There existed an oral tradition within Ancient Estonia of legends explaining the origin of the world. Within old Estonian folklore, a malevolent giant by the name of Kalev, Kalevine, Kalevipoiss, Kalevine posikine and Kalevin Poika appears, battling with other giants or enemies of the nation. The earliest written references are found in Leyen Spiegel in 1641 as "Kalliweh", and in a list of deities published by Mikael Agricola in 1515 as "Calenanpoiat".
The main material is taken from Estonian folklore of a giant hero named Kalevipoeg ("Kalev's son", often Anglicised as "Kalevide"). These tales mainly interpret various natural objects and features as traces of Kalevipoeg's deeds and have similarities with national epics from neighbouring regions, especially the Finnish Kalevala, and also in Scandinavia.
In 1839, Friedrich Robert Faehlmann read a paper at the Learned Estonian Society about the legends of Kalevipoeg. He sketched the plot of a national romantic epic poem. In 1850, after Faehlmann's death, Kreutzwald started writing the poem, interpreting it as the reconstruction of an obsolete oral epic. He collected oral stories and wove them together into a unified whole.
The first version of Kalevipoeg (1853; 13,817 verses) could not be printed due to censorship. The second, thoroughly revised version (19,087 verses) was published in sequels as an academic publication by the Learned Estonian Society in 1857–1861. The publication included a translation into German. In 1862, the third, somewhat abridged version (19,023 verses) came out. This was a book for common readers. It was printed in Kuopio, Finland.
In Estonian (mainly East Estonian) legends, Kalevipoeg carries stones or throws them at enemies, and also uses planks edgewise as weapons, following the advice of a hedgehog. He also forms surface structures on landscape and bodies of water and builds towns. He walks through deep water. Kalevipoeg eventually dies after his feet are cut off by his own sword owing to his own prior—and fatally ambiguous—instructions.
Kalevipoeg was the youngest son of Kalev and Linda, born after his father's death and surpassed his brothers in intelligence and strength. It is often thought that Kalevipoeg's real name was Sohni/Soini, but it actually means simply 'son' and he never had other name than Kalevipoeg. Alevipoeg, Olevipoeg and Sulevipoeg were his friends and more distant relatives.
The character only rarely appears in folk songs. In literature, he was first mentioned by Heinrich Stahl in the 17th century.
Kalevipoeg travels to Finland in search of his kidnapped mother. During his travel he purchases a sword but kills the blacksmith's eldest son in an argument. The blacksmith places a curse on the sword and is thrown in the river. On returning to Estonia Kalevipoeg becomes king after defeating his brothers in a stone hurling competition. He constructs towns and forts and tills the land in Estonia. Kalevipoeg then journeys to the ends of the earth to expand his knowledge. He defeats Satan in a trial of strength and rescues three maidens from hell. War breaks out and destruction visits Estonia and Kalevipoeg's faithful comrades are killed, he hands rule over to his brother Olev and withdraws to the forest depressed. Crossing a river, the sword cursed by the Blacksmith and previously thrown in the river, cuts off his legs. He dies and goes to heaven. Taara, in consultation with the other gods, reanimate Kalevipoeg and place his legless body on a white steed and send him down to the gates of hell where they order him to strike the rock with his fist. His fist becomes trapped in the rock and thus he remains to guard the gates of hell.
The epic is written in old Estonian alliterative verse. Approximately one eighth of the verses are authentic; the rest are imitation.
Contents and synopses
The Kalevipoeg consists of twenty Cantos.
Canto I. - The marriages of Salme and Linda
- Three brothers travel to different places. The youngest is Kalev. He is taken to Estonia on the back of a great eagle. He becomes king of the land.
- A widow walks alone and finds a hen, a grouse's egg and a crow on her travels. She takes them home and the former 2 grow into the maidens Salme and Linda. The crow--which she discarded--grows into a servant girl.
- Many suitors come to the girls, Salme and Linda. Salme is wooed by the sun, moon and stars themselves. Linda is also wooed by them, but she chooses Kalev, the frightening giant, as her husband. Salme and Linda leave with their respective husbands to complete their lives with them.
Canto II. - The death of Kalev
- Kalev dies, but before his death prophecises the greatness of his unborn sons (Sohni, Kalevide, Son of Kalev).
