The kantele is a plucked psaltery from Finland. The kantele and its cousins – the Latvian kokle, Lithuanian kanklės, Estonian kannel and Russian gusli – are known as Baltic psalteries.
I play the diatonic folk kantele. Most folk kanteles range from 5-11 strings, but mine is a large 19 string kantele. The additional bass strings are meant to function as drone strings, but I re-tuned them for extra harmonic possibilities.
I have loved Finland since I spent time in Helsinki and Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. The first time I heard the kantele, I was moved to tears. The soft, metallic sound with its incredible sustain is, to me, what snow falling on birch trees would sound like if I could hear it. This characteristic sound occurs because (unusually for a stringed instrument) the kantele lacks bridges. Instead, the metal strings are simply wound around metal pins at each end, resulting in some complex acoustics.
I have since come to appreciate more about the origins of this ancient instrument.
The Mythic Origins of the Kantele
The story of the kantele’s creation is told in Finland’s national epic, The Kalevala – a huge collection of Finnish folklore and mythology that originated between 500 B.C. and A.D. 1000. Its many thousands of verses were compiled in its current form by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, from the singing of Finnish and Karelian peasants.
The Kalevala tells us that the wizard Väinämöinen makes the first kantele from the jawbone of a giant pike and a few hairs from a magic stallion. Many people try to play it and fail until Väinämöinen himself begins to play music of such beauty that it draws all the forest creatures near to listen and wonder. However, Väinämöinen loses his fish-bone kantele when it returns to the sea. After grieving over it for many months, he is persuaded to make another. This time, he crafts it from the wood of a birch tree and strings it with the hair of a willing maiden: the magic of this second kantele proves equally powerful.
In the final section of The Kalevala, immediately before Väinämöinen sets off in a copper boat to go between the earth and the sky, he leaves his birch-wood kantele behind to become the grandmother of all kanteles, including mine.
In his last words, he vows to come back some day, saying:
Let the time pass, let days go
and needed will I be again,
needed will I be, longed for, looked for
To make the New Kantele
to move the new moon, to change a new day.
VÄINÄMÖINEN – Rune Singing Shaman
In Finland, the verses of The Kalevala are known as runes. Rune means song or poem. It could also be translated as a secret thing – something that contains hidden and powerful sacred knowledge. Rune singing has its roots in antiquity and is believed to be connected to the practice of shamanism. During the singing of runes, the shaman is able to enter a trance state whereupon their soul can journey to other worlds.
Rune singing was accompanied by the kantele. In The Kantele Traditions of Finland, Carl Rahkonen writes:
The kantele may have served a function similar to that of the Lapp shaman’s drum, as a source of sound upon which the shaman could focus to help achieve a trance state. Undoubtedly, the kantele held special symbolic significance to the shaman, as the magical object mentioned in the runes, which also existed in tangible reality. 1
The Kalevala portrays Väinämöinen as a rune singer himself, with the kantele the source of his magic power. Elias Lönnrot and other contemporaries even believed that Väinämöinen was a real-life shaman-poet who had lived sometime in the ninth century. There are fascinating parallels here with British and Irish shaman-poets, such as Taliesin and Amairgin, whom I will write about another time.