Mäetagused vol. 67


Material peasant culture in Virumaa in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries

Edgar Saar

Keywords: clothing, farm buildings, food, sources of livelihood, trading, Virumaa

In the 19th century, the most widely spread village type was cluster village; yet row, chain, circle, and street villages also occurred. For centuries, peasants lived in the barn-dwelling, which was comprised of the threshing room, threshing floor, and one or several chambers. In the north-Estonian type of barn-dwelling the threshing room was higher and narrower than the threshing floor. The limestone stove was near the chambers. In the threshing room the longitudinal beams were crossed by poles, which were used for drying the threshed grain in the autumn. The threshing room had simple furnishings: beds, a table, a few benches and stools. Babies slept in cradles. As outbuildings the farmyard featured a summer kitchen, a sauna, a storehouse, and a cellar, sometimes also a smithy. Water came from a well.

The main source of subsistence for Virumaa people was agriculture. They grew rye, barley, wheat, oats, as well as peas, beans, lentils, turnips, cabbages, and swedes. In the first quarter of the 19th century, potatoes were grown in the vegetable plot but in the next quarter they were already planted in fields. In the last decades of the century, potato growing became more extensive. Manure was used as fertiliser in the fields. Forked plough and harrow were the tools for tilling the land, and grain was sown by hand from the seed-basket. Most of the grain was cut with the sickle but summer crops were also cut with a scythe.

Cows, horses, pigs, and chicken were grown as domestic animals. In the wintertime the main means of transport was a sledge, in the summertime a wagon. People in the area of Lake Peipus and in coastal areas were engaged in fishing. Game hunting was of negligible importance; the main region where it was practised was the forests in Alutaguse.

For centuries peasants sold their produce in towns, exchanged it or bought necessary products there. Fairs were important in peasant trading, and peddlers used to travel from village to village. Until the last quarter of the 19th century the number of village stores was rather small.

The most important foodstuff for peasants was rye bread. Everyday diet included also porridges, gruels, and soups. Meat was rare but salted Baltic herring was frequent on the table. Small beer was a regular drink, on festive occasions people also drank beer.

Men used to do woodwork, but they also tanned hides, made peasant shoes, ropes, and tar, and, to a lesser extent, also did blacksmithing. Women’s main handicraft was making textiles. Wool and flax were spun into yarn and thread, which were used in weaving fabrics. Clothing for both men and women was made at home, as were also gloves, stockings, and socks.

In the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries many changes occurred in folk culture: chimneys and wooden floors appeared in dwelling-houses, iron ploughs and harrows were taken into use, as well as hay and grain harvesters and threshing machines. Household and clothing items started to be bought.

Virumaa is part of northern Estonian folk culture area, which is characterised by the northern Estonian type of barn-dwelling, forked plough, women’s skirts with vertical stripes, midriff blouses, and pot-shaped caps. Virumaa has been under the influence from the east, especially its eastern part (Votic, Izhorian, Russian impact). Yet, the material culture in the coastal areas of northern Virumaa has been influenced by close contacts with the Finns.

Folk songs and folk music in Virumaa

Ingrid Rüütel

Keywords: folk song, performance traditions, Virumaa

The article discusses folk songs in Virumaa region, starting from their earliest forms until today. Like Estonian folk songs in general, folk songs in Virumaa are also divided into two main historic-stylistic layers: the ancient or runo verse (in Finland usually called Kalevala-metric or runosong) and the newer or end-rhymed folk songs. The former is a unique cultural phenomenon, the poetic-musical style of which is known only at Baltic-Finnic peoples, whereas the latter, by their form and music, are close to the folk songs of European peoples in the past few centuries. Between the two, there is a smaller group of so-called transitional folk songs.

Virumaa region is part of the northern Estonian linguistic and cultural area, which also covers western Estonia and the islands, and which can be regarded as the cradle of ancient classical Estonian culture. This was the region of the earliest permanent farming as well as transfer to cultivating economy, which brought about sedentary settlement, the formation of the oldest Estonian villages and patriarchal extended family. It was probably here that in the last millennium B.C. – in the later development stage of the Proto-Baltic-Finnic language – the (Kalevala-metric) runo verse folk song was born, which spread all over Estonia and also to other Baltic-Finnic peoples. The oldest types of Estonian runosong (regilaul) are thought to have emerged in northern Estonia.

Connection with the historical tradition of the region has persisted until today. In recent years the creation of new modern runosongs has gained impetus. Although the purity of form often leaves to be desired, they are a living proof of the vitality of the runo verse.

Folk instruments in Virumaa

Igor Tõnurist

Keywords: aerophones, chordophones, folk instruments, idiophones, Iisaku poluvertsiks, membranophones, Virumaa

The article gives an overview of the traditional musical instruments and sound making devices of Estonian peasants in historical Virumaa, as well as their usage on the basis of data collected mainly in the 19th–20th centuries.