- Linda weeps for seven days and nights over her husband's death. Her tears create Ülemiste järv, situated in Tallinn nowadays. She then prepares him for his funeral and buries him 35 metres below the ground, constructing, as his burial mound, what is now known as the hill of "Toompea" (upon which, today, is seated the Estonian parliament and the seat of Government), in the process.
- Linda feels the birth of her son approaching and asks the gods for help. Uku comes to her aid with bedding and comfort.
- When her son is born, he cries for months and proceeds to tear his clothes and cradle. He grows quickly, learns the trades of the land and plays games.
Canto III. - The fate of Linda
- The 3 sons of Kalev go on a hunting trip, leaving their mother to attend to her duties at home.
- While the men are off hunting, a Finnish sorcerer (who had previously tried to win the hand of Linda and failed), "Tuuslar", sneaks up on Linda and steals her away. She fights hard and manages to get away. She is turned into stone by the gods.
- The brothers return and search in vain for their mother. The Kalevide asks for help from his father's grave.
Canto IV. - The island maiden
- The Kalevide swims to Finland. He stops off at an island where he meets and seduces a beautiful maiden.
- The maiden hears the name and origin of the Kalevide and is horrified. She loses her footing and plunges into the water. The Kalevide jumps in after her but is unable to find her so he carries on to Finland.
- The maiden's parents check the sea and find an oak and fir tree and other trinkets, but not their daughter.
- A song rises up from the sea telling the story of how the maiden was seduced down into the deep.
Canto V. - The Kalevide and the Finnish sorcerer
- The parents of the maiden plant the oak tree they found at the bottom of the sea. In a short time it grows to the sky. The mother finds a small man hiding in the wings of an eagle, he is asked to fell the tree, he agrees on the condition he is let free.
- The Kalevide reaches Finland and finds the sorcerer in his house. The sorcerer creates a huge army to fend of the Kalevide, but the Kalevide fells them all with his mighty strength and proceeds to question the sorcerer about his mother. When he fails to answer, the Kalevide crushes his head with his club and proceeds to weep for his crime.
Canto VI. - The Kalevide and the swordsmiths
- The Kalevide visits Ilmarinen (Ilmarine in Estonian), the famous Finnish blacksmith, and asks him to create a sword. He presents various swords. He tests them by striking them against the cliff walls of the smithy, itself. None are adequate, so Ilmarinen presents a sword created at the bequest of Kalev, which pleases the Kalevide greatly. This sword, imbued with magical properties and having taken 7 years to forge, Kalevipoeg tests by striking against the anvil upon which it was forged, which it splits in two. This proves the sword's worthiness and he agrees to pay a rich price for it to Ilmarine.
- A great feast and drinking bout is held. Unfortunately, the Kalevide argues with, gets angry and fells the head of Ilmarinen's eldest son (who is, also, intoxicated, at this point; as is Kalevipoeg) with the very sword he helped create. Ilmarinen curses the sword, itself. He leaves and later realises his second great crime and weeps.
- The great oak tree of the maiden of the island is felled to create a bridge, ships and a hut.
Canto VII. - The return of the Kalevide
- The Kalevide takes the sorcerer's boat and returns home. The brothers tell their stories. The Kalevide visits his father's grave again.
Canto VIII. - The contest and parting of the brothers
- Kalev's 3 sons go to a lakes edge and throw stones to decide who will stay and rule the land. The Kalevide wins and the brothers part.
- The Kalevide tends to the land and falls into a deep sleep. During this time, his horse is eaten by wolves.
Canto IX. - Rumours of war
- The Kalevide wakes from a terrible dream that his horse was killed by wolves only to find it is true. He runs through the land, killing all the wild beasts his can find in vengeance. He becomes tired and sleeps again.
- A messenger comes to the Kalevide and informs him of a battle against his people.
Canto X. - The heroes and the Water-Demon
- While the Kalevide and his cousin Alevide are walking through the country they come across a pair of demons arguing over the ownership of a pool. The Alevide drains the pool, but the host water-demon asks him to desist. The Alevide tricks the water-demon out of his riches.
- The Alevide sends his cousin's servant to the water-demons lair. He is teased and runs away. The Kalevide wrestles the water-demon and wins.
