News in brief:

  1. Rethinking Ethnology and Folkloristics:
    a Nordic-Baltic Network for Research Students
  2. The Society of Erzian-Mokshan Friends is established
  3. The Estonian Narratives on Plague on the Borderline of West-European Plague Tradition
    Master's thesis by Reet Hiiemäe, defended in Tartu University on October 4, 1999.

N e w s

Rethinking Ethnology and Folkloristics:
a Nordic-Baltic Network for Research Students

On August 1-8, 1999, the organisation of ethnology and folklore students Tartu Nefa organized the summer seminar «Research strategies and traditions of folkloristics and ethnology in the 1990's» for Baltic and Nordic students and young scholars.


Organizing activities of the summer seminar started already in the beginning of 1998, approximately 1.5 years ago, when Tartu Nefa group decided to discuss the essence, both methodologies and concepts, of these disciplines. The initial aim was to study how and why ethnologic and folkloristic studies are carried out, that is to concentrate on the research process as such. The ideas formulated soon after the annual conference of young researchers held in Estonian Folklore Archives in April 1998 were, for example: How to define the aims of folkloristics and ethnology in contemporary society? Is there any social need dictating the themes and methodologies of research? How does and how can society use the results of the research? How does ethnologists and folklorists influence informants and vice versa? What is the role of ethnologist/folklorist in society? etc. etc.

These questions were quite simple, but at the same time also new and unexplored for the students, as these themes have not been thoroughly discussed in Estonian ethnology and folkloristics. This relative «shortage of knowledge» dictated the form of the project - summer seminar - where the aim was not to present more or less crystallized research results but to start the discussion. Thus, the whole future project was named «summer seminar of research strategies».

Step by step the project grew and since March 1999, it has been integrated to the scholarly network titled «Facing the Third Millennium: Rethinking Ethnology and Folkloristics» supported by the Nordic Grant Scheme for Baltic Countries and North-West Russia (the Nordic Council of Ministers). New network was set up between the folklore departments of Joensuu, Bergen and Tartu universities (professors Seppo Knuuttila, Torunn Selberg, and Ülo Valk) as well as Tartu Nefa group. The last one has actually been the initiator of the network.

Organizers hope that the form of the network enables the students of ethnology and folklore to lead a critical and reflective discussion on the deeper meaning of these fields of study and research methods.

The starting point was also realizing, that ethnography as a method forms a common ground for both ethnology and folkloristics. At the same time, on different historical reasons, there has been a lack of fruitful cooperation in older generations of researchers in Estonia. The project is an attempt to unite these fields for a discussion again and to predict together the future tasks of these disciplines.

Up to recent time the object of the ethnology and folkloristics has been folk culture. In the beginning of this century the informants and donators (who were proud to help to create something), were involved in building the past of a nation, as it was the case of creating the collections of Estonian National Museum, for example. Nowadays we have no more such an heroic task, at least from the point of view of the people studied. We can no longer collect the cultural information from people just in order to create the perfect system of scientific knowledge.

The relationships between researcher and informant has moved far away from the relationship between 'subject' and 'object' and changed slowly on the level of 'subject'-subject'. Those, who have formerly been the researched ones, have been more or less incorporated to the research process as an equal partner. The results should mean or give something to the studied group, as well.

On the other hand, the task of the researcher is to translate the sign system and the message of the culture into the language of his/her own culture. So we can talk about the researcher as a mediator between two cultures or two levels of one culture. The question, growing out from there, is: what qualities should the researcher have/obtain for that? What philosophical background gives the quality, needed?

Almost every author of a research proposal in our fields of study, no matter what the problem or where the field site, claims that the research project will make a contribution to a poorly understood problem. And really, in most cases such claims are perfectly true. Contemporary field of culture is characterized by fast changes. When considering that, what are the possibilites and tasks of scholars then? What is actually the object of ethnology and folklore studies at the next decades?

We outlined just a few topics and processes of interest, listed below:

  • The influence of mass media and new media to modern popular culture (and on the contrary - the influence of folklore on the mass media)
  • The detraditionalization and globalization of culture
  • The vanishing borders between so-called high and folk cultures, which has been noticed during last centuries, but is especially interesting now, in the so-called postliterary society.
  • The fast changes in cultural fenomena and the general fastening of cultural processes

Beside that the work with archived material and our past in general will always be the relevant topic. In which ways can we use the materials in order to obtain a new level of knowledge concerning archive data?

