The Kalevala Tarot by by Kai Kalervo Aaltonen, Artwork by Taina Pailos
Review by Joan Cole

Reindeer pulling sleighs through snowy landscapes, the rippling lights of the aurora borealis, dense forests of pine, spruce and birch, coffee and sweet breads. These are all images of Finland, home of Christmas City, and Santa's home at Korvatunturi. The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, was a major inspiration to J.R.R. Tolkien, and Gandalf has much in common with its central character Väinämöinen. The sound pattern of Tolkien's invented language, Quenya, was strongly influenced by the Finnish language. So even though things Finnish are completely unknown to most Americans, we do have a few points of familiarity we might not have realized.

What is the Kalevala?

The Kalevala was constructed by Elias Lönnrot in the nineteenth century from a tiny subset of the runo poems that had been sung for centuries in rural parts of Finland. Lönnrot's collection and publication of folklore was part of the national romanticism movement that was going on throughout Europe at the time. For instance, the Brothers Grimm published their first collection of German folktales in 1812. But Lönnrot selected, ordered and published these poems not as stories for children, but as a national epic for Finland on the order of Homer or the Nibelungenlied. Lönnrot's publication of the Kalevala in 1835 and then, expanded and reordered in 1849, was a major force in helping the Finns define themselves apart from the Swedes and Russians who had ruled over them in recent centuries (since the 12th century) from the West and East respectively.

A unique feature of the Kalevala is that the heroism it celebrates is not based on a strong sword-arm, but ability in magic. Magic is sung, just like the runos.

Then old Väinämöinen sang,
Sang his songs and cast his spells:
Sang a fir tree flower-crowned,
Flower-crowned and golden-leaved,
Stretched it high into the air,
Through the very clouds he sang it.
Till its leafy branches reaching
Spread its foliage high as heaven.
Singing songs and casting spells:
Sang a moon to shine up there
On the fir tree's golden crown;
Sang the Great Bear on the branches.
(Runo 10, Eino Friberg translation)

It struck me that, like the Irish Tuatha de Danaan stories, the runo poems collected into the Kalevala may be preserving the memory of the struggle between peoples already present on a land and newer settlers who end up prevailing. The runo selected by Lönnrot describe the struggle between two peoples: the Kaleva, the "heroes" from whose perspective the story is told (probably the Finns, a Finno-Ugric people), and the Pohjola, the "great enchanters" from the "foggy land of sedges", (probably the Saami, the indigenous people). Thus, in contrast to Kai Kalervo Aaltonen, I personally do not see the story as a tale of good and evil or good guys and bad guys.
From strictly a story perspective, not looking for deeper meanings, the primary characters are Väinämöinen, the magic-singer, Ilmarinen, the Smith, and Lemminkäinen, the Fighter and Lover. These three represent the side of the Kaleva; Louhi, the Mistress and mighty enchantress of Northland is the main force on the side of the Pohjola. The magical artifact, the Sampo, which provides great wealth to whoever possesses it, is woven throughout the epic, in which its creation and destruction are told.

What about the deck?                                                       

I will sing a good song for you                                                                       
And I'll make it beautiful:
Do it on a rye bread diet,
Wash it down with barley beer.
(Runo 1, Eino Friberg translation)

This deck makes an attempt to be as symbolically dense as the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), and several images are modeled on that deck. The court cards are essentially the classic Golden Dawn (Book “T”) type, and are filled out with characters who don’t appear in the epic. So this deck is not a RWS variation so much as it is a RWS-influenced improvisation based on a story cycle, or to put it less formally, a not-so-close theme clone.
In the Minor Arcana, the illustrations are scenes from the epic that express the same energy as the RWS images, and while a few are obvious variants, most require knowledge of the epic to know what the story is. They do, however, work with RWS divinatory meanings.

In this deck, especially in the Major Arcana, the associated characters and story elements are sometimes only a starting point. From there, strict adherence to the happenings in the Kalevala is sometimes departed from to properly express the card. For instance, the Emperor is represented by Joukahainen, not at the point in his life in which he appears in the Kalevala, but as he might be as a mature and much wiser man. Because of the "as if" use of characters in the epic, it would probably be useful to read the book even if you are familiar with both the Kalevala and Tarot. I'm not terribly familiar with the epic, so I can't comment on whether the appropriate characters or scenes have been chosen for the cards.

Major Arcana


Kalevala Tarot


0 - Fool


A spirited and passionate adventure seeker.  Some of his stunts include: kidnapping and marrying Kylliki, trying and failing to win one of Louhi’s daughters (and dying in the meantime, requiring maternal assistance for resurrection), slaying Louhi’s husband, and joining the expedition to steal the Sampo.

