RELATIONS BETWEEN THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
IN ESTONIAN FOLK RELIGION
The relations between the living and the dead could be divided into the
normal (i.e. accepted by the tradition) and the abnormal ones (i.e. condemned
by the tradition).
The first group of them included the customs associated with the ancestral cult
expressed in the observance of the so-called souls' time. Estonians kept the
time of visiting soul's in autumn, depending on the region during the period
from Michaelmas to Christmas. To be more exact: either round Michaelmas
(September 29), before Martinmas (November 10), between Martinmas and St.
Catherine's Day (November 25) or before Christmas (Loorits 1957: l84-204;
Hiiemäe 1995: 124-129). The dead ancestors were anticipated to visit
their former farmstead during souls' time. Thus, in the threshing-room there
was laid the table for the souls or they were taken some food in a bowl to
the loft or some farmstead building. It was done on one or several evenings.
The proper treatment of the ancestors was believed to have a good influence
on the destiny of the living. There is even a proverb, "Whose souls are
hungry, theirs fields are poorly" (Tarvastu parish) (EV 1980: no. 1282).
This does not indicate, however, to an application for the active support from
the part of the deseased but rather it tries to avoid any possible damage.
The people of the South-East Estonia, the Setus, who unlike the Estonian
Lutheran majority, are Orthodox, thought the dead soul to wander about its
homestead during the six weeks after the person's death. They also were and
are still practicing the commemoration feasts on the graves of the dead on
certain fixed dates (six weeks, half a year, a year, three years) after the
death of the person as well as on some calendar holidays.
According to the beliefs the dead could come home also outside the
traditionally prescribed period. It was considered to be a token of a
violation of a norm either by the dead during his/her lifetime or by the
living. Such a dead was called kodukäija (=home-wanderer,
At the latest, the souls' time was ceased to be celebrated at the beginning
of the present century, the legends and especially the memorates about the
revenant, however, are retold also at present. The situation is reflected in
file of the
Estonian Folklore Archives, the centre containing the
majority of the Estonian folklore collections, in the following way: there
are over seven times more material concerning the revenant than that
concerning the souls' time. Hereby mention should be made that extensive
collecting of the Estonian folklore was initiated in the last quarter of the
L. Simonsuuri divides in his type and motif list of Finnish belief legends the
revenants into the groups of the guilty, the innocent and the others
(Simonsuuri 1961). J. Pentikäinen in his turn distinguishes among the
innocent revenants the solicitous, the avengers and the dissatisfied
(Pentikäinen 1968: 64). Thus, in order to understand why a revenant was
assumed to behave in a particular way as well as what the living are supposed
to do in order to avoid or stop home-wandering, one has to consider the causes
of home-wandering. The present paper will try to present the
possible causes in a schematic way. The scheme is based on
three groups of
(The arrows symbolize the direction of impact or action; the opposite arrows
(> <) denote reciprocal relations between the living and the dead.)
1. Personal attributes of the dead, its social position and relations with
the other people at one's life time.
The persons of spiteful on envious character and those who were thought to
be witches were feared because of their possible homewandering. As the
majority of the material represents village society, the tendency towards
home-wandering was ascribed to the persons differing from average peasant:
old bachelors and spinsters, the poor of the community but also the
especially rich, the landlords and the members of their families. It was
also believed that home-wandering may be caused by unfulfilled duties, care,
worry, hatered and love while they could be felt by the dead towards the
living but also by the living towards the dead. Familiar are the warning
legends which admonish to keep from the excessive weeping for the dead.
2. Sudden, accidental or violent death.
Actually the causes mentioned here can be reduced to the third reason:
3. The lack or deficiency of the rite of passage.
The final rite of passage of human life which was to take a person from the
status of the living into the status of the dead took its course already
while preparing the dying for death by keeping guard at the person - dying
alone was thought to be a very bad in its essence -, by the appropriate
behaviour at the moment of death and it was later continued with the
traditional treatment of the corpse (washing, clothing, keeping guard again,
etc.). In case with sudden, accidental or violent death a part of the
components of the rite of passage (or in case the corpse was not found - all
of them) remained unfulfilled. With a violent death there could be an
additional motif of revenge or the necessity to find the criminal.
An important part of the rite of passage was the funeral and the funeral
feast. It was necessary to conduct them as the custom prescribed but the
wishes of the deseased were to be considered as well. Mistakes made hereby
could cause home-wandering.
Not every revenant narrative reveals the cause of home-wandering. It may be
that the informant wonders why the person, so nice while living, took after
his/her death to home-wandering.
