A seminar commemorating the bicentennial of Elias Lönnrot’s birth, April 9, 2002 University of Helsinki

by Maria Vasenkari, Editorial Secretary at the Kalevala Institute, University of Turku.

Elias Lönnrot, the compiler of the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and one of the most central icons of the Finnish national identity, is being celebrated in many ways and events all over the country during his jubilee year. On April 9, his birthday, approximately 600 listeners gathered in the main hall of Helsinki University to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth. Eight researchers examined his work in the fields of folklore, the Finnish language, medicine and music, and his influence on the birth of the Finnish nation.

Professor emeritus of pediatrics, Kauko Kouvalainen (University of Oulu) spoke of Elias Lönnrot’s medical legacy. Lönnrot was a medical district doctor at Kajaani for 20 years in 1833–53. Kouvalainen started with the statement made in the commemorative speech published shortly after Lönnrot’s death of him having been “a mediocre doctor”. He examined Lönnrot’s medical legacy from two points of view, first, his career as a doctor and especially his influence on health care, and second, the aspects of medicine included in the Kalevala.

As a district physician at a time when hunger and epidemics were severe in the country regions, Lönnrot put most of his efforts into preventive health care. He was well ahead of his time in instructing the people on the significance of hygiene and warning against the consummation of spirits and smoking. He was an expert on botany, too, and he encouraged people to use plants in preparing food that have only much later been discovered to contain vitamins and nutrients essential in preventing, say, rickets and scurvy, the most common diseases at that time. He also proposed the establishment of organised child and maternity care, a system which was created almost a hundred years later.

According to Kouvalainen, Lönnrot’s medical interest is apparent in the material he collected during his field trips. He collected plenty of material on health and illness, especially riddles and incantations. Kouvalainen’s medical point of view complements the study of the Kalevala in a most interesting way, for example, he regards the poem of Kullervo as containing the nucleus of pedagogy and as describing the basics of disturbed behaviour. Kouvalainen concluded his presentation with a statement that Lönnrot was far from mediocre; rather, he was a great man in Finnish medicine, too.

Professor Irma Sulkunen (University of Helsinki) who is writing a history of the Finnish Literature Society (founded in 1831), spoke on “Elias Lönnrot and the Finnish Literature Society”. She examined the idealised definition of Lönnrot, the way he has been considered as an icon and almost saintly figure in Finland’s history. He can also be found in the focal point of the Finnish national sciences and the scientific community. When we evaluate Lönnrot, according to Sulkunen, we mirror ourselves.

Sulkunen focused on the relationship between Lönnrot and the Finnish Literature Society. Lönnrot is best known for the work he did within the Society: it published the versions of the Kalevala as well as his Finnish-Swedish dictionary. In 1854–60 Lönnrot was the president of the Society. Sulkunen claimed that the Finnish Literature Society was already actively promoting the creation of a mythic figure of Lönnrot at the beginning of his career and that this has served ever since as the nucleus of the Society’s self-understanding and image. The national canon was linked solely with Lönnrot’s name, person and authority – at a time when there was no discussion of such issues as copyright. Many other researchers at the time and their work were repressed, disregarded and even dishonoured while Lönnrot’s coprojects were credited solely to him. This was against his will and occurred despite his strivings to the opposite. According to Sulkunen, Lönnrot never internalised his role as a representative of the educated classes but chose to withdraw from it. His withdrawal was interpreted through the codes of humility and modesty.

The manifold ideological and political motives linked with Lönnrot and his work obviously extend beyond the Finnish Literature Society. His characteristics as a great man and his person remain unexamined.

Professor Kaisa Häkkinen (University of Turku) spoke of Lönnrot as a linguist. Lönnrot’s contribution to the development and standardisation of the written Finnish language was great. He was an exception among his Swedish-speaking colleagues in that he spoke Finnish as his mother tongue. His aim was to develop standards for written Finnish based on the various dialects which everybody would be able to read. He tackled the problem of variation and experimented with different systems in developing a standardised orthography. Häkkinen considers Lönnrot to have been a prestructuralist. He renewed the Finnish vocabulary in his writings, introduced a great number of words and concepts into the Finnish language and also dealt with questions of grammar.

Lönnrot became the professor of Finnish at Helsinki University in 1854. It was he who held the first lectures in Finnish and introduced the study and teaching of the language. He was a gentle and kind professor – it was eventually the students who later suggested stricter examination requirements.

Professor Heikki Laitinen (Sibelius Academy, Helsinki) spoke about the “Inventor of the kantele”, the traditional Finnish harp-like stringed instrument. Remarkable changes occurred in the kantele in the 19th century, although usually musical instruments do not tolerate much pressure to change. The kantele grew in size: its resonating body had until then been carved out of one piece of wood but now kanteles with a body made of boards started to appear, and the number of strings was raised from five to as many as 30.

Some years ago Laitinen started to investigate the history of the kantele. The kanteles constructed in the 19th century that were to be found in museums did not contain much information, but Elias Lönnrot’s name appeared on more than ten. The general belief in the 20th century was that Elias Lönnrot was not a musical man, but as Laitinen dug up 19th century sources, the picture began to change. He discovered that not only was Lönnrot highly musical, but it had been common knowledge in the 19th century that he was also the innovator of the kantele and had built many himself: chromatic kanteles with even more than 30 strings. Approximately 20 kanteles built by Lönnrot have been preserved in museums. There are kanteles of many types and sizes, each supplied with instructions on tuning and music for songs prepared by the builder – the inventor of the kantele we have today.