The summer seminar offered nine plenary lectures, which gave also the key concepts for the work carried out in workshops.

In a lecture about methods and strategies of mentalities, professor Seppo Knuuttila from Joensuu, Finland, offered a key or methodology for approaching mentalities. The concept has been treated as unscientific, but it has worked well as a nominalistic one. The study of mentalities needs interdisciplinary approach. Seppo Knuuttila showed, how to follow different paradigms, cultural models, mental equipments, collective conciousness, modal categories etc. in different types of material, collected from the field.

Folklorist David Elton Gay from Bloomington, USA gave the insights to scholarly editing processes in his lecture «Inventing the Folklore Text: Scholarly Editing as a Creative Act». He raised the question, how much can we trust former authors. A famous example is Franz Boas, who collected impressive amount of materials and notes without knowing the local language. We can't forget, that, while trusting previous texts, the main task of a scholar is to make difference between facts and interpretations.

The importance of the summer seminar topics turned out to be also in the fact, that they stressed, how important it is to the scholar to create different relationships with the research topics. We have to be able to acquire different roles and to choose between materials. Norwegian folklorist Torunn Selberg, who studies contemporary folk religion and New Age, choosed to be a neutral outsider, who gives no evaluations to her research object. The person, who is doing «anthropology at home», has to act differently (as it was the case with Finnish ethnologist Helena Ruotsala, who gave the lecture «Fieldwork at Home - Possibilities and Limitations of Native Research»), reflecting the current trends in Sami studies.

Ülo Valk from Tartu, Estonia, gave a lecture «Understanding Folk Religion», where he stressed the importance of using inductive methods by following more closely two cases: a) the historical example, religious movement initiated by the «folk prophet» Tallima Paap in 18. century Estonia, and b) contemporary example of folk religion in India.

Ethnologist Art Leete from Tartu, Estonia, described in his paper «Do the Field Work Methods Exist in Practice?», how the researcher is always in difficulties, when he trys to escape from his own cultural categories and culture-specific ways of interpretation.

Anthropologist Kjell Olsen from Alta, Norway, gave valuable insights to the case when a researcher is dealing with a culture close to his own in a lecture «Neighbours, Students, Informants: Fieldwork As an Attitude or a Lifestyle?». The important topic, raised in his presentation, was the importance of the way, in which researcher enters the culture. He claimed, that the narratives, he is being told by the informants, depend on that.

Folklorist Ulf Palmenfelt (Bergen, Norway) asked in the paper «Constructing Cyberia - Popular Beliefs and the Internet», wether the old culture is still represented in this new medium, or are there going to be significant changes in cultural concepts and different representations of culture. It seems, that until now the basic level of popular culture has not changed, but new technical abilities are incorporated to previous genres and views.

Folklorist Fionnuala Williams from Belfast, Ireland gave a lecture with a heading «Folklore of the Northern Ireland Conflict - Some Forms and Functions». The methods and ground of Fionnuala Williams represent a classical way of doing folklore research, but one of the most important ideas of her lecture was the ability to feel empathy/sympathy towards her or his informants. She stressed, that no matter, how painful the topic was, we cannot use informants as anonymous, neutral sources of information.

In four workshops students discussed their own research projects and research experiences and compared different attitudes. The research process based on qualitative methodology is a very personal process for every scholar and at the same time, the scholars do not write very often about their own experiences and the mistakes, they have made. Reflexivity in general hasn't belonged to our scholarly tradition until recent years. The possibility of discussing the questions in the more free atmosphere of the summer seminar, encouraged the beginners of the field and gave them useful hints for future work.

In the following period the network will be held together by modern communicational devises - the Internet. A web-page (URL: has been created for that purpose, hopefully also the mailing-list will follow it soon. The computer network could help the participants to carry out also some common minor seminars during the project. The organizers decided, that the next bigger gathering and a summer school of the network will take place in the summer of the year 2001 in Joensuu.

Pille Runnel

Photo by Merili Metsvahi 1999.

