Estonian Folklore, Language, and Identity

By Dirks, Robert | World Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Estonian Folklore, Language, and Identity


Dirks, Robert, World Affairs


You are entering the heart of Estonia," one of my companions declared enthusiastically as we descended the dimly lit stairs leading to the basement of the Literature Museum. I was there at his and another student's invitation. The two of them, almost from the start of my lectures at the University of Tartu, had been eager to conduct their visiting anthropology professor on a tour of the national cultural collections housed nearby. The holdings of the Literature Museum were first on their list.

To my initial dismay, "the heart of Estonia" proved no more impressive than the grimy, undistinguished building in which it was located. An array of drab bookshelves lined the walls and ran down the center of a concrete space barely ten paces long and half as wide. The shelves held hundreds of volumes, all plainly bound and for the most part of uniform size. The collection, I must admit, looked to me like an archive of dreary government reports more than anything else. But the pride evident on the faces of the students and the solemn air of the curator betrayed a different vision. What they saw all around them was a priceless treasure, and its value in their eyes was not in the least diminished by the absence of fine covers or artful exhibition.

That it took me a while to understand this simply demonstrates that the definition of treasure does not always carry well from one culture to the next. The famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski made the point many years ago when he tried to explain the reverence with which the Trobriand Islanders of the Western Pacific behold objects that outsiders regard as nothing more than strings of worn, greasy shells.(1) He compared the Trobrianders' reverence to the expectant attitude of tourists waiting to glimpse the British crown jewels, a no less grotesque collection by certain aesthetic standards. Objects have become treasures in both cases, Malinowski explained, because of subjective understandings. Heirlooms embody treasured histories. They take their value from the hallowed traditions for which they have come to stand.

One might say that the inner sanctum of the Literature Museum contains representations of hallowed tradition once removed. The bound manuscripts have historical value, but for the most part they hold transcriptions of much older oral works, the primary heirlooms of Estonian tradition. By world standards, the ink has barely dried on the entire million or so pages in the written collection. Nevertheless, it contains some lines believed to have been recited for at least two thousand years. As for contents, they can best be described as a vast miscellany of folk expression, including lyrics, legends, and various other forms. Many find exceptional beauty in the poetry, but its meanings are largely obscure and of interest only to academics.

What excites national interest is the very existence and documentation of this literature. Early collectors, such as Jacob Hurt, rank as minor heroes. Hurt created a model for his successors when in 1883 he mobilized a nationwide folklore collection campaign. It enlisted thousands of ordinary Estonians and garnered over 50,000 songs and stories. Today, even though the archives contain over 350,000 folk songs and more than 100,000 fairy-tales, the search for yet undiscovered items continues relentlessly. The quest has broadened over the years to include ever more domains. Blessings and curses, ethnobotanical lore, school children's games - no topic is too esoteric. The Folk Museum, located just a few blocks from the Literature Museum, currently maintains a network of more than three hundred correspondents nationwide. Every year they respond to several detailed questionnaires touching on sundry aspects of local custom. Scores of volumes containing their returns have accumulated over the years, though most of the information remains undigested.

This enthusiasm for amassing information, apparently for its own sake, puzzled me at first. …

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