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National symbols of Estonia


The official state symbols of the Republic of Estonia are described below. In part 1, the origin of the coat of arms, the national colours and the national anthem are explained. Part 2 presents well-known Estonian symbols which have been officially declared national symbols. Part 3 describes some other symbols of emotional value for the Estonian people.


Estonian state symbols

The coat of arms, the national colours and the national anthem officially became Estonia's after the War of Independence of 1918 - 1920, when the Republic of Estonia was internationally recognized. All three symbols had existed long before.

The heraldic lions of the coat of arms are the most ancient of Estonia's symbols. They have been used since the 13th century, when they served as the big coat of arms for the capital city, Tallinn. Tallinn got these slim blue lions from the King of Denmark, Waldemar the Second; Denmark was the ruling power in Northern Estonia at that time. The name "Tallinn" itself means "Danish castle". Various other foreign powers came and went, but the three lions remained to become the coat of arms for most of the Estonian territory. The State Assembly of the independent Republic of Estonia adopted the three lions officially by its resolution on June 19, 1925. The current large coat of arms is a golden shield charged with three blue lions passant gardant with golden oak branches on both sides of the shield. The small coat of arms is identical, except there are not any oak branches.

While the coat of arms originated during the periods of foreign rule in Estonia, the blue, black and white national colours are much younger. They are closely connected to the Estonian people and date back to the end of the 19th century. At that time, the Baltic states, Finland and the greater part of Poland were under Tzarist rule. The period is known in Estonia as the era of National Awakening. The colours were chosen by a group of young intellectuals in 1881. The flag was, at first, the symbol of the Estonian Students' Society, but it quickly gained a much wider use.

The symbolic meaning of the three colours has been explained in more than one way since that time. One popular explanation derives from a contemporary poem by Martin Lipp. The blue colour is explained as the vaulted blue sky above the native land. Black symbolizes attachment to the soil of the homeland as well as the fate of Estonians - for centuries black with worries. White is connected with hard work and other more abstract human values. The popularity of this explanation is actually due to the melody arranged by composer Enn Võrk, which made Martin Lipp's poem a highly patriotic song; it is often ranked next to the national anthem.

As in many other countries, there is also a historical metaphor for the Estonian national colours. Blue in this case represents ancient freedom, black symbolizes lost independence, and white promises a brighter future. Visually, taken together, these three colours have a fresh, cool, Nordic feel, as none of the "warm" colours are included. The same colour combination is used in no other national tricolor.

By the end of the 19th century, blue, black and white became widely accepted as the national Estonian flag. Therefore, it was natural to use these colours for the National Army's insignia during the War of Independence. When the flag was hoisted atop Tall Herman tower, which dominates all of Tallinn, the tower itself gained a strong symbolic value for the Estonians. The flag flying there has always indicated the ruling power in the country. On June 27, 1922 the Estonian Parliament made the blue, black and white flag the state's official flag.

After the Soviet occupation in June 1940, the blue, black and white flag, and, indeed, the mere combination of these colours, were banned. Many people were persecuted simply for keeping and hiding the flag or using the colours. The colours, however, were never forgotten and the struggle to bring the national colours back into use marked the beginning of a renewed struggle for independece at the end of the 1980's. The colours were an important weapon in the bloodless fight for the restoration of the independence of Estonia; it was finally won in August,1991.

The Estonian national anthem "My Native Land..." is a choral-like melody arranged by Fredrik Pacius, a Finnish composer of German origin, in 1843. In Estonia, Johann Voldemar Jannsen's lyrics were set to this melody and sung at the first Estonian Song Festival in 1869. It gained popularity during the growing national movement. In Finland, the tune first became popular only as a students' song , but soon it also became more widely accepted. When both Estonia and Finland became independent after the First World War, the identical melody with different words was recognized as the national anthem of both nations. Estonia officially adopted it in 1920, after the War of Independence. During the decades of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, the melody was strictly forbidden and people were sent to Siberia for singing it. However, even during the worst years the familiar tune could be heard over Finnish radio; it was played every day at the beginning and end of the program. Thus, the melody could never be forgotten. With the restoration of Estonian independence, the national anthem has, of course, been restored too.

During the years of prohibition of national symbols, Lydia Koidula's poem, "My fatherland is dear to me", was accompanied by Gustav Ernesaks' melody. It became a powerful means of expressing national feelings. This was, and still is, regarded as an unofficial Estonian anthem.

