The Kalevala is an epic poem compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century from Finnish folk sources. It is commonly called the Finnish national epic and is one of the most significant works of Finnish-language literature. The Kalevala is credited with inspiring the nationalism that ultimately led to Finnish independence from Russia in 1917. The name means "land of heroes".
Lönnrot was a physician by profession but his passion for the traditional oral stories of his native Finland led him to travel extensively to acquire new material. He collected most of the poems from the region of Karelia. He believed that the small poems he collected were fragments of a once-continuous epic. He published the first Kalevala, the "old" Kalevala, in two volumes in 1835-1836. The old Kalevala consisted of thirty-two poems collected by Lönnrot starting around 1829, which Lönnrot edited and expanded with connecting material to make a continuous story. Lönnrot continued to collect new material, which he integrated into the Kalevala in a second edition, published in 1849. This "new" Kalevala contained fifty poems. This is the standard text of the Kalevala read today.
The main character of the Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a shamanistic hero with the magical power of songs. He is born of the primal Maiden of the Air and contributes to the creation of the world. Many of his travels resemble shamanistic journeys, especially the one where he visits the belly of a ground-giant Antero Vipunen to find the words of boat generation. He plays kantele, a Finnish string instrument that is played like a zither. One of his kanteles is made of the jawbone of a giant pike. He never finds a wife (one of the women drowns herself instead) and steals Sampo, a magical mill, from the people of the north.
Other characters, some of which have their own chapters, are Seppo Ilmarinen, a heroic artificer-smith (kind of a version of Germanic Weyland) who makes the sky dome, Sampo and more; the Hag of the North, a shamanistic matriarch of a people rivaling those of Kalevala who in one stage pulls the sun and the moon from the sky; Väinämöinen's young rival Joukahainen who promises his sister Aino to him when he loses a singing contest; vengeful, self-destructive Kullervo who is born as a slave, goes into berserk rage and commits suicide; and handsome but arrogant Lemminkäinen, whose mother has to rescue his corpse from the river of Death which runs through Tuonela, and bring him to life, echoing the myth of Osiris.
Some of the chapters describe ancient creation myths, a long wedding ceremony and the right words for magical spells of healing and craftsmanship.
There are two English translations of the Kalevala. The older translation follows the original rhythm of the poems that may sound cumbersome to English ears. Poet Keith Bosley has written another version with more fluid language.
J. R. R. Tolkien claimed the Kalevala as one of his sources for the writings which became the Silmarillion. It also inspired British science fiction writer Ian Watson to write Books of Mana duology (Lucky's Harvest, The Fallen Moon).
See also: Finnish mythology