The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles II :
illustration by Autumn Whitehurst
Kullervo, The Kalevipoeg, Sigurd, Starkath, Beowulf, Grettir and Oidipousby Thomas Sefton
About this Essay
There is a family of characters in North European ancient literature that roughly share a particular set of characteristics: They are not raised by their real parents, they are positive and intimate with their mother-figures and negative and destructive with their father-figures. They have good and noble intentions, but they are impatient and violent. They are enormously potent, but their potency is warped and perverse, and it destroys everything they wish to love and protect. Their great potency which should engender life, destroys life; their great potency which should cause fertility, creates sterility. All of these characters come from Northern Europe except for one, the Greek Oidipous, who is a completely typical member of this family. Finding such an important particular spanning both Greece and Northern Europe, reinforces the idea that not only the Greco-Germanic Family Cycle form, but to an extent the stories themselves go back to a time when the people who became Greek and the people who became Germanic shared the same culture and the same literature. The characters I refer to are Kulervo in Finland, the Son of Kalev in Estonia, Beowulf in Sweden, Sigurd in Central Europe, Starkath in Norway and Denmark, Grettir in Norway and Iceland, and of course Oidipous in Greece.
We saw in “The Greco-Germanic Family Cycles I” that the Family Cycles are the same whether we find them in Greek ancient literature or in Germanic ancient literature. They are Greek stories that we find as an integral part of Germanic culture, or they are Germanic stories that we find as an integral part of Greek culture. Clearly, this type of story goes back to a time when the people who became Greek and the people who became Germanic shared a common culture and literature. We also began to see that some of the particulars of these stories can be found in both Greek and Germanic literature, and so this begins to tell us that to some extent the stories themselves go back to a time when the people who became Greek and the people who became Germanic shared a common culture and a common literature.
Here I wish to look at another particular that can be found both in Greece and in Northern Europe. Oidipous, the principal character in the story of the House of Kadmos, is a completely typical member of a family of characters who, apart from Oidipous, can all be found in Northern Europe. I refer to Kullervo from Finnland, the Son of Kalev from Estonia, Sigurd from Central Europe, Beowulf from Sweden, Starkath from Norway and Denmark, Grettir from Iceland, and of course Oidipous himself from Greece. This is the same Sigurd we just met in the story of the House of Volsung. Sigurd spent time in Germany and we think of him as German, but of course both he and Brynhild were actually Huns.
The story of Kullervo comes from Ingria, the area around St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland in the eastern Baltic. The Ingrians are a branch of the Finns. Kullervo was an orphan who was raised by his uncle. The uncle hated Kullervo, and he had either killed Kullervo’s parents or driven them into exile. (Kalevala: XXXI, 51-72) Kullervo was a passionate and unselfish man raised among enemies and strangers, and so he became violent, impatient and unforgiving. He had enormous strength and vitality, but his potency always destroyed whatever he applied it to. Whenever he did tasks for his uncle, whom he hated, he always managed to destroy whatever he worked on. (Kalevala: XXXI, 215-354) At one point he was supposed to harvest a large stand of timber, but he demolished it and made the land it stood on permanently infertile.
