Akseli Gallen-Kallela: The Departure of Väinämöinen

Väinämöinen: The Finnish Deity and Hero Who Inspired Tolkien to Create Gandalf and Tom Bombadil

(Read the article on one page)

J.R.R. Tolkien created remarkable stories that inspired Peter Jackson to make incredible movies. But it was his knowledge of literature and old legends which inspired the writer to use stories of gods and heroes to create iconic fictional figures such as Gandalf, Tom Bombadil, and many other characters. One of the most fascinating of his inspirations came in the form of Väinämöinen, the Finnish god of magic, who had some amazing legends surrounding him long before Tolkien dreamed up his famous fictional world.

Upon closer inspection, Tolkien’s books seem like a colorful palette of myths and legends combining stories from different cultures and time periods. The influence of ancient deities, mythical creatures, and even motifs from Christianity are all clearly visible. However, the impact of these stories has only been lightly covered by specialists in literature. But it was due to works such as Tolkien’s that the legendary Finnish god Väinämöinen gained new faces and adventures – leading him to become a popular figure outside Scandinavian countries.

The Legend of Väinämöinen

Väinämöinen was a god of magic and a mysterious deity who loved poetry. It seems that he was well known not only in Finland, but also in Estonia and other countries of north-central Europe.

The oldest stories referring to Väinämöinen come from the early medieval period, but no known copies of these tales survive prior to 1551. His legend was described by Mikael Agricola, who included him in the list of Tavastian gods. Soon after, other writers started to follow the subject of Väinämöinen. He became the main character of the national epic of Finland called Kalevala, which is one of the most important Scandinavian texts. However, Kalevala is distinct from other famous Scandinavian writings because it comes from the 19th century, not medieval times. The book describes a unique creation myth. It includes all the spectrum of motifs and many characteristics of Norse mythology and Finnish folklore.

R.W Ekman: Väinämöinen.

R.W Ekman: Väinämöinen. ( Public Domain )

The story describes Kaleva’s son and Ilmarinen’s brother. It says that there was only Water and Sky at the beginning of the world. Sky had a daughter, Ilmatar, who decided to see what water was like. So, she swam in it for over 700 years. Finally, she saw a beautiful paradise bird which was looking for a place to rest.

Inside front title page of The "Old" Kalevala, Finnish national epos, collection of old Finnish poems, by Elias Lönnrot.

Inside front title page of The "Old" Kalevala, Finnish national epos, collection of old Finnish poems, by Elias Lönnrot. ( Public Domain )

She allowed the bird to sit on her knee. The feathery friend left six golden eggs and one made of iron. Ilmatar’s leg soon became hot and she moved it, destroying the eggs. The yolks became the sun and the whites became the moon and stars. Later, Ilmatar had a son - Väinämöinen. His father was the sea and he was blessed with all the knowledge he needed. He swam to land, where he started a new life and performed magic.

Ilmatar by Robert Wilhelm Ekman.

Ilmatar by Robert Wilhelm Ekman. ( Public Domain )

Tom Bombadil

Although Tom Bombadil didn't appear in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of Tolkien’s books, he is one of most readers’ favorite characters. According to David Elton Gay in J.R.R. Tolkien and the Kalevala: Some Thoughts on the Finnish Origins of Tom Bombadil and Treebeard :

“As has been often noted, much of what Tom says is, in fact, sung. As with Väinämöinen's singing. Tom's has power, and the power of his singing is clearly similar to Väinämöinen's. When we first meet Tom, he saves Merry and Pippin from Old Man Willow through the threat of his singing's: as he says to Frodo and Sam, ''I'll sing his roots off. I'll sing the wind up and blow leaf and branch away'' (LR 1.6, 117). Goldberry later tells Frodo that Tom is master of his land. And as Tom's conversations with the Hobbits make apparent, his mastery of his land, like Väinämöinen's, is through knowledge and experience rather than ownership. If, as I propose, Tom Bombadil is based in part on Väinämöinen, then Tom's control of his world through knowledge expressed in song [is] to be expected: To have power over something [like] the mythology of the Kalevala one must know its origins and be able to sing it appropriate songs and incantations concerning these origins, and it was his works that helped give shape to the land. The same is clearly true to Tom Bombadil. (…) Tom's choice of the adjectives “old” and “eldest” to describe himself links him to Väinämöinen, for throughout the whole of the Kalevala epos, from Lonnrot's early drafts to the 1849 edition of the epic, Väinämöinen is ''steadfast old Väinämöinen'' (vaka vanha Väinämöinen).”

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Ancient Places

Antarctica.
On a chilly winter day in 1929, Halil Edhem, the Director of Turkey's National Museum, was hunched over his solitary task of classifying documents. He pulled towards him a map drawn on Roe deer skin. As Halil opened the chart to its full dimensions (two feet by three feet wide or 60 X 90 cm) he was surprised by how much of the New World was depicted on a map which dated from 1513.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article