Eros the Slayer

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“My entire being has almost been shattered by the overwhelming power of love.” The power of love in this 11 November 1918 diary entry by Finnish author Aino Kallas was the very wellspring of her artistry.

Maila Talvio’s writing found itself at the epicentre of the Nordic debate about sexual morality and was inspired by Ellen Key and others. Beneath the concept of enlightenment and liberation, however, lurks a coherent narrative of sexual fear, pessimism, and longing for death.

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  • Wendelin, Martta: Cover of the magazine OMA koti,  17/1932. Det Finske Litteraturselskabs Arkiv, Helsinki

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Eros the Slayer

“I could have been la grande amoureuse – it was as though I had been created for it, the sublime love of soul to soul. My entire being has almost been shattered by the overwhelming power of love. But I know at this very moment that it will never leave me. It will impregnate my life, everything I do, write, and think from this point forth.”

The power of love in this 11 November 1918 diary entry by Finnish author Aino Kallas (1878-1956) was the very wellspring of her artistry. The immediate source of these reflections was her intense relationship with Finnish poet Eino Leino, the most prominent Bohemian in turn-of-the-century Finland. While providing her with inspiration and artistic assurance, the relationship also illustrated the price that passion can exact.

Päiväkirja vuosilta, Aino Kallas's diary, was published i five parts between 1952 and 1956. In addition to her memoirs, she has published more than 30 works, including poetry, novels, short stories, dramas, and articles on Estonian literature. In 1953, she received the largest award ever granted a Finnish author: a million mark from the Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation.

In 1900 Kallas married J. J. Mikkola, an Estonian Slavic philologist who eventually pursued a diplomatic career, leading to a cosmopolitan life among the upper class of London and elsewhere. Lauluja ja ballaadeja (1897; Songs and Ballads), a collection of poetry and her first published work, was followed by several short story collections with Estonian themes: Meren takaa I–II (1904-05; Beyond the Sea; Eng. tr. The White Ship). Estonian history and folklore also inspired the novels Barbara von Tisenhusen (1923), Reigin pappi (1926; Eng. tr. The Rector of Reigi), Sudenmorsian (1928; Eng. tr. The Wolf’s Bride), and Pyhän Joen kosto (1930; Eng. tr. The Revenge of the Holy River), considered to be her most important works. The novels, which Kallas described as “prose ballads,” explore the all-consuming, devastating love that pervades popular ballads, defying all social norms and conventions. Set in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Estonia, the tales are written in a deliberately archaic style.

Contact with Estonian culture provides Aino Kallas with unique historical material: the final years of manorialism, the oppression of the czar era, the cruelties of the World War, the Revolution, the War of Independence, and the nations brief but happy period of independence in the inter-war years.

Love’s Privileges

Barbara von Tisenhusen, Reigin pappi, and Sudenmorsian have been referred to as the “Eros the Slayer” trilogy. While not a trilogy in the strict sense of the word, their portrayal of forbidden love ties them together thematically.

Wendelin, Martta: Cover of the magazine OMA koti,  17/1932. Det Finske Litteraturselskabs Arkiv, Helsinki

Wendelin, Martta (1893-1986): Cover of the magazine OMA koti,  17/1932. Det Finske Litteraturselskabs Arkiv, Helsinki

In demanding love’s privileges, Kallas’s heroines rebel against their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Barbara von Tisenhusen, the young Aalo in Sudenmorsian, and Catharina Wycken (the rector’s wife), flout the patriarchy and its laws. Barbara von Tisenhusen defies her class and her brothers, eloping with Franz Bonnius the scribe to live as his wife without the blessing of the Church. Catharina Wycken flees with Jonas Kempe, an assistant vicar. The adulterous relationship at the centre of Sudenmorsian takes a much more dramatic and alarming form. Aalo leaves her husband to join a flock of werewolves, who roam the surrounding forest. All three women are self-assured, steadfast, and indomitable. Male authority is incapable of instilling them with guilt for having sinned and sullied the honour of the clan. They shrink at the idea that their love constitutes a crime or a transgression. The laws of man have little to say in the kingdom of love, ruled as it is by powers far greater than human beings. In Reigin pappi, Catharina Wycken proudly and resolutely proclaims to the judges who accuse her of adultery:

“Verily if I have sinned, I will also bear the punishment for my sin, both here on earth and in the life to come. For this man was dearer to me than Christian doctrine, dearer than the hope of eternal life, and his love more to me than the keys of [the kingdom of heaven].”