Researcher Jouni Hyvönen (University of Helsinki) spoke on “Folk belief, mythology and Lönnrot”. Hyvönen set out to examine Lönnrot’s relationship with the magic aspects of poetry and his textualisation of the Old Kalevala (1835). Hyvönen has conducted research on the textualisation of incantations in the Old Kalevala. According to him, as many as approximately 17–18% of the poems of the Old Kalevala are based on incantation material. Lönnrot was interested in magic thinking and practices throughout his career. He advocated the consideration of the interplay of consciousness and unconsciousness in all aspects of human existence, and was very critical of science disregarding the latter.

In compiling the Old Kalevala, Lönnrot wanted to create a format for publishing folk poetry. Based on his research in textualisation, Hyvönen stated that Lönnrot chose the method of multiple-voiced dialogue in displaying the epic text. The style of the text can be considered as archaic. Lönnrot himself is present in the text as a narrator, and his role can be considered to be threefold: first he is a mythographer, a narrator who set himself in the ancient past; second he is a mediator organising and publishing the epic text; and third an interpreter who, through his mythological knowledge and folk belief, interprets the Finnish mindscape. In his work Lönnrot never ceased to emphasise the significance of intuition.

Professor Satu Apo (University of Helsinki) spoke of “Lönnrot’s voice in the Kalevala”. When editing the New Kalevala (1849), Lönnrot’s role was more of a writer who set out to tell a readymade tale. Apo asked what it was that Lönnrot wanted to say, to tell about. The narrator that can be traced is a Lutheran Romantic who shares the Enlightenment’s understanding of a good life and good man. There is also a political and ideological dimension: the New Kalevala portrays a sweet country of Finland and the people who inhabit it. The Kalevala provided the Finns with history, yet it also looked ahead to the future. In Lönnrot’s Finland people work hard and strive for a better future, realising the Enlightenment principles of freedom and progress (at the time of the strict Czarist rule of Nikolai I). The God of the Kalevala observes Christian ethics. Apo sees Lönnrot as a nationalistic reviver of the past and a visionary of the future whose interpretation of the mostly Eastern Finnish and Karelian poetry complied with the Western European ideas and thoughts of his day.

Professor emeritus Pertti Karkama (University of Turku) examined “Lönnrot and the ideas of the 19th century”. Karkama looked at Lönnrot as a member of the educated class that was at the beginning of the 19th century the main proponent of the movement aiming at a united nation of Finland. The ideological models adopted by the educated class came from Western Europe. Lönnrot participated in the discussions on the definition of the people, the folk, and the nation and he was also familiar with the various ideologies. Those that affected the work of the educated class included Hegelian aesthetics, ideal realism (especially in literature and art), and historical philosophy. The influence of Hegel’s philosophy was great but has for some reason remained unexamined. According to Karkama Lönnrot’s attitude towards the ideological tradition of his time was pragmatic. It is, however, a difficult subject to study because Lönnrot followed the pratice of his day and did not distinguish the sources he used, and his library has not been preserved.

Eventually the nation state of Finland became defined by cultural standards, and, as a natural consequence, Lönnrot’s work gained immense importance. It is known that Lönnrot was familiar with European theories of epic and applied their ideas in the composition of the Kalevala. He understood the Kalevala as a reflection of the natural truth of the ancient history of Finland – natural in the sense that it followed the people’s understanding of mythology. Lönnrot emphasised the importance of the relationship between man and nature, and criticised Western ideologies for disassociating themselves from that relationship. According to Karkama, Lönnrot’s attitude to nature should not be understood as nostalgic romanticism. For Lönnrot folk belief, in which nature plays a central role, reminds the people of its past, especially of its humanistic legacy.

Professor Michael Branch (University College, London) spoke of “the Kalevala and Lönnrot in the Anglo-Saxon cultures”. His presentation was an important complement to the portrait of Lönnrot as it was the only one that discussed the influence of Lönnrot and the Kalevala outside Finland. Branch’s analysis was based on his study of different sources, four categories in all: first, the translations of the original Kalevala texts into English; second, shortened versions of the Kalevala, approximately 30 in number, produced in 1868–1986; third, research done on the Kalevala and Lönnrot’s work; and fourth, research touching upon the political (mostly nationalistic) dimensions of the Kalevala. Drawing on these sources, Branch analysed the Kalevala’s influence in the United States and the United Kingdom. In both countries the Kalevala has continued to be significant. It has perhaps been more visible in the United States, where its role among second-generation Finns and their process of identity construction has been most central. The Kalevala can be considered as an emblem in that process. In the United Kingdom the influence of the Kalevala can be detected in literature, science, and music. During World War II the Kalevala served as a mirror of the courageous Finns. Branch concluded his presentation by saying that it was Sibelius (whose music was greatly affected by the Kalevala) and Lönnrot together who sang Finland onto the world’s map.

The seminar continued with an evening programme at which Academy Professor Anna-Leena Siikala presented a paper on “Elias Lönnrot as an ethnographer”. We hope to be able to publish this in a later issue of the FF Network.

The manifold picture drawn during the seminar portrays a multitalented man who intentionally chose a position in between the folk and the educated classes, whose talent and work were recognised, appreciated and celebrated even in his day but who chose to avoid the public eye. His remarkable scale of competence in a number of fields has understandably been overshadowed by his main work, the creation of the Kalevala. The seminar commemorating the bicentennial of his birth succeeded in adding to our understanding of the immense significance of his work.

(FFN 23, April 2002: 2-4)

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