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Who’s Who in the Kalevala

Here’s a list of the main protagonists in the Kalevala.


Aino is Joukahainen’s younger sister, whom Joukahainen promises in marriage to Väinämöinen in order to save his own life (poem 3). Lönnrot created her story from various folk poems. There is no mention of a female figure called Aino in the collected folk poetry. Aino is Joukahainen’s ‘only sister’; Lönnrot made her name from the word ainoa, meaning ‘the only one’. After refusing to marry old Väinämöinen, Aino accidentally drowns herself (4); in the original folk poem, the girl hangs herself. Väinämöinen tries to find her, but he is too late: she has transformed into a fish that mocks him (5). Lönnrot drew from his knowledge of lyric folk poetry to portray Aino’s desperation and her mother’s sorrow upon the girl’s death.


The sister of smith Ilmarinen, Annikki, is washing clothes when she spies Väinämöinen’s boat at sea; she realises that he is going courting at Pohjola. Aware of the rivalry between her brother and Väinämöinen, she immediately informs Ilmarinen (poem 18). The name Anni (or Annikki) appears in many folk poems, also as the name of Joukahainen’s sister, which became Aino in the Kalevala. The name Annikki comes from the name Anna, the name of Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, known from apocryphal writings and the tradition of the Christian church.

She became an immensely popular saint in the Western Church from the fourteenth century onwards, and she was also recognised in the Eastern Church. Anni (also Annikki or Annikka) appears in Karelian hunting charms; hunters prayed for her assistance in catching game. Because Lönnrot’s aim was to present a ‘pagan’ world, he erased her name with its Christian connotations from that context in the Kalevala.


Hiisi means either a place or an evil creature. In the Kalevala, Hiisi lives in the forest and is the owner of an animal (e.g. an elk, a gelding, a foal or a hound). Since Christian times, Hiisi has come to be equated with the devil. Originally, the word hiisi referred to a sacred grove of pre-Christian times, a holy place set apart from the secular world.


Smith Ilmarinen, Seppo Ilmarinen, ‘the everlasting craftsman’, appears in more than a half of the poems of the Kalevala. He may be considered a culture hero; a skillful craftsman, he learns to use iron, he forges the Sampo, he makes the golden bride and frees the heavenly bodies from the mountain. He takes part in the expedition to steal the Sampo. Ilmarinen is married to Louhi’s daughter for a time, and, in his anger, transforms another daughter of Louhi into a seagull. In the folk poems, he is also known as the smith who forged the heavens. Although Ilmarinen has a talent for making things, he is not renowned as a great singer or orator. He is Väinämöinen’s helper. The Finnish word for the air, ilma, is the stem word for his name, which is one of the oldest Finno-Ugric names for a god.


Ilmatar, the Air Virgin, descends from the sky to the waters, where she gives birth to Väinämöinen and the goldeneye lays its eggs on her knee (poem 1). In the folk poems, it is Väinämöinen who raises his knee from the water for the seabird to lay its eggs on. The name Ilmatar is known from healing charms. In Karelian epic poems, a maiden called Iro is the mother of three heroes: Väinämöinen, Joukamoinen and smith Ilmollinen.


Joukahainen is a young man from the North who envies Väinämöinen’s status as a singer and sage. The brash young man challenges the older man to a battle of wisdom and knowledge, but loses, pleading for his life (poem 3). His sister, Aino, whom he has promised to Väinämöinen, refuses to marry the old man; she ends up drowning (4). After suffering such defeat, humiliation and loss, Joukahainen resolves to kill Väinämöinen but fails (5). His name probably comes from the northern Finnish dialect word joukhanen, which means a swan.


The section about Kullervo (poems 31–36) forms a long epic sequence (2196 lines) in the Kalevala. Lönnrot constructed it from several independent epic folk songs. Kullervo, a miraculously strong child, is the son of Kalervo, who is slain by his brother Untamo. The boy is brought up in Untamo’s house as a servant. Untamo attempts to kill him but fails. Kullervo is sold to smith Ilmarinen to work as a serf. Ilmarinen’s wife bakes a stone inside his bread. Outraged by this insult, Kullervo drives the bears and the wolves to kill her. Kullervo finds his family alive (this is an illogical twist in the plot). He unknowingly seduces his own sister, takes revenge on Untamo’s household and then kills himself with his sword. By skillfully combining several folk poems (e.g. the poem of Kaleva’s Son and the poem of Tuurikkainen, the latter is based on a Scandinavian ballad), Lönnrot was able to create a psychologically convincing character, the most well-known tragic hero in Finnish literature. The fate of Kullervo made an impression on J. R. R. Tolkien, inspiring him in his creation of Túrin Turambar in The Children of Húrin. Kullervo’s name is a derivate of the word kulta meaning gold or dear.


