eesti keeles
old estonian religions
Ahto Kaasik

Estonia's religious landscape is unique and differs clearly from that of Christian countries. According to the 2000 census, only 25% of Estonia's population claim any religion at all and belong to some religious association. Thus Estonians could be said to be a secular people.

The secularism of Estonians has its basis in history. The Christianisation of Estonia in the 13th century took place at the hands of the Teutonic Order and as a result of the brutal military expansion of the Danish kingdom. Estonians suffered great casualties. For centuries the knowledge that Christianity had been brought to Estonia by fire and sword became embedded in the psyche of the people.

During the following centuries the occupiers suppressed the beliefs and traditions of the people by clerical, administrative and military means. Despite this nature-worship was still quite vigorous at the end of the 19th century. All over the country there were sacred groves, stones, springs and trees where people went to sacrifice and pray in secret.

The traditional and also religious viewpoint of Estonian's is nature oriented and pragmatic. Therefore, Estonians are fairly sceptical towards spiritual teachings, which do not originate from empirical reality. Christian teaching is based in a different reality (forgiveness of sin, redemption, life hereafter, heaven and hell). It is obvious that the two tenets do not have much in common. Among the small religious minority of Estonia's population the followers of the two indigenous religions are an even smaller minority. According to the 2000 census there are 1058 followers of Taarausk and Maausk. Nevertheless, both of these enjoy a wider popularity among the population as, according to a survey done in 2002, eleven percent of Estonia's population claim that out of all the religions they have the warmest feelings towards Taarausk and Maausk.

Taarausk (Taaraism)
In 1928, ten years after Estonia gained independence, a group of intellectuals gathered to create Estonia's own religion. They believed that national independence is but the means of attaining and protecting spiritual independence. The nation's spirituality and culture cannot be founded on a foreign religion like Christianity. They believed that a religion must not be dogmatic, but must develop with the people, and must be in accord with the latest developments in science. They shared the then generally accepted attitude about cultural imperialism that certain people and certain religions are more developed than others. A theory was propagated, which stated that developed societies have more sophisticated gods than primitive societies.

Ahto Kaasik. Sacred Tree
ahto kaasik "sacred tree"

The members of this group had been educated in German and Russian universities and they were sceptical of Christianity, but at the same time uneasy with traditional Estonian culture. They believed that during the hundreds of years of occupation Estonian indigenous religion had been destroyed, and that only barbaric remnants of it remained. For instance, they preferred the Christian choral songs of foreign origin to the runo songs of the Baltic Finns, and instead of traditional customs they favoured modern rituals with national romantic scenarios. The new religion needed new terminology. Terms like asko (from the word askus - charm or spell) and hiislar (from the word hiis - sacred grove, sacred place) were created to denote the clergy. The religious symbol in the form of a medallion was called a tõlet, derived from three words tõde - truth, elu - life, and tee - way. The badge itself is a tiny silver medallion with wavy edges, in the middle is depicted a road with a golden flame on it. From among the Estonian spirits and gods, one was picked out - Taara - and a new national and monotheistic religion was born.

The religious practice of the Taaraists was meagre. With rituals comprised of song, incantation and zither playing, new members were accepted into the congregation, marriages celebrated, funeral rites for the departed performed and other solemn occasions observed. As the god of the religion was equated with the absolute it was deemed senseless to pray to him.* Belief in oneself was deemed more important as expressed in one of the principal incantations of taaraism: "I believe in tomorrow. I believe that tomorrow will be better than today. I believe that tomorrow will be better than today if I help make it so. Taara will help!"

In 1933 the first Taaraist organisation Tallinna Hiis (the Sacred Grove of Tallinn) was established. By 1940 their numbers had increased to several thousand. During the subsequent German and Russian occupations Taaraist organisations were banned and many of their members were executed. Taaraism, which has been waning, has developed into a new-age-like sect and its members call themselves Taaraists. The original monotheism has been replaced with pantheon, but the discomfiture with traditional Estonian culture still persists.

Maausk
Estonian secularism of today is actually quite similar to nature-worship. Several ancient customs are still observed, for instance bonfires at midsummer, before the winter solstice the season of souls is observed, before feast days a sauna is traditional. Otherwise the sceptical and pragmatic Estonians are more than willing to entrust their health and fate into the hands of healers and sages. Among the contemporary customs of Estonians there are many that are sacrificial by nature. For example newly weds tie ribbons to trees and posts which have stork nests, and coins are thrown into springs. New customs have also emerged which are based on nature worship. On Christmas Eve, which according to Estonian folk calendar denotes the passing of the old year and also the end of the season of the souls, Estonian cemeteries are lit up with burning candles. During the years of suppression people have come to equate religion with Christianity.