The rector narrates Barbara von Tisenhusen in words that echo of homilies and biblical passages. He admits that the laws of God and men are not always in agreement. Rather than denying that Barbara has committed a crime, he appeals to the mercy of the judges and refers to the biblical admonition that God alone should pass judgement.

Barbara von Tisenhusen is based partly on an old legend in Balthasar Russow’s Kronike (1578; Eng. tr. Livonian Chronicles), and Kallas reported in a letter to Friedebert Tuglas, her Estonian translator, that she had written the novel “in the style of the old chronicle, almost in Russow’s rhythm.”

Paavali Lempelius, the narrator in Reigin pappi, is both a rector and the rejected husband; his perspective, feelings, and fear of betrayal frame the narrative. Catharina Wycken feels out of place and spiritually suffocated in the remote village of Reigi until Jonas Kempe, an ardent young assistant vicar, arrives on the scene. They experience a strong bond from the moment they set eyes on each other. The magic spell that surrounds them excludes the older and more stable rector. He watches as his gentle, humble wife slowly drifts out of his life: “For often at the hour of midnight, in the midst of the hottest embrace, have I asked myself whom it was I held in my arms, and have sought her glance in the dark, as though in fear that on the morrow she would have faded from my side, leaving only an empty place behind her.”.

He has prized his wife above his own happiness and salvation, and his '‘error’ is that he has loved too much. The rabid lover becomes a slave of his beloved.

His love threatens her self-respect, and her infidelity may be interpreted as a rebellion against its power and constraints.

The struggle between male and female will takes allegorical form in Pyhän Joen kosto. As determined as a man setting out to conquer a woman, Adam Dörffer undertakes to build a large watermill in the Holy River. But its might resists his advances. Free and self-willed, it has always flowed in the same direction. It is reminiscent of a woman’s soul in constant flux, now placid and consumed by dark dreams, now terrifying in its rage. Adam is unable to subdue the river but is granted one last favour, to unite with it in a drowning embrace. At that very moment, the river overpowers the embankments he has built.

The Outlaw Woman

Forbidden love in Kallas’s writing represents a struggle between women and society. Barbara von Tisenhusen’s brothers accuse her of having violated the clan’s honour, which they avenge by sentencing her to death and drowning her. In ostracising her from the clan, they are able to neutralise both the reality and consequences of her actions. In Reigin pappi, the local citizenry demands chastisement of the adulterers on the grounds that their unbridled passion has scorned and wronged not only Lempelius and God, but all honest people. They are executed as both a punishment and a warning.

Their love threatens the ethical foundations of the community, as expressed in the novel’s animal symbolism. Barbara von Tisenhusen’s brothers incite the villagers to pursue her with a frenzy that resembles nothing so much as a wolf hunt. They call her a bitch who has eloped with the wolves of the forest as her bridal train. And Aalo, who abandons herself to her instincts, undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis. Stripped of her humanity, she becomes a wolf that is fair game for any and everyone.

The women in Sudenmorsian despise and hate her for having flouted the social norms to which she has been consigned. They set fire to the sauna in which she is giving birth and even refuse to spare the infant, suspecting that the father is a werewolf.

Kallas’s diaries indicate that she was well acquainted with the literary currents of the age when she lived in London (1922-1934), and the sexual mystique of D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) reverberates in her books. But in Sudenmorsian, it is the gamekeeper’s wife who lives out her impulses.

