Mäetagused vol. 71


Life story from the folkloristic point of view

Tiiu Jaago
Assistant Professor, Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore, Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu

Keywords: folklore, history of Estonian folkloristics, life story, thematic narrative

Research of present-day life stories is multidisciplinary. At the same time, life story research is also disciplinary – the analysis of life stories supports, more or less, the specific features of one or another historically evolved discipline, developing it further.

The Estonian folkloristic life story research is associated with literary science and history as well as ethnology. Folkloristics and literary science share a common interest in the narrative. However, they are different in how life narratives are related to other texts: while literary science relates life stories with writing genres, such as autobiography, life writing, memories, and biographical fiction, in folkloristics life story is connected with concepts like, for example, thematic narrative and personal experience story. In addition to coherent life story texts, folkloristics also studies stories that have been presented in different genres or as single episodes (for example, associating nightmares with everyday or historical events).

Folkloristics is related to the ethnological research of life stories through shared interest in performance. However, while folklorists are primarily interested in how the narrating situation influences text creation, ethnologists are interested in the connection between the narrators’ and the public discourses.

The article introduces the evolution of life story research over the 20th century, drawing on the example of Estonian folkloristics. It shows that first there was a deepening interest in narrating real-life characters and in the biographies of folk singers and story-tellers (starting in the 1920s–1930s). During the same period, researchers started to distinguish between stories according to whether the described experience was mediated or first-hand. In the former case, the main character in the story was another person, maybe unknown, but in the latter case, the story concerned an event in which the narrator (i.e. first-person character) was involved. Nevertheless, folklorists were more interested in the storyline than the first-person character’s point of view. The first studies in which the narrated plot and the first-person character’s experience were viewed as an integrated whole were published in the 1970s. The new approach did not employ earlier research methods (those based on the plot of the story) but, rather, broadened the ways and possibilities of folkloristic narrative research at the end of the 20th century and today.

Migratory bird and Babylonian prisoner: Life writing practices of Jakob Hurt’s folklore correspondents

Katre Kikas
Researcher, Department of Folkloristics, Estonian Literary Museum

Keywords: collection of folklore, Juhan Silbergleich, life writing, Paulus Paurmann, 19th century

In the focus of this article are the life-writing practices of two Jakob Hurt’s folklore correspondents. Jakob Hurt’s folklore collecting campaign started in 1888 and about 1400 people stepped in to work along with him. Although collectors were aware of the scientific value of the work they were doing, there were many other reasons for them to be interested. Firstly, as collecting was considered as ‘work for homeland’, it was a possibility to assert one’s national identity. Secondly, it offered a possibility to participate actively in the public written space; as the folklore collecting campaigns were organized with the help of newspapers, participants considered their work to be part of the public sphere (or at least closely connected to it). And thirdly, it was also quite a rare possibility to use one’s writing skills in Estonian in a public setting; as the official languages at the time were German and Russian, the Estonian language was rather marginalized, yet at the same time the Estonian-language population’s literacy rates were rather high.

Although folklore collecting may seem as a very restricted writing context, in reality collectors sent in widely varied sorts of texts – besides folklore texts there were letters, poems, life stories, interpretations of folklore, book reviews, texts resembling newspaper articles, and so on. Collectors really experimented with different genres and ways of addressing. In this article I have touched upon one layer in this textual field – writings in which collectors write explicitly about themselves and their lives, and where we can get a hint about how they wanted to be presented in this half-public space. The texts I have discussed are not autobiographies in the strict sense of the word; that is way I have used a more widely encompassing term – life writing.

Generally collectors do not write about themselves too often; yet, in some cases they do. Some of these texts are passages of letters addressed to the organizer of the campaign, with an aim to introduce oneself (e.g. in the first letter) or to convince the organizer to help the writer (e.g. in finding a new job). Some texts are embedded in the collections and presented as folklore, or added as a personal footnote to folklore material collected from others. Most of those personal texts have quite a self-downgrading frame – collectors apologize for including those ‘irrelevant thoughts’, therewith stressing the big gap between the social standing of the organizers (Hurt was a parson with a scientific degree) and themselves (mostly ordinary people with quite minimal schooling).

There are two male collectors in the centre of my article – Juhan Silbergleich (1854–?) and Paulus Paurmann (1850–1903). Both of them did quite extensive life writing in the contexts of their collecting activities, but the way they did it was rather different. Silbergleich starts writing about himself already in the first letter to Hurt; he never aims at something more coherent, all his life writing consist of bits and pieces embedded in letters and texts about cultural history. Paurmann keeps quite a humble profile for a couple of years and then sends in a long life story. Silbergleich’s texts resemble newspaper articles and deal mostly with the poor living conditions of his community; he stresses his nationality quite often. Paurmann builds his life story on the model of sentimental literature, stressing his own deeds, feelings, and inner thoughts; he barely mentions the nation. One of the communal experiences of the men was life in diaspora community: they were born in Viru County, but in their later life moved to St. Petersburg Province (Silbergleich permanently, whereas Paurmann spent his winters there as a schoolteacher for Estonian-speaking children). This move plays quite an important role in their life writing. Yet, it was also an important incentive for the decision to start collecting folklore – for them it presented a possibility to be symbolically back home again.