Folk instrument playing culture in Virumaa region is part of the common north-Estonian folk music area, which covers Harju, Järva, and Viru counties. Undoubtedly, the idiosyncrasy of folk music in this area has mainly been shaped by the northern Estonian regilaul (runosong); yet, the relatively similar choice of traditional musical instruments is also characteristic. Local peculiarities of Virumaa stand out only in the case of a few phenomena, such as piibar (a flute-like whistle made of willow bark) and names for the newer type of psaltery (simmel/tsimmel/simbel). In the choice of instruments, their names, and repertoire the so-called Iisaku poluvertsiks’ (Lutheran Russians) local folk instrument playing tradition can be distinguished, which mixes Russian and Estonian phenomena (incl., e.g., names of instruments: psaltery – kusli, jew’s harp – vargan, willow whistle – dutka, drum – puuben). Russian villages on the northern coast of Lake Peipus and along the Narva River had their own explicit ethnic playing tradition. The northern coast of Virumaa had some common features also with Finnish folk instrument and folk dance traditions (influence in the repertoire of dance music, violin-playing, etc.), while at the lower course of the Narva River contacts occurred with local Izhorian herdsmen and their instruments (e.g. large herdsman’s trumpet truba)

Folk music instruments in Virumaa can be divided by their sound-making mode into wind instruments (e.g. clarinet-type and trumpet-type aerophones), string instruments (chordophones), idiophones, and membranophones.

The article approaches folk instruments in Virumaa on the basis of their main building indicators as well as spheres of usage, and their mentions in oral folklore.

Calendrical rituals in Virumaa and their regional peculiarities

Mall Hiiemäe

Keywords: confessional belonging, cultural relations, functional changes, integration, magic, sources of livelihood, Virumaa

The article gives an overview of calendrical rituals in Virumaa region, Estonia, mainly on the basis of customs descriptions preserved in the folklore archives of the Estonian Literary Museum since the last decades of the 19th century. Calendrical themes are complemented by proverbs, narratives about working prohibitions, etc. The influence of ancient Scandinavian agriculture that has persisted in northern Estonia for centuries, shows signs of weakening in the eastern part of Virumaa; in general, emphasis is laid on nature observations, as well as weather and crop-related omens in connection to calendrical holidays. The most important ritual foods are pork and mutton, barley and rye, as well as dairy products.

The northern coast rituals reveal common features with Finnish calendrical traditions; there are also some common holidays unknown in the inland. Indoor jobs were prohibited in the period from All Saints’ Day (November 1) to Martinmas (November 10); in this period preferable activities were riddle-guessing and story-telling, not to inflict harm on cattle. St Stephen’s Day (December 26) was a public holiday related to horses; on this day men rode on horseback to other households to drink beer.

In the south-eastern part of Virumaa County there is the historic indigenous Votic area, with additional Russian population. This area is influenced by Orthodox calendrical traditions. The celebration of St George’s Day (April 23) – the day when cattle were first let into the open – adopted features of an Eastern Slavic women’s feast. The souls of the deceased were treated at homes according to the Orthodox calendar – on Parents’ Saturday; in other regions of Estonia food was left for ancestors’ souls in the autumn, during a longer period.

Healers and charms in Virumaa

Mare Kõiva

Keywords: alternative medicine, book of magic, charm, cosmopolitan folk medicine, folk medicine, healer, healing charms, oral and written lore, Virumaa

On the basis of Virumaa material, the article discusses healing words as well as charms that were used to regulate communication between human beings and the world of spirits. Healing words richly varied in form made use of fragments of prayers, Bible texts, and hymnals, and were based on legend material, allusions, and mythic worldview. The article gives an overview of a) the relationship between oral and written lore in charm tradition, connections with fictional and real books of wisdom; b) exchange of language codes; c) regulations of word-magic behaviour; d) healing charms and charms regulating social relations, housekeeping, and humans’ relationship with nature.

The second half of the article discusses changes in healers’ healing tradition. During the past century, folk medicine integrated knowledge from different schools, and the importance of alternative and complementary medicine, such as yoga, Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and music therapy (most of these cosmopolitan), increased. So we can conclude that cosmopolitan folk medicine exists side by side with official medicine. Another significant trend rising to the fore highlights the importance of local folk medicine, which emphasises traditional values and creates novel cultural interpretations. To characterise the changes, the article introduces four healers, ranging from a half-mythic witch-herder to the healers-innovators of medical methods and local culture.

Fairy tales from Virumaa: On the border of truth and reality

Risto Järv

Keywords: fairy tale, legend, place narrative, Virumaa

One tenth of the fairy tales in the Estonian Folklore Archives have been collected in Virumaa. The article gives an overview of the fairy tale types most widely spread in Virumaa: wondertales ATU 300, 301, 313, 327A, 403C, 409, 480, 650B, and animal tales ATU 117, 169*, 243. Some tales of magic less known elsewhere in Estonia (ATU 312D, 326, 650B) are inherent in Virumaa. The article dwells upon fairy tales including anthroponyms, which are rather exceptional among fairy tales, and also fairy tales that are related to concrete places in Virumaa.

In spite of some eastern features especially prominent in four parishes of Ida(East)-Viru County, Virumaa fairy tale tradition generally belongs to northern Estonian fairy tale repository. By their strategies of name-using in fairy tales, Virumaa narrators have been similar to the ones elsewhere in Estonia. Although Virumaa fairy tales seem to include more place names than in Estonia on average, the most peculiar developments in this sphere often result, above all, from the style of concrete collectors.

