Essay on Kalevipoeg

This was an essay I wrote a few years ago about the Estonian epic Kalevipoeg.

Kalevipoeg 3

Like Kalevala was for the Finns,Kalevipoeg was a conscious attempt to create the Estonian nation’s version of Greek epics such as The Iliad, and The Aeneid. In 1839, Friedrich Robert Faehlmann wanted to make a national epic poem about the Estonian hero Kalevipoeg, a task eventually undertaken by Kreutzwald after Faehlmann’s death. Kreutzwald would publish Kalevipoeg in six installments of three to four chapters each with the Learned Estonian Society.

Anta Oras explained the significance of the two nineteenth century epics on their respective nations in his foreword to Kalevipoeg, explaining that it was “generally regarded as the national epic of the Estonian people, exactly as the Kalevala is considered the national epic of the Finns. Its influence on the national feeling in Estonia has been as great as that of the Kalevala in Finland. In both cases the publication of the epics, more perhaps than any other cause, created a sense of national identity, of self-confidence and pride. What happened, in its consequences, was as much a political as a literary event. The creation of a national epic was almost equivalent to the creation of a nation(ix).” Both epics became possible “in the anti-classicist movement culminating in Romanticism” as scholars became interested in the “folk songs, folk ballads, sagas, and fairy tales of the common people” (x) and the unique spirit of their nations.

As translator George Kurman explained in his afterword to Kalevipoeg, “the publication of German translations of Estonian folk songs by J. G. Herder and others served to counteract the disregard or even contempt with which native poetry was regarded by the ruling class” (278). Without this changing attitude in literary and cultural sensibilities, these stories would not have been written down, compiled and preserved, and the oral traditions would instead have been lost forever. Instead, we have two epics which have had a measurable impact upon their nations, from the success of Kalev brand chocolate bars in Estonia to the celebration of Kalevala Day in Finland every February 28, on the anniversary of the 1835 completion of Old Kalevala.

Despite the numerous similarities, including the names, the two epics are distinct, featuring unique sets of heroes and narrative structures. Kalevala refers to a place, possibly the Viena Karelian villages, although the exact setting remains a matter of some controversy.[1] The vast majority of Kalevipoeg follows the titular hero, except for the first chapter, which features the story of how his parents met. Although Kreutzwald references the hero’s real name “Sohni” briefly (24) the hero is always known as Kalevipoeg: the “poeg” or “son” of Kalev, who is absent for the majority of the text.

Kalevipoeg 2Kreutzwald, the composer of Kalevipoeg, and his predecessor Faehleman, had a more demanding task than Lonnrot, compiler of the Kalevala. Oras explained how the Estonians had less narrative material than the Finns, and it wasn’t until Kruetzwald “became acquainted with the German translation of the second edition of the Finnish Kalevala” (281) that he realized the ideal method of creating an Estonian national epic. He overestimated the extent to which Lonnrot had created new transitional material in order to coordinate collected songs into an epic whole. Kreutzwald did more than just create new transitions and place an order to events, as he cast “the entire work, including all of his collected prose material, into verse imitation of traditional Estonian song” (281) despite the lack of references to Kalevipoeg in any recorded Estonian folk songs.

The completed epic came from a variety of sources, mostly Estonian oral tradition, including folk tales, folk songs and fairy tales. The majority of the material was based on stories that had previously not been associated with Kalevipoeg, although now most of those stories are now identified with no one else. Some of the material was based on Finnish stories, and some of it was invented by Kreutzwald. The idea that Kalev and his relatives were demigods with human and divine ancestors was borrowed from Greek mythology. The description of “offshoots of immortals bred into this world from the laps of mortal mothers” (12) was completely foreign to the Estonian folk tradition, although it provided Kreutzwald with an explanation for the abilities of Kalevipoeg, and his relatives.

Due to their proximity Estonia and Finland have similar sources for some of their oral tradition, which led to similarities between the finished texts. Kalevipoeg did include some references to Kalevala, as in the twelfth tale, in which Ilmarine, one of the heroes of Kalevala crafted a sword for Kalevipoeg (152). A similar sword would have fatal consequences for Kullervo, as another sword would for Kalevipoeg.

kalevalaBoth heroes would have violent deaths, although there were numerous other similarities between the two tales. The story of Kullervo was Lonnrot’s most significant addition to his second edition of The Kalevala, composing six of the fourteen new runos, making it significantly shorter than Kalevipoeg. Despite its absence from Old Kalevala, it remains popular, considering the number of works of art based on Kullervo at the Ateneum. The story began with a vicious attack on the house of Kalervo, and the slaughter of almost everyone present. The sole survivor, a pregnant housemaid gave birth to a child who quickly demonstrated amazing strength, and at the age of three months vowed to avenge his father. (238) There were hints that he was the reincarnation of Kalervo, although there were few explanations regarding the housemaid’s relationship with the man, aside from the description of her son as “the son of Kalervo” (270).

Kullervo was quickly sold to slavery to the smith Ilmarinen, one of the rare characters to appear in both Kalevipoeg and Kalevala. After the initial bloody adventures in which he killed Ilmarinen’s mistress, Kullervo discovered that he was the son of Kalervo and his wife (no explanation was given regarding the pregnant housemaid), and that he had a brother and two sisters, all five of whom were alive, although one of the sisters was missing. This was inconsistent with the first half of the story, but provided Kullervo with brief happiness. After some bad luck with women, Kullervo seduced a young girl, who he discovered was his missing sister. She killed herself by jumping into rapids. After Kullervo told the story to his family, he vowed that he too would end his life, joining a military campaign in the hopes of dying in combat. When that didn’t happen, and his father, sister, brother, and mother died (in that order) he decided to stab himself with a sword. The sword had no objection to this, noting that it had killed many innocent people before, and would have no objection to smiting one who had committed such crimes. The story had an obvious moral, as the hero Vainomoinen heard of the tragedy, and noted that parents should do a better job of raising their children (287).

