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
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.
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.
The Estonian Coat of Arms
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
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
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.
The Cornflower— the National Flower of Estonia
The Barnswallow— Estonia's National Bird
Cliffs on the northern coast of
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
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.
The Oak tree is sacred to Estonians