The ancient Finns had two different creation myths recounting how the world or the earth was formed. One is the ‘Earth-Diver’ myth which is widely spread in Eurasia and Northern America, and which was also preserved by the Orthodox Karelians. The myth tells about a bird who dived into the primeval sea and brought up earth from the seabed. The other myth tells that the world was formed when a water bird laid its egg on the knee of Väinämöinen, who was at the time floating in the primeval sea. Väinämöinen moved his leg and the egg broke forming the world. This myth is thought to have been adopted by the Baltio-Finnic people as a southern cultural loan during the Iron Age.
The myths recount that at the beginning of time the virgin Iro gave birth to three divine sons, Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Joukahainen. Väinämöinen was the oldest and Joukahainen the youngest. It is to these brothers that the appellation the ‘Cosmic Gods’ is given, since they were born before the world was formed and contributed to making the world what it is today. The divine brothers seem to be connected with the primeval elements. The oldest, Väinämöinen, is associated with water. In Finnish spells and folk songs water is called the “oldest of the brothers”. Iron is thought to be the second oldest of the brothers, especially when connected with the air from the bellows of the smith’s forge. Which is clearly the element of the smith-god Ilmarinen. Therefore the youngest brother mentioned then is by virtue of logic, fire, or Joukahainen (although there is no direct evidence of this connection in the folklore). Together water, iron, wind and fire made it possible for humans to create better weapons and tools. These objects gave birth to the whole of civilization. It is for this reason that the cosmic gods are not only considered to be gods of natural elements, but also protectors of culture.
As previously mentioned, Väinämöinen is heavily associated with water. He creates the world through his movements while floating in the primeval sea; he builds a legendary boat and swims several times to the underworld in the form of a fish or otter. When Väinämöinen wishes to leave the human world he sails in his boat through fiery rapids. Additionally, Väinämöinen’s famous kantele is made from the jawbone of a pike and the ancient Finns called certain patterns on the surface of water the “Path of Väinämöinen”. When the spiritual power of water was conjured, Väinämöinen was called. Hence the Finnish scholar Kaarle Krohn concludes that originally Väinämöinen was the god of water. Väinämöinen is also a mighty shaman and the world’s first healer who travels to the underworld to receive the right words for healing and enchants the whole world with his singing. Consequently, Väinämöinen is the god of water, shamans, healers and poets.
The sky god Ilmarinen first brought fire to the world by causing the first lightning to strike over the primeval sea. Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen appear together in many myths. Väinämöinen is also involved in bringing the fire to the world but he is not the bringer of fire since his element is water. As a sky god, Ilmarinen (or Ilmari, Ilmaroinen, Ilmamo, Ilmamoinen) rules over the elements of air: clouds, thunder, lightning, wind, storm and calm, and rain and snow. Ilmarinen is also a creator god who forges the sky-dome and the world-pillar. When he is done, he places the stars on the sky-dome. As a god of fire, wind and rain, he was the god of slash-and-burn farmers. As a god of wind and storm, he helped sailors and fishermen. Because of his intricate wisdom regarding fire and wind, he was the guardian of smiths. Ilmarinen might have also been a fatherly god who people turned to when they were in trouble.
It is possible that the strong folk devotion to the Virgin Mary, which continued long after Finland officially converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism in the 16th century, was based on the memory of older female deities. ‘Maaria’ is a popular figure in Finnish spells and her help is sought for a multitude of reasons. For instance, bear hunters used to petition Maaria, as they believed she had a role in the birth of bears. Maaria was also believed to protect cattle and save people in times of crisis. In addition, she was said to heal the sick, help weavers and bring lifesaving warmth to people. In the folklore, squirrels and bees are associated with Maaria, and just as in a number of other European mythologies, the bee symbolizes sexuality. In Maaria’s case, however, the bee signifies a lack of sexuality, virginity. The bee is also believed to bring Maaria healing ointments from the sky and it is here that we find an interesting connection between the mother of Lemminkäinen and Maaria. After the death of Lemminkäinen, his mother collects the pieces of her son and brings the body back to life with magic and ointment brought by a bee from sky. This theme of death and rebirth gives Lemminkäinen Christ-like features, and so it would follow that Maaria and the mother of Lemminkäinen are the same being.
Lemminkäinen is the young hero of the folk poems. He is proud and brave, but short-sighted and prone to bragging. Lemminkäinen is also a warrior and a skillful rune singer. He is the combination of a tietäjä and a proud viking hero. In modern times, people have focused on Lemminkäinen’s role as a wanton lover-boy, creating almost like a Kalevala version of Don Juan. Most respected scholars, however, have emphasized the archaic shamanistic nature of Lemminkäinen. Juha Pentikäinen sees eternal wandering as the main attribute of Lemminkäinen. He is not invited to the feast at Päivölä (meaning the place of the sun) but Lemminkäinen chooses to travel there anyway. During his journey he overcomes several dangers which resemble shamanistic imagery, such as a flaming birch tree. When he arrives at the feast Lemminkäinen is disrespected. As a result he kills the master of the house in a fight and flees to avoid retaliation. Eventually Lemminkäinen is hunted down and killed; his body cut into pieces and thrown into the Tuonela river. Then as previously related, Lemminkäinen’s mother collects the pieces of her son and brings him back to life.
Lemminkäinen is a hero who, like Odysseus, is forced to travel for eternity, homeless and always compelled to leave for one reason or another. In light of this it is worth mentioning that traveling between mythical places is also the role of the tietäjä’s soul. Another shamanistic element to Lemminkäinen is his dramatic death; he is cut into pieces and given a new life. This sequence of events resembles the initiation rite of a new shaman, where the shaman-to-be must die and be reborn as a shaman. Pentikäinen argues that the feast of Päivölä takes place in the realm of the sun, not in Pohjola as Lönnrot’s Kalevala and certain other later sources claim. The sun symbolizes the center of the world. Lemminkäinen tries to reach that place and the celestial gods, but he fails and disappears into the sun; he is destined to die and to be resurrected.