The portrayal of basic instincts also informs the milieu in Sudenmorsian. The moors, the beaches, and the open sea that Kallas described in her early tales of Estonia have been replaced by dark forests and bottomless swamps. The marshy landscape serves as a tragic backdrop to ill-fated passion. Having followed the wolves to the depths of the forest, Ailo sees the world with new eyes. She experiences an overwhelming sense of freedom and strength, as though she were of the same flesh and blood as the head of the pack. She finds endless pleasure in his company:

“And a bliss beyond measure, too great for mortal enjoyment, came over Aalo, and into her soul was poured an overflowing entrancement whereof no word in all the tongue of Man can tell, so keen and marvellous is the joy wherewith it refresheth the thirsting. And in this moment she was one with the Forest Daemon, the mighty daemon who, in the form of a wolf, had chosen her and taken her into his power, and all boundaries between them fell away, and they melted each into the other, like two dewdrops, and no one could have known which was which, or told the one from the other.”

Kallas adapted much of her material for the stage. A couple of her tales have even become opera productions. Given its dramatic theme, Sudenmorsian has frequently inspired other artists. In 1950, Finnish composer Tauno Pylkkänen (1918-1980) wrote an opera for radio that won third prize in the Prix Italia. Six years later it was performed by the Finnish National Opera, and Elsa Sylvestersson’s ballet version of Sudenmorsian was staged in 1971. Estonian author Jaan Kross (1920-2007) based opera librettos on Barbara von Tisenhusen and Reigin pappi, with scores by Eduard Tubin.

The Imperative of Creativity

The cry of the Diabolus Sylvarum may also be interpreted as the calling of the artist, which the author refers to as Daimon in her diaries. “When the embrace of the daemon overpowers a person, the soles of her feet no longer touch the earth, and her soul is swept away like a gale without repose or tranquillity.”(Sudenmorsian)When Daimon’s voice fills the air, a woman grows deaf to everything else. She has no choice but to obey his command. Aalo in Sudenmorsian personifies a duality that tugs a woman artist in two opposite directions – strength, freedom, and passion in the company of the wolves versus the protection and security of hearth and home.

Kallas has wild, powerful visions of a full-blooded femininity, but it is a femininity which cannot be lived. Aalo is burned to death and her wolf incarnation is shot.

Kallas and her husband fled to Sweden during World War II to live with their daughter, but she moved back and died in Finland. Having lost two sons to the war, she wrote bitter poems of mourning in her autumn years.

Ulla-Maija Juutila

Behind the Ideas

Uniting national enlightenment with social commitment was a tradition in Finnish literature. Maila Talvio (1871-1951), who grew up in a Swedish-speaking vicarage but became an ardent champion of Finnish, passed the tradition on. At the beginning of her career, she assumed the role of a conventional nationalist and socially conscious author who sought to educate the masses. She wrote, gave lectures, and held a literary salon. The tension between her optimistic commitment and depressive themes did not fully manifest until much later.

Literary salons were an alien phenomenon in Finland, and Talvio’s was an important event. But it was surrounded by gossip, and her relationship to its promising young authors swelled to the myth of an autocrat who cold-heartedly toyed with the feelings of her favourites and promised more than she delivered. The myth is much better known than her works. She never commented on the anecdotes, satirical ballads, and spiteful remarks with which she was associated, and remained silent about her personal life.

Talvio published more than forty novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs. She was also a journalist and translator – she rendered the works of Hans Christian Andersen and others into Finnish.

The Burdens of Sin

Talvio’s writing, which found itself at the epicentre of the Nordic debate about sexual morality, was inspired by Ellen Key and others. Beneath the concept of enlightenment and liberation, however, lurks a coherent narrative of sexual fear, pessimism, and longing for death. Talvio’s 1890s novels depict young, upper class women who renounce their superficial lives and settle down in the countryside to teach and live among the peasantry. Sacrificing oneself for the people was a fad in Finland at the time. The women in Talvio’s books throw themselves into patriotic duties, companionate marriages, or a combination of the two, but they are really fleeing from their sexual yearning and privation.