That was one thing, but then when he finally rejoined his parents and worked with a good will, he still had excessive strength and poor judgment and broke everything he touched. (Kalevala: XXXV, 1-58) He could do nothing right around the farm, so he tried traveling on an errand. On the way he met a girl, successfully seduced her, and she turned out to be his sister. (Kalevala: XXXV, 209-256) His mother forgave him for this, but his father did not. (Kalevala: XXXVI, 57-154) When he and his sister learned who they were, she threw herself into a lake and drowned. (Kalevala: XXXV, 257-266) Kullervo had grown up among hostile strangers and he had wanted a family all his life, and now he had done this. His response was to walk into the jaws of Death, (Kalevala: XXXV, 345-372) he would war on his uncle/foster father and all of the uncle’s followers and he would do it all alone. He asked the High God, Ukko, "Old Man," for a sword to do this with. Old Man gave him a sword, and he went to kill his foster-father, playing joyful music all the way. (Kalevala: XXXVI, 235-250) After he had killed the uncle and all the followers, he asked the gift-sword if it would willingly take his life. The sword said it did not care whom it killed, and he ran himself through. (Kalevala: XXXVI, 319-342)
Just to the west of Ingria lies Estonia, and from there comes the story of Kalevipoeg, the Son of Kalev. In the oldest versions of the story the Son of Kalev was a giant whose strength shaped features of the Estonian landscape, who was violent and aggressive, as northern giants tended to be, who was in the habit of abducting women, and who created infertility. (Oinas, 1976: 9) His giant–scale plowing which ought to have made the land fertile made it sterile; his potency creates sterility. (Laugaste 1959: 270-274— Laugaste is the compiler of pre-Kreutzwald stories collected by folklorists.) Because of Kalevipoeg’s “high spirits” and because of his attitude toward women, Jesus grabbed him by the genitals and hurled him into a swamp. He re–emerged. Jesus then threw him into a stream and turned him into an otter. Eventually Jesus threw him into hell, and Kalevipoeg gaily waved good-bye from the middle of hell. (Laugaste 1959: 270-272, 274)
This earlier Kalevipoeg was a giant, was referred to as a giant, (Laugaste 1959: 263, 270, 274) and was similar in personality to the half-giant, Starkath, whom we will meet in a moment. But in the nineteenth century, F.R. Kreutzwald maker of the Kalevipoeg, added elements of Kullervo’s story to Kalevipoeg’s, making Kalevipoeg less harsh and giving him Kullervo’s sensitivity. This is the kind of influence these stories will have had on one another since antiquity. But even in Kreutzwald’s version Kalevipoeg’s old personality did not entirely disappear, and like Kullervo he tended to be overly aggressive at the wrong times. Kalevipoeg too was an orphan, and while he was hunting a man who had abducted his mother, he seduced a girl who turned out to be his sister. And when they learned who they were, she became so frightened that she fell from a cliff and drowned. (Kalevipoeg: 4 and Oinas 1979: 373) After he killed his mother’s abductor, he met a smith who had been connected with his father, who was his father’s age, and who gave him a sword that had been meant for his father. The father had died before he could receive it. The sword was superior to all other swords, and now that the father was dead only Kalevipoeg was worthy of it. (Kalevipoeg: 6) Kalevipoeg and the smith stayed drunk for seven days to celebrate, and while everyone was drunk out of their senses, the smith’s son said something insulting and the Son of Kalev killed him. (Kalevipoeg: 6)
Supposedly Kreutzwald took this from Kullervo’s story. (Kurman 1967: 479) The orphan Kullervo had a knife that was the the last token that remained from his family. He was a servant to a smith then, the smith’s wife broke the knife, and Kullervo killed her. But the story of Kalevipoeg and the smith is really closer to that of Sigurd and Regin the smith. Regin was a foster-father and a father figure, he re-forged the Sword that Sigurd had from his realfather, and Sigurd ended up killing him. (Volsungasaga: 13, 15 & 20) All these stories have been influencing one another for a long time.
Back to the Son of Kalev and the smith: The smith and sword giver cursed the Son of Kalev and called on the sword to avenge his son. The sword, which had a mind and a will, eventually did that. (Kalevipoeg: 20) This same thing happens in a pre-Kreutzwald version. (Laugaste 1959: 419-420) I have already mentioned that the Son of Kalev was associated with infertility. After he killed his mother’s abductor he declared that he would never marry, and then he uttered a prayer to his dead mother. (Kalevipoeg: 7)
Further to the west in Germany, we find the story of Sigurd, which I have already told in detail in “Greco-Germanic Family Cycle I.” Sigurd was also an orphan, and grew up alone in a house that was not his own. He was extremely potent and tended to break swords with his excessive strength. Finally his foster-father and teacher forged a sword from the fragments of his father’s sword that only he was worthy to bear. (Volsungasaga: 15) He ended up killing the brother of Regin, his foster-father and teacher, the foster-father tried to kill him, and then he killed his foster-father as well. (Volsungasaga: 20) He had killed Regin’s brother at Regin’s request, and he killed Regin in self-defence. He was never mean but noble and unselfish and passionate, and he was not impatient like Kullervo. Killing his teacher and foster-father led him to his encounter with a Divine Force in the form of a Ring. From then on, everything good about him, all his potency and bravery and loyalty and courage, and all of Odin’s gifts to him caused the destruction of himself and everything he loved.
