Tag Archives: Estonia

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).

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.  

Estonian Spitting Superstition

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece: The informant told me that in Estonia, instead of doing something like “knocking on wood” to ward of bad luck or fortune, one would spit over their shoulder three times. It is not an actual spit in the sense that three blobs of saliva have to come out but rather a fake spit where one would make a “phtew” noise with their mouth.

TS: Why do people do this? Like- is their any significance to spitting?

HS: I have no idea.

Interpretation: Having visited Estonia myself and being around many Estonians over my life, I have never heard or noticed this superstition. Interestingly enough, after doing some more research on this superstition I found that their Judaism has a similar superstition where one spits three times for good luck. While I still do not know the exact origin of this superstition, it is definitely safe to assume that the significance of the number three in not only Estonian culture, but even American culture (‘three strikes’ for example) plays a large role in why one would spit three times over their shoulder to ward off bad luck.

Crossing Obstacles on the Same Side When in Groups

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece:

“If you are in a group of people, or even two people, and you come to a post of any kind, you have to cross on the same side so that there will be nothing that comes in between your relationship to splinter the relationship. So it avoids conflict or, y’know, teaches you or makes sure that if you have conflict you resolve it in a way that you stay in a relationship.”

Interpretation: This is essentially a superstition to avoid bad relationships. I have never noticed this when I visited Estonia but I am sure that people were doing this as they were walking down the street. It seems that if a group of people split up to go around some kind of post in the street, whether it be a mail box or stop sign, it reflects a breaking of bond in a sense and a reflection of a dysfunctional relationship. My personal interpretation is that many Estonians likely believe in some kind of bond or energy that unifies groups. If a group splits up to walk around an obstacle, then the group is no longer unified and the group relationship will likely go south. 

‘Kalevipoeg’: Estonian National Tale

Background: My informant, HS, is a 52-year-old professor at USC. She was born and raised in Estonia and moved to the United States when she was twenty. Her mother and father were both physicians in Soviet Estonia. Even though she no longer lives in Estonia, she still stays connected with Estonian tradition through her involvement with the Los Angeles Estonian House and still speaks the Estonian language with family and friends. She also happens to be my mother.

Context: One lunch, during quarantine, I decided to sit down and interview my mother about interesting Estonian folklore she was aware of and has experienced.

Main Piece: “Our national epic, which is Kalevipoeg, which is this huge -y’know- larger than life, obviously oversized peasant. Um, who -y’know- tilled and toiled the earth so the mountains… or the, the hills, the rolling hills, that are in southern Estonia particularly are, like, his fields that he toiled. He was a simple peasant guy who warded off warriors and alien invaders from other lands, because we were always taken over by Germans, Swedes, Danes, and Russians”.

Interpretation: While my mother did not remember many of the more specific plot details of this  Estonian tale, it was clear to me what the significance of the tale is. Being part Estonian, I am very aware of the fact that Estonia has a long history of being conquered and subjugated by more powerful European nations such as the ones mentioned by my mother. The story of Kalevipoeg served as a symbol and a mascot for the Estonian peasantry who were resisting the rule of invaders. It is important to note that the hero of the story is not some kind of king or royal knight who saves the day, it is a simple farmer who fights to protect his land. It is a reflection of Estonian history and folk culture.

Annotation: For another version of this tale, refer to:

Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. Kalevipoeg. JiaHu Books, 2013.