Kyllikki lives on Saari (Island). Though famed for her beauty, Kyllikki is a difficult conquest, thus presenting Lemminkäinen with a challenge. He abducts her and takes her to his home on his sleigh (poem 11). Their bond (the promise to remain at home) is soon broken; Lemminkäinen leaves Kyllikki with his mother, setting off to do battle with the people of Pohjola (12). The epic folk poem depicts her, more clearly than does Lönnrot’s text, as a strong-willed and fearless woman opposed to her husband’s warlike ways.


Like Kullervo, ‘wanton Lemminkäinen’ is the main character in a whole sequence of poems (11–15). He is also known as Kaukomieli and Ahti Saarelainen. After abducting and forsaking Kyllikki, he then proceeds to Pohjola to woo the daughter of Louhi. He succeeds in catching the elk of Hiisi and harness its gelding. He is killed and thrown into the Tuonela River, but is rescued and brought back to life by his mother. Lemminkäinen kills the master of Pohjola, escapes to Saari, has his way with the maidens of the island and is forced to flee. He goes to take revenge on the people of Pohjola, later joining the expedition to rob the Sampo from Pohjola. In sum, Lemminkäinen is a fearless risk-taker, an avid fighter and ardent lover. In fact, he botches up the scheme to steal the Sampo by singing so badly that the people of Pohjola wake up. The word for love, lempi, is embedded in Lemminkäinen’s name. His mother is, after all, the woman of his life. The folk poems at the basis of the Lemminkäinen sequence include both shamanistic elements and motifs from medieval visionary literature (e.g. crossing the fiery pit and rapids, overcoming the fiery eagle, the snake fence and beasts, as well as drinking the tankard of vipers). The poem depicting Lemminkäinen’s death and resurrection shares similar elements from the Osiris-myth, the Scandinavian Balder-myth and the myth of Christ. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Lemminkäinen’s mother does not bring her son back to life in the epic poems performed by some eminent Karelian singers.


Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola, is Väinämöinen’s most formidable opponent. Because Lönnrot fashioned this character from such conflicting elements, she emerges as a contradictory figure in the Kalevala. Louhi plays an active role in the following episodes: having the Sampo forged (poems 7 and 10), giving tasks to suitors (poems 13–14 and 19), organising the wedding at Pohjola (20–24), chasing the robbers of the Sampo (42–43), sending diseases and bears to Kalevala, stealing fire from the people of Kalevala, as well as hiding and releasing the sun and the moon (45–47, 49). Lönnrot took the name Louhi from charms or from one oral epic poem, and used it as a name for the mistress of Pohjola. In folk poetry, she is referred to only as ‘the mistress of Pohjola’ or ‘the whore, mistress of Pohjola’ (in charms) or ‘the gap-toothed hag of Pohjo’.

Louhi appears as a gracious and hospitable hostess at the wedding of Pohjola. Yet for Lönnrot to show the antagonism between Kalevala and Pohjola, he needed to underscore the malevolence of this female character; indeed, he found this evil connection in the charms depicting ‘the whore, the mistress of Pohjola’, as the source of diseases. At the beginning of the Kalevala, Louhi bears no ill will to Väinämöinen or his people. After the loss of two daughters to Ilmarinen and the slaying of her husband by Lemminkäinen, however, she grows to hate the people of Kalevala. What is more, she also suffers the loss of the Sampo, making her desire to take revenge on the people of Kalevala even more understandable. Louhi’s equivalents have been found in the Edda (Loki) and in the flying dragon of Icelandic sagas.

Marjatta and Marjatta’s son

In the last poem (50) of the Kalevala, a new character is introduced: Marjatta, a chaste maiden who becomes pregnant from a lingonberry. Marjatta is harshly censured for her miraculous pregnancy. She looks for a sauna to give birth in, but is turned down by Herod´s wife. She finds a stall for giving birth, and a boy is born. Her baby disappears while she is combing her hair. She looks for him and finds the child. Thereafter the figure of Marjatta recedes, with her child quickly assuming the role of main protagonist. The child is baptised by Virokannas and named King of Karelia, leaving Väinämöinen no choice but to retreat. Parts of the Karelian epic folk song cycle describing the Virgin Mary, the birth of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection form the basis for the first part of the Kalevala poem. In composing the latter part of the poem, Lönnrot drew from other sources: for example, the passage in which the small child miraculously speaks, condemning those who have not acknowledged him – a motif used in Christian saints’ legends – comes from another epic song called Marketta and Hannus. Poem 50 ends with Väinämöinen’s leave-taking; in the folk poem a foundling accuses Väinämöinen of incest, insulting him and compelling him to leave. In Lönnrot’s text, however, the child reminds him of Aino’s death.