In conclusion it can be said that, when reading the life writing texts of these two men side by side, we can see, on the one hand, two really different ways of putting one’s life on paper (ways that are closely connected to the kind of reading material that those men preferred). Yet, on the other hand, we get quite a varied picture of some keywords (nationality, publics, mobility) of the time, linked with real lives of real people.

Folklore and aspects of life history in the memories of Estonians living in Russia

Anu Korb
Senior researcher, Estonian Folklore Archives, Estonian Literary Museum

Keywords: life story, folklore, Estonians living in Russia

The article analyses the extent to which Estonians born and grown up in Estonian settlements in Russia have used folklore in transmitting their personal life history. The sources used in the article are memories collected in the first decades of the 21st century from the Estonians who repatriated from Russia to Estonia in the Soviet period. The memories were collected as responses to an appeal to collect village and family history.

I came to collecting life histories and personal memories through folkloric research after having collected folklore (songs, tales, rituals and traditions, etc.) in Estonian settlements in Siberia and elsewhere in Russia for more than ten years. In the recollections of Estonians born and grown up in Russia I focused on analysing the origin stories of their ancestors and names, narratives about settling in the new homeland, the impact of dramatic historical events in the lives of their families and communities, and major life cycle events.

The time of the narrated event, the time of narrating, and the temporal space between the two interplays are creating memories of life history, as cultural memory mediates the transference of the past experience to the present day.

In collective life, folkloric environment is closely embedded in the life history environment. The collected memories contain authentic folktales, popular interpretations of history, spells, descriptions of rituals, belief reports, etc. The knowledge, experience and traditions that are passed on from one generation to another, but also stories heard, have a significant influence on an individual and are reflected also in personal history. Narratives shape the local tradition, and a fact of personal life can turn into social experience. The life history of Estonians in Russia is highly collective, bound by folklore, because this is how the community communicated. Approaching personal experiences of individuals from a more general (economic or political) perspective helps to better understand also the general processes. The life history memories of Estonians born and raised in Estonian settlements in Russia could be viewed as oral narrative history based on the group’s interpretation of the past. This allows us to observe also the regional differences in the rituals and customs of Estonians as well as changes in their mentality.

Songs of lamentation and lamenters from the biographical perspective: Analysis of the material recorded during field studies

Natalia Ermakov
Lexicographer, Institute of the Estonian Language

Keywords: biography, Erzya lamenting tradition, field studies, songs of lamentation

The article addresses the texts of laments, biographies of lamenters, and the context of customs related to lamenting. The analysed biographies and songs of lamentation were gathered between 2000 and 2013 (Ermakov 2011; 2014: 16–24) and represent the traditions of Ardatovo district of the Republic of Mordovia. The Mordvins are a Finno-Ugric people living in Russia, who have a republic of their own within the Russian Federation (26,200 km2), with Saransk as its capital. The respondents were born in the late 1920s and early 1930s. For the sake of comparison, representatives of a younger generation born between 1964 and 1980 were also interviewed. All of them live in the countryside. The biographies of lamenters and texts of songs of lamentation provide an overview of the cultural and historical environment of the period. Among other things, the article presents observations on religious taboos concerned with the recording of these songs. Lamenters in their immediate environment are also described.

The article aims to discuss lamenting, songs of lamentation, and the living environment of lamenters, focusing on the biographical aspects contained in these songs. As a song of lamentation is a traditional form of expressing sorrow and mourning, it is a genre with poetically quite well-developed representation language. At the same time, a song of lamentation is linked to the person’s stages of life and is always personalized, which justifies viewing the tradition of lamenting from the biographical perspective. The first part of the article introduces the material for analysis, recorded during field studies, and provides an overview of Mordvin, particularly Erzya lamenting tradition. The second part of the article describes lamenters through their biographies told by themselves, and stories recorded during field studies, and analyses the artistic language of the songs of lamentation, highlighting the connection of the poetics developed over centuries (i.e. the collective common language) with historical and personal specifics. The article concludes with an overview of a present-day performance of songs of lamentation, which, in its turn, can be interpreted as the life story of the lamenting tradition.

Only few diaries, letters, and other documents about lamenters or those who know traditions have been preserved in Mordovia. Due to the scarcity of sources, biographical research as well as autobiographical stories have been somewhat overlooked so far. However, it is through biographical research that we can see the reflection of society’s life: developments, changes, accepting one’s fate, making compromises, etc. Field studies proved to be irreplaceable for the preservation of such material.