A little to the north of Germany we have at least fragments of the story of Starkath, who did deeds all over the North but who is especially associated with Denmark. Starkath came from a family that was literally part giant and only part human. (Saxo Grammaticus: VI, 183) Although he was noble and unselfish, he was also very impatient and could be extremely violent at the slightest provocation. That was because of the giant side of his family; he was also extremely tall and strong. He too was an orphan, and he was raised by a Norwegian king together with the king's son, Vikar. His foster–father was killed when he was three, and he was then raised by one of the dead king's retainers, who turned out to be Odin in disguise. Like Kullervo, he didn't seem to be a very likely youth and spent most of his time lounging by the fire. (Gautreck’s Saga, 3-4.)
A stock character in Scandinavian stories is Ashlad, a youngest son who is not respected because he does nothing but lie by the ashes of the fire. But when Ashlad’s time comes, he accomplishes more than anyone. (Christiansen 1964; 169-175, 234; and Asbjorrnsen & Moe 1982: 6, 17-19, 77-80, 81-83; and Blecher & Blecher 1994: 19-25, 67-70, 112-116, 128-132) Ashlad is a version of the almost universal “youngest son” of Scandinavian folktales, who seems to be a nebbish and is regarded as such, but who proves more potent than anyone else. All these characters, Kulervo, Starkath, Grettir, etc., are at least distant relations of Ashlad’s.
Starkath sat by the fire until he joined up with his older foster-brother, Vikar. Vikar was gathering a band of men to avenge his father, Starkah’s first foster-father. They did that, and Vikar assumed the kingship. Starkath followed Vikar for fifteen years, Vikar was his king, his older brother and his inseparable friend. Then Odin appeared out of nowhere and conducted Starkath to a council of the Gods which would decide his Fate. Odin bestowed many blessings on him, but Thor who hated him because he was part giant, gave him as many evils. And the worst of these was that he was Fated to commit three unforgivable crimes. (Gautrek’s Saga: 7)
And so it was. Starkath suffered his first crime right away, he was told to murder Vikar. Vikar was his older brother and his king—and thereby his father—and the son of his foster-father, and it was Vikar who had awakened him from his lethargy (Gautrek’s Saga: 4) and, at least figuratively, it was Vikar who had given him his sword. He killed Vikar, not because he wanted to, but because he had been touched by the Gods and had no choice. (The Lay of Vikar: 5-6, in Hollander 1945) He also murdered one of the Danish kings he served, (Saxo Grammaticus: VII, 255, VIII, 265) and since we know that his father had abducted his mother and his grandfather had abducted his grandmother (Gautrek’s Saga: 3) and since such stories tend to have plot repetitions in each generation, and since we also know that he loved at least once and that this led to the killing of seven family members, (Saxo Grammaticus: VIII, 272) it seems likely that his third crime was sexual.
Also in the Western Baltic we have the story of Beowulf, though it is very sanitized and very incomplete. We find that Beowulf was not respected when he was younger, (Beowulf: 2183-2189) we find that he often broke swords because of his excessive strength and that this excessive potency causes his death. (Beowulf: 2677-2693) We find that when he comes home from his ordeal with the Danish monsters, only the king’s wife waits for him— he has no one else. (Beowulf: 1981-1998) Furthermore he died with no heirs, (Beowulf: 2729-2731) and most significantly: he had saved the Danes just as the Danish king was about to give away a marriageable daughter. But though Beowulf is honored in every other possible way and though giving him the daughter is the obvious thing, perhaps even the expected thing, to do in these circumstances, she is in fact given to a semi-hostile neighboring noble in the hope of forging an alliance. (Beowulf: 2024-2029) Swords and other paraphernalia are given by father figures and others, and these acts have great significance. (Beowulf: 2190-2208)
The Christian who made Beowulf portrays him as without weaknesses, a sort of “saint” with what the Christian poet obviously thought were “pagan” values. This made him much less human than the pre-Christian Beowulf, basically an “action hero” with no character at all. We only learn in passing that before his expedition against the monsters, he was despised by his fellows and overlooked by his king. We haven’t a clue as to why that was or what changed him or what he was really like. We are told that his king gave him his sword gladly, and that Beowulf supplanted his king without conflict. (Beowulf: 2190-2208) Maybe he did, but the pre-Christian Beowulf would have to have had a conflict with a father-figure somewhere, somehow. Further, the pre-Christian Beowulf would have been much more turbulent and much more Kullervo-like. After all, self-sufficient people don't need to go looking for monsters that are not their concern. And above all, the pre-Christian Beowulf would have been much less cartoon-like and much more recognizably human.
