Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Oral literature : Estonian

  • Popular culture (Oral literature)Estonian
  • Cultural Field
    Kulasalu, Kaisa

    As in the 19th century Estonian folk culture was becoming an object of scholarly and national interest, went through several changes. In the singing traditions, the runo songs (regilaul) belonged to an obsolescent way of life; changes in rural culture and the influence of religious hymns led to a new singing style: folk songs with end-rhymes, which, although they had been mentioned in isolated instances as early as 1693, were more recent than the runo songs, which attracted both clerical dislike and scholarly interest. Folk singing as a whole was disapproved of by the pietist movements that were popular since the 1730s; but this was outweighed by the positive interest evinced by Johann Gottfried Herder. During his stay in Riga in 1764-69, Herder maintained contacts with Estonia-based intellectuals such as the Baltic-German Estophile clergyman August Wilhelm Hupel, who sent seven Estonian folk songs and nine proverbs that were published in Herder’s Volkslieder. (Hupel himself was an Enlightenment social improver, who took an antiquarian interest in popular customs without idealizing the folk or their past.) Herder inspired Christian Hieronymus Justus Schlegel, a private tutor, to publish 13 Estonian folk songs in Der Deutsche Merkur in 1787.

    Among Baltic Germans, several Estophiles took an interest in Estonian folk songs and folklore. Johann Heinrich Rosenplänter’s periodical Beiträge zur genauern Kenntniß der ehstnischen Sprache (1813-32) included folk songs and folk tales mainly as linguistic samples. A more poetic and anthropological appreciation was evinced by the Baltic-German clergyman Arnold Friedrich Johann Knüpffer, who collected nearly 600 Estonian folk songs and valued them as poetic expressions of the national character. His collection was later used in the folk-song anthologies compiled by the Estophile Alexander Heinrich Neus, who not only collected and published, but also analysed folklore. Collecting and discussing folklore was also an important pursuit in literary societies such as the Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft (founded in 1838) and the E(h)stländische Literärische Gesellschaft (founded in 1842).

    Estonian intellectuals like Friedrich Robert Faehlmann and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald were active members of the Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft, and in this Estophile context collected folklore, gave lectures on the subject, and drew on folk tales and songs for their writings. Faehlmann was mainly interested in prose tales; he published mythological legends that were loosely based on motifs from Estonian, Finnish, and classical-pagan belief systems. Legends about the giant-hero Kalevipoeg inspired Faehlmann to sketch the outline of a national epic; after his death, it fell to Kreutzwald to actually write and compile the Kalevipoeg, combining motifs from folk songs and tales to create a verse epic consisting of 20 cantos in more than 19,000 verses. About one eighth of the verses were taken from folk songs, the rest of the text is Kreutzwald’s imitation of regivärss, Estonian alliterative verse. The epic was completed in a first version in 1853, which remained unpublished due to censorship; an initial publication in instalments appeared as an academic publication in the proceedings of the Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft in 1857-61; a German translation came out as a book in 1861, the Estonian version was printed a year later in Kuopio, Finland. Not all national activists were similarly inspired by folk songs: the journalist and poet Johann Voldemar Jannsen criticized folk songs in his popular newspaper “The Pärnu postman” (Perno Postimees).

    During the second half of the century, folklore studies developed into a scholarly discipline. Jakob Hurt’s 1888 call entitled “Some requests to Estonia’s most active sons and daughters” urged people to collect various genres of folklore; communicating with his c.1400 volunteer correspondents in newspapers, he started publishing folk songs in a scholarly series entitled “Old Harp” (Vana Kannel, 1886) aiming to collect all runo songs. Songs from the Seto-speaking minority were collected in the series “Songs of the Setos” (Setukeste laulud, 1894-1907). For Hurt, folklore was not only an object of scholarly research, but also an ideological tool for cultivating an Estonian awareness; accordingly, his folklore-collecting campaign was a key event in the Estonian national awakening.

    Another collecting call came from Matthias Johann Eisen, who published numerous folk tales in popular collections. Other folk-tale collections were published by Kreutzwald and by Juhan Kunder. Estonian songs and tales were also published by Finnish and Baltic-German collectors.

    Word Count: 700

    Article version
  • Jaago, Tiiu; Kuutma, Kristin (eds.); Studies in Estonian folkloristics and ethnology: A reader and reflexive history (Tartu: Tartu UP, 2005).

    Leete, Art; Tedre, Ülo; Valk, Ülo; “Uurimislugu”, in Viires, Ants; Vunder, Elle; Berg, Eiki (eds.); Eesti rahvakultuur (Tallinn: Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, 2008), 15-39.

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Kulasalu, Kaisa, 2022. "Oral literature : Estonian", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 02-04-2022, consulted 23-04-2024.