Trauma and life stories

Tiiu Jaago
Assistant Professor, Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu

Keywords: folklore research, life story, trauma theory, traumatic experience

The article deals with the manifestation of traumatic experiences in life stories narrated at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. The manuscripts of these life stories are stored in the Estonian Cultural History Archives. The authors of the stories are guided not so much by artistic aspirations as by the possibility of creating a picture of the past, relying on their own real-life experiences.

In the article, the folkloristic narrative research is combined with the concept of trauma theory. On the one hand, life story is seen as a specific text characterised by its relation to a specific cultural background and historical framework. On the other hand, the trauma theory perspective allows to observe the universality of trauma, the interrelation between the events that affect society and the related identity changes. Generally, the narrators do not use the term “trauma”. The texts also lack the topics of being a victim and asking for forgiveness, which are typical of trauma theory approaches. These manuscripts may include discussions of cultural trauma-related public life, but in this case the dialogue between the public attitudes and the narrator’s own experience can be seen rather as a reflection effect or following an example. This makes the life stories unique carriers of information, because they cannot be treated as miniature forms of the trauma culture that is accepted in society or globally.

The aim of the comparative analysis of the two stories was to outline the specific features of the language of trauma in a life story. The language of trauma in life stories refers on the one hand to the formation of the narrator’s life truth, and on the other hand, to the presentation that spares the narrator. Traumatic experiences can be distinguished from the story, for example, based on how the narrator associates one or another aspect with the events of his/her life and the formation of beliefs that stem from the life events. These aspects emerge both through the reasoning and through constant repetitions. The descriptions of particularly hard experiences (e.g. life in Stalinist prison camp, divorce) stand out in the stories for their brevity and laconicism. This results from the emotional state of the narrator, the first-person character in the story, at the time of remembering the events or the situation, but on the other hand also from self-defence – the storyteller is unwilling to relive the situation again while narrating. The story presents traumatic experiences in firm connection with other episodes and deliberations, whereby the traumatic experience is positioned in its place in the narrator’s, the first-person character’s development story. The stories also imply that there are other traumatic experiences, which the narrator does not reveal. However, the dynamism of the trauma comes significantly to the fore: an individual’s each trauma experience absorbs new aspects and associations, thus pointing to stages in the development of the individual, as well as to the changeability of the relationships between the individual and the community.

A history that never was? Traces of homosexual desire in three court cases

Andreas Kalkun
Researcher, Estonian Folklore Archives, Estonian Literary Museum

Keywords: homosexuality, Military District Court of the Republic of Estonia, queer history

The criminal code of the Republic of Estonia, in which homosexual acts between consenting adults were not considered to be a crime, was adopted in 1929 but came into force as late as at the beginning of 1935. Before the adoption of the new criminal law, the criminal and correctional penal code of Imperial Russia was observed in the Republic of Estonia, and Article 995 of this code considered “pederasty” a crime. The article analyses three court cases of men on trial for homosexuality at the Military District Court of the Republic of Estonia in 1919, 1929, and 1931. In addition to the court cases, articles discussing homosexuality published in the newspapers of the period are used as sources to provide a context and discourse to frame the court files under discussion. I analyse specific texts related to punishment and correction, included in the court files, as potential sources in queer history research.

The majority of approaches to homosexuality published in the written press in the 1920s and 1930s are misogynist and reproduce certain prejudices, notably emphasising, among other things, the spreadability of homosexuality in military institutions. At the same time, one can find newspaper texts which mediate ideas that were topical in Europe at the time about how homosexuality as a congenital condition should not be punishable by criminal law.

The court cases about “pederasty” emphatically focus on sex: the cases deal with criminalised sexual intercourse rather than, for example, explore romantic feelings or love. Owing to the focus on perversity and accusations, the cases are highly discriminatory and negative portrayals of the people. Writers of the transcripts have transformed the testimonies of the witnesses and the accused persons into odd court jargon and the accused themselves strive to impart as little information about them as possible. The accused may lie and be secretive or make desperate confessions but the information written in the transcripts is peculiarly biased and superficial.

The people accused in these court cases are of various backgrounds, and the gallery of characters is further widened by men who testified as witnesses and were sometimes part of a closer social circle of the accused. Manifestations of so-called homosexual desire in these stories also vary – there are consenting sexual intercourses, but also hierarchical, violent ones, or those the nature of which remains ambivalent in the sources. What really happened between the men prosecuted at the military district court remains largely hidden behind the veil of secrecy. The court transcripts are full of conflicting testimonies and generally speak only of physical bodies and convey the impressions of eye-witnesses. Emotions, sought after by queer histories, are explicitly scarce in the transcripts. Regardless of that, there are flashes of information popping up from time to time, casting most light on the lives and everyday practices of the accused or the nature of their homosexual desire.

