The Figure in Finland


NOW THE DISCUSSION leaps, without apologies, over the impassable fence erected by modern philologists to protect the linguistic family of Indo-European languages from any improper dealings with strange outsiders. It is known that Finland, Esthonia and Lapland are a cultural island, ethnically related to the Hungarians and to other faraway Asian peoples: Siryenians, Votyaks, Cheremissians, Mordvinians, Voguls, Ostyaks. They speak languges which belong to the Ugro-Finnish family, as totally unrelated to Germanic as Basque would be. These languages are described as "agglutinative" and often characterized by vowel harmoniztion, such as is found in Turkish. These cultural traditions until quite recently were segregated from the Scandinavian environment. Even if Western culture--and Christianity with it--seeped through among the literati from the Middle Ages on, their great epic, the Kalevala, remained intact, entrusted as it was to oral transmission going back in unchanged form to very early times. It shows arrestingly primitive features, so primitive that they discourage any attempt at a classical derivation. It was collected in writing only in the 19th century by Dr. Elias Lonnrot. But even in this segregated tradition, startling parallels were found with Norse and Celtic myth, which must go back to times before their respective recorded histories. The main line of the poem will be dealt with later. Here, it is important to look at the story of Kullervo Kalevanpoika ("the son of Kaleva"), which has been carefully analyzed by E. N. Setala in his masterly inquiry "Kullervo-Hamlet." [n1 1 FUF 3 (1903), pp. 61-97, 188-255; 7 (1907), pp. 188-224; 10 (191), pp. 44-127.]




His material is necessary, as well as that collected by Kaarle Krohn [n2 Kalevalastudien 6. Kullervo (1928).], in order to take into account many variants (which Lonnrot has not incorporated into the runes 31-36 of the official Kalevala) dealing with Kullervo.


The first event is the birth of Kullervo's father and uncle, who are, according to rune 31, swans (or chickens), driven from one another by a hawk. Usually it is told that a poor man, a plowman, made furrows around a tree trunk (or on a small hill) which split open, and out of it were born two boys. One of them, Kalervo, grew up in Carelia, the other, Untamo, in Suomi-Finland. The hate between the brothers arises usually in the following manner:


Kalervo sows oats before the door of Untamo, Untamo's sheep eat them, Kalervo's dog kills the sheep; or there is a quarrel about the fishing grounds (rune 31. I 9ff. ). Untamo then produces the war. In fact, he makes the war out of his fingers, the array out of his toes, soldiers of the sinews of his heel. But there are versions where Untamo arms trees and uses them as his army. He kills Kalervo and all his family, except Kalervo's wife, who is brought to Untamo's home and there gives birth to our hero, Kullervo. The little one is rocked in the cradle for three days,


when the boy began his kicking,

and he kicked and pushed about him,

tore his swaddling clothes to pieces,

freed himself from all his clothing,

then he broke the lime-wood cradle.


[n3 Translated by W. F. Kirby (Everyman's Library). The original rough meter has been made to sound like a poor man's Hiawatha, but it was the original metric model for Longfellow.]


At the age of three months,

when a boy no more than knee-high,

he began to speak in this wise:

"Presently when I am bigger,

And my body shall be stronger,

I'll avenge my father's slaughter,




And my mother's tears atone for."


This was heard by Untamoinen,

And be spoke the words which follow:

"He will bring my race to ruin,

Kalervo reborn is in him."


And the old crones all considered,

how to bring the boy to ruin,

so that death might come upon him.


Untamo tries hard to kill the child, with fire, with water by hanging. A large pyre is built, Kullervo is thrown into it. When the servants of Untamo come after three days to look,


knee-deep sat the boy in ashes,

in the embers to his elbows,

in his hands he held a coal-rake,

and was stirring up the fire.


Setala reports a version where the child, sitting in the midst of the fire, the (golden) hook in his hand, and stirring the fire, says to Untamo's servants that he is going to avenge the death of his father. [n4 "Kullervo-Hamlet," FUF 7, p. 192.]


