by Leea Virtanen, Professor emerita of Folkloristics, University of Helsinki

“There is something about us that sets us apart from others; we have a right to be special”, said Oskar Kallas, the Ambassador who presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Helsinki on the subject of Finnish-Estonian refrain songs in 1901. Kallas arrived at this conclusion as the result of a popular movement that had led to the establishment of the Estonian Folklore Archive, one of the largest in the world.

The Estonians’ right to be special was severely tried during the Second World War and the subsequent occupation. Estonia had won its independence in 1919 but lost it in 1940, being overrun first by Germany and then the Soviet Union, and it was to remain occupied for the next half century. A chair in Estonian and Comparative Folklore had already been founded at the University of Tartu and its incumbent was Walter Anderson, a folktale scholar of international renown. In the 1940s, researchers at the Estonian Library Museum were sent to prison, some perished and others escaped abroad. Those who remained faced numerous trials and tribulations.

Scholars in Soviet Estonia were ordered to reject the “bourgeois methods” and instead to subscribe to a Marxist-Leninist worldview. Folk singers came up with new songs in praise of their collective farms. Work, too, was extolled in song: thanks to Soviet technology, work was easy and a pleasure. Monographs in many cases nevertheless had to wait years before they were published, and doctoral dissertations appeared in the form of articles.

Academic scholars were required both to work for a certain number of days on the collective farm and to give and listen to enlightening talks. The Soviet regime imposed restrictions on the collection and study of folklore. Folk belief, for example, was automatically ruled out; while not explicitly prohibited, it was implicitly understood as an unsuitable topic for research. The same applied to research into the present day, because the Soviet regime had to be spoken of in tones of praise.

Contacts with the outside world did indeed exist during the Soviet era, but Tartu, for example, the centre of research and the collections, was a closed city for military reasons; special permits might be issued to visit the town up to 5 pm, but after that, visitors had to return to Tallinn. International meetings were closely supervised.

Yet despite all these difficulties, a collection called Eesti vanasõnad (Estonian proverbs) did appear. “This great work (1980–1988) is proof that the folkloristics of our kindred nation is still among the finest in Europe”, said Matti Kuusi, referring to the days of Anderson and Oskar Loorits. There were other notable publications, too, such as Eesti rahvalaulud (Estonian folk songs, edited by Ülo Tedre) and Eesti rahvakalender (Estonian folk calendar, by Mall Hiiemäe; volume VIII finally in 1999).

The dawn of a new era of independence in 1991 brought opportunities for folklore researchers, too, in Estonia. The general trend in folkloristics should be examined as well, since international influences also have a part to play. Estonia was once one of the centres of the geographical-historical method, but other cultural-anthropological views have since gained ground.

Study of the present era is now one of the focal areas of folkloristic research, along with the old regilaul genre of folk song, local tradition and the tradition of the Siberian Estonians, i.e. those who migrated to Siberia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Estonian villages there have preserved a more archaic form of tradition than that now encountered in present-day Estonia.

“The Internet is a big opportunity for a little nation”

During the period of Russification Estonia became a more or less invisible republic of the Soviet Union. Professor Ülo Valk from the University of Tartu found while visiting America that people were not even aware that his country existed, and it was important to tell them about Estonia’s rich, long research history and its vast archive collections. What do the Tartu researchers themselves think about the recent changes?

“The Internet is a big opportunity for a little nation”, says Mare Kõiva, head of the Estonian Literary Museum’s department of folklore. “Printing is expensive, but people can find information for themselves on the net. We have plans for connecting every school in Estonia to the Internet.” Mare Kõiva has founded a folklore series in English, and the journal Mäetagused in Estonian can also be read on the Internet. Readers can, furthermore, browse the large collections of Estonian proverbs and fables.

“Our servers receive 2,400 visits a day”, Mare Kõiva reports. “Young people have launched various projects: they want to know about special days, the origins of names, customs, food, folk healing, even chain letters. Villages have their own home pages that also record family history, and we have produced some Finno-Ugrian pages in such languages as Erza for anyone interested in finding out about small peoples. Writers can also request material via the net and receive answers from all over the world.”

“Our strength and our future lie in our gifted young folklorists. Our freedom – to establish international contacts – is something new and special for us”, says Ülo Valk.

“We saw a great change in the 1990s”, Eda Kalmre points out. “When Estonia became independent, our attitude to various genres of tradition changed. The new era has brought a shift within tradition, too: colleagues nowadays mean a lot to people as well, not just family and friends.”

“Old tradition is being cast in a new mould”, adds Tiiu Jaago, who, together with Kalev Jaago has been studying family tradition. “We are also discovering new approaches to old tradition.”

