Chapter 1:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland 

by Carl Rahkonen © 1989  All Rights Reserved Back to Table of Contents

Any use of this material should contain a proper reference to this site.

 

 

                        I. THE KANTELE AS FOLKLORE, SYMBOL AND

                                            MUSICAL INSTRUMENT

 

            To the Finnish people the kantele manifests itself in three separate ways.  First, it is a musical instrument, a type of zither which has been known among the Finns and neighboring cultures for hundreds of years.  Second, the kantele is a significant motif of Finnish folklore.  It is portrayed as having a supernatural beginning and as an object of magic and power, but it is also referred to as an object in normal reality.  Third, the kantele is a symbol of Finnish identity which evokes feelings of pride and solidarity among Finns.  These three different ways of viewing the kantele are closely interrelated and together they comprise a concept of what kantele means to the Finnish people. 

            Perhaps the most significant body of Finnish folklore is the collection entitled Suomen kansan vanhat runot or SKVR  [The Ancient Runes of the Finnish People].  These runes relate epic tales which were transmitted for centuries in singing rituals before being collected and transcribed by folklorists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The great eighteenth century scholar, Henrich Gabrial Porthan, describes rune singing in the fourth part of his Dissertatio de Poesi Fennica (1778) and includes the following passage:

 

Whenever our fellow‑countrymen entertain themselves with ceremonial singing, they most usually like to do it to the music of a harp or kantele.  If a competent player is available, he accompanies the singers on a harp.  If only one person is singing, then the harp player assumes the function of a supporting singer and repeats on the harp the melody which ordinarily is the charge of the supporting singer, the main singer meanwhile keeping silent... (Lönnrot 1963:381‑82).

 

This short passage provides one of the earliest indications that the kantele was intimately tied to the art of rune singing.[1]

            The kantele was tied to the art of rune singing in two ways: as an instrument used to accompany rune singing and as a significant motif of the runes.  The descriptions of eighteenth and nineteenth century travelers and explorers, among them Joseph Acerbi, Carl Axel Gottlund and Elias Lönnrot, paint a picture that the kantele was a typical artifact in the lives of the rune singers.  The runes frequently contained motifs which reflected the reality of life, so it is not surprising that the kantele became a motif. 

            The runes which contain the kantele as a motif tell two distinct but related tales:  The first tells the story of how Väinämöinen, the eternal sage, created the original kantele and the second tells about his kantele playing.  The "creation of the kantele" runes are of two types:  Some of the runes relate how Väinämöinen created the original kantele from the body parts of living things, such as its body from the jawbone of a great pike, its strings from the hair of a maiden, and nails from the teeth of a great salmon.  In other runes Väinämöinen created a kantele from wood. 

            The runes dealing with Väinämöinen's kantele playing portray Väinämöinen as a rune singer himself and the kantele as one source of his magic and power.  The story of Väinämöinen's kantele playing has two parts:  After Väinämöinen created the kantele, many people tried to play it and fail.  Then Väinämöinen played and enchanted all the world's creatures with his playing. 

 

                                                          Shamanism

 

            The interpretation of these runes should be viewed in light of the purpose for which they were sung.  It is believed that rune singing was connected with shamanistic practices.

 

Ancient Finnish‑Karelian songs had a mythical basis; they existed in association with cult practices and ritual ceremonies.  In former times, singing them was not a leisurely pastime or art for art's sake, but an act of magical significance.  These songs contained the most sacred and powerful knowledge that could be used to influence a man's life.  The song of Väinämöinen's kantele music was used as a kind of incantation, now for fishing, now for hunting.  Chr. Ganander wrote in 1789: 'Fowlers, hunters, and woodsmen asked Väinämöinen to play his harp, so that its sweet music would call forth all the game...' (Oinas 1978:296).