Helena Westermarck (1857-1938) was a Finland-Swedish author whose works were unapologetically feminist. In addition to three short story collections, seven novels, and two collections of fairy tales, she published biographies of Fredrika Runeberg (1904), Sara Wacklin (1919), and others, as well as a cultural history of the nineteenth century entitled Kvinnospår (1913; Women’s Tracks).

Elina, the protagonist of Kaksi rakkautta (1898; Two Loves), is married to a scholar. She falls in love with his Lithuanian colleague. But instead of marrying him when her husband dies, she moves to the country and educates the peasantry. Like Talvio’s other heroines, Elina pursues passion but backs off before the game can turn serious and transform her life. They always leave an escape hatch through which they can preserve their virginal equanimity with weaker husbands, whom they treat like sons.

The fear of sex in Talvio’s writing is linked to denial of motherhood and the experience of childbirth as a bestial act. Elina in Kaksi rakkautta does not want to have children with her companion/husband. She longs for progeny when she falls in love, but dismisses the idea and becomes a substitute mother for the peasant children instead. The women in Talvio’s books are generally childless and often play the role of mother to their younger siblings. Her very first novel introduces a recurring theme – the woman who dies in childbirth. One of the women in Tähtien alla (1910; Under the Stars) fears that it will happen to her, and her apprehensions are borne out. A second woman lies in rags expecting her ninth child and asks herself, “Can this be love?” A third woman tries to strangle her newborn infant out of post-partum fatigue.

Motherhood is painted in darker and darker tones from one book to the next. In Muuan äiti (1904; One Mother), a well-educated woman engages an innocent young girl so that her son doesn’t have to go to a brothel and ruin his health. When the girl becomes pregnant, she gives her some money and sends her packing. The need to protect her son outweighs her guilty conscience. Fru Karell in the expressionist novel Elämän kasvot (1916; The Face of Life) claims her grown daughter Lina for herself, harasses and tortures her, and prevents her from marrying out of pure envy. Talvio depicts her as a spider that has snared Lina in its fatal web. Eventually she dies and Lina is able to break free, only to start a kindergarten.

Fear of sex and motherhood merge into a complex of guilt and sin. Talvio’s writing is governed by a kind of Protestant ethic that somehow manages to romanticise evil and iniquity. Von Holten, the landowner in Pimeänpirtin hävitys (1901; The Destruction of the Dark Cottage), rapes his daughter. She winds up in a brothel where she is murdered by her fundamentalist grandfather, who believes that sin dwells in and propagates through women’s bodies. The narrator both condemns and is fascinated by evil. The notion that a woman’s body is impure, the longing for an immaculate life and sexual reconciliation – “the entire catalogue of women’s sins” – are carried to the extreme.

The theme of Tähtien alla revolves around the debate about a new sexual morality. A young engaged couple grant each other erotic liberties, but their freedom proves illusory. The novel offers two models that were to typify Talvio’s portrayal of male-female relationships, neither of which integrates sexuality. The first model is based on companionship:

“I have come to understand that the relationship between men and women must be rooted in friendship, which is a far more refined feeling than what is commonly referred to as love and engenders new life. A child should not be conceived in a fit of passion, but should be planned for soberly and deliberately. We should not beget and propagate in sin, but in reverence and glory. Don’t you think that the next generation would be happier than ours if it were brought up on that principle?”

The second model is a new and purer kind of love that is both more honest and more erotic, but that makes only a fleeting appearance in the novel. The book ends mysteriously with the protagonists standing alone under a deep sky and trying to attain a state that defies words.

Not until late in life did Talvio succeed in portraying, albeit in the guise of historical fiction, a woman who has no problems with either sexuality or motherhood. The tale appeared in the trilogy Itämeren tytär (1929-36; Daughter of the Baltic), which takes place in the 1750s.

Liisi Huhtala

Translated by Ken Schubert