Sampsa Pellervoinen

At the beginning of the Kalevala, Sampsa Pellervoinen is called upon by Väinämöinen to sow the lands (poem 2). He helps Väinämöinen find a suitable tree for making a boat, and he also fells an oak for him (poem 16). He is a spirit of vegetation and plants. In folk poetry, he is usually called Sämpsä Pellervoinen. This poem of the sower was sung in the vakka-ritual of the Ingrians to promote growth and fertility. Ingrians were living on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland and in the environs of St. Petersburg. The rite survived among the Ingrian Russian Orthodox population until the nineteenth century, fusing with the Christian festival on St Peter’s Day, June 29th. The first name Sampsa probably derives from Samson (the strong man of the Bible but also a Russian Orthodox saint), and the second name is a derivative of pelto, meaning field.


Antero Vipunen is a long-dead giant and sage. Väinämöinen needs to get the magic words for finishing his boat from him (poem 17). Vipunen swallows him. When Väinämöinen’s hammering in Vipunen’s stomach wakes him from his deathly slumber, Vipunen sings his incantations to him. Shamanistic features structure the plot of this deliciously macabre poem about paying a visit to Vipunen. Väinämöinen’s actions are reminiscent of a shaman who falls into trance to enter the other world and obtain knowledge from the dead. Lönnrot incorporated the longest section of incantations into this poem.


Virokannas baptises Marjatta’s son in poem 50. Although his name is somewhat mysterious, it does have associations with vegetation and growth. This name is related to the promoter of the growth of oats in Mikael Agricola’s list of ‘old Finnish gods’ from 1551. His role as baptiser links him to a Christian saint, most probably Saint John the Evangelist. The Karelians burnt incense in oat fields on his memorial day.



Väinämöinen, also known as Väinö, ‘steady old Väinämöinen’, ‘the everlasting singer’ and ‘the eternal sage’, is the leading figure of the epic, appearing in most of the poems of the Kalevala: 1–10, 16–21, 25, and 35–50. His name originates from the word väinä, which means a broad, slowly running stream or straight. Väinämöinen’s character is many-layered – and so is the poetry behind him. He is frequently mentioned as an ancient god of the Finns in old Finnish printed literature, first by Mikael Agricola in 1551. Ever since, numerous Finnish scholars have sought to analyse and explain the figure of Väinämöinen; their interpretations include historical, mythical and shamanistic perspectives. Folk poetry about him includes epic poems and charms, and thus his roles are manifold. As a leading figure of the poems, his name has attracted functions from a variety of layers of culture. Väinämöinen has been emphasised in different ways in the various areas of Finnish-Karelian oral singing culture. Lönnrot has combined all of Väinämöinen’s roles in his epic. He is the creator god of the world, the one giving shape to the land and to the sea. In the folk poems a seabird, eagle or goose lays its eggs on Väinämöinen’s knee, and Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen together make the spark of fire that escapes but is finally captured. As a culture hero, Väinämöinen makes the first boat and the first kantele – as its creator, he is also the most skilled player of the kantele; like Orpheus, he is a singer capable of enchanting humans and animals alike. As a shaman, Väinämöinen is able to visit Tuonela, the land of the dead, and return home. He also goes to meet the deceased wise man Antero Vipunen. As a powerful singer, he sings Joukahainen into – and out of – a swamp. He longs to find himself a wife. His humanity is reflected in his various attempts to get a female companion: for example, his interest in the young Aino and his courting trips to Pohjola. At times Väinämöinen appears ridiculous: when he is mocked by the fish-Aino for not recognising her (poem 5), and at the end of the Kalevala, when he is accused and made to feel ashamed before a baby (50). In the folk poems, the accusations against Väinämöinen are far more severe: he is accused of incest with his mother, even of sodomy. At the close of the Kalevala, he maintains his status of great singer: he leaves the kantele, music and the noble songs for his people.


The Kalevala Guide

Irma-Riitta Järvinen: Kalevala Guide. 2nd edition, 2017. Helsinki: SKS.