The Kalevala; the Birth of Finland's National Epic

By Honko, Lauri | UNESCO Courier, August 1985 | Go to article overview

The Kalevala; the Birth of Finland's National Epic

Honko, Lauri, UNESCO Courier

The origins of epics based on folk poetry are usually clouded in mystery. We can only guess at the genesis of such treasures as the Mahabrarata, the epics of Homer and Virgil, Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied and the Edda. The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, which was first published in 1835, is an interesting exception.

We know that the Kalevala (Kalevala is the name of the mythical land in which the epic is situated) was compiled and edited by Elias Lonnrot (1802-1884), a doctor who for twenty years was district physician in Kajaani, in north-eastern Finland, and who later became professor of Finnish language and literature at the University of Helsinki.

We know, line by line, the sources of the Kalevala, those folk poems that Lonnrot collected during the eleven journeys he made to the eastern and northern provinces during the period 1828-1844, as well as poems recorded by dozens of other collectors which were included in the second and final edition published in 1849.

We also know Lonnrot's working methods; his compilation work is illuminated by his travel accounts and newspaper articles, by the method he used in handling his poetic raw material and by the five editorial phases which preceded the final published version. Since the original recorded poems have been preserved and published (1908-1948) in the thirty-three-volume Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (Ancient Poems of the Finnish People), and since other documentary evidence abounds, we are able to follow in the footsteps of the compiler of the epic. It is as if we were looking over his shoulder as he sat working at his desk.

The story of the genesis of the Kalevala began in the 1760s. It was then that Henrik Gabriel Porthan, professor at the Turku Academy, began publishing his treatise on Finnish poetry (Dissertatio de Poesi Fennica, 1766-1778). It was not until Porthan's day, and largely thanks to him, that it was realized that folk poetry, maintained in oral tradition, was a more valuable part of the Finnish-language literary heritage than any previous Finnish literature, which had been predominantly religious and economic in nature.

A second turning point came with the treaty of Hamina (1809) which severed the ties between Finland and Sweden (which went back nearly seven centuries) and attached her as a self-governing Grand Duchy to the Russian Empire. The far-advanced assimilation with Sweden was broken, doors were opened towards the Finno-Ugric tribes in eastern Europe, and the first Diet planted in the minds of Finns an image of a Finland which was more than a few provinces belonging either to Sweden or to Russia.

This resulted in an identity crisis. The educated, Swedish-speaking minority had to decide whether to turn towards Russian culture or to identify themselves with the language and underdeveloped culture of the majority. They chose the latter course even though it entailed a dramatic change of language and the difficult tas of building a new identity. The Finnish language had to be raised from its state of degradation and made into a language of culture. A Finnish-language literature had to be built and material collected for a new kind of Finnish history.

In the autumn of 1822, three students enrolled at the Turku Academy--J.V. Snellman, J.L. Runeberg and Elias Lonnrot. At the time no one could have foreseen that Snellman was destined to become the main ideologist of the national movement, Runeberg the most important Swedish-speaking poet in Finland and Lonnrot the compiler of the Finnish national epic.

Elias Lonnrot represented the common man in this group. He was a poor tailor's son whose schooling was frequently interrupted for want of money. His talent helped him to get ahead, his diligence encouraged him to undertake great projects at which others would have balked and his unassuming manner won the respect of both learned men and ordinary people. His natural make-up and social background coupled with his training as a doctor gave him an understanding of and an insight into the lies of ordinary people and helped him to withstand the rigours of his strenuous journeyings. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Kalevala; the Birth of Finland's National Epic


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.