1 - Magician


The Smith.  Väinämöinen’s traveling companion who forged the heavens and gained the hand of one of Louhi’s daughters.

2 - High Priestess


Joukahainen’s sister who chose a watery grave over marriage to Väinämöinen.

3 - Empress


The so-called wicked Mistress of the North (Pohjola) who has the Kaleva heroes pursuing her daughter and commissions the forging of the Sampo.

4 - Emperor


Thought he was so superior that he challenged Väinämöinen to a contest and had to promise his sister’s hand in marriage in order to save his skin when he lost.  The suit of swords in this deck is called Joukahainen’s bow (even though it shows swords), in reference to the crossbow with which Joukahainen shot at Väinämöinen.

5 - Hierophant


He existed before the world began and promised to return when times were better.

6 - Lovers


Two couples: Ilmarinen and the Pohjola daughter, and Lemminkäinen and Kylliki.

7 - Chariot


Master of Pohjola.  Louhi’s husband who was killed by Lemminkäinen in a duel.

8/11 - Strength

8 - Kylliki

Kylliki of the Island – wife of Lemminkäinen.  There are several parallels between her story and that of Persephone.

9 - Hermit


A giant who lives in the bowels of the Earth – the Earth’s memory.

10 - Wheel of Fortune


The word fate is actually “kohtalo”.  This shows a wheel of fortune with replaced animals.

11/8 - Justice

11 - Äiti

Lemminkäinen’s mother.

12 - Hanged Man


Lemminkäinen’s sidekick.

13 - Death


This shows Lemminkäinen hewn into fragments in the river of Tuonela, the place where you are taken after death.

14 - Temperance


Annikki (Ainikki is a misspelling) is Ilmarinen’s sister, the maiden of the dawn and the twilight.

15 - Devil


The evil spirit is Metsahiisi.  Hiisi is the place where the Ghost of the Mountain lived.  There is a horse of Hiisi and an elk of Hiisi that play a part in the epic.

16 - Tower


The oak is also known as the god-tree.

17 - Star


Becomes pregnant by swallowing a cranberry, in a story with parallels to Mary, Mother of Jesus.

18 - Moon


Mistress of the Forest

19 – Sun

Poika, Son

Marjatta’s son

20 - Judgement


Highest of the Gods

21 - World


Mother Earth

Minor Arcana Suits


Kalevala Tarot

Kalevala Realm

Court Cards Depict



Kaukomieli’s Blade

Kalervo and Family



The Kaleva Moors

Marjatta and Family



Joukahainen’s Bow

Kullervo and Family



The Fields of Pohjola

Untamo and Family

Court Cards

                RWS                  Page




Golden Dawn















As with most books accompanying decks, the orientation of the text is consultative rather than historical, meditative or occult; and the discussion in the book briefly relates what story element is being illustrated as well as including sections giving meanings that are pithy and practical for doing readings for the public. There is the standard reproduction of qabalistic tree of life glyphs, and also an enneagram.

Fundamentally, this is not a study deck, it is a theme deck, and is typical of that genre. The artwork is rustic and colorful and has really grown on me as I've worked on this review. It would appear that a majority of the cards depict scenes set out of doors and in the summer. Some of the elements, such as the reindeer element used in the card back design, come from traditional Saami art. I looked online for biographical information on Taina Pailos, but although I found several sites in Finnish that appeared to be exhibitions her work appeared in, I found nothing in English.

Even if you are not Finnish, if you are a fan of Tolkien or high fantasy in general, you should take a look at the Kalevala. If you are a lover of the Northwoods (whether that be Canada, Minnesota, or Scandinavia), the mood of this deck should prove very appealing to you.  

Now bring back the splendor here
As it was in better days:
Like the moon in fir boughs gleaming,
Like the sun in pinetops shining,
And the forest filled with odors,
Smell of mead and smell of honey
Through the wide blue haze of woodland,
Smell of sweetwort round the clearings,
Swamps the smell of melted butter.
(Runo 14, Eino Friberg translation)

The Kalevala Tarot Book and Deck Set (ISBN 0-88079-187-X, copyright 1996) is published by U.S. Games Systems and available through your local bookseller.

Another perspective can be found at this site dedicated to a thorough and excellent review of this deck by Mathieu Ouellet, who is a long-term student of the Kalevala and bought the pack to learn more about Tarot.

To learn more about topics mentioned in this review

Other adaptations listed at A Kalevala Bookshelf About the Kalevala in General About Finland About the Saami JRR Tolkien Quenya's relation to Finnish

Santa Claus

Joan Cole is a stay-at-home mom and former geek.   She has been studying Tarot off and on since the early 1980's.  You can see her deck collection here.

Images © 1996 US Games
Review © 2001, 2003 Joan Cole
Page © 2003 Diane Wilkes