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The Kalevala and the European Heritage Label

The Ministry of Education and Culture has, based on an initiative by the Finnish Heritage Agency, decided that the Kalevala will be the next applicant from Finland for the European Heritage Label. The Heritage Label aims at promoting the knowledge of the common, and yet diverse, cultural heritage that is shared by the people in Europe. The Heritage Label also aims at supporting the digital availability of cultural heritage knowledge. Furthermore, the Label aims at inspiring cultural heritage related tourism. The application was sent to the European Commission in 1 March 2023 and the decision about the label will be made in spring 2024.

The application process

The application highlights the importance of the Kalevala as a current European heritage. It was written by the Finnish Literature Society in co-operation with the Akseli Gallen-Kallela Museum, the Juminkeko Foundation and the Parppeinvaara Runosinger’s Village. The Kalevala Society Foundation is the unifying entity between the project and its extensive thematic network. The Kalevala Women’s Association initiated the application process in 2020 with financial support from the Alfred Kordelin Foundation.

The application was a joint project by a network team of experts in the field of the Kalevala and Karelian and Finnish cultural heritage. If the application is approved and the European Heritage Label is given to the Kalevala, a large project on the topic is being planned with several different participants. The purpose of the project is to develop a process where current research and discourse on the Kalevala is being promoted, as well as to develop digital methods and enable access to digital material to everyone.

The main goal of the project: The Epic Kaleidoscope

The Kalevala has been an inspiration to science, art, and culture ever since it was first published, and it has been used as well in disputes as in discussions about Finland and Finnish cultural heritage. The Kalevala represents Karelian and Finnish cultural heritage, which is constantly changing and open to a variety of interpretations. The project, which is being planned in connection to the European Heritage Label, is called “The Epic Kaleidoscope” and it aims at bringing to light all the different ways we can see, experience, and interpret the Kalevala, as well as what the Kalevala, itself, is in the 2020’s. The target group for the project is children and young people who will be able to learn about Karelian and Finnish cultural heritage as seen from today’s point of view. How have people and societies emerging from different backgrounds experienced the Kalevala before and now? How can we interpret the Kalevala and other European epics, for example through art? Within the project different types of events and workshops will be implemented where young Europeans of all ages can participate. In these events and workshops the children and the young people will have the opportunity to reflect upon and interpret the relationships and interactions between European epics, the runo-song (oral folk poetry) culture in the Baltic Sea area, and issues connected to language as well as to the use of the Kalevala during different time periods, and finally what the meaning of the Kalevala is today.

The Kalevala expresses ideological traits as well as epic traditions in Europe. For example, Elias Lönnrot was inspired by the epic tales (Iliad och Odyssey) from the antiquity when he gathered the material for and put together the texts in the Kalevala. The European Heritage Label has not yet been given to an epic. Most of those that have been granted the Label are of a more material and tangible nature: museums, archaeological sites, and monuments. Cultural heritage is subject to a vast number of interpretations. When we learn about these, we also learn more about ourselves and about others. Our hope is that with the help of the Heritage Label we can evoke discussions throughout Europe about the living heritage that the epic tales present to us.

The European Heritage Label gives us the opportunity to deepen the knowledge about the Kalevala and its background, and to motivate young people to reflect upon their cultural heritage and its role in the formation of their identity. The label would also present us with a possibility to give more visibility to cultural minorities and the Karelian language and its current situation. The Karelian language, that is spoken in Finland and Russia is endangered, and it does not hold the status of an official language in Finland. With the help of the Heritage Label, it would be possible to increase the knowledge of the Karelian language and the diversity of the Karelian culture among people in Finland.

The many voices and ambivalence of the Kalevala

When we speak of the Kalevala as a cultural heritage, we need to see it as a combination of several cultural heritages. The Kalevala is not only one version or interpretation, and it is not only an epic from the past. The Kalevala has different meanings to individuals and societies. It is a cultural heritage that represents many voices, and it is also ambivalent

The first edition of the Kalevala, the so-called Old Kalevala (1835) is mostly based on material from the area of White Sea Karelia. The New Kalevala (1849), which is regarded as the national epic of Finland, is based on a much broader base of sources. Its sources are Karelian, Finnish and Ingrian poems. The most essential material in the Kalevala has been gathered from the Karelian people, but ever since the Kalevala was given a significant Finnish national status, its contents have been presented as representations of Finnish culture. Since its publication, the Kalevala has been used in several different ways and in various historical contexts to both express and strengthen Finnish culture and what being Finnish means and comprises.

The Kalevala is also a part of the world literature, and it has its own and self-evident position especially as part of the European cultural heritage. This is based upon the fact that the ideological, historical, and aesthetic trends that influenced the work when Lönnrot was writing and putting together the Kalevala were European. The application process in which the Kalevala applies for the European Heritage Label emphasises the Kalevala’s role as part of the European epic tradition and how it resonates with European cultures.

The question of whose cultural heritage the Kalevala primarily is, is a question that involves both individuals and societies. How we perceive who, in fact, owns the Kalevala is being blurred by its diverse character: it is a fictive literary creation by one person, who used notes about folk poetry as source material for his work. Elias Lönnrot created the characters, the whole plot and he also modified the language of the poems. His goal was to publish a coherent epic collection of poems, that he interpreted as being representative of the Finnish pre-historic past. This is the reason why the Kalevala in so many ways differs from the folk poems that Lönnrot used as sources for the epic tale. If the Kalevala receives the European Heritage Label, it will, together with the educational project, deepen the understanding of the diversity and current use of the Kalevala. It will also strengthen the dialogue between young Europeans and enhance the understanding of the Karelian, Finnish and Ingrian runo-songs (oral folk poetry) as part of the epic heritage.

The Network Behind the Application

The Main Organizers of the Project

The Finnish Literature Society
The Akseli Gallen-Kallela Museum
The Juminkeko Foundation
The Parppeinvaara Runosinger’s Village

The Wider Network Behind the Project

Kalevala Society Foundation
Kalevala Women’s Association
The Association of Cultural Heritage Education in Finland
The Finnish Cultural and Academic Institutes
Karelia University of Applied Sciences
The Karelian Youth League
Karjalan liitto
Karjalan Sivistysseura
Paikkarin torpan tuki ry
Runosong Academy
Uniarts Helsinki, Department of Folk Music
The University of Turku, Degree Programme in Digital Culture, Landscape and Cultural Heritage
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