 

            The actual manner of singing the runes is also believed to be connected with shamanism (ibid:300).  Two men, who represented the shaman and his apprentice, would clasp right hands and alternate in singing lines.  The shaman sang a line and the apprentice joined him in singing the last two syllables.  The apprentice repeated the line, with the shaman joining in again on the last two syllables before going on to the next line.  By repeating each line the apprentice would learn the rune and the shaman was allowed time to recreate the next line.  The singing may or may not have been performed to the accompaniment of a kantele, but if a kantele was used, it was usually played by a third person in unison with the singing.  During the singing of runes the shaman entered a trance state in which it was believed that his soul would assume the form of a spirit animal and would travel to other realms.  It was the duty of the apprentice to bring the soul of the shaman back to the normal world.

            Lapp and Northern Eurasian shamans used a drum in their sacred ceremonies.  The frame was carved from wood usually in an oval or round shape, over which was stretched the skin of a reindeer, elk or horse.  The Lapps added a great deal of ornamentation to the skin of the drum and to the "T"‑shaped drumsticks which were carved from reindeer antlers.  There are several interesting parallels between the kantele and the shaman's drum.

            Martti Haavio has pointed out a parallel in the names of the instruments.  "[Another name for the Lapp shaman's drum is keure.  Notice that the word keure corresponds to the Finnish narrative rune word käyrä which means 'kannel' [i.e. kantele],...]" (1967:300).  He later adds, "[The Kirghiz shaman (baqca) accompanies the calling song with a string instrument (kobuz), an eastern Ostjakien shaman kantele‑type of instrument ‑‑ this shaman is a 'kannel‑hand shaman' the same as the Lapp shaman is a 'käsi‑kannus'.  The kannel brings Väinämöinen to mind, who, with his 'fisherman's words' or 'hunter's words', plays the kantele and sings, until the animals of the forest and water, birds and fishes, arrive to listen to him;...]" (ibid:302).

             Among certain shamanistic groups, there was a ceremony to "animate" the drum.  Mircea Eliade describes this ceremony as follows:

 

The ceremony for 'animating the drum' is of the highest interest.  When the Altaic shaman sprinkles it with beer, the shell of the drum 'comes to life' and, through the shaman, relates how the tree of which it was part grew in the forest, how it was cut, brought to  the village, and so on.  The shaman then sprinkles the skin of the drum and, 'coming to life,' it too narrates its past.  Through the shaman's voice, the animal whose skin has been used for the drum tells of its birth, its parents, its childhood, and its whole life to the moment it was brought down by the hunter (1964:170).

 

            Vilmos Dioszegi describes the reviving ceremony among Siberian shamans in reverse order.  "The shaman must look for the spirit of the animal which gave its skin to be stretched over the drum.  He must follow the path where the animal had wandered, right back to its birthplace, because only there can its spirit be caught" (1960:74).

            From these descriptions we see the first essential element of the reviving ceremony: the capture of the animal spirit in order to give the drum life, which takes place by reciting the past history of the animal.  It is not certain whether the kantele, when it was used in a shamanistic context, has a similar reviving ceremony.  But, there is a seeming parallel in the "origin of the kantele" runes, because they describe the mythical animals from which the first kantele was believed to have been made.

            Dioszegi adds a significant detail to the description of the previous ceremony.  "Although the drum might be finished, it is still unusable, first it must be given to a small child to play with for a few days and then the so‑called 'reviving' ceremony must be performed" (ibid:74).

He reiterates:

 

This last information was of an extraordinary value, because there is no mention of such a procedure in the scientific literature. -‑ As soon as the drum is ready, the shaman revives it.  The drum before its revival, must be given to a child to play with before falling asleep, for three days. (ibid).

 

            The practice of allowing a child to play with the magical instrument has a seeming parallel with the second part of the kantele rune sequence.  "'Now the kantele was ready; the young played it, the old played it, the maidens, the young boys, the unmarried men, the married men; the joy did not feel like joy, nor the music like music'" (Haavio 1952:154).  Eventually Väinämöinen played the kantele producing music which enchanted all who heard.  Since Väinämöinen was the "eternal sage" every other person who tried to play the kantele in the rune was inexperienced, like a child. 

