Searching for the mythical characters of Kalevala

I’ve come to realize how much our history and maybe more specifically language has an impact on whole nations of people and the way we think. As a kid, I often heard it said that language defines a culture. I really did not understand the concept at the time. It was not until later that I realized that each language has their own words and phrases that often are difficult to translate because the feeling or experience is unique to that specific environment and surrounding. These expressions hold nuances that tell about the culture and mindset of the people and sometimes even explain the way people act. The Kalevala, which is the Finnish national epic poem, has had a significant part in the development of the Finnish language and identity and has been studied by scholars since Elias Lönnrot. Lönnrot was a physician, botanist and linguist. In the late 1820s and 1830s he made numerous field trips to collect the songs of the Kalevala and oral history that had been handed down from generation to generation but was slowing starting to disappear as Western European culture was making its way into Finland. The youtube link below is a Kalevala song with English subtitles.

The other week, we had a chance with Antti to go hiking in the landscape of the national park, Repovesi. As we walked and climbed the trails covered in small boulders or through the marsh on wooden planks, surrounded by a carpet of the light colored Sphagnum moss that had been used as insulation in houses of yesteryear, I could easily imagine the mythical world of the Kalevala that inhabited this Nordic land.

rahkasammal repovesi

The story begins with the creation of the earth and has characters that go on seemingly impossible expeditions to find a spell in order to acquire a skill such as boatmaking or ironmaking. In addition there are tales of romance, and kidnapping and seduction. In the midst of this all is the magical Sampo, which is like a talisman that brings it’s holder great fortune. As can be imagined it is something that is direly sought after.


Still today there are aspects of Finnish culture that refer back to the Kalevala. It is very common to meet children with names such as Sampo, Aino or Sampsa or an insurance company named Imarinen, or a jewelry company named Kalevala or an ice cream brand made by Valio called Aino.

forest pondCan’t you just imagine the maiden Aino coming to this forest pond to wash, when all around you is a perfect stillness only interrupted by the chatter of a squirrel and the song of bird?

olhavanvuori2Our destination was Olhava mountain which is very popular with rock climbers. Perhaps it was nostalgic for my husband as he has climbed the wall as an army conscript. I’m not sure I would dare.

At the base of Olhava there is a camp site where someone had forgotten their nearly brand new running shoes in a trendy neon color hanging over a makeshift clothesline. We took out our kuksa, which is a wooden cup made traditionally from the burl of a tree. Perhaps the mythical characters of Kalevala used the kuksa as well. An old tale tells that a kuksa may only be rinsed out in a stream but not washed with soap as you will wash away your luck. While we both had the same tea, my husband’s kuksa has been stained with the many cups of coffee he has had on previous trips and so his drink looked more like coffee than tea.

kuksa collage

making the kuksa, using coffee grounds as a stain
making the kuksa, using coffee grounds as a stain

We had simple fare along, sausages to roast over the fire, a few apples and rye bread with some butter and cheese.

repovesi camp siteI think next time I might pack along a small container of this melon salad that was inspired by my neighbor. I tweeked the original version a bit, but as it is very juicy it does not necessarily need any dressing. I dressed it simply with about a teaspoon or two of grated fresh ginger, a sprinkle of fleur de sel and a little black pepper.

IMG_7517Melon salad with Kale and Ginger


1/2 of a small or mini watermelon cut into small cubes
1/2 of a honey dew melon cut into small cubes
1/2 of a sweet onion, finely minced
two handfuls of kale, stems removed and finely chopped
fleur de sel
freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tsp grated fresh ginger

Mix all of the ingredients together and enjoy. This salad stores quite well for a couple of days and is wonderful with grilled meat.

repovesi landscape


reference source: wikipedia



  1. Your pics and musings along with Katja’s pics on FB are stunning, exhibiting the glories of the northland and the unique culture. Love it.
    Love, Grampa

    1. Thank you Grampa, I was thinking that maybe I should include something about Eino Juhani Rautavaara and Sibelius into this post…but then decided that it would need a post of it’s own.
      Love, Laila

  2. Beautiful, could almost smell the fresh woodsy odors. And such a pleasant way to receive a bit of the Finnish heritage. Hugs…

    1. Thank you Gramma. It was such a fun day and I thought the landscape was quite similar to what was in the video. The big boulders in the forest just spark the imagination as they are perfect hiding places for mythical creatures 🙂 Lots of love and hugs, Laila

  3. What a fantastic national park, it looks like you had a wonderful time! Thank you for sharing your story about the Kalevala- I had never hear of them before! It’s fun to think about how much history influences the present.