Estonian children’s games using munitions during and after World War II

Astrid Tuisk
Researcher, Estonian Folklore Archives, Estonian Literary Museum

Keywords: children’s folklore, children’s games, contextualization, dangerous games, post-war period, World War II

Children who lived in the WWII and post-war period, under the occupation of Nazi Germany (1941–1944) and the Soviet Union (1944–1991), had their own assortment of games. Estonia suffered the fate of being on the battlefront twice – in 1941 and 1944. Among the traces of war that inspired children’s games were munitions scattered around the terrain.

In 2013, the Estonian Folklore Archives of the Estonian Literary Museum organised a competition for collecting children’s games. In this paper, I examine the accounts about playing with munitions – mainly cartridges found on the terrain and real gunpowder – collected from people born in the period between the late 1920s and late 1940s.

From a folkloristic perspective, I study the descriptions of games collected in the competition in two ways. First, I situate them in their historical-cultural context. The use of left-behind munitions for playing was characteristic of WWII as well as the post-war period and mostly typical of boys. The descriptions emphasise spectacular fireworks and loud cracking. The use of various means (e.g. glowing embers by children herding animals) for making loud sounds, but also real gunpowder in toy guns (sussik in Estonian) was also present in the earlier tradition.

Although the respondents might not have perceived the risks associated with these activities back when they were children, their descriptions usually also include their adult point of view: these games were very dangerous. Some claim that they were not aware of the risks; others that they were able to assess them well; still others that they were simply foolhardy. The descriptions of games also reveal a certain perplexity – adult respondents are at a loss to explain why they did those things as children.

Left-behind munitions could be obtained quite easily, while conventional toys or means for making them were severely lacking at the time. Thus, children played with whatever they could find and the use of munitions diversified the range of toys available to them.

Secondly, I interpret the games with left-behind munitions as a type of game that tests the daring and foolhardiness of players. Dangerous games and risky-play games are discussed in several accounts of children’s games. Researchers suggest that playing dangerous games is driven by the will to make sense of risk-taking and responsibility. Child and developmental psychologists find that such games are characteristic of childhood and adolescence, and that playing them is necessary for normal development. Children’s risk-taking behaviour and testing the boundary between the possible and impossible is an integral part of coming of age and self-realisation during adolescence. Yet, development in the preschool age likewise implies testing one’s capabilities and experiencing the feeling of fear.

Munitions were novel and fascinating, and enabled children to apply their inventiveness, sense their bravery, and experience excitement. On the other hand, due to frequent injuries and accidents, one could also find exactly the opposite attitudes toward munitions. Thus, for some people who grew up in that era, munitions are associated with games and new toys, but for others, they are associated with pains of loss and tragedy.

About us   

Humor makes life more tolerable. Interview with American folklorist Trevor J. Blank

Henri Zeigo’s interview in English is available in Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 72, http://www.folklore.ee/folklore/vol72/interview.pdf.

News, overviews   

Andres Kuperjanov 60

Jubilee congratulations from Piret Voolaid and Mare Kõiva.

Folklorists as partners in an international cooperation project of sustainable rural tourism

Reet Hiiemäe’s overview of the Nordplus project “Sustainable Tools 4 Trainers” (T4T) is available in English in Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore, Vol. 72.

August Milts – philosopher between ethics and life stories

Ginta Elksne and Māra Zirnīte from the research group of Latvian national oral history at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the University of Latvia reminisce about August Milts (1928–2008), Doctor of Philosophy and initiator of Latvian oral history research, on the occasion of his 90th birth anniversary.

Collecting action “School lore 2018” exceeded all expectations

Reet Hiiemäe gives an overview of the all-Estonian collecting action “School lore 2018”, which took place from 24 February to 24 May 2018.

Conference on folk narratives in Ragusa

Reet Hiiemäe’s overview of the conference of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research (ISFNR), titled “Folk narrative in regions of intensive cultural exchange”, which took place in Ragusa, Italy, on 12–16 June 2018.

International conference of humour researchers in Tallinn

Piret Voolaid and Liisi Laineste write about the conference of the International Society for Humour Studies (ISHS), under the heading “Humour: Positively (?) Transforming”, which took place in Tallinn on 25–29 June 2018.


A brief summary of the events of Estonian folklorists from April to July 2018.

Biographical study on the ethnic identity and sense of belonging in modern Latvian society.

Skultāne, Vieda (ed.) 2017. Piederēt un atšķirties: romu, krievu un latviešu dzīvesstāsti Latvijā. Riga: LU Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, Latvijas Mutvārdu vēstures pētnieku asociācija Dzīvesstāsts. 233 pp.

An overview by Edmunds Šūpulis.