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The Society of Erzian-Mokshan Friends is established

On the 25th of November was founded the Estonian Society of Erzian-Mokshan Friends in Tartu. The aim of the society is to give support, to study and introduce the Erzian culture and language in Estonia and all over the world. With help from the society, the Erzian and Mokshan languages are going to be taught at Tartu University in the spring semester of 2000.

Rasken Ozks

The idea for establishing the society came from the linguist Toomas Help and was partly inspired by the Finnish Tuglas-Society which has supported Estonian culture for several years. Society of the Erzian-Mokshan Friends has seventeen members from different nations. The head of the society is Indrek Särg. The society can be contacted at the mail address: or Kuperjanovi 16, Tartu, Estonia. The fan-club of the Erzian folklore group «Toorama» was also established this year.

The best known Finno-Ugric nations are Hungarians, Finns and Estonians, the ones that have their own independent national states, while most Finno-Ugric peoples live within the Russian Federation, among them also Erzians and Mokshans. The nations are often referred to in unison as Mordovians, which the people find inappropriate. There are altogether 1.15 million Erzians and Mokshans, most of them living in the Mordovian Republic where they make up 36 % of the population, while about 700 000 Erzians live in the large diaspora from Nizhni Novgorod to Orenburg.

After long-term Russian influences the Erzians and Mokshans have problems maintaining and developing their native language and culture. In reaction to cultural assimilation, a movement of national awareness has emerged.

In such a critical situation it is important for the Erzians and Mokshans to know and feel that their have kin nations to back them. Estonians have cultivated numerous direct connections with Erzian-Mokshans in the recent years. One of the leaders of the national movement, Jowlanj Olo (Vladimir Romashkin) is also the leader of the Erzian-Mokshan folklore ensemble «Toorama». During the last year Estonian language and literature have been taught in Mordovian University (lecturer Indrek Särg).

Taive Särg

PS. Estonian Language Institute, Estonian National Museum, Estonian Folklore Archives and P. Ariste's Center of Native Nations are preparing multilingual interactive www-pages «Mordvinian Ethnology, Folklore and Mythology»


On the 17th of July, the popular ritual Rasken Ozks ('People Prayer' or 'National Prayer') was celebratated in Chukaly village, Mordvinia. Photo by Indrek Särg, 1999.

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The Estonian Narratives on Plague on the Borderline of West-European Plague Tradition

Master's thesis by Reet Hiiemäe, defended in Tartu University on October 4, 1999.


As the title suggests, the thesis focuses on relating the narratives of plague in Estonia to the West-European plague tradition. It aims to search for explanations to the issues concerning the purpose and formation of religious (mythological) concepts. Apart from observing its religious-phenomenological aspect, the work emphasises on determining the degree of cultural contact. In the course of analysis we will find out why some mythological concepts prevalent in the West-European tradition are known also in Estonia, while others are virtually unknown, what has conditioned the points of emphasis, which changes did the religious concepts undergo during the periods of plague, and how has people's mentality changed during the progress in science.

The work is based on both printed documents and manuscripts. The source material about the Estonian tradition consists of nearly 1,300 legends and reports published in the collection entitled Eesti Katkupärimus [«The Estonian Narratives on Plague»] (Hiiemäe 1997). Most of the published texts of Estonian legends is available in the folklore collections in the Estonian Folklore Archives. A considerably smaller part of the used material was reproduced from the folklore and dialect collections of the Estonian Language Institute. Several original 16th - 18th century printed documents (treatises on plague, regulations on personal hygiene, medical notes) proved useful in drawing parallels with the West-European tradition. The selection of West-European legends has mostly been taken from legend collections.

As the analysis reveals, most of the plague narratives centred around the issue of survival, whereas the choice of preventive measures varied in regions. The West-European plague literature as well as the legends introduce a number of assumptions on the nature, origin and the cause of the disease. Compared to the larger European medical centres in the time of plague, Estonia remained in the periphery, and its population not familiar with printed word remained virtually unaffected by the literary plague tradition. Similarly, populace never really understood the message of mostly foreign language sermons pronouncing that plague was God's punishment to people. Therefore, the Estonian plague tradition differs from the West-European one in its spontaneity, its affinity to people, and detachment from literature. At the same time, the West-European plague tradition could be characterised by its affectedness by literature, advocating organised preventive activities, officially directed treatment and protective measures; the theological explanations apparently reached the people more directly, too.