Kullervo is thrown into the sea; after three days they find him sitting in a golden boat, with a golden oar, or, according to another version, he is sitting in the sea, on the back of a wave, measuring the waters


Which perchance might fill two ladles,

Or if more exactly measured,

Partly was a third filled also.


Next, they hang the child on a tree, or a gallows is erected-again with frustrating results:


Kullervo not yet has perished,

Nor has he died on the gallows.

Pictures on the tree he's carving,




In his hands he holds a graver.

All the tree is filled with pictures,

All the oak-tree filled with carvings.


One tradition says that he is carving the names of his parents with a golden stylus. After this the sequence of events is difficult to establish. There are variants, where Kullervo performs his revenge very soon--he merely goes to a smithy and procures the arms. Or he is at once sent out of the country to the smith to serve as cowherd and shepherd. But in rune 31, he is first given smaller commissions: to guard and rock a child--he blinds and kills it. Then he is sent to clear a forest, and to fell the slender birch trees.


Five large trees at length had fallen,

Eight in all he felled before him.


[n5 There is a strange Dindsencha (this word applies to the explanations of place­names which occur repeatedly in Irish tradition; see W. Stokes, "The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindsenchas," RC 16, pp. 278f.) about the felling of five giant trees--three ash trees, one oak, one yew. "The oak fell to the south, over Mag n-Ailte, as far as the Pillar of the Living Tree. 900 bushels was its crop of acorns, and three crops it bore every year. . . apples, nuts, and acorns. The ash of Tortu fell to the South-east, that from Usnach to the North. The yew north-east, as far as Druinn Bairr it fell. The ash of Belach Dahli fell upwards as far as Carn Uachtair Bile."]


He sits down afterwards and speaks (31.273 ff.).


"Lempo [the Devil] may the work accomplish,

Hiisi now may shape the timber!"

In a stump he struck his axe-blade,

And began to shout full loudly,

And he piped, and then he whistled,

And he said the words which follow:

"Let the woods be felled around me,

Overthrown the slender birch-trees,

Far as sounds my voice resounding,

Far as I can send my whistle.

Let no sapling here be growing,

Let no blade of grass be standing,

Never while the earth endureth,




Or the golden moon is shining,

Here in Kalervo's son's forest,

Here upon the good man's clearing."


[n6 The Esthonian Kalevipoeg (= son of Kaleva, the same as Finnish Kalevanpoika) makes the soil barren wherever he has plowed with his wooden plow (Setala, FUF 7, p. 215), but he, too, fells trees with noise--as  far as the stroke of his axe is heard, the trees fall down (p. 103). As for Celtic tradition, one of the Rennes Dindsenchas tells that arable land is changed into woodland because brother had killed brother, "so that a wood and stunted bushes overspread Guaire's country, because of the parricide which he committed" (Stokes, C 16, p. 35). Whereas J. Loth (Les Mabinogion du Livre Rouge de Hergest, vol. I, p. 171, n. 6) gives the names of three heroes who make a country sterile: Morgan Mwynvawr, Run, son of Beli, and Llew Llaw Gyffes, who turn the ground red. Nothing grew for a year, herb or plant, where they passed: Arthur was more 'rudvawr' than they. Where Arthur had passed, for seven years nothing would grow." Rudvawr means "red ravager," as we learn from Rachel Bromwich (Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads [J961J, p. 35). Seven years was the cycle of the German Wild Hunter; Arthur was a Wild Hunter, too. The "Waste Land" is, moreover, a standard motif of the legends spun around the Grail and the Fisher King. All this will make sense eventually.]


In the Kalevala, Untamo next orders Kullervo to build a fence, and so he does, out of whole pines, firs, ash trees. But he made no gateway into it, and announced:


He who cannot raise him birdlike,

Nor upon two wings can hover,

Never may he pass across it,

Over Kalervo's son's fencing!


Untamo is taken aback:


Here's a fence without an opening. . .

Up to heaven the fence is builded,

To the very clouds uprising.


