Estonian Riddles

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: “When we grew it was always: ‘Mõista, mõista, mis see on’. Like here (referring to California) it’s like knock-knock jokes. Like here its ‘Knock, knock, who’s there’, but in Estonia its ‘Mõista, mõista, mis see on’. It means ‘Guess, guess, what it is’.”

Estonian Riddles:

  • Mõista, mõista, mis see on. Talumees viskab maha, saks paneb tasku.
    • Transliterated Riddle:
      • Mõista: Guess
      • Mis: What
      • See: It
      • On: is
      • Talumees: Farmer
      • Viskab: Throw
      • Maha: Down
      • Saks: Noble Man
      • Paneb: Put
      • Tasku: In pocket
    • Translated Riddle: Guess, guess, what it is. The farmer throws it down, the noble man puts it in his pocket.

Answer: Tatt

  • Translated Answer: Snot

Explanation: The farmer blows his nose and the snot falls onto the ground, whereas the noble man blows his nose into a nice white rag and puts it back into his pocket.

  • Mõista, mõista, mis see on. Kui kummuli, siis täis. Kui püsti, siis tühi.
    • Transliterated Riddle:
      • Kui: If
      • Kummuli: Upside down
      • Siis: Then
      • Täis: Full
      • Püsti: Upright
      • Tühi: Empty
    • Translated Riddle: Guess, guess, what it is. If upside down, then full. If upright, then empty.

Answer: Müts

  • Translated Answer: Hat

Explanation: When upside down on someone’s head, a hat is full of hair. But when upright, there is nothing inside of the hat.

Interpretation: It was very interesting to me that instead of telling things like knock-knock jokes, children in Estonia tell riddles and try to guess what the riddle is describing. The riddles are very simple and to the point. They are not overly elaborate or complex, they are simple yet still slightly difficult to get correctly on a first guess. I know I couldn’t guess correctly when told these riddles. However, even within these riddles you can see aspects of Estonian culture shining through. For example, in the first riddle the transliteration of the word ‘saks’ is noble man or squire. Estonian history deals much with foreign invasions. Many of these people were Saxons who invaded Estonian lands and proceeded to enslave and subjugate Estonian peasants. My hunch is that the word for nobleman, ‘saks’, is directly correlated to the Saxons who invaded Estonian lands and exerted dominance over the Estonian people, as native Estonians were rarely members of the upper classes, it was always the invaders (often Saxons) who comprised the upper classes.