    1. It is a great place to hike and is an area that the Finnish national forestry administration (metsähallitus) had logged actively for years. It has only been a national park for about ten years and currently is being returned to it’s previous natural state.

  4. I’ve always wanted to visit Finland – especially the lakes! I only know of them, and the Kalevala, through Sibelius.
    Years ago a friend of mine told me how his grandfather had travelled to Ainola to conduct an interview with Sibelius for the BBC. When they got to Tuusula Lake, Sibelius wouldn’t see them after all. And when he finally did, after several days’ wait, he told them to tell the BBC to get lost …
    Beautiful pictures, especially those mosses!

    1. Thank you for sharing your fascinating story about your friend’s grandfather. It is difficult to know why he turned down the interview. I have read that he at times suffered from bouts of depression and also from essential tremors that restricted his social life. One will never know.

      1. He must have been a very complex character – especially in later life. But then, given the chance, I’d be ready to hide away on the shore of a Finnish lake 😉

  5. You are absolutely right the language defines the nation, the culture, the traditions, etc. With no language nation is dead.
    Sometime ago I visited Luxembourg and along with French and German languages heard something unfamiliar. I asked people what language they speak. The answer was Luxembourgish. That language almost disappeared. But thanks to the enthusiast it was revived and had another life. Today almost 40% of population use to speak their language again. I respect nations that save, use and promote their language, culture, traditions and country.
    I heard about Kalevala mostly trough the music and literature. This is why it is interesting to hear about that from person who lives into that culture.
    Pictures and places are awesome!

    1. Language definitely has many layers to it and it comes through the music and literature as well. Thank you for sharing your experience with Luxembourgish. I don’t think I have encountered or heard the language spoken. There are many old languages of small populations that are disappearing. Glad they have had success with its revivial.

  6. Really evocative photos. Especially love the coffee-stained kuksa and that magnificent moss-covered boulder. I can definitely picture a maiden washing at the forest pond!
    Can’t believe how timely this post is. My 10-year old is studying Norse mythology and Skaldic poetry at school. My husband is of Finnish descent, so Finnish culture has been popping up in our conversations recently too, as has language/etymology. My son has been questioning the relevance of having to study French – I can’t wait to show him this post, and your explanation of language defining a culture. Thank you!

    1. What perfect timing indeed. Hope your son finds some help or inspiration from the post. It is a constant political debate here in Finland whether Swedish should be a required subject in schools. Swedish is the second official language in Finland. Many find it to be a waste of time, but on the other hand it is a part of their cultural history as could be claimed about Russia as well. I have found that when you learn a second language it will definitely make learning a third or fourth language easier as quite a few languages are connected in some way. Many English words come directly from French, making it an interesting language. I sometimes wish I might have studied it in school.

  7. Perhaps it is a little like the chicken and the egg – which came first, culture or history/language. I think the two work on each other. Culture is expressed through language. And both language and culture have gone through historical processes. Also, don’t forget that nation states are a VERY modern phenomenon – one that has created its own myths/history/language. Absolutely love your photographs. Is that a moose antler that the bowl of melon salad is sitting on? Fantastic!

    1. Yes, of course you are right. Either one would not be complete with out the other. And yes, the concept of states is very new from a historical stand point but that said, many states are defined by their cultural lines and from this the need for statehood has been developed. My husband found the moose antler on his most recent hunting trip to Sweden and brought it home for me…if it might offer me some inspiration or as a decoration. Kind of fun!

  8. The kuksa are beautiful. Everyone should have a beautiful drinking vessel like that when out tramping/camping. And the Kalevale song is very pleasing to listen to. The stories and the scenery bring The Lord of the Rings to mind. 😉

  9. Gallivanta’s comment about the Lord of the Rings is correct. There is indeed a connection. Tolkien studied the Kalevala and incorporated elements into his amazing work.
    Also, the visual art of Akseli Gallen-Kallela is so remarkable.
    Love, Grampa

  10. Gorgeous, simply gorgeous photos. I always thought that Finnish was such an interesting language. The sounds reminded me a bit of dream-speak. Just yesterday, I learned that JRR Tolkien used Finnish as a basis for one of his languages in The Lord of The Rings. Perhaps that is why it sounds so familiar to me. My father would quote extensively from those books.

    1. I can imagine that the Lord of the Rings brings back strong memories of your father in your childhood. 🙂 How interesting that there is a connection between Finnish and dream-speak. Thanks so much for commenting!

  11. You are very lucky to have seen such a beautiful landscape – Finland almost has a very special and ethereal quality to it, complete with a magical language!

    Choc Chip Uru

  12. The Powers That Be certainly got it right when they set aside this area as a national park. It is as mystical as it is beautiful and one would feel almost privileged to walk its paths.

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