A statement about plague formulated by the best-known European doctors played a significant role in the tradition. Compendium de epidemia was published in Paris in 1348 and contained several medical recommendations, such as phlebotomy, a diet of sour food, etc. One of the important arguments was that plague was caused by the unfavourable grouping of stars which emitted toxic plague effluvia (or miasmata).These ideas exerted influence on both the oral as well as written European plague tradition over many centuries and gave a specific nuance to the concepts about the Plague Spirit. There is no evidence that the theory of miasmata had had any effect on the Estonian legends.

The folk tradition of the countries which were affected by the theological theory (plague as the punishment of God) contains numerous legends of how plague had disappeared after a church was erect or the saints called for help. In the Middle Ages 68 saints were known in western Europe, no wonder that they figure in the legends; whereas the cult of saints associated to plague was practically unknown in the Estonian tradition. Here the conception of the Plague Spirit, who was more accessible and who could be chased off with smart moves, proved much clearer and more particular.

Comparing the tradition related to the Plague Spirit, only Estonian tradition contains texts about the breaking of plague carriage symbolising the disappearance of the disease, whereas the image of plague on a vehicle occurs in West-European legends fairly often. Another popular motif in the European tradition is that the Plague Spirit passed its judgement on people's life and death depending on whether the person's name appears in its death list or not. It would be beyond Plague's powers to change that, the only thing it could do was to let its victims suffer less. The area of distribution where the motif of guaranteeing a painless death was known covers the Baltic states on the one hand and the Scandinavian countries on the other, even though the plague book with the list of victims' names has appeared also in the tradition of other West-European peoples.

One of the most characteristic features in the West-European tradition of preventing the Plague Spirit is that plague was not considered omnipotent. In Estonia, people used to actively fight the disease, trying to drive it away or destroy it, while, say, the East-Slavonians regarded the disease as a deserved punishment of God, which would be pointless to fight against. Fighting the Plague Spirit, universal magic preventive measures (e.g. confinement, charms) were used in the whole Europe; still, in Estonia people used numerous measures, elaborated specifically against the plague, which were not known among other peoples. While in western Europe staying awake at nights was a must at the times of plague, the Estonian tradition introduces a whole set of protective measures for sleeping, the most well-known of them would be a recommendation to sleep feet and heads alternately. Estonian tradition is also unique in its discourse with the Spirit, which is solved by driving the disease away with witty remarks. The Estonian legends introduce more radical methods as well, one of them being the killing of plague. This characteristic is rather exceptional as compared to the tradition of other peoples, as, in general, ridding of the Plague Spirit by slaughtering is very rare in the European tradition. At the same time, the Estonian tradition almost lacks sacrifice for the prevention of plague, while in several neighbouring countries (first and foremost in Finland, the Scandinavian countries, but also Germany) it plays a significant role.

Several curative methods have acquired a touch of magic, for instance, the escape from infected places meant literally running away from the Plague Spirit, or, it was the Spirit itself who suggested to move away from others. At the same time, in Estonia the symptoms of the disease are explained by the uncanny, and the Plague Spirit was considered directly responsible for the buboes, or the plague spots (struck or touched by the Plague Boy). In the West-European countries, say, in Germany the concept of the Plague Spirit and medicine stand more separately, so here we are rather concerned with the joint action of medical and theological explanations.

It is important that we make the difference between the mythological Plague Spirit, the Harbinger of Plague and the Spreader of Plague, who all foreshadowed the approach of the disease in legends, but all of them have a different status. The Spreader of Plague was not considered supernatural as the disease was intentionally spread by polluting the wells, or some other way. In many West-European countries the concept of the Spreader of Plague acquired a religious meaning and triggered a hysterical pursuit of the culprits. The guilt was tried to lay on the Jews and other minority groups. In the Estonian legends the concept of the Spreader of Plague occurs fairly often, but in reality the pursuit of the spreaders never became too intense.

The legends describing the period after the plague could be characterised by the scarcity of supernatural matter. As the disease had disappeared, the Spirit and the mythological concepts connected to it were no longer topical. The legends focus on the historical aspect, and could be characterised by references to certain regions, farms and persons.

Reet Hiiemäe in Nepal. October, 1999, a few days after the defending. Photo by Toomas Uri.

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