On St. Bartholomew’s Day storm and weather paroemias

Mait Sepp

Keywords: climate change, folk tradition, St. Bartholomew’s Day, St. Bartholomew’s Day storm, weather paroemias, wind speed

The present study analyses St. Bartholomew’s Day storm – a storm that supposedly takes place near St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24th) every year – a paroemia that has widely spread on the north-eastern coast of Estonia. The two questions analysed here are: firstly, whether such a storm is proved by the meteorological data and, secondly, whether it is reasonable to study weather paroemias.

The present research makes use of the data about wind speed, measured in Jõhvi and Väike-Maarja weather stations during the period from 1966 to 2012. A more detailed analysis is dedicated to wind data around the old St. Bartholomew’s Day – the period around September 7th by the Gregorian calendar (August 12th till September 20th).

According to wind speed data, it may be said that in north-eastern Estonia the end of August and beginning of September are rather windless. However, the analysis of the wind measurement data does not give a definitive answer to the question whether such a phenomenon as St. Bartholomew’s Day storm actually exists in nature. Against the background of relatively windless days, every windier day may be seen as stormy.

The analysis indicates that the number of windy days around St. Bartholomew’s Day has constantly been decreasing over the last decades. This refers to changes in Estonian landscape, but even more so to changes in the climate. In the olden times, August and September were definitely much windier than today. Further research is needed to find out how windy the north-eastern coast of Estonia was around St. Bartholomew’s Day in the period before 1966.

What is the benefit of such an analysis of weather paroemias? Proverb researchers have often viewed weather folklore somewhat condescendingly. It is true that weather paroemias do not qualify as the basis of scientific synoptic meteorology, and many paroemias have been borrowed from other cultures. For example, it is known that the St. Bartholomew’s Day storm tradition is Germanic and has reached Estonia via Finland. Weather paroemias, including weather proverbs, do not often follow the classical proverb rules. This is probably the reason why weather paroemias have been thoroughly studied neither in Estonia nor internationally.

A study into weather proverbs potentially gives us knowledge about the worldview of our ancestors, culture distribution mechanisms, and also about the weather in the past. For example, it may be speculated that borrowed paroemias that fitted into the local population’s worldview or helped to better explain local weather phenomena entered common usage. If this is true, then it should be possible to find out from archived data when a particular weather paroemia became popular. This, in turn, enables us to use weather paroemias as proxy data for weather sciences. It may be assumed on the basis of old newspapers that the term St. Bartholomew’s Day storm became widely spread in the 1920s through to 1930s, when several well-documented storms indeed had devastating effects on the coast of north-eastern Estonia. However, this assumption has to be taken as a speculation, as several county newspapers, whose interest in the local weather was great, were established within the same period. A more detailed analysis of the St. Bartholomew’s Day storm tradition and other weather paroemias, however, requires a close cooperation between atmospheric scientists and folklorists.

News, overviews   

About folklore and the public: Estonian folklorists’ 12th winter conference

Overview of the conference on March 2 and 3, 2017, dedicated to the jubilee of the Department of Folkloristics of the Estonian Literary Museum (the predecessor of which, the Folklore Sector of the Institute of Language and Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Estonian SSR, was established in 1947) is given by Katre Kikas (in English available in Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 69).

President’s Folklore Collection Awards and the past year at the Estonian Folklore Archives

At the end of the year 2016, the Estonian Folklore Archives of the Estonian Literary Museum could boast an exceptional number: the 1.5 millionth page of lore was archived. On April 4, President Kersti Kaljulaid handed out President’s folklore collection awards to the best folklore collectors in 2016 – Merili Metsvahi, Maria Peep, and Maie Erik. An overview of the archival year and the recognition of the best folklore collectors is given by Astrid Tuisk.

Cultural scholars gathered in Tartu

On April 27–29, 2017, cultural scholars gathered at the Estonian Literary Museum and the Estonian National Museum in Tartu for a conference “Across Borders VII: Cultures in Dialogue”. An overview of the conference by Liisi Laineste in English is available in Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 69.

The annual prize of Estonian folkloristics was given to Reet Hiiemäe

The Academic Folklore Society has been awarding annual prizes in folkloristics since 2011. On May 25, 2017, this year's prize was given to Reet Hiiemäe.


A brief summary of the events of Estonian folklorists from from April to July 2017.

Mutual interaction of tourism and cultural heritage on the example of Dracula lore.

Tuomas Hovi. Finding Heritage Through Fiction in Dracula Tourism. FF Communications 311. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakademia, 2016. 253 pp.

Book review by Reet Hiiemäe in English is available in Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 69.

Collection of Belorussian folklore

Belaruski fal’klor: Materyialy i dasledavanni. Zb. navuk. Prats. Galoўny redaktar T.V. Valodzina. Vyp. 1–4. Minsk: Belaruskaia navuka. 2014–2017.

The annual collection “Belorussian Folklore: Materials and Research” is introduced by the senior editor Taćciana Valodzina.