When Maausulised (followers of Maausk) are told that Maausk is not a religion they generally agree, adding that Maausk is something much more than a religion. Maausk is our vernacular, our songs, our customs, our beliefs, our archetypes and culture. Maausk is thousands of years old, a tradition that binds us to our land.

To understand Maausk better it is essential to understand that the word maa in Estonian has many meanings and connotations. Maa can mean Earth, mother Earth, ground, land (as opposed to sea), cultivated land, earth (as soil), also country (state), country (as rural, opposed to the city) or finally as a suffix in the name of an Estonian county. But foremost maa denotes the land or country of indigenous Estonians. Thus Estonian's have called themselves maarahvas, their country Maavald and their traditional nature-worship Maausk.

Maausk belongs to the same family as the nature worship of other Finno-Ugric peoples. As befitting nature-worship, Maausk is an oral tradition, that is passed on via stories, sayings, proverbs, songs and tacit attitudes. It has never been created, like for instance Islam or Christianity. In Maausk there are no holy men, no dogmas nor scripture. Maausk provides a culturally consistent harmony between maarahvas and their environment. Maausk has come into existence here in Estonia, and during hundreds and even thousands of years, it has grown and developed together with Estonian people. To put it simply, maausk is a survival teaching, that has enabled a settled people and its individual members to survive and live in harmony with themselves, other people and the forces of nature.

The gnostic ideology of Maausk is reflected in the Estonian language where there is neither gender nor future tense.** Therefore there is no polarity of opposites, nor absolute goodness and evil in Maausk. Its cognitive emphasis is directed at the past and the present. What has been done cannot be undone, and the responsibility for what one has done cannot be annulled.

Time
Maarahvas do not fear the dead, nor do they distinguish between the mundane and the supernatural. On the contrary, the living and the dead belong together and this is a source of great power. The souls of departed relatives spend the time from the end of September until Christmas at home. This period is known as the season of the souls and is sacred. The souls are eagerly awaited. In preparation for their coming the house is tidied, a feast is prepared, the sauna is heated. The same is done at the end of the season of the souls when they are sent back to the other world. Even those Estonians, who do not profess maausk or any other religion, usually light a candle on the second of November, the eve of the season of the souls, and place it in the window so that those lost would find their way home.

As with maausk, so too the Estonian folk calendar is in constant sympathetic dialogue with nature. Christmas (as the winter solstice and new year) is celebrated in a big way, as is Leedopäev (Summer solstice), Easter and Whitsunday (the start of Spring), kasupäev (end of the harvest and the beginning of winter) and other dates tied in with the phenological cycle. Time is depicted as circular and the seasons, like man's life cycle, progresses within this cycle of time.

According to the Taaraists, time began with the proclamation of Estonia's independence in 1918. Thus for them this is now year 85.

For the Maausulised the beginning of time is associated with the so-called Billingen Catastrophe when the ice-age Baltic lake broke through into the Atlantic Ocean. The sea level in that region dropped tens of metres in one year and a large part of present day Estonia emerged from under the waters and Estonia's history as such could begin. Therefore the Maausulised call this geological event the birth of the Earth. And so according to them on 25th of December 2003 the year 10217 will begin.

The Sacred and the Organisation
In Maausk there is no difference between the secular and the sacred. They do not look for life's hidden, deeper meaning outside the everyday. The mundane and the sacred are intertwined. Furthermore, in Maausk there are many intimate sacred domains that concern only the individual or a close group. Therefore for the Maausulised, the family, the clan, the village, the parish and the county are all religious units.

To preserve their ideology and customs in today's multi religious society, where there are many identities and trends, many religious organisations have been established under the auspices of Taaraism and the Maavalla Hall.

One of the main functions of Maavalla Hall has become the representation of the Maausulised in dealings with the state and the public. The Hall has been instrumental in gaining protection for many ancient sacred sites (groves, trees, springs, and stones). It has also sought legalisation of their customs, and has protested against the introduction of compulsory Christian religious studies into public schools. In order to represent the interests of non-Christians, the Hall established a round table that unites Moslems, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais and Hare Krishnas.

Ahto Kaasik
Scribe for the Maavalla Hall


Ahto Kaasik (1969), researcher of ancient Estonian cultural heritage, see also maavald.ee

* In Estonian the pronoun is not gender specific so it could be either he or she. (Translator's note)
** cf., Estonian Institute publication "Estonian Language": http://www.einst.ee/publications/language/

ESTONIAN CULTURE 2/2003 (2) · ISSN 1406-8478