            Another interesting parallel comes to light when comparing the sound holes of the kantele and the decorations of the Lapp shaman's drum.  The Swedish-speaking Finnish ethnomusicologist, Otto Andersson, in his dissertation Stråkharpan (1923) (English translation: The Bowed Harp (1930)) includes an appendix on the topic of kantele sound holes.  He says that the cruciform‑ and cross‑shaped sound‑holes served no acoustical function and were there merely as ornamentation, but their purpose was more than mere embellishment and "there is complete justification for interpreting the cross‑shaped sound holes both as symbolic signs and as magical protective marks" (1930: 288, 300).  These sound holes match many of the decorations painted on the skins and carved on the drumsticks of the Lapp shaman's drum (Illus. 1 and 2).

            Little is known about the role of the kantele in the actual production of trance.  While the kantele is mentioned prominently in runes as a source of power by which people are put to sleep or animals are enchanted, there is very little evidence outside the runes themselves. 

            The kantele may have served a function similar to that of the Lapp shaman's drum, as a source of sound upon which the shaman could focus to help achieve a trance state.  Undoubtedly, the kantele held special symbolic significance to the shaman, as the magical object mentioned in the runes, which also existed in tangible reality.

 

 

Illus. 1. Kantele sound holes (from Andersson 1930:280,284).

 

 

Illus. 2. Decorations on Lapp shamans' drums (from Manker 1938:239).

 

 

                                                     Myth and Reality

 

            According to the Finnish folklorist, Martti Haavio, the "creation of the kantele" runes are related to the international tale type 780 "The Singing Bone."  The motif of "the jawbone of a pike" cannot be found in the inter-national tale.  On this subject Haavio says "The motif of the kantele made from fish bone clearly owes its origin and preservation to a poet or an adapter whose interests lay in fishing" (1952:152).  Haavio hypothesizes further that the fish-bone motif may come from mythology since many musical instruments in myths were made from the body parts of animals, such as the Greek lyre being made from the horns of Apollo's oxen.

            A similar approach to the kantele runes has been taken by Matti Salo:  "The big pike, formerly sturgeon, of the poetry is the mythical world‑supporter fish, which has played such a prominent part in the cosmological beliefs of the Mordvin and of which many traces remain in the SKVR [Ancient Runes of the Finnish People]." (1967:38).

            Mythological theories provide only a partial explanation of the "creation of the kantele" runes, since many of the variants refer to the creation of a wooden kantele.  The two following passages are typical of variants found in the SKVR.

 

 

Vaka vanha Väinämöinen
Itse tuon sanoiksi virkki

Mistä kanteleh puut on saaha?
Poropetran perseluista

Mistä kanteleh naulat saaha?    
Hau'in suuren hampahista

Mistä kanteleh kielet saaha?

Hiien immen hivuksista

 

 

Steadfast old Väinämöinen
Himself brought words to life

Where does one get the wood for the kantele?

From the tailboneof a reindeer

Where does one get the nails for the kantele? From the large teeth of a pike

Where does one get the strings for the kantele? From the hair of the Demon's virgin.

  SKVR I:579 (p.775)

 

           

Itte vanha Väinämöinen

Teki kalliolla kandeletta

Kust' on koppa kandelessa?

Koivusta visa‑perästä

 Kust' on naulat kantelessa?

Tammesta tasaiset oxat

Kust' on kielet kantelessa?

Jouhista hyvän orihin

Old Väinämöinen himself

Made a kantele upon the rocks

From what is the body of the kantele?  

From the curly end of a birch

From what are the nails of the kantele?

From the even branches of an oak

From what are the strings of the kantele?

From the hair of a good stallion.

   SKVR XII:80 (p. 51)

                                                                                                 

            The structure of these two passages is identical, only the contents are changed.  By comparing the contents, a general principle concerning the kantele runes becomes evident: they contain a mixture of myth and reality.  They describe both the mythical kantele of Väinämöinen as well as kanteles found in tangible reality.

            Otto Andersson (1930:70‑85) hypothesizes that many of the kantele runes may have originally referred to the jouhikko (also called jouhikantele, a type of bowed lyre), rather than the five string plucked kantele.  As part of his argument, Andersson relied on a view taken by C. A. Gottlund that the jouhikko was an older instrument since it had horsehair strings and the kantele had metal strings.