Local tradition is one of the new network projects and one that will, Mari-Ann Remmel reckons, prove to be of interest. Estonia has some old sacrificial stones which people look upon as theirs. The outcome has been new nature beliefs, new mythology. A person may stand at the foot of a tree, for example, and draw peace from it. Then again, traditions about places are spreading as a result of tourism.

Folk music researchers are collecting and studying old tradition, but they also assist amateur performers. The Baltica Festival is devoted to “authentic” music, whereas at Viljandi young people themselves learn to perform folk music. The work Ühte käiväd meie hääled (Together sound our voices) by Ingrid Rüütel has marked the start of a new project: the publication of songs for use in schools and other communities.

“The old songs carry special meaning for people today”, writes Ingrid Rüütel of the Väike-Maarja selection. The songs teach them to create a little sunlight on a grey day. Even so, their world is not an idealised past but rather a mosaic picture of real everyday life.

Occupying an important role in recent Estonian history was the “singing revolution” that drew some 300,000 people together. A movement such as this would not be possible in every country, but folk and choral singing have always been strong in Estonia. The secondary, innovative use of tradition, the various forms of folklorism, generated a sense of local identity during the years of occupation and are still a unifying force.

Setumaa, the Orthodox region in the southeastern corner of Estonia, has preserved the age-old tradition of singing folk songs and laments in parts right up to the present day. Some folklorists (such as Paul Hagu and Veera Pino) were born into the living tradition. Paul Hagu has addressed the Peko epic created by Anne Vabarna. Setu choirs have performed in the old style to various audiences. This striking vocal tradition has aroused the interest of many an Estonian and Finnish researcher. The doctoral dissertation by Vaike Sarv on the subject of Setu dirges was defended at the University of Tampere, Finland, in 2000.

What topics interest narrators in contemporary Estonia?

Half a century of Soviet rule left its mark on research, but what about tradition? “It had an extremely good influence on tradition”, reckons Ülo Tedre. It gave rise to a vast number of political jokes and other anecdotes, many of them known abroad as well.

Political jokes were a common genre in east and west alike. In Estonia they were already being recorded during the Soviet regime. “I jotted down jokes with the punch lines on a cigarette packet”, writes Jüri Viikberg, a linguist, in his collection Eesti anekdootiraamat (Estonian jokes and anecdotes).

His jottings did not put narrators off. People would stop him in the street and ask him whether he had heard this or that story. He was just as likely to hear jokes over a glass of wine as when peeling potatoes in the dormitory. How did scholars preserve this type of tradition, officially prohibited and potentially dangerous? The Literary Museum in Tartu took in collections and hid them in various places until they could at last be officially archived and published in the 1990s.

Why are double beds nowadays wide enough for three? Because Lenin is always with us. This is one of the commonest joking questions, and the narrator could, if overheard, at one time expect a labour camp sentence. A big lore collection in 1992 yielded enough political jokes from both Estonian and Russian schoolchildren to warrant a type catalogue. Jokes were, in Eastern Europe, a way of letting off steam, but their golden era is past its peak now that people are free to express their opinions.

Contemporary narratives are made up of elements both old and new. They are, as Eda Kalmre points out, a medium for interpreting the latent conflicts in society. The following are a few samples of the narrative tradition.

One of the best-known urban legend motifs is that of the vanishing hitch-hiker. It was already known in the United States in the 1930s, in Finland from at least the 1970s onwards, and it has in the past few years been collected among students in Tartu.

The story of a boy rescued by a snake is in Estonia usually associated with the war in Afghanistan, sometimes Vietnam, and it is said to have happened to American soldiers. According to unofficial statistics, over a thousand Estonian boys were sent to Afghanistan to do their national service in 1979–1989. One boy fed the snakes in a chasm near the cookhouse. One day a big snake emerged from the chasm and wound itself round the boy. He was gripped by the snake all night long and his hair turned white with terror. When he returned, he found all his pals had been killed, their throats slit open. The fairytale-like “boy rescued by snake” motif is likewise known in Latvia, Lithuania and Russia. It also directs thoughts to the international military lore.

The sinking of the ship “Estonia” in 1994 touched the heart of nearly every Estonian, and a myriad rumours surround the tragedy both orally and in the media. There are stories about the reasons why the ship sank (could it have been a Russian mine?), the mysterious disappearance of the Captain, Arvo Pihti, and UFOs that carried people off. Victims who went down with the ship are reported to have phoned relatives on their mobiles. The actor Urmas Alender was the passenger best-known to and best-loved by the Estonians, and he is reported to have sung as the boat went down. The national disaster was soon attracting international catastrophe folklore familiar from, say, the sinking of the Titanic, as Eda Kalmre has demonstrated.