Still farther to the west lies Iceland, and there we find the story of Grettir the Strong. Grettir's father was a fine man but one who had no love at all for Grettir, and in fact no one liked Grettir very much except for his mother. Grettir was passionate and unselfish and capable of absolute loyalty, but he was also violent, impatient and unforgiving. He was big and strong but he preferred not to work, and when his father gave him a task he always ruined it through excessive violence, just like Kullervo. (Grettir’s Saga, 14)
No one thought much of him while he was at home. When it was time for him to go into the world he asked his father for a weapon. Though his father would give him nothing, his mother gave him a sword, (Grettir’s Saga, 17) but this sword his mother gave him had no significance. He went to Norway and ended up staying at the farm of a good man for a long time, saying little and doing no work as he had at home. This went on until he had an encounter with his host’s late father, who was one of the undead. He killed the monstrous father, and he took the father’s sword. (Grettir’s Saga: 18) In Scandinavia, it was believed that people sometimes continued to inhabit their bodies for a while after they died. People in this state were malevolent and dangerous, but the state could be terminated by killing them a second time.
After that he began to do great deeds and gained an enormous reputation for strength and bravery, but then, he had another encounter with one of the undead in Iceland. He killed that one as well, but not before the undead man cursed him. And after that curse, all his power worked against him and made him an outcast and finally let to his death. (Grettir’s Saga: 35) The blow that killed him was given to him with his own sword that he had taken from the monster-father. (Grettir’s Saga: 20, 82) He never married, and he was reported to have astonishingly small genitals. (Grettir’s Saga: 75)
Oidipous was driven out of his home by his father because the father knew that Oidipous was Fated to kill him, (Oidipous the King: 712-714) and so Oidipous was brought up as an orphan in a foster-father’s house. Apollo then sent Oidipous on a road going east in a distraught state of mind. (Oidipous the King: 787-793) Apollo also drew the father on the same road going West, (Euripides, Phoenician Women: 35-37) and father and son met having no idea who they were. Both were impatient and violent, there was a question of who would make room for who, and Oidipous killed the father and nearly the father’s entire following. Oidipous continued East towards Thebes, where he found that Thebes was threatened by a monster. He killed the monster with ease, with suspicious ease. The lone survivor had reported that the king had been killed by a band of men, not one. As the king was dead and Oidipous had saved the city, he was acclaimed king, and as a matter of course he was given the queen as his wife. Oidipous then had as intimate a relationship with his mother as it is possible to have, and this perverse potency made the land and the herds die and become infertile. (Oidipous the King: 25-27) It is both his Fate and his enormous potency that cause his crimes, and his attempts at fertility specifically cause infertility.
Kullervo became an orphan either early or later in his story, and he grew up thinking that he was an orphan in either case and that made all the difference in what happened to him. The Son of Kalev became an orphan at the beginning of his story, and that determined most of what happened to him. Sigurd lost his father before he was born, and that led to his evil encounter with his foster-father, Regin, and so to the rest of what happened to him. Starkath was orphaned soon after birth and did not come alive until he met Vikar, and meeting the surrogate-father, Vikar, led to some of the worst of his Fate. Beowulf’s father is dead, (Beowulf: 263-264) his mother is never mentioned, and he is an unpopular resident at the court of his uncle the king— which is why he has to prove himself. Grettir had a home and living parents, but he was mostly a stranger in that home, and that led him to leave and to have his other encounters. Oidipous was cast out by his father, never knew either his father or his mother, and that led him to his Fate.
