Chapter 2:  The Kantele Traditions of Finland
by Carl Rahkonen © 1989  All Rights Reserved  Back to Table of Contents
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Invariably the first questions concerning the kantele, asked by scholars and laymen alike, concern its age and early history.  These topics have been the focus of most of the scholarly research for the past one hundred years, but they are still quite debatable and controversial.Research has been influenced by the symbolic significance of the instrument to nationalistic-romantic movements in all the countries where it appears.

The history of the kantele is directly tied to that of other psalteries played by peoples living around the eastern half of the Baltic Sea, which have been collectively called the "Baltic psalteries."  The various names of the instruments are etymologically related (see Eero Nieminen, 1963; Leisiö 1978:363).  In Finland they are called kantele or kannel, in Estonia kannel, in Karelia kandele, in Latvia kokle or kuokle and in Lithuania kankles.Similar names are also known among the Livonians, Vepsians, and Setus.One form of the Russian gusli, the gusli krilovidnye [wing shaped gusli] or gusli zvonchatye [bright-sounding gusli] is related to the Baltic psalteries.It is uncertain whether the gusli shlemovidnye [helmet-shaped gusli] is also related.A third type of gusli, gusli prjamougoljnye [straight-sided gusli] is not related to the Baltic psalteries (see Vertkov 1969; Dahlblom 1979, 1980).

Perhaps the foremost authority on the scholarly literature pertaining to the Baltic psalteries was a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon, Stephen Reynolds, who began collecting and studying these materials as a hobby. Two of his papers (Reynolds 1973; 1984) presented an outstanding analysis of this literature. I can do no better here than to summarize his observations. Reynolds suggests that there have been at least three different competing theories on the origins of Baltic psalteries, which he calls the Slavic theory, the Finnic theory and the Oriental theory (Reynolds 1984).

The Slavic theory can be traced to the Russian scholar A. S. Famincyn, who published a monograph on the Russian gusli in 1890.Famincyn argued that Baltic psalteries were known to the Russians in the middle ages and may be among the gusli mentioned in the old Russian epic poetry, the byliny. He believed the instrument originated in Byzantium and was carried by the Slavs to the Finns and Estonians, and from them to the Lithuanians and Latvians. For some reason, the Slavs forgot their instrument, but borrowed it back again at a later time from the Setus of southern Estonia. As part of his argument, Famincyn used linguistic evidence.He believed the original name of the instrument came from primitive Slavic gandtli, which became gosli among the Slavs, gusli among the Russians and kantlis, kantle, kantele, and its cognates among the Balto-Finns.Famincyn also believed that the helmet-shaped gusli was directly related to Baltic pslateries, as a more advanced form of the instrument.

The Finnic theory originated in pre-revolutionary Russia among several scholars, the most important of whom were Mikhail Petukhov (1892) and N. I. Privalov (1908). This theory took into account the fact that the kantele was mentioned prominently in the Kalevala runes and held that the kantele originated in Uralic-Altaic antiquity. Privalov believed that the Slavs borrowed the instrument from the Balto-Finns, since the wing-shaped gusli was only found in adjacent areas. The theory also proposed a Finnic etymology for the names of the instruments and held that there was no genetic relationship between the Baltic psalteries and the helmet-shaped gusli.

The Oriental theory was developed by Curt Sachs (1916), who claimed an Asian origin for the Baltic psalteries, but did not discuss the route by which they arrived in the Baltic region nor their path of diffusion. He too used linguistic evidence to argue that the word kantele and its cognates were derived from the Georgian word kankula, which is related to the middle High German cannale, coming from the Arabic qanun and Greek kanon. Like Famincyn, he grouped the helmet-shaped gusli and Baltic psalteries together. Sachs's theory had an influence on western scholars, who propose a relationship between the kantele and qanun (for example see Marcuse 1975:221 and Falvy 1981).

The three theories mentioned by Stephen Reynolds were each developed somewhat in isolation. No one set of adherents to a theory had a complete knowledge of the research and literature of the others. The same is true of the Finnish scholarship; it developed in relative isolation and was influenced by nationalism and the symbolic importance of the kantele. The predominant Finnish view, though not always stated explicitly, has been this: since the kantele is mentioned prominently in folk runes, its age must be at least the same as that of the runes. This has led to the generally held belief that the kantele dates to the Proto-Finnic era, approximately two thousand years ago.