All the three groups of causes lead to two results (although by different
ways) and namely: (1) incomplete relationship with the word of the living
and (2) dissatisfaction with the situation after death.
Revenant's attitude towards the living can be either benevolent, neutral or
Caring revenant is met only in the narrow circle of legends and memorates.
Actually here belong only the narratives about the parents who worry about
their children or the family left behind. There are also a few memorates
about the worried father ("I came to have a look how our mother with her
numerous children can manage!" (ERA II 169, 66/7 (149) <Vändra,
1937)) or about the father giving advice to his son and being, to tell the
truth, annoyed by the fact that his son wastes money on lawyer although the
justice is on his side anyhow (ERA II 166, 55/6 (37) < Jõhvi <
Lüganuse, 1937). The best-known legend type is that about the dead
mother who still comes to take care of her baby (met also at the Finns
(Simonsuuri C 411)). The contacts with the deceased, however, are not
always harmless. For example, in one legend the dead mother promises to take
her sick child with her because the father does not take good care of the
child. The child dies. (ERA II 138, 576/7 (67) < Tartu l. < Hargla,
Familiar are also the legends and memorates where the dead husband visits
his wife. While in the internationally spread legend types (J C 418, J C 479)
the husband turns out to be the devil, in the local legends and memorates
this cannot be avered.
Neutral revenant appears most frequently either at home or its surroundings
as a visual, auditory or tactile being or phenomenon. Sometimes the
homewandering of the dead is deduced from the indirect signs (traces or lost
things) or from the behaviour of the animals.
The appearance of the dead at home is caused by dissatisfaction with the
post-death situation. This may be due to the unpleasant neighbour at the
graveyard, bad place of burial, etc. The dead may appear also in dreams and
tell the seer the reasons for his dissatisfaction. Another cause for
dissatisfaction may be the bad character of the dead itself. In the legend
(S C 376) the dead mistress comes home to eat the pigs' fodder because while
living she had been stingy and given nothing for the beggars and now she
herself has got nothing to eat.
Attachment to one's property or the life-long activity, the dead has not
got rid of after the death, may force it to return home to look for or to
move one's things (J C 434), to clatter with tools, to call the animals.
The living become aware of the dead person's presence in those cases mostly
by auditory, seldom by visual perceptions.
Even if the dead's activities are not wilfully directed against the living,
it usually disturbs the latter (noise, moving of things, etc.). But the
homewandering may result also in economic damage. Especially if the dead
is resentful towards the living. In the legend the dead mistress calls her
cow at night and the milking of the cows is being heard. At the result of
this the cows fall ill one after another and die. It is all because the
children did not have the heart to slaughter for their mother's funeral
the best milk cow as she had wished (H I 10, 245 (5) < Vastseliina ).
Therefore the belief accounts and the legends warn us that the wish of the
dying has to be fulfilled: if he/she is not given what he/she has asked for
and what belongs to him/her, he/she will come and take it himself. The
mistakes made by the living at the funeral, the debt owed to the dead or
bad relations with the relatives or the neighbours may cause the revenant
to accuse the living, to demand the debt back, to attack people, to strangle
them. There are memorates and local legends as well as legends of fixed type
spread widely about the aggressive dead. The latter include the legends about
the dead who becomes active before the funerals already: attacs the
vigil-keeper (S C 101, J C 112), or the undertaker on the way to graveyard
(Aa S 3, S C 231) but also after the funerals: the dead girl rises from the
grave to look for the hidden farm-hand (Aa S 8), the dead landlord comes home
to torture the animals and his wife (Aa S 6), the dead leaves the grave to put
the bridal couple in their wedding to death (Aa S 7), the dead or the devil
fights with a wayfarer in the moonlight - wins the one who manages to turn
to the moon so that his shadow falls on his adversary (Aa S 35). One has to
admit that those established legends do not reflect usually contemporary
Known are also local legends where the dead is met as a nightmare, it
tortures, pesters or threatens somebody, attacks some person.
Agressive behaviour of the dead may cause a person's illness or death.
However, the dead of the blood-thirsty vampire type are not met in Estonia.
Alongside with the so-called constant revenants there are accounts about a
single appearance of a person after his death.
Depending on the behaviour of the home-wanderer the family may accept the
revenant quite favourably. It has been said that people got used to the
revenant and finally the home-wandering came to an end.
Still, the numerous descriptions of the preventive measures taken to avoid
home-wandering show that there were sought possibilities to do away with the
practice. When there were some reasons to suspect later home-wandering, there
were taken steps against it already during the funeral.
