February 28: Finland’s Culture and Kalevala Day

On the journey toward Finnish independence as a nation, the epic poem Kalevala played a central role in creating a sense of national pride and identity. The first edition of the Kalevala appeared in 1835, compiled by Elias Lönnrot from folk poems collected in Finland and East Karelia.

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Lemminkäinen’s Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Ateneum, Helsinki

The stories of the Kalevala had been part of the mythology and oral tradition of speakers of Balto-Finnic languages for 2000 years. Its unique poetic metre was subsequently used extensively by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Its legends and themes also influenced J.R.R. Tolkien heavily.

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion)
― J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257

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 Sweden.The independence movement that resulted in Finland’s declaration of independence in 1917 was strongly 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.

It marked a new beginning for Finnish culture, and brought a small, unknown people to the attention of other Europeans.

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Kullervo Rides to War by Akseli Gallen-Kallela

Old Student House, Helsinki

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