             Andersson's views caused a sensation in Finland at the time because there was an ongoing struggle for national identity.  The Swedish-speaking element of Finnish society did all it could to promote those aspects of the culture believed to come from the west, from a Swedish influence, such as the jouhikko.  It had always been assumed that "Väinämöinen's kantele" was the plucked psaltery known among all the Eastern Baltic peoples.  But Andersson's research showed that bowed instruments, probably the jouhikko, played a role in at least some of the kantele runes.  More recent archeological finds in Gdansk and Novgorod seem to show a possible early connection between the bowed lyre and the Baltic psalteries (see Simon 1957; Emsheimer 1961; Tõnurist 1977a; Povetkin 1982).

            The Finnish ethnomusicologist, Armas Otto Väisänen, wrote a significant article (1928b, 1938) in reply to Andersson in which he emphasized that much of the folklore concerning the kantele had a basis in reality.  Väisänen reviewed the known variants of the kantele runes, Estonian as well as Finnish, and came to the conclusion that most referred to the plucked kantele.  Only some referred to a bowed instrument and those most likely come from a later date.  The "wooden kantele" runes give an accurate picture of the materials and building methods.  The runes which portray how Väinämöinen played the kantele provide a realistic account of kantele playing, as Väisänen himself observed in the field.  For example, the following passage accurately describes the playing position:

 

Sitte vanha Väinämöinen           Then old Väinämöinen

Istuxen itek ripahan                   Sat himself upon a handle

Otti soiton sormillehen               Took the instrument in his fingers

käänsi käyrän polvillehen           turned the curve to his knee

kantele kätensä alle                   The kantele under his hands

   SKVR XII:74 (pp. 46‑7)

 

            Kantele players generally played in a sitting position with the kantele held by the pressure of the hands in the lap or across the knees.  The word käyrä [curve] most likely refers to the curved end of the kantele, the ponsi, which is believed to have functioned on older kanteles as a support on the leg or knee. 

            Other runes accurately mention the use of five fingers, presumably to play the five strings of the oldest form of the kantele.

 

Tuopa oli vanha Väinämöinen   There was old Väinämöinen

Otti kantelon käsillä                  Took the kantele in his hands

Poikin puolin polvillahe             Across the knees

Viisin sormin soittamahe            Playing with five fingers

SKVR VI:155

 

            Even certain details about playing, such as the important use of the thumb on the highest pitched string come to light.

 

Soitteleepi Väinämöinen            Väinämöinen played

Käsin pienin, hoikin sormin        With small hands, and thin fingers

Peukalo ylös keveni                  The thumb up lightly

SKVR XII:75 (p. 49)

 

            On Väisänen's interpretations of these passages, Martti Haavio has remarked, "The description of the kantele players movements is realistic, actually ethnographic.  The kantele now being played is not a mythical kantele but an ordinary, Finnish, five‑stringed finger instrument." (1952:158).

            Väisänen later published an article showing that the kantele was also spoken of in realistic terms in Finnish riddles (1933).  One example is the often quoted riddle:

 

    Metsässä syntyy                               Born in the forest

    Metsässä kasvaa                              Grows in the woods

    Seinällä seisoo,                                 Stands on the wall

    Polvella laulaa                                   Sings on the knee

 

                           [What is it?   A kantele]

 

            The lines "born in the forest" and "grows in the woods" allude to the fact that the kantele is carved from wood and may have been made while in the forest.  "Stands on the wall" refers to the practice of storing the kantele by hanging it on a wall, something which is still widely practiced in Finland today.  "Sings on the knee" refers to the playing position of the kantele.

            Väisänen's article included a lengthy chart comparing a large number of variants of this riddle which show that most variants described the kantele in realistic terms.  For example, some variants of the first two lines are kotona syntyy [born at home] or kotona tehtyy [made at home] referring to the place where the kantele is made.  The third line has variants such as naulalla nukkuu [sleeps on a nail], presumably the nail from which the kantele hangs.  The fourth line has variants such as pöydällä pörää [buzzes on the table] because the Finnish kantele, besides being played across the knees, was frequently played on top of a table.