Kullervo was closer to his mother than to anyone else, the Son of Kalev missed his mother so much that he never married. His plowing, which should have made the land fertile, in fact made the land sterile. Grettir was close to his mother as a child and to virtually no one else, and it was she who gave him his first sword. Oidipous literally married his mother. Kullervo, the Son of Kalev, Starkath, Beowulf and Grettir never married, the marriages of Sigurd and Oidipous were disasters — and the marriage of Oidipous specifically made the land infertile.
All these characters were noble and unselfish, Kullervo and Grettir were impatient and violent, and Starkath was worse still. Oidipous kills his father partially because of his own violent nature, at one point he curses his sons because they served him with a cup that had belonged to his father. Because of that curse they abandoned him, (Athenaeus: XV, 465, E & F and 466, A) and his impatience with Kreon and Teiresias in Oidipous the King is completely in character. (Oidipous the King: 322-676)
Kullervo killed his uncle/foster-father whom he hated. The Son of Kalev injured his father’s friend who had given him his father’s sword, by killing the man’s son. Sigurd killed his foster-father’s brother and then his foster-father as well. The foster-father had given Sigurd his sword, but was now planning to kill him. Starkath killed his foster-father’s son, his king and the man who had pulled him out of his lethargy and awakened his potency, all in one person. Vikar seems to have been older than he was, and was seemingly his spiritual father. Since Vikar was old enough to be a hostage when Starkath was only three, and since Vikar was part of a military outpost and then the leader of a band of men when Starkath was only twelve, Vikar would seem to have been older. (Gautrek’s Saga: 4) On a second occasion and later in his life, Starkath again killed the king he served. (Saxo Grammaticus: VII, 255, VIII, 265) Beowulf supplanted the man who had been his uncle, his king and the man who had given him his sword— and he had some kind of relationship with the man’s wife. Grettir killed the father of his surrogate father who tried to kill him. Oidipous killed his father and took over his father’s wife, household and throne.
Kullervo’s potency was always destructive and out of control, he was killed by his own sword which had a will of its own and consented to his death. The Son of Kalev’s potency led to terrible crimes and to his death. He injured the man he got his sword from, and as a result his sword deliberately killed him. Sigurd killed the man he got his sword from, that caused his potency to turn against him (by making him the owner of the Ring) and caused the Sword to sunder his house. (Volsungasaga: 29) We do not know the significance of Starkath’s sword, but we have only fragments of his story— presumably Vikar gave it to him. Beowulf supplanted the uncle/king he got his sword from, but later his strength would break that same sword and cause his death. (Beowulf: 2190-2194, 2562-2579, 2677-2680) This sword, called Naegling, is specifically described as a heirloom, “laife,” and so it is clearly the same sword his king/fosterfather/ uncle gives him in Beowulf: 2190-2194, where it is also referred to as “laife.” It had belonged to Beowulf’s grandfather.
Grettir killed the monster-father he got his sword from, and when Grettir was killed the final blow was delivered with that sword. Among his other powers he was an outstandingly strong swimmer, and that ability began the chain of events that caused his downfall. There is no sword in our Athenian version of Oidipous’ story, but the Iliad refers to funeral games that were held in his honor in Thebes. So in that version, Oidipous was buried with honor in his own country. (Iliad: XXIII, 679-680) Unless we postulate a version so different as to constitute a different story which there is no reason to do, then it seems probable that Oidipous committed suicide and at that time the universal way Greek men committed suicide was with their swords. What is in our story is that the potency that enabled him to kill Laios' whole party singlehanded led to both of his crimes. And of course it was that killing that led him to the kingship and his marriage. Both of these are the embodiment of potency, and both became grotesque. His insistence on knowing who he was, against advice, has nothing to do with his crimes but only with his knowledge of them.
