An abridged account of Estoniaâ€™s influential 19th century epic, the Kalevipoeg.
The following tale is taken from Estonia’s celebrated national epic the Kalevipoegâ€”or Kalev’s Son. The novel-length epic, compiled from ancient Estonian folk tales by F. R. Kreutzwald in the mid-19th century, recounts the trials and tribulations of larger-than-life Estonian heroes. When it was published, one of the aims of the epic was to help instill the downtrodden Estonians with a sense of pride and glory. Six centuries of serfdom had recently ended, but Estonians were still treated by the all-powerful German aristocracy as second-class citizens in their own country. The epic takes its fair share of jibes at Germans, with allusions to them as devils and to German-run estates as hell. The armies that are engaged in battle by the Estonians are often dressed in the garb of medieval German knights.
The focus of the epic is on the son of Kalev, a tree-sized superhero, who rules the Estonians in a time long since forgotten. When he is not fending off one sworn enemy of Estonia or another, the otherwise benevolent giant is doing his chores or helping somebody else out with theirs. Heroic feats in the Kalevipoeg are often closely associated with simple, everyday work, and notions of romantic love are conspicuously absent. Honesty and a stubborn unwillingness to submit to evil are among the main themes of the epic.
At the start of the Kalevipoeg, Kalev flies to Estonia on the wings of a giant eagle and becomes king. When he dies, his son accedes to the throne. The son of Kalev manages to liberate Estonians from serfdom, but the threat of war and oppression is ever-present. As the epic ends, the war-weary giant becomes trapped in hell. But the epic ends by assuring readers that the son of Kalev will one day return home to bring happiness to his children and to build Estonia’s life anew.
In this excerpt from the Kalevipoeg, translated in prose form by W.F. Kirby in his book, The Hero of Estonia (London, 1895), the son of Kalev and his cousins, the sons of Alev, Sulev and Olev have just heard news of an invasion. Before going to battle, they rush to hide the treasures they have accumulated over the years. They bury it in a secret place, and declare that only the son of a pure mother should ever recover the hidden riches.
When the morning dawned, the son of Kalev took his spear and sword, mounted his war-horse, and ordered the son of Alev to follow him as his shield bearer. Then he blew his horn, and set his forces in battle array. The sound of the horn echoed through city and forest, and was heard in every province of Estonia, and the people flocked to the king at the summons. The women wept and lamented, but their husbands, sons, brothers, and lovers went forth to war. The son of Kalev assembled his army in the sacred oak-forest of Taara, and a bird advised him to sharpen his sword and spear for the fight. By the evening, the last stragglers had come in, and the son of Kalev allowed his men to rest for two days longer. On the third day thereafter, the battle began in earnest, and the son of Kalev fought against the mailed warriors for half a day, when his horse was killed under him.
Hundreds were slain on both sides, and at last the son of Sulev fell severely wounded. The soothsayer was summoned hastily, and adjured the blood to cease flowing, saying: “Flow thou not, O blood, like water; Still thee, blood, of life the honey. Let the blood as stone be hardened, firm as an oak-tree let it stiffen; In the stone around it, let the blood be stanched, O Taara!”
But the blood continued to flow, and then the magician used stronger spells, pressed his fingers on the wound to stop the bleeding, and tied up the limb with red thread, afterwards applying healing herbs.
In the meantime, the son of Kalev had routed the enemy and dispersed them over the plain in flight, the dead being piled up in heaps behind them. But the hero was weary and overcome with heat and thirst, and went to a lake, which he drained to the last drop, leaving only the mud at the bottom.
Three days were given to the burial of the dead and the care of the wounded, and then the son of Kalev set out in pursuit of the enemy. The son of Olev built a bridge over the VÃµhandu according to the son of Kalev’s instructions, and presently the army fell in with a murderous host of Tartars, Poles and Letts, who were ravaging the neighborhood of Pleskau [Pskov].
Another great battle was fought, and the son of Kalev slaughtered his enemies till their bodies lay in heaps a fathom high about the field, and the blood was five spans deep. The battle lasted for seven days, and many notable chiefs were slain, among whom was the son of Sulev, who had been so severely wounded in the previous battle. The Tartars and Poles had now been slain or put to fight, and the son of Kalev gathered together the remnants of his army to attack the Vends, and ordered the son of Alev to break their center.