 

                                                         Symbolisms

 

            The kantele runes became widely known among Finnish upper classes at a time of growing nationalism.  This nationalistic movement focused upon folk traditions, most significantly rune singing.  Rune singing was believed by Porthan and subsequent scholars to date from antiquity.  They believed that the contents of runes represented a pure and uncorrupted reflection of the Finnish national spirit.  The runes, as well as other folklore such as proverbs and riddles, began to be collected and studied and used to argue against the political domination of Finland by Sweden and Russia, and to raise the Finnish language and culture to its proper worth (see Wilson 1976).

            Because of the close connection of the kantele with rune singing, both as a musical instrument which accompanied the act of rune singing and as a motif within the runes, it became a strong symbol of Finnish national identity.  As one contemporary source put it:  "Since the early nineteenth century rune singing and kantele playing have together been a concept, symbolizing for the Finns all that is intrinsically Finnish, something unique that has distinguished them from their neighbours and also made them aware of their own national identity" (Asplund 1983b:79).

            There are at least four major symbols connected with Finnish folk runes.  The first three are inseparably connected, while the fourth is somewhat different.

            The first symbol is Väinämöinen himself.  Väinämöinen is described in the runes as an old, bearded and powerful sage, the spiritual leader of the people and the one who possessed the greatest knowledge.  Väinämöinen practiced his magic and power through rune singing, so even though he did not exist in present reality, he existed to some extent in every practicing rune singer.  Many rune singers, as well as scholars who believed in the historicity of the folk runes, believed that Väinämöinen might have actually existed at some time in the past.  These singers saw themselves in a direct line of tradition back to Väinämöinen.

            The second symbol is the kantele, which is almost always associated with Väinämöinen, as one source of his magic and power.  The kantele was also a common artifact in the lives of rune singers.  Everyone knew what the kantele looked like.  In eastern and northern areas of Finland, it was practically in every home.  In the cities, it quickly became popular museum artifact.  So, of the four most significant symbols of Finnish folk runes, the kantele was the most accessible and the easiest to depict visually.

            The third symbol is the act of rune singing itself.  Rune singing, like the kantele, is something which existed in reality and also is a significant motif of the runes.  Many of the runes relate stories of supernatural feats performed by rune singing or of competition through rune singing.  Rune singing has always been an implied part of the Väinämöinen/kantele symbolism.

            The fourth symbol is the Sampo, the magic mill which produces endless supply.  According to scholars Uno Harva and Felix J. Oinas, the Sampo represents the pillar of the world around which the dome of the sky seems to turn endlessly, thus evoking the idea of a gigantic mill which produces anything wanted by its owner (Oinas 1978:291).  Although we know what the Sampo is and what it does, no one knows exactly what the Sampo looks like, so it has rarely been depicted in visual form.

            The various symbols from folk runes had a profound influence on the literature and fine arts of the Finnish upper classes, because reference to these symbols was believed to instill the essence of Finnishness in any creative work.  A. O. Väisänen, in a slightly humorous article (1925), has shown how Väinämöinen's kantele was depicted in the fine arts.  Väisänen discussed the works of great artists of the era, such as Akseli Gallen-Kallela,   R. W. Ekman, S. A. Keinänen and others, who were inspired by the Väinämöinen/kantele symbolism.  Some paintings were quite accurate in the depiction of the real Finnish kantele, while others attempted to picture Väinämöinen's mythical kantele or some other instrument.  The paintings show the combination of Väinämöinen, the kantele and implied rune singing as a kind of metasymbol (Illus. 3).

 

 

Illus. 3. Painting by R. W. Ekman "Väinämöinen's Song" which shows the combination of the old sage, kantele and rune singing (from Väisänen 1925:200).

 

 

            Art music was also influenced by folklore-centered nationalism, especially after the publication of the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland.  Various Finnish composers used themes from the Kalevala as bases for their compositions, the most famous being Jean Sibelius, of whom the Finnish musicologist Eero Tarasti has said:

 

... characters from the Kalevala became the heros of literature, painting and music.  They were often taken to symbolize various aspects of the Finnish character at a time when nationalism, the Finns' awareness of themselves as a nation, was gaining strength.