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Thegreater coat of arms

The Estonian Coat of Arms




Flag of Estonia

Officially, the state flag is a rectangular piece of cloth which consists of three equal width colour stripes. The correlation of the width and length is less imporatnt, but fixed as 7:11. The usual size is 105x165. As to the exact colours, the black and white pose no problems. The blue is fixed by the Pantone colour scale as 285 C. Popularly it is referred to as cornflower blue.



Tall Herman tower

One of the mighty limestone structures–Toompea Castle and Tall Herman, Tallinn


Other national symbols

In addition to the three main state symbols, Estonia has chosen her own national flower and national bird. Estonia even has her own national stone, which seems to be a rarity among other national symbols. All three have gained official status during recent years.

The campaign to choose a national flower was organized by The Estonian Wildlife Protection Society. The televised contest was carried out in 1967-68. The ornamental blue cornflower was the favourite. In choosing it, several considerations were taken into account: general popularity, decorative appearance, easy applicability as an artistic motif, and domestic origin.

The cornflower has grown on Estonian soil for more than 10,000 years, from the time when the first humans came to Northern Europe. The plant grows commonly in rye fields, creating a strong connection in the minds of Estonians between the flower and their daily bread. The blossoms of the cornflower have a particularly striking graphic appearance which has led to its use by artists for decorative purposes. The cornflower is also part of the young girls' festive garland. It is possible that the cornflower was chosen as the national flower in 1968 for another important reason. People knew that the blue of the then forbidden Estonian flag was defined as "cornflower blue". This made the cornflower a symbol of resistance in its own way. The Soviet authorities, in a move that is nowadays quite difficult to believe, responded by banning representations of the cornflower. Thus, at the 100th anniversary of the Estonian Song Festival (1969), all the cornflowers used as decorations were painted over with red and presented as "carnations".

The barn swallow, the national bird, is a characteristic guest of Estonian homes. Its call can be heard from practically every eave or barn rafter in the country. If the bird finds a suitable opening, under the ridge of a roof or a broken window, it will build its cup-shaped nest; it will even build it inside a house. The choice of the barn swallow as a national bird was mainly the result of a campaign conducted by ornithologists at the beginning of the sixties.

The latest addition (in May 1992) to the set of Estonian national symbols is the country's valuable gray limestone. Estonia lies on a thick layer of limestone which is visible on the steep banks of northern and western Estonia. Most castles, churches, farm buildings, and countless stone fences are made of limestone. Research on limestone and its well-preserved fossils has for centuries brought Estonian scientists international reknown. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why numerous scientists supported the declaration of limestone as the national stone of Estonia.

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Cornflower.Photo: Indrek Rohtmets

The Cornflower— the National Flower of Estonia



Barnswallow. Photo: Mikko Pöllänen

The Barnswallow— Estonia's National Bird

Cliffs on the northern coast of Estonia.


Unofficial symbols

As in any other country, there are a number of other objects in Estonia which have symbolic value without any official decree. Oak, for example, has long been regarded as a sacred tree. Estonia lies in the northernmost zone of its occurrence. Mixed forests with oak have given the country its most fertile humus soil.

Various buildings and their details are regarded as of national value. Among them are the Old Thomas weathervain on the spire of Tallinn's Town Hall; Dome Hill Castle (Toompea), together with its mighty watchtower; Tall Hermann and the Hermann Castle on the western bank of the Narva river, which has long constituted a border between the East and the West.

Many of the above-mentioned symbols are now represented on coins and banknotes of the Estonian currency. All coins carry the three lions of the coat of arms. The one crown note bears the image of Dome Hill Castle. The two crown note depicts Tartu University. The five crown note presents Hermann Castle facing the Russian Ivangorod castle on the eastern side of the Narva river. Estonia's mightiest oak is pictured on the ten crown note and so on. The highest denomination, the five hundred crown note, carries an image of the barn swallow in full flight.

Thus, Estonia is rich in national symbols, official and unofficial, which are dear to its people. This love for symbolism probably has its roots in the country's history of foreign occupation. As old and familiar symbols were banned and supressed, new ones gained popularity and acquired the meaning of resistance. All of Estonia's symbols, old and new, are invested with the characteristics of survivors - strength, resiliance, toughness, agility, and hard work.



  Oak - long regarded 
as a sacred tree in Estonia

The Oak tree is sacred to Estonians

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This fact sheet is published by the Estonian Institute and is intended to be used for reference purposes. It may be freely used in preparing articles, speeches, broadcasts, etc. No acknowledgement is necessary.