Folk belief

The characteristic feature of Estonian folk belief is pluralism, expressed in the belief in various spirits and fairies which lacked mutual hierarchic relations. The spirits inhabited different areas of nature and their power was limited. Animistic belief in living nature existed in Estonia.

The word ‘püha’ (which means 'holy') used to be closely connected with the word ‘tabu’ ('taboo') which signified something inviolable, separate and limited. Everything that was holy gave off a mysterious power which was dangerous to humans and required ritual behaviour as a measure of caution. Places, objects, persons, animals, periods of time, daily activities, and various phenomena and situations could be holy. Offering stones, springs and sacred groves were holy places.

Estonians sacrificed to the souls of dead ancestors, nature spirits and fairies so that they would be benevolent and protect the people from bad luck and diseases, make the land and cattle fertile, grant good luck in hunting, etc. The offerings were mostly food or drinks, but also products of farming and cattle-breeding, such as flax, wool, yarn and cloth, as well as money and jewellery. Silver dust, which was scraped off a silver coin or jewellery and was supposed to have special powers, was an especially significant offering. Offerings were brought at harvests, when work was begun or finished, at souls' visiting time and upon various holidays and family events.

Sacrificial wells were supposed to have a magic healing effect. Eye and skin diseases were treated with the water of such wells, and wrongful deeds were washed off with the water from the wells. Silver was brought as an offering to such wells: objects dating back to the 8th–12th centuries have been found in them. Approximately 400 sacrificial wells are known in Estonia.

Sacred groves were groups of trees which were considered to be holy places. A sacred grove usually consisted of deciduous trees and it was situated on higher ground or an open plain near the village, at an offering pit where people went to pray and to bring offerings. Initially sacred groves were probably also burial grounds which were considered taboo and that is why the groves were considered sacred and it was forbidden to desecrate or violate them. It was forbidden to trample or break any branches or chop wood etc. in a sacred grove. Later, when folk tradition no longer connected the grove to the dead, offerings were brought to gnomes, fairies and other supernatural forces which were believed to be present in the grove or in the trees of the grove. It was believed that sacred groves can change their location. Offerings were also brought to single trees, the so-called sacred trees.

When Christianity arrived in Estonia, destruction of sacred groves commenced. The Catholic Church erected its crosses and chapels where sacred groves had stood, and the Lutheran Church tried to totally eradicate the customs of regarding old groves and trees as sacred and of bringing offerings. Despite all that, people were been buried in sacred groves as late as the 17th–18th centuries. Although worshipping sacred groves and trees ceased at the beginning of the 19th century, memories connected with former locations of sacred groves and trees were preserved by folk tradition until the beginning of the 20th century.

People have brought offerings to stones and have regarded them as sacred in Estonia. These are usually ordinary rocks situated near a village in a field or a pasture, less frequently in a forest.

In South Estonia, the place to bring offerings on a farm or in a village was the sacrificial garden. A sacrificial garden was a small fenced-in area in the yard of a farm which was considered to be holy and inviolable, or was a part of a larger garden where some deciduous trees, bushes and hops grew. Offerings were placed on a stone in the garden, on the turf, or at the foot of a bush. Such gardens endured the longest in Mulgimaa, in some places until the middle of the 19th century.

The spirits and fairies of Estonians who were prayed to and to whom offerings were brought were, for the most part, purely spiritual beings. However, it is said in the Livonian chronicles of Henrik the Lett which date from the first half of the 13th century that Estonians and Livonians had gods ‘the figure of which grew out of a tree from the chest upwards’. Although the priests chopped off the idols of the Baltic peoples and, as the chronicler tells it, pagans were most amazed that blood did not flow out of their ‘living’ gods, even centuries of Christianity could not wipe the ancient beliefs out entirely. Reports of carrying idols around or worshipping them in the woods confirm that as well. Results of church inspections carried out as late as the 17th century reveal that when people gathered in Catholic chapels on saints' days, idols were worshipped there.