- The Kalevide decides to fortify towns for protection, he goes to Lake Peipus to fetch wood. He meets the Air-maiden in a well.
Canto XI. - The loss of the sword
- The Kalevide walks across Lake Peipus but a sorcerer spies him and decides to drown him. His efforts fail.
- The sorcerer steals the Kalevide's sword. After an attempt to take it away, he is forced to drop it in a stream. When the Kalevide awakes he goes hunting for his sword. When he finds it, he consults it and finds it is happier in the stream. He leaves it there, but orders it to cut off the feet of the sorcerer should he ever return.
- The Kalevide carries on in this journey and meets a man of human stature who regales him with a story of giants. The Kalevide is amused and offers his protection. He places the man in his wallet.
Canto XII. - The fight with the sorcerer's sons
- The three sons of the sorcerer attack the Kalevide while he is walking on his way. He fights hard but gains no ground until he hears and heeds the advice of a small voice from the underbrush. He defeats the sorcerer's sons and asks his helper to show himself. After some persuasion, his helper comes out of the underbrush and the Kalevide cuts some of his coat for the small creature to cover himself up, but only cuts enough to cover his back.
- The Kalevide discovers that man in his wallet is dead and grieves. He falls asleep and is enchanted by the sorcerer. He sleeps for 7 weeks and dreams about Ilmarine's workshop.
Canto XIII. - The Kalevide's first journey to Hades
- On his return journey, the Kalevide sees demons cooking at the entrance to a cave. He enters the cave and finds the palace of Sarvik. He breaks in and meets 3 maidens.
- The Kalevide and the maidens talk and they give him a magic hat and rod. He promises to free them from Sarvik and find them husbands.
Canto XIV. - The palace of Sarvik
- The 3 maidens show the Kalevide around Sarvik's palace. It is an intricate and massive castle. They confess that they are immortal and ever radiant, but they are unhappy and have no joys in life. The Kalevide tells them he will rescue them and he makes plans to wrestle with Sarvik. The 2 oldest maidens switch Sarvik's magical liquors so he will be weakened when he drinks. The Kalevide uses the magic hat to make himself appear smaller.
- When Sarvik returned, he demanded the Kalevide explain himself. Kalevide makes his challenge and the 2 combatants wrestle viciously. When they stop for a rest, the Kalevide uses the hat to regain his old size and strength and bashes Sarvik into the ground.
- The Kalevide and the maidens flee from Sarvik's palace. The Kalevide burns the magic hat much to the distress of the maidens.
Canto XV. - The marriage of the sisters
- The maidens and the Kalevide are chased by demons. The youngest maiden uses the magic rod to create a torrent of water and a bridge to take them to safety.
- Tühi questions the Kalevide about his visit to Põrgu and his fight with Sarvik, the Kalevide answers sarcastically.
- The maidens are married to Alev and Sulev but the second maiden is kidnapped by a sorcerer. The hunt for her, kill the sorcerer and recover her, she is married to Olev.
Canto XVI. - The voyage of the Kalevide
- The Kalevide ponders a voyage to the end of the world. A great ship called Lennuk is created.
- The Kalevide meets a Laplander called Varrak who tells him that the end of the world is not reachable. He offers to take them home. The Kalevide says he needs no help to return home but would be grateful if Varrak would take them to the world's end. The voyage to an island of fire, steam and smoke where the Sulevide gets scorched.
- They are found by a giant child who carries them to her father. The father requests that they solve his riddles for their release. They are successful and the daughter takes them to their boat and blows them out to sea.
- The group carries on in its journey north. They witness the northern lights and eventually come to an island of dog men. After some troubles, peace is made with the dog men and the leader of them tells the Kalevide that he has wasted his time. The Kalevide finally decides to go home.
Canto XVII. - The heroes and the dwarf
- Magnificent fortified cities have been built by Olev. The Alevide and the Sulevide have also built fine cities. The Kalevide names Olev's city after his mother, Lindanisa (modern day Tallinn).
- News of a great invasion force reaches the Kalevide and he sets of to fight in a long pitched battle, during which he loses his horse in the sheer depth of gore created during the battle.
- After the battle is over and the spoils handed out, the Kalevide and his friends set out to find further invaders. They come across an old woman cooking and settle down for the night.
