Stories from the Finnish Epic: The Kalevala
as told at the Seattle Storytellers Guild Epic Event
at the Nordic Heritage Museum on March 25th, 2017.

Kalevala and the Kantele

  • About the Kantele

    The Kantele is a traditional Finnish and Karelian plucked string instrument belonging to the Zither family of Baltic Psaltery. Smaller 5 stringed Kantele were in almost every Finnish household, often carved out of a single piece of wood. The kantele is a rather simple instrument: there are no frets, no bridge, no nut. It is strung with steel strings tuned to a Diatonic scale in D.( D, E, F#,G, A) or D minor tuning (D, E, F G A). On the kantele, single notes are played by plucking single strings with the fingers. For playing chords, some of the strings are muted with the fingertips and then it is strummed over all the strings with either fingers, or with a plectrum. The Kantele has a harp- or bell-like sound.

    There are small ones and big ones. Small ones rarely have more than one or two octaves of 5-15 strings. The big ones usually have at least 32 strings and three to four octaves. Kanteles, especially the smaller 5 and 10 string instruments, are relatively easy instruments to learn to play. The larger kanteles of up to 36 strings have more elaborate sound boxes and require more effort to learn to play, but allow the player to perform more complex pieces of music.

    The first kantele is said to have been made from the jawbone of a fish and a few hairs from Hiisi's stallion by the supernatural hero Väinämöinen. The music it makes draws all the forest creatures near to wonder at its beauty.Later, after losing and greatly grieving over his kantele, Väinämöinen makes another one from a birch, strung with the hair of a willing maiden, and its magic proves equally profound. It is the gift the eternal sage leaves behind when he departs Kaleva - the Land of Heroes.

    Other Resources on the Kantele:

    On Singing The Kalevala

    The stories in The Kalevala were and still are sung and sometimes a Kantele would be played in accompanyment. A pair of men would sit across from each other, fingers intertwined, or touching knees, swaying as they sang, singing sometimes in unison, sometimes call-and-response. This enabled the main singer to spontaneously compose the next verses. A woman’s song would be accompanied by a group.

    Singing was one of two methods of magic frequently seen in The Kalevala, the National Epic of Finland, the other being a sort of built-in elemental, natural magic (generally used by female characters). Sorcerers sing their “en-chant-ments” and The Kalevala has many charms and spells contained within its poetry.

    © 2017 - Barry McWilliams and The Seattle Storytellers Guild