The Kalevipoeg and

the National Identity of Estonia.

by Frank O'Neill, May 200


Recognizing the identity of a people is most easily achieved by a study of their literary works. The origins of the Estonian people and their perseverance in the face of over 700 years of serfdom are both eloquently preserved in a compilation of Myths and Legends titled 'The Kalevipoeg'. Even today the true origin of the Estonian people and their direct ancestry is quite unclear, 'The Kalevipoeg' strives to "give a picture of the past glory, to let the Estonians know about their own rulers, kings of the Estonian origin." (Kirby 1895) The Learned Estonian Society was reported to have been offered, in 1839, the idea of a national epic by Friedrich Robert Faehlmann, based on folk tales about the legendary king, Kalevipoeg. This epic poem was in time written by a younger colleague of Faehlmann's, Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, and was first published in 1857.      


Kreutzwald sought out the common Estonian people, and collected from them, the stories and tales which Estonians have passed down through numerous generations. The epic as literary work exists in the true style of the commonly found old Estonian poetic verse: alliterated  4-syllabic trocheic verse. In content, Kreutzwald includes the mythical origin of the Estonian people and the values they hold dear. The epic begins with the first Estonian ruler Kalev, who arrives in Estonia from a northern kingdom on the back of Northern Eagle. Kalev's most notable son, Kalevipoeg, is an uncanny parallel to the mythical heros of Greece (i.e. Hercules and Theseus). Kalevipoeg becomes the champion of the early Estonians through accomplishing several feats, such as rescuing those in distress as well as ensuring the safety of those people prone to attack.          


In writing the Kalevipoeg, Kreutzwald, an Estonian by birthright, emphasized many of the contemporary issues of his own era in the original tales. The Estonian people had for over 700 years lived under the reign of foreign powers and Kreutzwald himself was born during German rule of Estonia. He endured the bitter experiences brought on by German landlords and in those years developed strong nationalistic views. However, instead of praising the hero's actions in battle as is found in the Iliad or the Odyssey, The Kalevipoeg praises honesty and labour. "The Kalevipoeg is almost the only epic in the world where the hero's main activities are not connected with war and fights, but daily work of peasants (field work, building) . . .  [these values] are the most important ideas in the epic." (Nirk 1970) In light of these values the stories collectively prevail as an allegory describing the relationship between the Estonians and their German conquerors. Kreutzwald draws the Estonian and German people as equals, yet characterizes Estonians as "being more noble in their mind and deeds." (Nirk 1970) Moreover, upon the induction of Estonia into the Soviet Union, The Kalevipoeg was observed by Estonians as a tangible representation of their cultural separation from their former German rulers.                                


The Kalevipoeg has been translated from the Estonian language into nearly every European language demonstrating to the Rest of the world, let alone all of Europe, the past glory of Estonia, the origin of the Estonian people, and the unique culture they posses. From out of this composition, their own significant literary work, the epics also were look upon as a prelude to Estonian Renaissance and Resistance: The dawn of the Awakening and final independence from Soviet Russification.        


Works Cited

Kirby, William Forsell, The hero of Esthonia; and other studies in the romantic literature of that country. London, Nimmo, 1895.

Nirk, Endel, Estonian literature; historical survey. Eesti Raamat, 1970

Rubulis, Aleksis, Baltic literature; a survey of Finnish, Estonian,

Latvian, and Lithuanian literatures. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press,1970



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