[n7 This might originally have been the same story as the one about Romulus drawing a furrow around the new city and killing Remus for jumping over it. In the Roman tradition, the murder makes no sense. Without following up this key phenomenon here, we would like to say that in Finland the stone labyrinth (the English "Troy town") is called Giant's Fence, and also St. Peter's Game, Ruins of Jerusalem, Giant's Street, and Stone Fence (see W. H. Matthews, Mazes and Labyrinths, p. 150). Whereas Al Biruni (India I, p. 306) when dealing with Lanka {Ceylon)--i.e.,   Ravana's labyrinth that was conquered by Rama and Hanuman--remarks that in Muslim countries this "labyrinthic fortress is called Yavana-Koti, which has been frequently explained as Rome."]




Kullervo does some more mischief, threshing the grain to mere chaff, ripping a boat asunder, feeding the cow and breaking its horn, heating the bath hut and burning it down--these are the usual feats of the "Strong Boy" (the "Starke Hans" of German tales, who with us became Paul Bunyan). So, finally, he is sent out of the country, to the house of Ilmarinen the divine smith, as a cowherd. There is, however, a remarkable variant where it is said that he was "sent to Esthonia to bark under the fence; he barked one year, another one, a little from the third; three years he barked at the smith as his uncle, at the wife [or servant] of the smith as his daughter-in-law." This sounds strange indeed, and the translator himself added question marks. There is a still stranger parallel in the great Irish hero Cuchulainn, a central figure of Celtic myth, whose name means "Dog of the Smith Culan." This persistent doggishness will bear investigation at another point and so will Smith Ilmarinen himself.


The wife of Ilmarinen (often called Elina, Helena) makes Kullervo her herdsman, and maliciously bakes a stone into his lunch bread so that he breaks his knife, the only heirloom left from his father. A crow then advises Kullervo to drive the cattle into the marshes and to assemble all the wolves and bears and change them into cattle. Kullervo said:


"Wait thou, wait thou, whore of Hiisi,

For my father's knife I'm weeping,

Soon wilt thou thyself be weeping." (33.125 ff.)


He acts on the crow's advice, takes a whip of juniper, drives the cattle into the marshes, and the oxen into the thicket.


Half of these the wolves devoured,

To the bears he gave the others,

And he sang the wolves to cattle,

And he changed the bears to oxen.


Kullervo carefully instructs the wolves and the bears on what they are expected to do, and (33.153ff.)




Then he made a pipe of cow-bone,

And a whistle made of ox-horn,

From Tuomikki's leg a cow-horn,

And a flute from heel of Kirjo,

Then upon the horn blew loudly,

And upon his pipe made music.

Thrice upon the hill he blew it,

Six times at the pathway's opening.


He drives the "cattle" home, Helena goes to the stable, to milk, and is torn by wolf and bear.           


This fierce retaliation gives point to an event that is only a feeble joke in Saxo's version. A wolf crosses Hamlet's path, and he is told it is a horse. "Why," he remarks, "in Fengo's stud there are too few of that kind fighting." Saxo tries to explain: "This was a gentle but witty fashion of invoking a curse upon his uncle's riches." It makes little sense. One suspects here instead an echo of the theme revealed by Kullervo, who drives home wolves and bears in place of cattle. The hero's mastery of wild beasts evokes memories of classical myth. This has not escaped Karl Kerenyi, [n8 K. Kerenyi, "Zum Urkind-Mythologen," Paideuma I (1940), p. 255] whose comment is useful, although not his line of psychological speculation: "It is impossible to try to derive Finnish mythology from the Greek, or conversely. Yet it is also impossible not to notice that Kullervo, who is the Miraculous Child and the Strong Servant in one, shows himself at last to be Hermes and Dionysos. He appears as Hermes in the making of musical instruments tied up with the destruction of cattle. . . He shows himself as Dionysos in what he does with wild beasts and with his enemy. It is Dionysos-like behavior--if we see it through the categories of Greek myth--to make wolves and bears appear by magic as tame animals, and it is again Dionysos-like to use them for revenge against his enemy. We recognize with awe the tragic-ironic tone of Euripides' Bacchae, when we read the dramatic scene of the milking of wild beasts. An even closer analogy is given by the fate of the Etruscan pirates, Dionysos' enemies, who are chastised by the intervention of wild animals. . ." .