 

Sibelius was the first Finnish composer to capture in music the spirit of the original folk song and to depict the characters by purely musical devices -- just as realistically as Akseli Gallen-Kallela in his paintings.  Seldom have different artistic genres been in such close contact with one another as in the atmosphere of Karelianism and symbolism in Finland in the 1890s (Tarasti 1985:15).

 

            The kantele, however, was spurned by most composers since it was considered too limited an instrument to play art music.  Jean Sibelius did not write any compositions for the kantele nor did he allude to it.

            A significant work describing the influence of the kantele runes on Finnish literature is an article by Martti Haavio (1970).  Haavio describes how the kantele runes had a profound influence on the writings of the late eighteenth century Fennophiles and the early nineteenth century Turku Romantics.  Many major Finnish literary figures used the kantele symbolism in their works, such as Jaakko Juteini (1781‑1855) in his poem Arvon mekin ansaitsemme, which was later set to music and is still a popular national song today.  A portion of the lyrics read:

 

Opin teillä oppineita                  Scholars on the path of learning

Suomessa on suuria                  In Finland there are great ones

Väinämöisen kanteleita              Väinämöinen's kanteles

täällä tehdään uusia                   are made here anew

Valistus on viritetty                    The light is ignited

Järkihyvä herätetty                    Minds well awakened

 

 

Among many other famous literary figures influenced by kantele symbolism were Sakari Topelius, Arvi Jannes, and Aleksis Kivi (ibid:101‑102).  The kantele became such an important symbol that it was chosen as the central feature of the seal of the Finnish Literature Society (Illus. 4).

 

 

Illus. 4.  Seal of the Finnish Literature Society.

 

            The nationalistic movement which increased the symbolic significance of the kantele culminated in the activities of Elias Lönnrot.  While still a student Lönnrot was aware of the kantele's importance as a motif within Finnish folk runes.  In his dissertation of 1827, he devotes an entire section to the analysis of the "creation of the kantele" and "Väinämöinen's kantele playing" runes.  A portion of the section is given below:

 

For no other accomplishment ... is Väinämöinen more famous than for the art of playing music, to which he seems chiefly to have owed his immortality and divine honors after death.  Before we treat of the praise which he obtained by this skill, there seems to be a few matters to be dealt with concerning the origin of the particular instrument to the accompaniment of which he sang and of which he was not only the maker but, according to the view of many, the inventor too.

 

In some accounts it is said that this instrument or harp [Latin nablium], called by our people kantele, rarely harppu, was made by Väinämöinen from the bones of a pike, elsewhere even of a duck;  what might have been its structure or form, however, we are less willing to struggle to determine since it has not been very carefully described by a singer and since the materials from which it was made would frighten us away from so arduous an undertaking!  Another type of harp ... also called kantele and perhaps not unlike the harp still used by our people, he made belly‑shaped from a very tough kind of birch, fitting to it pegs made of very smooth oak twigs and strings from horsehairs, or, according to others, from the hairs of a virgin sprung of the family of the divinity Hiisi, 'Demon'... (Lönnrot 1969:284‑85).

 

            These passages show that Lönnrot was thoroughly familiar with the kantele as depicted in the folk runes.  It is not as widely known that he also became acquainted with the kantele as a musical instrument.  It is traditional practice, up to the present day, that Finns hang their musical instruments on the walls of their homes.  So it is significant that Lönnrot, on his first rune collecting journey to Karelia in 1828,  made the observation in his memoirs:  "Kanteles on the walls of every home" (Haavio 1970:85).  Lönnrot played the kantele and was involved in developing its form to facilitate the playing of western music (see Grot 1847, 1983:106; Anttila 1931:205; Laitinen 1982c:45).