- During the night a dwarf appears and asks each of the heroes if he can take a sip from the pot of soup the old woman was cooking. All but the Kalevide allow him to and he proceeds to drink the whole pot, grow to the sky then vanish.
- After the dwarf has appeared to all of the heroes the daughters of the Meadow Queen dance and sing and tell the tale of adventures still to come to the Kalevide.
Canto XVIII. - The Kalevide's journey to Põrgu (Hell)
- The Kalevide wakes in the night and finds the gates to Põrgu. He enters and proceeds into the depths of hell itself, aided by creatures along the way.
- The Kalevide comes across a large iron bridge and the huge army of Sarvik. He battles hard and eventually gets over the bridge to the palace of Sarvik. He beats his way in and is greeted by a vision of his mother and Sarvik's mother.
Canto XIX. - The last feast of the heroes
- The Kalevide and Sarvik have a lengthy wrestling match in which the Kalevide prevails. He binds Sarvik heavily with chains, takes a small treasure and leaves for the world of men.
- The Kalevide and his friends have a meal of ox which the Alevide was able to kill.
- The Kalevide and his friends return to Lindanisa and a great feast and drinking bout begins. Many songs are sung and much joy is in the air. There is news of yet another invasion from all sides of the country by many enemies.
- Varrak departs for Lapland, taking with him a book of wisdom, given to him by the Kalevide, much to the dismay of the sons of Olev and Sulev.
- Many refugees arrive with news of the impending battles. The Kalevide consults his Father's grave, but no answer comes.
Canto XX. - Armageddon
- The Kalevide and his friends prepare for war. The Kalevide buries his treasure and protects it with incantations to Taara.
- The Kalevide and his friends engage in a fierce battle which lasts many days and in which the Kalevide loses his horse and the Sulevide is badly injured. The Sulevide eventually dies.
- Olev builds a large bridge over the river Võhandu and the army proceeds over to engage the remaining enemy. The battle rages hard for many days until the heroes are exhausted and decide to take a drink. The Alevide slips and falls into the lake and drowns.
- The Kalevide is so grief-stricken he abdicates and places his kingdom in the hands of Olev. The Kalevide leaves for a peaceful life on the banks of the river Koiva. He does not get the peace he desires and is annoyed by many visitors, some aggressive. He wanders around the country annoyed by these intrusions and makes his way to Lake Peipus. He wades into Kääpa, the brook where his old sword lay, and the sword keeps its promise to cut off the feet of anyone who dares wade in the brook. Unfortunately the Kalevide had forgotten this promise and his feet are cut off.
- The Kalevide dies and is taken to heaven. However, he is deemed too valuable and is reanimated in his old body to stand guard for eternity at the gates of Põrgu to keep watch on Sarvik and his demons. He is there still tied to the gates of Põrgu by his hand, which is locked in a rock.
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- The amputation of the legs of Kalevide by a magical sword is similar to the Hurrian mythic theme of the amputation of the feet of Ullikummi by a supernatural knife. According to Eustathios (ad Hor.), the Telkhin-es were likewise beings without feet.
- Kalevipoeg's quick temper and tendency to kill people in arguments at parties is echoed in many legendary heroes throughout Europe, including Ireland's Cúchulainn and Scotland's Gawayne (who later became fused with the Welsh Gwalchmei to become one of the knights in Arthurian legends, Gawain).
- The Hero of Esthonia. And other studies in the romantic literature of that country - William Forsell Kirby. 1895
- Kalevipoeg: An Ancient Estonian Tale - Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, Trans. Jüri Kurman - ISBN 0-918542-02-2. 1982
Guntis Smidchens, "National Heroic Narratives in the Baltics as a Source for Nonviolent Political Action," Slavic Review 66,3 (2007), 484-508.
- The English version (translated by W. F. Kirby) at Project Gutenberg. Kalevipoeg as well as other Estonian folk tales.
- The English version (translated by W. F. Kirby) at Sacred Texts. Kalevipoeg as well as other Estonian folk tales.
- An article exploring the meaning and depth of the Kalevipoeg
- An article on the compilers of the Kalevipoeg
- A site containing the five initial Cantos of Kalevipoeg (in Estonian)
- Digital images of first printing at EEVA
- A short film version of the myth by Estonian director Ekke Vasli