If possible, the cause for homewandering was tried to remove. For the dead
to find peace prayers were read at church, the pastor was asked to bless the
grave once more or the burial words read once again at the grave. When the
cause was considered to lie in the poor funeral feast, an animal was
slaughtered (it can be considered also an offering for the dead to reconcile
him) and a new commemoration feast was held. Donations for the beggars served
the same end. But the donations for the beggars could also compensate for the
life-long stinginess of the dead (S C 376).
The methods of revenant prevention as well as the means for getting rid of the
revenant can be divided into six functional groups (Viluoja l992).
1. Ending the contact between the deceased and his former environment.
It was aimed already at the rite of separation. If the dead still happened
to come home , the clothes or some other things belonging to him were taken
at some place of the way to graveyard or to the grave, hoping that the dead
would not pass the thing.
2. The deprivation of the deseased of his alleged ability to move (special
way of clothing, binding of his limbs or crippling of the corpse).
3. Misleading of the dead: the footprints of the mourners were swept, way to
the graveyard or back was made very complicated, the coffin was turned about
or taken round some object (stone, juniper, grave).
4. Creating barriers between the living and the dead as the threshold, gate,
cross-road being magically secured with the sign of the cross, knife, metal,
salt or linen seeds or in some other way. After the dead were thrown some
things or substances hoping that they would hinder the returning dead; the
dead was taken over a river or fence because according to the belief the
revenant cannot pass these barriers.
5. The shutting of the dead into the coffin or grave (the grave was signified
by preventive signs, or magically preventive substances or things were thrown
into the grave; with the left foot there was knocked at the coffin or the
grave; the dead was buried with its face downwards).
6. The destroying of the revenant which was performed at the supposed
encounter with him.
The revenant was advised to be beaten with a stick of rowan or juniper
or with a whip with 9 knots in it and with sharp instruments. The revenant
was shot at with silver bullet or some other small silver item as well as
with quicksilver. To destroy a revenant it was advised to shoot a silver
bullet into the north wind or quicksilver into the east wind (ERA II 21,
336 (31) < Häädemeeste).
For self-defence one could check the revenant by a sign of the cross or
by spitting (E, StK 36, 7/8 (9) < Võnnu, 1926). (Spit as the
place where the vital energy is stored has been treated , for instance,
by Oskar Loorits in l932.) One could also recite the Lord's Prayer which
was done 3 times or backwards, call the Lord's name or curse the revenant
to the wolves (mentioned in the belief accounts, memorates as well as
legends). Wolves or the dogs of St. George were considered fatal to the
revenant like the lightning. Certain protection from the revenant was also
expected of a dog, especially of the so-called four-eyed (brown sports above
the eyes) dog. The activity of the revenant was cut off for the time by a
In revenant prevention the arts are often complemented with word magic
The current article is based on a paper presented at IAHR 1990 Regional
Conference on Circumpolar and Northern Religion, held in Helsinki, Finland,
May 13 - 19, l990.
ERA = Folklore collection of the Estonian Folklore Archives (1927 - l944).
E, StK = Folklore collection of the Estonian Students' Society ( l921-l927)
H = Folklore collection of J. Hurt (l860 - 1906).
Aa S = Aarne, Antti 1918. Estnische Märchen- und Sagenvarianten.
FF Communications No. 25. Hamina.
EV 1980 = Eesti vanasõnad. I. Edited by Arvo Krikmann and
Ingrid Sarv. Monumenta Estoniae Antiquae III. Tallinn.
Hiiemäe, Mall 1995. Souls' Visiting Time in the Estonian Folk
Calendar. Folk Belief Today. Edited by Mare Kõiva and Kai
Vassiljeva, pp. 124 - 129. Tartu.
J = Jauhiainen, Marjatta 1972. Täydennyksiä
uskomustarinoiden tyyppiluetteloon. Beiträge zur Lauri Simonsuuri
Typen- und Motivverzeichnis der finnischen mythischen Sagen. Helsinki.
Loorits, Oskar1932. Eesti rahvausundi maailmavaade. Tartu.
Loorits, Oskar l957. Grundzüge des estnischen Volksglaubens.
III. Skrifter utgivna av Kungl. Gustav Adolfs Akademien för
folklivsforskning 18: 3. Lund.
Pentikäinen, Juha l968. The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition. Nordic
Dead-Child Beings. A Study in Comparative Religion. FF Communications No.
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mythischen Sagen. FF Communications No. 182. Helsinki.
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