Children’s Folk Tales in Estonia

Background: The informant is a 48-year-old woman who was born in Estonia and immigrated to the United States, and currently lives in California. She still participates in Estonian traditions by attending the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community located in Los Angeles.

Context: The folklore was collected during a scheduled zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who currently live in Los Angeles and who are close friends.

Main Piece: “A huge part of my growing up was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’ and in the Soviet Union we had the series ‘Saia rahva lood’ or ‘tales of a hundred nations’, I read them, we enjoyed them very much. But what the Estonians had was ‘Eesti ennemuistsed jutud’, Estonian ancient tales, and one very big part of it was a farmer called ‘Kaval Ants’ fighting an evil called ‘Vanapagan’. It’s not called Satan, but it’s, you know the one who came from down. And this witty farmer, poor witty farmer always outsmarted the evil ‘Vanapagan’. ‘Vanapagan’ is ‘old pagan’ but it actually means ‘devil’. So ‘Kaval Ants’ and ‘Vanapagan’, those are the tales of my childhood, we read them and it’s a big thick book of Estonian fairy tales, where always this poor boy or poor girl was working, slaving for a master and at the end he or she got justice. Not always, Estonian fairy tales are not always very happy endings, but not as grim as you may think. And many tales had animals, like instead of people. Usually there were foxes and wolves, and the foxes outsmarted them.”

Interpretation: The first thing that caught my attention was the distinction the informant made between Estonian folk tales and the more “official” stories that the Soviet authorities used that were called ‘Saia rahva lood’. While the informant did not go into too much detail about the narrative and plot points of these tales, many of the common themes in Estonian folk tales are made very clear here. Furthermore, this serves as further evidence that Estonian tales are completely different from what was seen in the more Western nations. Many tales from the West center around royalty and fantasy, whereas Estonian tales are very grounded and have a peasanty humbleness to them. The characters are often farmers or animals and they have to use their wits, not sheer strength, to outsmart their opponents. Another thing that really caught my eye was how ‘old pagan’ is synonymous with the devil in the tale of Kaval Ants. This provides some interesting insight into the more religious realm of Estonian culture and how pagans were seen as devils and evil doers in the eyes of the Orthodox Christian Estonians. There is a lot of interesting history surrounding Estonian religion that ties to many of the themes seen in these tales.

For another version of this tale read:

Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. Eesti rahva ennemuistsed jutud. Avita, 1996 (first published 1866).