            The significance of the kantele to Lönnrot may be seen in the fact that he named his earliest published rune collection, "[Kantele or Old and Newer Poems and Songs of the Finnish People]" (see Kaukonen 1979:33‑7).  In 1840, Lönnrot published a collection of lyrical runes which he entitled "Kanteletar".  In the preface he explains:

 

[In Karelia, Savo and Ostrobothnia, where especially in Karelia the old kanteles are still kept and kantele playing is loved, they sing these songs occasionally with the help of the kantele's sound, in other words, the singer sings and plays simultaneously.  The kantele previously had its own Muse [haltianeitsensa], which was called Kanteletar, or Kantele-hettar...] (Lönnrot 1840:LXXXII‑LXXXIII; Kaukonen 1984:CVIII‑CIIX).

 

            According to Väinö Kaukonen (ibid:21) Lönnrot invented the term Kanteletar as a counterpart to the folk term Kalevatar.  Martti Haavio has said on the same subject that a Kanteletar Muse is not known in Finnish mythology.  It was created by Lönnrot as a Finnish counterpart to the Greek Muse of epic poetry who was the mother of Orpheus and who would sing lyrical runes to the lyre (1970:121).

            In the original preface of Lönnrot's most famous work, the Kalevala, he writes that among the various titles he was considering for the work was "Väinämöinen's Kantele" (Lönnrot 1963:364).  Both the Old and the New Kalevala include the kantele prominently.

            The Kalevala includes the stories of Väinämöinen creating the first kantele from the jaw-bone of a great fish and enchanting all the world's creatures with his playing.  Alas, in the battle over the Sampo, the mythical kantele is lost in the sea and Väinämöinen is forced to make a new kantele out of wood.  In the final section of the Kalevala, immediately before Väinämöinen leaves in a copper boat to go to the area between the earth and the sky, he "leaves the [wooden] kantele behind, the fine instrument for Finland, the eternal source of joyous music for the people, the great songs for his children"  (Lönnrot 1963:337).  In the Kalevala, Lönnrot raises the kantele to the height of its symbolic significance, as the object most

immediately connected with Väinämöinen and his parting gift to the Finnish people.

            In creating his epic, Lönnrot used the folk runes as raw material.  He broke the variants into their component parts, made changes and modifications, and then combined variants when he felt it was appropriate.  It would have been a simple task to have combined the creations of the fish-bone kantele and the birch‑wood kantele into a single story, but Lönnrot included both these two distinct types of kanteles in his epic.

            The Finnish writer J. L. Runeberg has addressed the  symbolic significance of Lönnrot's two kanteles.  He believed that the first kantele, the mythical kantele which Väinämöinen loses in the sea, represented the loss of a past great age.  The second kantele, which Väinämöinen fashions from wood, represents an attempt to recapture that age, though it is never fully successful.  Runeberg felt that the second kantele symbolically pictures how the spirit needs to draw from the diversity of forms in nature in order to discover its true expression.  Thus, the second kantele is made up of parts found in nature (Haavio 1970:111‑112).

            Perhaps a simpler explanation of why Lönnrot included the creation of both kinds of kanteles in his epic lies in his understanding of the folk runes themselves.  Lönnrot was keenly aware of the symbolic significance of the kantele as well as its existence as an object in reality, and that the folk runes contained references to both kinds of kanteles.   He therefore included the creation of a mythical kantele in one section of the Kalevala and the representation of actual kanteles in another.  This reflects well the Finnish concept of the kantele as being both symbol and musical instrument.

 


Note:

 

[1] The use of the kantele to accompany rune singing was also mentioned by Jacob Tengström in a talk entitled "Om de fordna Finnars Sällikaps-Nöjen och Tidsfördrif" [Ancient Finnish Group Entertainments and Pastimes] presented at the Royal Academy of Literature, History and Antiquities in Åbo (Turku) on July 15th, 1795.  The talk is mentioned by Väisänen (1916) and has been translated into Finnish from the original Swedish by Heikki Laitinen (Tengström 1986).


Please read the official disclaimer.
URL=http://www.people.iup.edu/rahkonen/kantele/diss/Sym.htm
Page created and maintained by Carl Rahkonen.  © 1989   Last modified 10/24/05
Comments and/or suggestions may be e-mailed to: rahkonen@iup.edu