The kantele was the subject of intensive study by A. O. Väisänen. He intended to write a doctoral dissertation on the subject, but instead defended on the topic of Ob-Ugrian Melodies (1939). Väisänen did, however, publish many articles and a book on the kantele, which may be considered the foundation of the Finnish scholarly literature on the subject. In his writings, Väisänen generally did not emphasize the origin or early history of the kantele. Occasionally, he cautiously stated the standard belief of an age of two thousand years, but in his most significant work on the kantele (1928a), he does not mention these issues.

Väisänen did, however, deal extensively with the diffusion of the instrument. In a major article (1928b), he argues that the kantele and the helmet-shaped gusli had separate histories and that the kantele could not have been borrowed from the Slavs, as Famincyn believed. Väisänen left open the question of diffusion between the Balts and the Finns. Stephen Reynolds has thus called the second phase of the Finnic theory the Finnic-Baltic theory. In an earlier article (1927), which was written as a response to an article of Tobias Norlind (1923), Väisänen provides the most accurate picture of the diffusion of the kantele within Finland. Based on a very careful study of where the existing museum specimens were obtained, he believed that the kantele was originally known in all areas north and east of a line approximately from Helsinki to Oulu.

In a small but revealing article (1935), the Finnish musicologist Toivo Haapanen, a contemporary of Väisänen, states the standard Finnish position. Contrary to Väisänen, Haapanen believed that the kantele was originally known in all of Finland but with the spread of civilization was relegated only to the border areas. He attributes great antiquity to the kantele, because of its primitive design and its connection to rune singing. The oldest existing Finnish kanteles have five strings, which correspond to the five pitches of runes melodies. He believed that the kantele originally came from central Asia and dates to the time when the Finnic and Baltic peoples lived as neighbors, before they moved to the Baltic region, or approximately two thousand years ago.

Väisänen's successor as Professor of Folk Music in Finland, Erkki Ala-Könni, has also done a great deal of research on the kantele. He, likewise, has been cautious about dealing with the problem of its age and early history and has concentrated the major portion of his excellent work on documenting the kantele building and playing practices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He has also been actively involved in the revival movement of carved kantele building and playing. In a book on carved kantele playing, co-authored with Martti Pokela, he cautiously states the standard belief that the kantele is two thousand years old (1971:7), but in a more recent work he estimates its age at a thousand years (1985:97).

The current Finnish Professor of Ethnomusicology, Timo Leisiö, is an expert on musical instruments who completed a comprehensive study of the Ancient Aerophones of the Finns and Karelians as his doctoral dissertation (1983). He has also published widely on the origin and history of the kantele. In an early article (1975), Leisiö states that the kantele is just as old or older than the folk runes, or perhaps three thousand years old. In subsequent work, Leisiö has written that the kantele is perhaps only a thousand years old (1985:6.1). This prompted another Finnish folk music scholar, Ilkka Kolehmainen, to comment, half in jest, that the kantele has become two thousand years newer in just a few years (1985:6).

Leisiö replied to Kolehmainen's remarks with a short article which summarizes and clarifies his earlier work (1986). He believes that the kantele was borrowed, not invented independently, and could not have existed before the time of other zither instruments. He carefully proposes a hypothesis that the concepts of building zithers were brought from central Asia to what is today southern Russia by the Scythian herdsmen. The Scythians lived in an area which partially overlapped the area of the Southern Balts. From the Southern Balts, the zither moved to the Northern Balts and from them to the Balto Finns. It is impossible to say exactly what kind of instrument this was, but Leisiö believes that it may have been similar to the instruments dating from the 12th to 13th centuries found in the archeological excavations in Opol and Gdansk and in iconographic representations from Novgorod, Rjazani and Kiev (see Simon 1957; Emsheimer 1961; Tõnurist 1977a; and Povetkin 1982).

Leisiö believes that the kantele was not adopted in Finland until the Karelians and Savos brought it there, which was not until perhaps the middle ages. He blasts the attribution of great antiquity to the kantele, since no melodic instruments have been found in Finland or Karelia dating before the middle ages. He asks why the kantele should be the only melodic instrument among the Finns for a thousand years and says: 


[The picture of Väinämöinen has put us into a dreamlike trance, where the kantele is revered into its own position, which has no connection to anything else, [no] connection to reality] (1986:5-6).

Leisiö also summarizes several of the other theories concerning the history of the kantele and its connection with other instruments and shows that most are at least plausible.

So the age and early history of the kantele still remain as they have been: matters of debate. The great amount of evidence which has been gathered is inconclusive to prove or disprove any of the many competing theories.

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