New wave of folklore publications

Tartu, a university city, has become a lively meeting place for folklorists visited by congress delegates from all over the world. Estonian folkloristic literature can be found on the Internet in Estonian, English and German ( It is also possible to browse the extensive Estonian proverb collection (also in German), likewise fables (Pille Kippar). Estonian fables have, in addition, been catalogued in the FF Communications series.

Publications can, of course, be ordered in printed format from the Literary Museum (Kirjandusmuuseum, Vanemuise 42, Tartu) or through bookshops. Two excellent basic treatises are Eesti rahvakultuur (Estonian folk culture, 1998) and Eesti rahvakultuuri leksikon (Lexicon of Estonian folk culture, 1995, ed. by Ants Viires). Works in English include Contemporary Folklore, edited by Mare Kõiva, and Folk Belief Today, edited by Mare Kõiva and Kai Vassiljeva.

There appears at first glance to be an astonishing number of journals: Vanavaravedaja (Heritage collector), Tänapäeva folkloorist (Folklorist of today), Studies in Folklore and Popular Religion, Sator, Eesti Rahvaluule Arhiivi Toimetused (Publications of the Estonian Folklore Archive), Paar sammukest (the Literary Museum’s own yearbook), but they each have their own orientation and target readership. They may receive financial assistance from a foundation, such as the Eesti Kultuurkapital, the Eesti Teadusfond of the Ministry of Culture, or from one of the many cultural institutions: obtaining funds is not easy in a small, poor country, but there is no shortage of cultural will. As a rule all congress papers are published. It is good that young researchers, and not only well-established ones, can make their voice heard and receive comments from the international community.

The Finnish-Estonian partnership established by Matti Kuusi in the field of proverbs continues as a broad charting of North European proverbs. The proverb is an indicator of cultural influences. In 2000 Arvo Krikmann published an interesting collection of south Estonian riddles (Tere teele, tere meele, tere egalõ talolõ; the title is a riddle signifying a road or path). Volume I (1–1350) of an extensive collection of Estonian riddles appeared in December 2001: Eesti mõistatused, Aenigmata Estonica. The editors are Arvo Krikmann and Rein Saukas, but work is also being done by Piret Voolaid and Anna Hussar. The maps by Krikmann of both proverbs and riddles deserve a separate mention.

Many of the scientific publications of Estonian materials are virtually unequalled in their breadth and careful presentation. The Vana kannel series (Monumenta estoniae antiquae) presents by parish old folk songs corresponding to the Finnish tradition in Kalevalaic metre. To take one volume as an example: Vana kannel VII:1 (eds Ottilie Kõiva and Ingrid Rüütel) deals with wedding songs from the little island of Kihnu and runs to no fewer than 855 pages. In 1959 the island of Kihnu had a population of 761 (268 had fled during the war). The volume also gives the melodies, various indexes, and descriptions with photographs of weddings the researchers were able to observe.

What purpose does publication serve? The book format ensures that the wedding song tradition will be preserved; archive entries are, as we know, only too often endangered. The researcher has access to material with a ready typology and in fact so extensively processed that only a conclusion is missing. I have never come across another collection of folk songs that is so extensive and thorough, and the same can be said of the collection of Estonian riddles. The most recent monograph on the old folk song as a poetic system is the doctoral dissertation by Mari Sarv (2000). These topics and collections looking back at the past also throw unique light on the history of Finnish tradition, since the Gulf of Finland has tended to join rather than to separate the two kindred nations.

The FF Communications series has provided a publishing forum for many Estonian monographs. Take, for example, Ülo Valk’s The Black Gentleman. Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion (No. 276), or Mall Hiiemäe’s study of the customs and beliefs surrounding special days (No. 268), or Pille Kippar’s type catalogue of fables (No. 237). Professor Felix J. Oinas of the University of Indiana has examined the tradition of his native Estonia in many of his books (e.g. FFC No. 205).

Estonia today has a population of around 1.6 million, of which about one million are ethnic Estonians. It is thus a small country, but Oskar Kallas’s view of a nation that is “special” certainly seems to be borne out. The folklorists have risen to the challenge of freedom with a tremendous burst of energy and are fast blazing a trail to the forefront of folkloristic research. Though few in number, they are incredible achievers and have tried to allow for both academic needs and the interest in folklore of the nation at large founded on the national awareness aroused in the 19th century.

(FFN 23, April 2002: 13-15)

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