n a time before books, when heroes lived in the tales created and recalled by bards, in a place where daily life was a struggle against cold, darkness and hunger, people sang and recited the stories that would become known as Kalevala. Even were it not the centerpiece of Finnish mythology, Kalevala would stand as an epic tale of fear, hope, love and war.
This amazing work was collected and translated in 1835 by folkorist Elias Lönnrot, but it had been told and retold for hundreds of years by the people of northeastern Finland.
In over 22,000 lines of rhythmic verse, the world is created, immortals are born, heroes are slain and revived, love is made and wars are fought. The Sampo--miraculous bringer of wealth, and more importantly, food--is forged. Kalevala is a story of magic, seduction, suicide, torment and tears, but it also tells of victory, rebirth, marriage, song and celebration. Throughout it all are scenes in the everyday lives of the ancient Finnish people: brewing beer and making bread, bathing, doing housework and driving cattle.
The poem's echoing rhymes lent it a unique method of performance. Imagine a room of people, gathered by firelight on a freezing northern night. A bench is placed in the center of the room, where the bard sits. He calls to a member of the audience, who joins him on the bench. The two clasp hands and begin the chant. Swaying back and forth in time to the constant rhythm, the singers recite the tales of Kalevala as the audience listens, entranced. The performance will go on and on for hours. Those listening are drawn in by the hypnotic beat of the stories, allowing them to escape the cold darkness into a world of heroes and adventure.
With this scene in mind, read the following excerpts from Kalevala (English translation by W.F. Kirby-1907). I hope you'll see why it fascinated me, and engendered this web page.
Runo I (Opening verses)I am driven by my longing,
And my understanding urges
That I should commence my singing,
And begin my recitation.
I will sing the people's legends,
And the ballads of the nation.
To my mouth the words are flowing,
And the words are gently falling,
Quickly as my tongue can shape them,
And between my teeth emerging.
Dearest friend, and much-loved brother,
Best beloved of all companions,
Come and let us sing together,
Let us now begin our converse,
Since at length we meet together,
From two widely sundered regions.
Rarely can we meet together,
Rarely on can meet the other,
In these dismal Northern regions,
In the dreary land of Pohja,
Let us clasp our hands together,
Let us interlock our fingers;
Let us sing a cheerful measure,
Let us use our best endeavours,
While our dear ones hearken to us,
And our loved ones are instructed,
While the young are standing round us,
Of the rising generation,
Let them learn the words of magic,
And recall our songs and legends,
Of the belt of Väinämöinen,
Of the forge of Ilmarinen,
And of Kaukomieli's sword-point,
And of Joukahainen's crossbow:
Of the utmost bounds of Pohja,
And of Kalevala's wide heathlands.