The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems he had collected in Finland and East Karelia.
“Kullervo Departs for the War,” by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1901).Photo: Ateneum Art Museum
Its poetic tradition, sung in an unusual, archaic trochaic tetrametre, had been part of the oral tradition among speakers of Balto-Finnic languages for 2000 years. This poetic metre was subsequently used extensively by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At the time the Kalevala appeared, Finland had been an autonomous Grand Duchy under Russia for a quarter of a century. Prior to this, until 1809, Finland had been a part of the Swedish empire.The independence movement that resulted in Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was greatly influenced by the emergence of the Kalevala as a symbol of national identity.
The Kalevala also inspired the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius in his music, as well as generations of poets and artists to this day.
The Kalevala marked a new beginning for Finnish culture and brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans. The Kalevala began to be called the Finnish national epic.