A fascinating example of the connections between the world of idols and primitive art is the idol Peko in Setumaa, supposed to preserve luck in the household and increase the fertility of the land. The sooty Peko, a primitive human torso hewn out of a stump of wood, was kept in a bin in the granary. Candles were burnt as offerings in the small holes in the head of the effigy. Peko belonged to the whole village and was kept in a different farm every year. It was also hidden from strangers. Special festivities in the honour of Peko were held in the autumn, after the harvest, in spring on Candlemas Day and on Midsummer Day. The most important of these was the autumn celebration which always took place at full moon. Only men participated in this celebration and Peko was moved to the next barn. Butter, curd and wool were brought as presents and people asked Peko to look after their cattle. Trees and bushes were also dedicated to Peko and offerings placed under them. The cult of Peko was known only in Setumaa. There are no data about Peko being worshipped in any other part of Estonia.

Unlike Peko who belonged to the entire village community, the figure of the guardian spirit of a household, Tõnn, belonged to one family. The cult of Tõnn survived longest in Vändra in Pärnumaa, partly until the early 20th century. Tõnn could be of various shapes and sizes, and was often made of wax. The small figure was sometimes also provided with clothes. Quite frequently Tõnn was nothing else but a candle that wore a tiny jacket and trousers. Some Tõnns were made of wood and resembled one or another living creature, either male or female. It was called both ‘Mother Tõnn’ and ‘Father Tõnn’. The only surviving figure of Tõnn in Estonia kept in the Estonian National Museum, has nothing on except a leather cap. The Tõnn preserved in the collections of the National Museum of Finland looks more like a human being and is fully clothed.

Tõnn had to have a share of every baked bread, every slaughtered animal, etc. Sacrificing to Tõnn, people said: ‘Tõnn, you have the first!’ There are reports of people taking the wafer out of their mouth at communion and bringing it home to Tõnn. In the case of an accident or illness, Tõnn was given copper coins. An important date for bringing offerings to Tõnn was St Anthony’s Day (17 January). An animal was usually slaughtered that day, and three drops of blood were dripped into Tõnn’s box. In some places Tõnn was taken into the stable and held on each animal to secure that the cattle would increase.

Guardian spirits like Tõnn were well known and respected in our folk culture, but whether they had any physical form like Tõnn, is not at all certain.

Estonian folk belief has it that, in addition to the guardian spirits, the world was inhabited by various supernatural beings who lived their hidden lives in nature. Being away from home, in wild nature, man felt himself to be in strange territory. Malevolent spirits mostly appeared in the form of either wolves or snakes, and they could be kept away using spells.

The most popular supernatural being was the devil which was an umbrella term for a large number of supernatural creatures, some of which originated from pre-Christian times. The characteristic features of the devil were its appearance in various different forms and its ability to change forms. The devil also banished the nature spirits mentioned in folk legends. The devil was mostly depicted in two ways: the aggressive devil and the neutral devil. The former constituted a clear danger to humans; the latter did not display any direct hostility towards humans. A third representation of the devil emerged later — the comical devil, the stupid and gullible Old Nick of folk legends.

In Estonian Christian mythology, the devil and the witch worked together: supernatural powers of a human originated from demons who actually helped the human. In Estonian folk belief, the witch was independent, supported by his or her knowledge and natural abilities. Still, the word ‘nõid’ (‘witch’) meant a person who wished ill to others, a malevolent person with certain skills. The word used to denote benevolent healers and protectors from witchcraft was ‘tark’ (‘wise-man or -woman’). Both the witch and the wise-man were not only part of folk beliefs but also of the real-life village community. A popular creature belonging to the sphere of witchcraft was a treasure-bringing goblin (puuk, kratt, pisuhänd), for the making of which precise instructions were known. Such a goblin brought its maker the wealth of others and was dangerous to the neighbours. To keep a treasure-bringing goblin from entering a building, preventive signs had to be made on the openings in the hip, under the ridge of the roof. Stories where a witch himself or herself gathered wealth are more archaic.

Despite the pressure of Christianity, Estonians retained a number of pagan elements in their beliefs. This would indicate in particular that Estonians possessed a certain common sense and were loath to antagonise either old or new deities. Offerings could be brought and help expected from both to favour one's household and cattle, as no one really knew what was happening in that mysterious and dangerous other world.

Details about this article