Monday, April 13, 2015

K is for the Kalevipoeg (Epics from A to Z)

The Kalevipoeg is the national epic of Estonia. Much like its close cousin, the Finnish Kalevala, it has been pieced together from folk songs, tales and ballads by an ambitious 19th century poet. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald had a lot less material to work from than Elias Lönnrot, and the first version of his epic couldn't even be published due to censorship (there are some pretty risky details in there) - but he still managed to compile a twenty-song long continuous story. The epic is now available in English both in verse and in prose format.

The Hero
The hero of the epic is called Kalevipoeg; he is named after his father, Kalev, who was a famous hero himself. With that said, Kalevipoeg is the least likable character in the entire epic. He is very strong and large - in the original tales, he is a giant - but he is not very smart, and he also treats women fairly badly (and sometimes violently). Like any decent hero, he has a magic sword, but his first feat is to get drunk and kill the son of the blacksmith who forged it. In return, the blacksmith curses the sword, and it becomes Kalevipoeg's downfall in the end.

The Highlights
So if the hero is not exactly a likable fellow, why should anyone read this epic?
Well, here are some reasons I found:
1. The first song. It tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mother, and her cosmic courtship by the Sun, Moon, Water, Fire, and other supernatural suitors, before Kalev comes along. There are various versions of this tale collected from Estonia; one of them tells of the creation of the Milky Way.
2. Wizards. There are many different kinds of wizards in the world of the epic. There are word-wizards, wind-wizards, death-wizards, and my personal favorites, salt-sorcerers. They all have their own spells, magic rites, and personalities.
3. The tiny episode where Kalevipoeg gives a spiky coat to a naked hedgehog. Because: naked hedgehog.
4. The description of Hell (Kalevipoeg visits the underworld multiple times) from where three girls are rescued. Hell itself is a series of chambers - according to folktale tradition we see chambers of iron, copper, silver, gold... aaaand then we go on to silk, velvet, and lace. The rescued girls take some time to loot the latter rooms before they return to the world of the living. I would too. Also, the three girls get their own story after they are rescued, and they generally fare better than other women in the epic. (The second descent into the underworld is also entertaining - it reads like a well-designed Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with caves and traps and everything.)
5. Song 16 tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mythic journey to the end of the world in the far North. There are whirlpools, whales, islands of fire, and half-canine men - all in all, pretty much everything that makes a mythic voyage a mythic voyage.
6. Olev. There are other heroes around Kalevipoeg (Alev, Sulev and Olev), and Olev is by far the most likable. He spends his time building splendid cities for people. When Kalevipoeg realizes that he is not really a good king (duh), he gives up his throne for Olev. Best choice he makes in the entire epic.
7. The language. Much like the Kalevala, the Kalevipoeg also has an enchanting, repetitive, alliterative rhythm that lulls you into reading it. I imagine it would be even more enthralling if sung.


  1. Kalevipoeg has so much in similarity to Duryodhana in Mahabharata, and the cosmic courtship with the sun,moon, fire etc is also described in the epic, with respect to Kunti.

    Sometimes it makes me wonder if these tales are indeed connected and the variations happened as a result of re-telling locally.

  2. Well, considering the hero sounds pretty hateful, this really sounds like a fun read for a lot of othe reasons.
    I'm fascinated by the different mages you mentiones.

  3. love the hedgehog...
    ... and so sexy underwear came from Hell???

  4. I wonder is storys lik ethis are similar to other countrys storys.. Thanks for visiting my A to Z

  5. He sounds like an objectionable fellow - glad it comes back to bite him eventually. Stopping to loot Hell on the way out is particularly ballsy - love it :)
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

  6. Well, I'd read it only because it is such a refreshing change to find a MC in an epic wasn't a perfect paragon. Btw, one of the Indian epics has a similar cosmic courtship which resulted in the birth of its heroes - the Mahabharata. Makes one wonder if the germ-story was the same and the details were remade as cultures/peoples diverged?

  7. Hedgehog... brilliant!

    Jeremy [Retro]
    AtoZ Challenge Co-Host [2015]

    There's no earthly way of knowing.
    Which direction we are going!

    Come Visit: You know you want to know if me or Hollywood... is Nuts?

  8. I somehow believe all the epics around the globe are somehow interconnected.. as here I found our Epic Character from Mahabharata ..
    We all are one..

  9. I like how you sum up parts like it has everything needed for an epic journey. And the girls getting out of hell and taking some loot with them.

  10. kalevipoeg, gives the hedgehog poky underwear, and gives up his throne to Olev and rescues three maidens.... hmmm... you really have a way of making things look interesting :) on a serious note, i should not lose track of your blog, seems interesting tales are told here.

  11. He's one rotten fellow, but the tale sounds quite interesting.

  12. So... what does one have to do to get into the velvet hell? Just wondering...

    And a coat for a hedgehog! Surely Kalevipoeg can't be too dastardly if he does that. ;)

    1. Haha, I would love to know what sends you to Velvet Hell... XD

  13. I've been wanting to read this one since I became an Estophile about 15 years ago , though it's really hard to find in any of my local libraries. The Estonian language is so beautiful, and they have such an amazing history, culture, and literature.

  14. the wizards sound like fun. death wizards cool!

    poor naked hedgehog. it definitely needs a spiny coat. it looked like a squishy ball with a face =S

  15. I can't imagine looting Hell is going to look good for those girls!

  16. This si very cool. I knew of the Finnish epic, but not this one.

    Tim Brannan, The Other Side Blog
    2015 A to Z of Vampires

  17. Oh I liked that epic. Kalevipoeg also has a guest appearence in the latvian national epic Lāčplēsis, where he has a huge fight with the hero only to drink on their brotherhood a moment later, when they decide to kill some Teutonic knights and not each other. ;)

    I enjoy your theme this year and come back to read your entries every day.

  18. Ok, I didn't know hedgehogs could be naked. Now I know. And those chambers of hell sound pretty cool, lol.

  19. The creation of the Milky Way sounds really interesting. I appreciate how you look for the value in an epic that doesn't have a nice main character. :)

    Alex Hurst, A Fantasy Author in Kyoto
    A-Z Blogging in April Participant

  20. I'm intrigued by the idea of a salt-sorcerer. Something new for me!