Lemminkäinen: Resurrection of the Handsome, Yet Frivolous Finnish Epic Hero
Thus became a mighty hero, In his veins the blood of ages,
Read erect and form commanding, Growth of mind and body perfect
But alas! he had his failings, Bad indeed his heart and morals,
Roaming in unworthy places, Staying days and nights in sequences
At the homes of merry maidens, At the dances of the virgins,
With the maids of braided tresses.
- ‘The Kalevala’, Rune XI. Lemminkainen's Lament
Lemminkäinen is a hero who features prominently in the traditional mythology of Finland. The tales of this hero are recorded in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. The story of Lemminkäinen exists in several versions. There is, however, a general plot that can be identified in each of the myth’s different versions. The story begins with the hero’s journey to an otherworldly place, during which he has to overcome a number of obstacles. When Lemminkäinen reaches his destination, a series of tests await him, and he needs to best his host in a wizard’s contest. The direction of the tale then changes abruptly, as the hero is killed with the only weapon that could kill him. After much difficulty, Lemminkäinen’s corpse is retrieved by his mother, who tries to bring him back to life. Only in some versions of the myth does she succeed in doing so.
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Lemminkäinen in the Kalevala
The Kalevala was compiled during the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot, who collected the traditional oral poetry of Finland. This compilation of ballads, lyrical song, and incantations became the national epic of Finland, and one of the major heroes in it is Lemminkäinen. Traditionally, this hero is described as a handsome young man. However, he is also portrayed as a frivolous and ostentatious person.
Lemminkäinen. ( Thalia Took )
The story of Lemminkäinen is found in the second section of the Kalevala. The tale of this hero begins with his journey to the island of Saari, where he intended to find a bride. He finds the maiden Kyllikki, and they made vows to each other – that Lemminkäinen would not go to war, and that Kylikki would not dance. For several years the couple lived happily, until one day, Kylikki breaks her vow, which allows the hero to renounce his. Lemminkäinen then sets off for Pohjola, an otherworldly place in the extreme north of the world, where he intends to woo the Maiden of the North. When Lemminkäinen arrives in Pohjola, he meets Louhi, who agrees to give him her daughter’s hand in marriage if he is able to accomplish several difficult tasks. The third of these was the killing of the wild swan of the river of Tuoni. It was whilst hunting this swan that Lemminkäinen was shot by Nasshut, the blind shepherd of Pohjola. Injured, the hero falls into the river, and dies.
‘Lemminkäinen at the Fiery Lake’ (1867) by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. ( Public Domain )
Before leaving for Pohjola, Lemminkäinen gave his mother his hairbrush, and told her that if he was in danger, it would start bleeding. As the hero was injured by Nasshut, his hairbrush began to bleed, thus informing his mother of the tragedy that had befallen him. Lemminkäinen’s mother then set out to search for her son, and eventually found his body, which had disintegrated into fragments.
‘Lemminkäinen's Mother at the River of Tuonela’ (1862) by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. ( Public Domain )
In some versions of the myth, Lemminkäinen’s mother uses magic to revive the hero, and his story continues from there. Having been brought back to life, Lemminkäinen returned to Louhi, where he found out that she had given the hand of her daughter to Ilmarinen, as he had forged the Sampo (a magical artifact that brought great wealth) for Louhi. As he had not been invited to the wedding, Lemminkäinen was furious, and stormed Louhi’s castle. He killed Sariola, Louhi’s husband. Bent on revenge, Louhi summoned an army to march against the hero and his home, forcing Lemminkäinen to flee.
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‘Lemminkäinen's Mother’ (1897) by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. ( Public Domain )