Antea wrote:I was listening to a podcast that explained that today is the "Kalevala day", because it was first published a 28 Februar. I was thinking about how little I know about this important part of tradition. Has someone read or studied the Kalevala?
As Naava said, it's quite important and well-known. The funny thing is that I have copies of it in three languages (Finnish, English, Estonian) and know the basics of the plot, but I don think I've ever actually read it from beginning to end (in any language), just parts of it.
Neither have I. We were taught the plot in school, and I've read some runes from here and there, but never the entire book. I think it'd be more entertaining if it was sung; it's quite heavy text to read.
Since this is a Finnish culture thread and you (Antea
) said that you don't know anything about Kalevala, I feel like I should explain to you where Kalevala comes from before you read it. It is an interesting story on its own, but I also believe knowing its background can help you to understand it better.
To summarise, it was published in the 1800s when nationalism was A Big Thing in Finland. People (especially the Swedish speaking elite) were trying to find and create a Finnish identity that would be separate from both Swedish and Russian identities, and to use that to build a sense of unity between the ruling elite and the common folk. Kalevala was one of the tools to achieve this, and its importance to the Finnish culture stems from that. Like the kalevalaseura.fi
says, Kalevala became "the symbol of the Finns' past, nationality, language, and culture to the Finnish intelligentsia, on which they started to build the frail Finnish identity. It sparked interest even abroad and made the small, unknown people famous among other Europeans." It was a way of showing to the world (and to Finns themselves) that such a thing as Finnish culture even existed: a proof that Finns weren't just uncivilised peasants living in the woods, but instead had a beautiful national epic just like the Ancient Greeks had their Iliad and Odyssey
Moreover, Lönnrot also wished to develop the (standard) Finnish language. [source]
Kalevala was published at a time when "the battle of dialects" took place: the literature written so far had been based on (South) Western dialects, but now the supporters of the Eastern dialects had waken up and demanded those dialects should be used as the basis of written Finnish instead of the Western dialects.  Kalevala as a famous ancient epic written mostly in Eastern dialects (and partly in Karelian, with some Western influence mixed in)  helped to defend their arguments, but it also gave one example of using both Western and Eastern features in the same text. (In the end, a compromise was indeed made: the standard Finnish we use today is a combination of both Eastern and Western dialects.)
(Here's the footnotes:)
Ever since it was published, Kalevala has been (and most likely will be) a very important part and, in a sense, a source of Finnish culture. It itself has shaped the Finnish identity and language, but it has also inspired many other authors and artists. (For example, there's the Kullervo
symphony by Sibelius, a play on the same subject by Aleksis Kivi, several operas by Rautavaara, and the famous painting of the story of Aino by Akseli Gallen-Kallela that I swear every Finn has seen.) However, you probably shouldn't think Kalevala is the result
of (ancient) Finnish culture. There's two reasons for that.
First of all, Lönnrot collected the poems mainly from Karelia [source]
. The idea was that these faraway lands had preserved the original, shared mythos that had been lost in Finland. Unfortunately, I don't know enough to say for sure if this is true or not. In any case, what is true is that none of the poems in Kalevala came from Western, Southern or Northern Finland. Even if these areas had had similar poetical traditions, they are not directly represented in Kalevala. This is why some Karelian activists have lately argued that Kalevala is in fact a Karelian epic written by a Finnish man, and claiming it as Finnish without a mention of its Karelian roots is an act of cultural appropriation. [source]
Secondly, the poems were not written down as they were sung. Lönnrot listened to over 70 rune singers on his journeys, and you bet none of them recited the entire Kalevala exactly as it was published in the end: even though the characters were the same, one singer could sing a story another signer had never heard, and those who sang about the same story gave different versions of it.  What Lönnrot then did was to compare what he had heard and work on it as if it was a puzzle: he chose some poems and left some out, put them in order that would create a (more or less) coherent plot line, altered verses that didn't fit, added his own verses to fill any gaps between the runes he had recorded...  As a result, Kalevala is very much the result of Lönnrot's work. Even if the rune singers had passed their knowledge to the next generations, Kalevala wouldn't exist without Lönnrot. This is also why the Karelian activists, while wishing the epic's roots were made more visible, wouldn't want to claim it as theirs alone: "Kalevala does not and could not belong to one nation alone", as Eila Stepanova  says. [source]
Here's also a translation of an article
, where a few other Karelians explain what they think of the matter:
(And here's the footnotes:)P.s. Spot the student who was supposed to work on her thesis but who instead decided to write an essay on Kalevala. I have no regrets.