When we step back and look at these people we see a pattern. Nearly all have intimate and positive relationships with their mother, but nearly all have distant and all have destructive relationships with their fathers or surrogate fathers. Most of them have impatient, violent personalities, they all achieve great potency, and they harm or destroy their father-figures in the process. This potency is always great but always warped, and it destroys them and that which they would cherish and preserve. None of these people are victors, they all lose. But they don't fail because they choke up or wilt or make a wrong choice, they fail in spite of their wills and because of the way they have been formed and the father they have been given. If there is a natural cycle to a life, wherein it grows according to its nature, follows its path and bears fruit before it dies, then their lives bore no fruit and dissipated into the void. This was reflected in their attempts at sex and marriage, which were either not made or were disastrous. They were tragic, the meaning in their lives was the path they took and the will with which they followed it, there was nothing at the end. There were partial exceptions to that, part of Grettir’s life worked and we will get to that in a moment.
The pattern in these Baltic/North Sea stories is clear, and we can see the same pattern in the story of Oidipous. The pattern involves hostile and destructive takeover of the father’s potency, warped potency, violent personality, damaged sexuality, infertility, a perverse potency that destroys the self and everything that the potency should protect, and this destruction happens, not because of a wrong choice or a weakness, but because of a deformed relationship with the father and because of Fate. Oidipous is completely typical of this pattern. He was the most common subject of classic tragedy. (Harsh 1944: 113-114) He is an integral part of classical Athenian culture and a typical example of a pattern that is an integral part of Northern European culture.
We saw in “The Greco-Germanic Family Cycle I, that the God that is the subject of all the Family Cycles and thechoice that the principal character makes about that God go back to the time when the people who became Greek and the people who became Germanic shared the same culture and the same literature. Now we see that the same is true of the characters that we have just observed, and like the principal characters of the Family Cycles, they are like nothing we would expect. They lead us to believe that not only the forms of these stories go back to a very early time, but that the same is true of the particulars of the stories themselves. We are also beginning to suspect that whatever the world is like that these stories come from, it is utterly unlike the modern one.
Something in Grettir’s life worked. I said that Grettir killed the father he got his sword from, but it was more complicated than that and I will explain further. When Grettir left home, his father asked a friend named Haflidi, who had a ship, to let Grettir sail with him and also asked him to look after Grettir. Haflidi agreed, and he gathered his crew and Grettir and they sailed. But although Grettir liked Haflidi, he didn’t get along with anyone else on the ship and everyone wished him ill. Then he angered Haflidi as well, and when the ship wrecked off Norway he left.
Grettir ended up staying at the house of a man named Thorfinn. He stayed there for a long time, doing very little, saying very little to his host or to anyone else in the household, just as he had done at home. He would only socialize with neighboring farmers, while taking up space in Thorfinn’s hall and eating Thorfinn’s food. But Thorfinn was a kind-hearted and hospitable man, and he tolerated Grettir. Grettir had passed from one surrogate father to another.
One day Grettir took it into his head to break into the tomb of his host’s dead father. The undead father attacked Grettir, and Grettir killed him. Then Grettir took some treasure from the tomb, including a superb sword, and gave it to Thorfinn. Thorfinn didn’t seem to have particularly liked his father, and the treasure and the sword should have been passed on to him and not selfishly kept and buried. So Thorfinn was not angry with Grettir, and when Grettir asked him for the sword he said Grettir could have it if he first did some notable deed.
Then Thorfinn went away on business, and while he was gone twelve extremely dangerous men, enemies of his, assaulted his family. None of Thorfinn's servants dared faced them, but Grettir, who had never accomplished anything in his life, killed all twelve of them all alone. Thorfinn, the former surrogate father, gave Grettir the sword and called him “brother” for the rest of their lives. Whatever else went wrong for Grettir, the loyalty between him and Thorfinn remained absolute. Thorfinn once stood up against the ruler of Norway and his whole army to protect Grettir, (Grettir’s Saga: 19 & 24) and after Grettir was killed, it was the rather slightly built Thorfinn who took up the sword he had given Grettir and killed Grettir’s murderer.
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Sefton, T. (2001). The Gods Remain, Kolonos Press, Kerhonkson, New York.
Sophokles— Sophokles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonos, Antigone, Storr, F. (trans), Loeb Library, 1981, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Volsungasaga— The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, Byock, J.L. (trans), 1990, University of California Press. Berkeley, California. Text in Volsunga saga og Ragnars saga Lothbrókar, Thorsson, O. (ed), 1985, Mal og Menning, Reykjavik.