Estonian mythology

Estonian mythology is a complex of myths belonging to the Estonian folk heritage and literary mythology.

Information about the pre-Christian and medieval Estonian mythology is scattered in historical chronicles, travellers' accounts and in ecclesiastical registers. Systematic recordings of Estonian folklore started in the 19th century.

Pre-Christian Estonian deities included a sky-god known as Jumal or Taevataat ("Old man of the sky") in Estonian, corresponding to Jumala in Finnish, and Jumo in Mari.[1]

Estonian mythology in old chronicles

A traveler called Wulfstan reported to the king Alfred the Great (871-899) about Estonians' burial customs that included keeping the dead unburied in the house of their relatives and friends, who would hold a wake of drinking until the day of the cremation.[1]

According to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia in 1222 the Estonians even disinterred the enemy's dead and burned them.[1] It is thought that cremation was believed to speed up the dead person's journey to the afterlife and by cremation the dead would not become earthbound spirits which were thought to be dangerous to the living.

Henry of Livonia also describes in his chronicle an Estonian legend originating from Virumaa in North Estonia - about a mountain and a forest where a god named Tharapita, worshipped by Oeselians, had been born.[2]

The solstice festival of Midsummer (Estonian: Jaanipäev) celebrating the sun through solar symbols of bonfires, the tradition alive until the present day and numerous Estonian nature spirits: the sacred oak and linden have been described by Balthasar Russow in 1578.[3]

Mythical motifs in folklore

Some traces of the oldest authentic myths may have survived in runic songs. There is a song about the birth of the world – a bird lays three eggs and starts to lay out the nestlings – one becomes Sun, one becomes Moon and one becomes the Earth. Other Finno-Ugric peoples have also myths according to which the world has emerged from an egg.[4]

The world of the Estonians’ ancestors is believed to have turned around a pillar or a tree,[5] to which the skies were nailed with North Star. Milky Way (Linnutee or Birds' Way in Estonian) was a branch of the World Tree (Ilmapuu) or the way by which birds moved (and took the souls of the deceased to the other world). These myths were based on animistic beliefs.

Changes occurred in proto-Estonian mythology as a result of the contacts with Baltic and Germanic tribes, as well as the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. Personifications of celestial bodies, sky and weather deities and fertility gods gained importance in the world of the farmers. There may have been a sky and thunder god called Uku or Ukko, also called Vanaisa (Grandfather) or Taevataat (Sky Father). Proto Estonian pre-Christian deities may also have included a sky-god by name Jumal, known also by other Finnic peoples as Jumala in Finnish and Jumo in Mari.[1][6] Many recorded legends and myths depicting a supreme sky god are however probably of later origin and feature Christian or foreign influences.

Estonian legends about giants (Kalevipoeg, Suur Tõll, Leiger) may be a reflection of Germanic (especially Scandinavian) influences. There are numerous legends interpreting various natural objects and features as traces of Kalevipoeg's deeds. The giant has merged with Christian Devil, giving birth to a new character – Vanapagan (a cunning demon living on his farm or manor and his farm hand Kaval-Ants (Crafty Hans).

Other mythical motiffs from Estonian runic songs:

It has been suggested, among others by ethnologist and former president Lennart Meri, that a meteorite which passed dramatically over populated regions and landed on the island of Saaremaa around 3,000-4,000 years ago was a cataclysmic event that may have influenced the mythology of Estonia and neighboring countries, especially those from whose vantage point a "sun" seemed to set in the east.[4] In the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, cantos 47, 48 and 49 can be interpreted as descriptions of the impact, the resulting tsunami and devastating forest fires. It has also been suggested that the Virumaa-born Oeselian god Tharapita is a reflection of the meteorite that entered the atmosphere somewhere near the suggested "birthplace" of the god and landed in Oesel.

Literary mythology

Friedrich Robert Faehlmann and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald compiled the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg out of numerous prosaic folk legends and runo verse imitations that they themselves had written. Faehlmann also wrote eight fictional myths combining motives of Estonian folklore (from the legends and folk songs), Finnish mythology (from Ganander’s "Mythologia Fennica") and classical Greek mythology. Matthias Johann Eisen was another folklorist and writer who studied folk legends and reworked them into literary form. Many of their contemporary scholars accepted this mythopoeia as authentic Estonian mythology.

The Estonian literary mythology describes the following pantheon: The supreme god, the god of all living is Taara. He is celebrated in sacred oak forests around Tartu. The god of thunder is Uku. Uku's daughters are Linda and Jutta, the queen of the birds. Uku has two sons: Kõu (Thunder) and Pikker (Lightning). Pikker possesses a powerful musical instrument, which makes demons tremble and flee. He has a naughty daughter, Ilmatütar (Weather Maiden).

During the era of Estonian national awakening the elements in the literary mythology were quickly and readily incorporated into contemporary popular culture through media and school textbooks. It can be difficult to tell how much of Estonian mythology as we know it today was actually constructed in the 19th and early 20th century. One should also note that some constructed elements are loans from Finnish mythology and may date back to the common Baltic-Finnic heritage.

Estonian mythological and literary mythological beings, deities and legendary heroes

Christian saints interpreted as gods:

Estonian mythical and magical objects


  1. 1 2 3 4 A History of Pagan Europe, P. 181 ISBN 0-415-09136-5
  2. The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Page 193 ISBN 0-231-12889-4
  3. Leach, Maria; Jerome Fried (1972). Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Funk & Wagnalls. ISBN 978-0-308-40090-0.
  4. 1 2 Haas, Ain; Andres Peekna; Robert E. Walker. "ECHOES OF ANCIENT CATACLYSMS IN THE BALTIC SEA" (PDF). Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
  5. Lintrop, Aado (2001). "THE GREAT OAK AND BROTHERSISTER" (PDF). Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
  6. Kulmar, T. "On Supreme Sky God from the Aspect of Religious History and in Prehistoric Estonian Material"
  7. Lintrop, Aado. "THE GREAT OAK, THE WEAVING MAIDENS". Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
  8. Scandinavian Ghost Stories and Other Tales of the Supernatural Pennfield Press Iowa City 1995 pages 9-16

Further reading

External links

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