In rune 35, Lonnrot makes Kullervo return to his parents and brothers and sisters. This is unexpected inasmuch as they have been killed a number of runes earlier, although the crux of the many rune songs is that the names of the heroes are far from stable and, as has already been said, the original order of things is impossible to reconstruct. But one event stands out. A sister is not at home. On one occasion the hero meets a maiden in the woods, gathering berries. They lie together and realize later in conversing that they are brother and sister. The maiden drowns herself, but Kullervo's mother dissuades him from suicide. So he goes to war, and in so doing he fulfills his revenge. First he asks the great god Ukko for the gift of a sword (36.242ff.).


Then the sword he asked was granted,

And a sword of all most splendid,

And he slaughtered all the people,

Untamo's whole tribe was slaughtered,

Burned the houses all to ashes,

And with flame completely burned them,

Leaving nothing but the hearthstones,

Nought but in each yard the rowan.


Returning home, Kullervo finds no living soul; all have died. When he weeps over his mother's grave, she awakes,


And beneath the mould made answer:


"Still there lives the black dog, Musti,

Go with him into the forest,

At thy side let him attend thee."


There in the thicket reside the blue forest-maidens, and the mother advises him to try to win their favor. Kullervo takes the black dog and goes into the forest, but when he comes upon the spot where he had dishonored his sister, despair overcomes him, and he throws himself upon his own sword.


Here at last a point is made explicitly which in other stories remains a dark hint. There is a sin that Hamlet has to atone for. The knowledge that Kullervo and his sister killed themselves for




unwitting incest calls to mind the fact that in Saxo the adolescent Prince is initiated to love by a girl who does not betray him "because she happened to be his foster-sister and playmate since childood." This seems contrived, as if Saxo had found there a theme he does not grasp. The theme becomes manifest in King Arthur. It is ambiguous and elusive, but all the more inexorable in Shakespeare. Hamlet must renounce his true love, as he has to renounce himself in his predicament:


"Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? What should such fellows as I do Crawling between earth and heaven?  We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us., Go thy ways to a nunnery."


In the play-within-a-play, the Prince feels free to step out of character:


Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

No, my lord.

I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ay, my lord.

Do you think I meant country matters?

I think nothing, my lord.

That is a fair thought to lie between maid's legs.

What is, my lord?



But the die is cast. Ophelia's suicide by drowning, like Kullervo's sister's, brings about the death of her lover-and of her brother too. The two aspects join in the final silence. At least Hamlet, ever conscious, has had a chance to describe in despair the insoluble knot of his guilt:           


"I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers

could not with all their quantity of love

make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?"


And now Kullervo. Setala's analysis of the whole parallel goes as follows:




As concerns generalities: brother kills brother; one son survives, who sets his mind on revenge from earliest childhood; the uncle tries to kill him, but he succeeds in achieving his revenge. As concerns details: Setala wants to identify the stakes and hooks, which the hero in all northern versions shapes or carves, sitting at the hearth--Brjam does it in a smithy--with the golden hook or rake that little Kullervo, sitting in the middle of the fire, holds in his hands, stirring the flames. Each hero (including Kullervo in one of the versions found by Setala) makes it clear that he means to avenge his father.


With some puzzlement Setala brings out one other point which will turn out to be crucial later on. In every northern version there is some dark utterance about the sea. The words are weird. Hamlet wants to "cut the big ham" with the steering oar; the child Kullervo is found measuring the depth of the sea with an oar or with a ladle. Kalevipoeg, the Esthonian counterpart of Kullervo Kalevanpoika, measures the depth of lakes with his height. Amlodhi-Ambales, sitting by a bottomless mountain lake, says only: "Into water wind has come, into water wind will go."




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