The fourth chapter of Kalevipoeg includes a similar story in which Kalevipoeg seduces a young woman, who slips off a cliff upon learning his name. There’s a scene in the seventh chapter in which her ghost sings of a brother doing the things Kalevipoeg does (86) and the implication is that she killed herself upon learning that they were siblings. It is inconsistent with the introduction of her parents (who were not Kalevipoeg’s parents) and the scenes in which they mourn their lost daughter. It represents the most striking similarity between the two epics, and remains the only explanation for the maiden’s strange behavior.

While Kullervo was driven to suicide by the death of the girl he seduced, the maiden’s death had no such effect upon Kalevipoeg, although he was killed by his own sword. This was a consequence of his stupidity. He had previously asked Ilmarinen to craft for him the finest sword ever made. During a celebration for the crafting of such a fine weapon, the drunken Kalevipoeg used this sword to kill the swordsmith’s eldest son. It’s notable that Kullervo suffered no repercussions for killing Ilmarinen’s mistress, although he had better reasons for doing so. Ilmarinen put a curse on the sword, vowing that it would kill Kalevipoeg. While the sword enabled Kalevipoeg to kill more enemies than he usually would, the hero soon lost it in a brook. When the sword told him how it was happier there, Kalevipoeg allowed it to remain, but ordered it to cut off the legs of anyone who waded into the brook to prevent his enemies from ever being able to use it against him.  Kalevipoeg went on to have more adventures, and become king of Estonia. In the final chapter, he renounced the kingship and came to the forbidden brook by accident, where the sword cut off his legs, fulfilling the wishes of its owner and the swordsmith who crafted it. Thus Kalevipoeg bled to death, receiving the usual grim fate for the epic hero. In contrast to Kullervo’s story, this death wasn’t one the hero wanted, although his previous actions had preordained it.


In the final pages, Kalevipoeg is rejected admission into heaven, and there are hints that he will return one day when his country needs him to “bring his children happiness, and build Estonia’s life anew” (266) similar to the final fate of King Arthur. This ending influenced many later Estonian writers to craft their own stories of the country’s legendary hero, and may have contributed to Kalevipoeg’s continued success as an iconic figure for the Estonians. The ending’s nostalgic message resonated with the people, suggesting a potential return to the glory days of a better Estonia, even if actual history demonstrated how brief those days had been.

Unlike Kalevipoeg, Vainomoinen survives to have new adventures although it is implied that he will never return to Finland. The differences to the endings may be the result of Finland having a better history when it came to foreign invasions[2]. While Kalevala was credited with the 19th Century Finnish nationalism movement, the Finns had more freedom than the Estonians. When Tsar Alexander of Russia became the ruler of the nation, he agreed to respect Finland’s laws, and make it a Grand Duchy as opposed to a part of the nation. This ensured there was less nostalgia for a free Finland than there was for a free Estonia, which allowed for Kalevala’s optimistic ending.

Because the work is relatively recent, much more is known about the construction of the Kalevipoeg epic than about the genesis of the ancient epics. Since the Learned Estonian Society published Kalevipoeg in six volumes between April 1857 and August 1861, Kreutzwald was able to address critics of early chapters in his later tales. Thus, the fifteenth chapter begins with Kreutzwald addressing the controversy the text has caused, and insulting its most vocal detractors (the clergy.) The ninth tale ended with an antiwar coda, which Kreutzwald had written long before he began work on Kalevipoeg, and added for no narrative reason, save that he had a new audience for it.

Kreutzwald immediately recognized the cultural significance of the project. In his preface to the second edition, he wrote that Kalevipoeg was meaningful because “the oppression of war and deadly plague, the torture of hunger and the chains of slavery, have bruised the Estonian people and devastated their land more than once, but all of these miseries were unable to erase from the minds of the people a memory left over from a distant age of happiness- from the days of Kalevipoeg” (xiii). He was correct in describing Estonia’s long history of invasions and foreign domination. The constant foreign rule ensured that the idea that Kalevipoeg was “the defender of people’s freedom and last ruler of an independent Estonia” (287) held a certain resonance with all who heard or read the story. By providing a definite setting for the tales of “a giant of the indefinitely distant past” Kreutzwald forever altered the context of those stories. This concept was important to its success, and provided one reason for the continued relevance of the epic when Estonia was taken over by the Soviet Union in the Twentieth Century, after a brief fifteen years of independence. Estonia gained its independence in 1990 and Kalevipoeg remains popular. Time will this will continue when the idea of Estonia as an independent nation isn’t seen as a distant hope, attainable dream or recent blessing.


Works Cited

  •  “The Vienna Karelian Folklore Villages” 1999. Jumineko Kalevalan ja Karjalsen kultuuriin Informaatlokeskus, 1 May 2007.
  • <>
  • “A Brief History of Finland” 2004. 7 May 2007 <>
  • Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala Epic of the Finnish People. Trans.Eino Frieberg. Helsinki: Otava, 1988
  • Kreutzwald. Kalevipoeg An Ancient Estonian Tale. Trans. Juri Kurman. Moorestown: Symposia, 1982
  • Oras, Ants. Foreword. Kalevipoeg An Ancient Estonian Tale by FR Kreutzwald. Moorestown: Symposia, 1982

[1]               An explanation of Kalevala’s cultural relationship with these villages is available at <;

[2]               A brief history of Finland is available at <;


About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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