The fight with the Vends lasted two days longer, and again vast numbers were slain on both sides. A great mound was raised on the battlefield over the grave of the son of Sulev in memory of the fallen hero. The three remaining heroes, the sons of Kalev, Alev and Olev, stood like towers against the attacks of the mailed warriors; but at last they were overcome by thirst and went to a lake in the valley, with steep high banks, to drink. The son of Alev, who was very weary, stooped down to drink, when his foot slipped, and he fell into the water, and was drowned before his friends could recover his body. In the bright sunshine his huge iron helmet and his three-edged sword may still be seen gleaming at the bottom of the water.
The son of Kalev was so overcome with grief at this last misfortune that he abandoned his kingdom, abdicating in favor of the son of Olev, and retired to the pine forests on the banks of the river Koiva, where he built a cottage and thought to dwell in peace and retirement. Here he lived alone supporting himself on fish and crayfish. One day a party of armed men found their way to his hermitage. He saw in the water the reflection of one of them advancing with his sword drawn to murder him. He turned angrily on his foes with an indignant exclamation, and seizing one of them by the helmet, whirled him round, and the air sounded as if disturbed by the rush of the Northern Eagle.
Then he dashed him down so that he sank to his waist in the ground. He seized the second by the hand, and swung him round till the forest was shaken as if by a tempest, and him he sank to the cheeks of the ground. The third he seized in the same way, and drove him so far into the ground that nothing could be seen of him but the hole where he had disappeared.
Another time, the son of Kalev was troubled by a messenger sent by the merchants on the coast to invite him to visit them. After listening to his talk for some time, he told the messenger to pull up the rod which he had baited for the crayfish. The youth went down to the river bank and found, to his amazement, that the rod was a tall fir tree, which the son of Kalev had torn up by the roots, but which the youth could not even move. Then the son of Kalev lifted the rod with one hand, and showed the youth that it was baited with the whole carcass of a dead mare, and sent the youth about his business, telling him to report what he had seen.
These intrusions vexed the son of Kalev, and he wandered away from his hermitage through the forests, and three days afterwards he reached Lake Peipus, without remembering that he had ever traveled the same way before. Singing gaily, he cane to the brook KÃ¤pÃ¤, and waded in. The hero had laid an injunction on his lost sword which he had intended to apply to the sorcerer who had robbed him of it. The son of Kalev had instructed the sword to cut off the legs of the one who had flung it in the lake, meaning the sorcerer. But the understanding of the sword was confused, and it reflected that now was the time for vengeance. So without more ado the great sword raised itself, and cut off both the hero’s legs at the knee. He cried out for help, and dragged himself with his hands to the shore, where he lay down bleeding, his legless body covering a whole acre of ground.
The cries of the dying son of Kalev rose above the clouds and ascended to heaven. The heavenly powers assembled round the hero, and vainly tried to salve his wounds and soothe his pain. Presently he expired, and his soul, like a joyful bird, took its flight to the halls of Taara in heaven. There he sat in the firelight among the heroes of Taara, resting his cheek on his hand, and listening to the bards as they sang of his great deeds. But the old father of the gods knew that so great a hero, who had conquered all his enemies in battle and who had even bound the prince of Hell in chains, could not remain idle in heaven. So he summoned all the gods in a secret conclave to consider what work they should assign to the son of Kalev, and the debate lasted for many days and nights. At last they determined that he should keep watch and ward at the gates of Hell.
So the soul of the son of Kalev flew down from heaven like a bird and was bidden to reanimate his body; but the might of all the gods, and even the divine wisdom of Taara, could not put his legs on again. Then they mounted him on a white horse and sent him to the post which had been assigned to him at the gates of Hell.
When the son of Kalev reached the rocky portal, a voice was heard from heaven, “Strike the rock with thy fist!” He did so and clove open the rock, and his right hand became caught in the cleft. Here the son of Kalev sits now on his horse at the gates of Hell, watching the bonds of others while bound himself.
The demons attempt unceasingly to soften their chains by heaping up bits of charcoal around them, but when the cock crows at dawn their fetters grow thicker. From time to time, too, the son of Kalev struggles to free his hand from the wall of rock, till the earth trembles and the sea foams; but the hand of the God of Death holds him, so that the warder of Hell shall never leave his post.
But one day a vast fire will break out on both sides of the rock and melt it, when the son of Kalev will withdraw his hand, and return to earth to inaugurate a new day of prosperity for the Estonians.