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European Heritage Label – Kalevala, Living Epic

The Kalevala is based on Karelian and Finnish folk poetry, and it is a part of the European cultural heritage and epic traditions.

In April 2024, the European Commission awarded the Kalevala with the European Heritage Label. The Label has been designated since 2013 to sites within the region of the European Union, which are central to European history, culture and integration. 

The Kalevala is one of the few objects of intangible heritage that has been awarded the European Heritage Label. The Kalevala was given the Label particularly because it is an epic that still has a living role in today’s world. The Kalevala evokes interest regardless of cultural boundaries.  It is a source of inspiration to metal music and fantasy literature as well as to traditional handicraft and even to tattoo art. The Kalevala has been translated to more than 60 languages.

The European Commission: “The Kalevala is one of the most influential epics of 19th century. It is based on Karelian and Finnish vernacular tradition and has influenced the nation building in Finland. While the Kalevala is highly respected as heritage of Finland, it also showcases the interchange and multi-layered nature of European cultures and identities.”

Finland applied for the European Heritage Label to the Kalevala in the spring of 2023. Following the proposition made by the Finnish Heritage Agency, the Ministry of Education and Culture selected the next Finnish applicant. The application process for the Label was administered by the Finnish Literature Society together with the Kalevala Society Foundation, the Gallen-Kallela Museum, the Juminkeko Foundation, and the Rune Singer’s Village Parppeinvaara, as well as a broad network of collaborators. Several organizations knowledgeable in the fields of the Kalevala, the Karelian language and culture as well as pedagogics are part of the network.

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 been given to an epic before. 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 also presents 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 is possible to increase the knowledge of the Karelian language and the diversity of the Karelian culture among people in Finland.

Niina Hämäläinen, Executive Director of the Kalevala Society Foundation: ”The label will enable broad cooperation with organisations specialising in the Kalevala and Karelian and Finnish cultural heritage. The aim of the pedagogical project is to open up the meanings and backgrounds of the Kalevala and to encourage young people to reflect on cultural heritage as part of their own identity formation.”

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 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. The European Heritage Label 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 Kalevala – Living Epic Network

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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