Estonian folklore and customs
Taive Särg
Historical periods of folk life start with following historical events.
1. Estonia was settled near the end of the last glacial era 8500 BC.
Hunters-gatherers become gradually farmers ~1000-2000 BC.
2. German invasion in the 13th century: Catholic religion, class
society. (Estonia was occupied in 1227, serf-ownership started
officially in 1671).
3. Reformation in the 16th – 17th century: literacy, schools.
(Reformation in North Estonia 1523, Southern Estonia 1625).
4. Economic and social changes in 19th century: abolishing of
serfdom (1816,1819) and buying land for freeholds (1860s),
modernizing society.
Estonian language and identity
1. Estonian belongs to Finno-Ugric language family, the group
of Balto-Finnic languages, close language relatives are
Finnish, Livonian, Votian, Vepsian, Ingrian, Karelian.
2. Estonian was influenced by various Germanic, Baltic and
ancient Slavonic languages.
3. Estonia is geographically situated in Europe, but Europe is
also a cultural term, representing some treats that are regarded
as European in Estonia.
4. Estonia has received influences from both east and west,
Estonians have been identified themselves both as Europeans
and as Finno-Ugric peoples.
Finno-Ugric peoples
Local areal cultures in Estonia.
1. Northern Estonia has more similarities with Finnish and
Votian culture. Very special area of Northern culture are
islands in Western Estonia. Estonian literary language bases
on North and Central Estonian dialects.
2. Southern Estonia seems more ancient today with its rural
way of life and dialect, quite different from literary language.
Southern Estonian folk culture has Baltic and Slavonic
The most distinctive region is Setomaa in southeastern
Estonia. It was incorporated to Estonia in 1920, but went back
to Russia in 1991.
North E
South E
Estonian local areas
Saaremaa island
by Konrad Mägi
Traditional cultural expression
pärimus (*pär + i + mus)
vaimne pärimus
intangible cultural heritage
aineline pärand
tangible cultural heritage
folkloor ehk rahvaluule
folk art rahvakunst
discipline: folkloristics
discipline: ethnology
Aesthetic and pragmatic aspects often occure together.
Folklore (intangible cultural heritage) includes oral traditions,
performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge
and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge
and skills to produce traditional crafts, “savoir faire” (‘know how’)
• rahvausk folk beliefs – common beliefs that are widely accepted
as truth by most members of the group, e.g. old myths about
world creation, supernatural beings, but also contemporary
superstitions etc. Often beliefs appear in verbal form (proverbs,
narratives), they are the bases of customs and rituals, can govern
cultural practices.
• kombed customs – family traditions, calendar traditions, etc,
often combining entertainment and magic
• sõnakunst verbal arts – folk songs lyrics, folk narratives, short
forms of folklore
• rahvamuusika ja -tants folk music and dance– folk song
melodies, instrumental pieces, folk dances, games with songs and
Folk art
• rahvariided traditional costumes – clothes, shoes, adornments
• elutarbed necessaries – tools, furnishing, utensils, vehicles...
• rahvustoit national dish – food, drink
• ehitised farm architecture – building materials, the types of
settlement, farm buildings (barn-dwelling, granary, saun)
• rahvapillid folk music instruments
• special instruments – magic tools, toys, calendars
• kaunistused – decorations, adornments
Professional, institutionalized art and religion are not folklore.
Estonian Symphony Orchestra
Valjala church, Saaremaa
island, 13th century
Folklore has 3 basic components:
group (~folk)
text (~lore)
Seto folk singers,
The 1960s
Folklore group Leegajus in Estonian Open Air Musem in 1980s.
historical, cultural background
time, place
participants, audience