Apr 25, 2014

Kullervo: The Tormented Gay Youth of Finnish Myth

Growing up in a predominantly Scandinavian town, you learn a lot about Scandinavia -- Vikings, runestones, Ibsen, Hans Christian Anderson, Hamsun, Kierkegaard.  And especially the mythology.

I never liked the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic -- it's all about gods searching for wives.  But I was drawn to the figure of Kullervo.

He is born into tragedy, one of the last survivors of a clan killed by his uncle Untamo.

Sold to the god Ilmarin as a slave, he is approached by Ilmarin's wife, and when he rejects her, nearly murdered by a loaf of bread booby-trapped with stones.

He escapes, and while searching for his remaining family, accidentally seduces a girl who turns out to be his sister (in the Sibelius symphony, he rapes her).  She commits suicide.

His friend Kimmo goes insane.

Distraught, Kullervo vows vengeance on Untamo's clan, and uses a magic sword to kill them all.  But the sword also kills his the remnants of his own family.  Finally Kullervo uses it to kill himself.. 

The figure of Kullervo has been used to represent Finland's defiance of its Swedish and Russian overlords during its frequent quests for independence, as in Kullervon kirous or Kullervo's Curse (1899), by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.

There are many copies, parodies, and homages.  Some demonstrate Kullervo's sexual potency and aversion to women.






Kalervo Palsa's 1983 painting shows Kullervo hanging from a tree, using his penis as a knife to carve the words maailma voimakkaiden kiertopalkinto: The world's reward for the strong.

Others see him as a gay youth tormented by the heterosexist mandate of his society, the seduction of his sister a blind attempt to maintain a heterosexual facade. In the Aulis Sallinen opera (1988), it is the insanity of Kimmo that causes Kullervo to plunge into death.

There have been many other versions of the story, including a play by Aleksis Kivi, author of Seven Brothers, a symphony by Sibelius, a ballet (starring Tuukka Piitulainen, top photo), operas, and films, including a 1977 Finnish movie with Erkki Saarela.

See also: The gay hero of the Estonian Kalevipoeg.