Sources of influences

Estonia has stood on the cultural dividing line between Eastern and Western Europe for centuries, one could even say for millennia. The impact that such a position has had on the characteristic features of the folk culture is tremendous. The Estonian cultural scene can be characterised by a multitude of peculiarities, the origins of which date back to the very distant past. In order to understand Estonian folk culture, it has to be recognised that this is a highly complicated and multilayered way of existence of a small nation who used to belong to the lower social status in its own country.

An Estonian’s spiritual world was contradictory as well. It contained Christian and pagan characters, and it was necessary to get on well with both.

The most noticeable differences exist between Western, Northern and Southern Estonia; the emergence and development of those differences have been influenced by the natural conditions. Estonia is predominantly a low country but, as far as economic activities are concerned, it can clearly be divided in two: Highlands and Lowlands. Higher regions in Central and Eastern Estonia are a part of the Highlands, where the soil is rather fertile and where the population has for a long time been much denser than in the Lowlands. In the Highlands people were farmers in the proper sense of the word, and only on the coast of Lake Peipsi in the East were there some fishermen and people of other occupations. For the purposes of folk culture, we can divide The Highlands and their surroundings into two sub-regions: Northern Estonia and Southern Estonia. The area of the Southern Estonian dialect formed the nucleus of Southern Estonia suggesting that the cultural differences date back to prehistoric times. There is a wide transitional area between the Highlands and the Lowlands reaching from Tallinn to Pärnu. This area coincides geographically with a belt of forests and swamps running in the same direction.

However, contacts with one's neighbours are more important than the natural environment where the emergence of new cultural spheres is concerned. The islands and the coastal regions formed a certain boundary stopping the Scandinavian influences from penetrating further into the mainland.

As far as folk culture is concerned, Northern Estonia has for a long time been far more open than Southern Estonia to various innovations. Northern Estonia was centred around Tallinn — an important commercial port — and from the 18th century onward the influences of the rapidly developing St Petersburg were increasing. Another significant influence was the traditional connection of the coastal villages with the Finnish coastal areas through the so-called 'friend barter'. On the other hand, in Riga, Southern Estonia was always considered a distant province of Livonia where people spoke an alien language.

Besides large and culturally fairly homogeneous areas there are a number of small regions with a very specific character of their own. The most distinctive region is Setumaa which is located in southeastern Estonia and was separated from the rest of Estonia for long periods of time, thus developing a culture of their own with strong Russian influences; this culture has to a certain extent survived up to today. Another peculiar area was Mulgimaa, the central part of the former Sakala county. In this region many things, such as patterns dating back to the Middle Ages, sacrificial gardens, were preserved for a long time. Some of the ancient dishes originating from this region (e.g. Mulgi cabbage, curd cakes, and kama – roast mixed grains) have become popular all over Estonia.

However, despite the regional differences, there existed also the unifying features of the ancient Estonian folk culture that were common to the entire country. The most distinctive among such common features were the runo songs, the barn-dwelling as the most typical farmhouse, and soft fermented black bread. Other common features included the traditional ways of celebrating weddings and the Yuletide, counting the sowing weeks, and the tradition of the ‘souls' visiting time’.

Historically speaking, there have been three very clearly distinguishable periods of radical changes in our folk culture. The first period started in the 13th century with the German conquest and brought along the Catholic faith, a class society, and an urban culture. Despite numerous influences, Estonians kept their traditional ways of living and the old ways of thinking for a long time.

The second turning point was the Reformation. An Estonian language liturgy provided the background against which Estonian language printing and Estonian schools could emerge. Literacy started spreading among the people. All these factors contributed to the gradual disintegration of the old oral and musical traditions and to the formation of new beliefs. These processes were gradual and the changes became firmly rooted only at the end of the 18th century.

Radical changes in the folk culture occurred during the second half of the 19th century and were connected with buying land for freeholds in the 1860s. Increasing numbers of peasants moved to towns in order to study or work. The Estonian peasant society with its ancient traditions was becoming more and more modern. Many innovations that had been introduced at the beginning of the century became prevalent. Being farm owners gave people a feeling of security and was a boost to their self-esteem.

In the history of Estonian folk culture, the mutual influence of high and popular cultures have to be pointed out. The mediators here were the church and monasteries and also manor houses and towns.

Estonians have always managed to avoid sharp conflicts in their material and spiritual culture — they combined the ancient and customary with the new and alien. Better contacts with the church were achieved by adjusting religious holidays with the work rhythm in the fields, also by the commercial activity of the peasants at the markets and fairs organised by the church and the monasteries. The churches built after the conquest used local work force. The mutual impacts of sacral art and folk art are reflected for example in the figures of Estonian peasants depicted in the sculptures in Saaremaa.

There are many features in our ornamental art that do not exist in the archaeological materials and are therefore clearly ecclesiastical in their origin. The most common example of such features is the vine ornament on the wooden items. As the vine plant was not familiar to Estonians, they sometimes replaced vine leaves with the leaves of local strawberry plants. The eight-pointed star that has been considered to be part and parcel of our folk art is actually of the same origin.

The importance of towns in introducing high culture was at least as great if not greater. The impact of city culture is especially obvious in women’s clothing: in North Estonia, floral sleeves and coifs, pot-shaped caps and striped skirts spread widely. At the same time the upper classes wanted to prevent the elements of high culture from spreading among the lower classes. This becomes evident when we look at the prohibitions and rules that were issued in the 17th and 18th centuries in order to set some dress standards. According to documents of the Viru-Järva manorial court from 1660–1661, proceedings were brought against a peasant woman for using silk embroidery unsuitable for her position.

Although towns were important cultural mediators, the role of manors cannot be neglected either. The estate servants and those free peasants who worked on the manors as weavers, carpenters or other craftsmen helped to spread various features of high culture among the peasants. In the 18th century landlords started to send young peasants to study handicrafts in towns. After the peasants had returned they did not work only for the landlord but also for the local people. In this way the new patterns and fashions reached the countryside quite quickly. Considering the vast number of manors in Estonia and the fact that the peasants did not walk around blindfolded, it is only natural that the manors were a major influence.

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