her of being a whore. They do not prepare her a sauna for giving birth, nor does the wife of Ruotus (Herod). Marjatta finds a stall on the Tapio Hill. The good horse breathes steam on her as she gives birth to a son on the hay. Marjatta takes care of her baby boy, concealing him from the eyes of others. While she is combing her hair one day, the baby disappears. She goes to look for him, asking the star, the moon and the sun if they know of his whereabouts. She finally finds him in a swamp. When Väinämöinen condemns the fatherless child to death, the baby miraculously speaks out, blaming Väinämöinen for the fate of Aino. The boy is baptised by Virokannas and made King of Karelia. Väinämöinen, angry and ashamed, departs in a copper boat, predicting that one day he will again be needed to make a new Sampo. He disappears, leaving the kantele and the songs for his people.
The singer concludes his singing with apologies, just in case he sang too long or too poorly. Yet he asserts himself as the one who blazed the trail for later singers, and hopes that the generations to come will have even better songs and singers.