Estonia, a European nation that lies near the Baltic Sea, has been home to farmers, fishermen, and hunters for thousands of years. Until the twentieth century, families lived together in wooden huts, and the whole village worked and had fun together. Living and working under one roof meant that children soon had a clear picture of adult life and of their own future. The people’s heritage was passed from generation to generation and thus remained intact for centuries.

To tell any story, three elements are required—a subject, a storyteller, and an audience. The repertoire of Estonian folk storytellers has consisted of fairy tales, folktales, humorous tales, and true stories. The villagers who shared certain stories and songs became the spiritual elite of the village. They had to be eloquent, quick to react, familiar with the local repertoire, and able to find new stories to tell. Stories were passed on as people worked together paving roads, logging, building houses, making hay, threshing, and taking part in any number of joint activities common to village life.

The Stories

After World War I, Estonian society changed from a patriarchal culture of manor owners and villagers to one in which people owned their own homes. Due to developing industry, many people moved to the cities, where they formed groups according to their occupations, economic connections, and hobbies. People read newspapers and magazines, sang in choirs, andjoined various societies. All of this change resulted in the loss of the storytelling tradition and the disappearance of certain types of stories.

The traditional fairy tales, stories of wonder and witches, were the first to disappear, and folktales of local events survived only slightly longer. The folktales were shorter and therefore easier to present, and carried fewer limitations than the fairy tales. For example, in telling folktales, the storyteller could say that his or her story actually happened to someone he or she knew firsthand. But eventually belief in the truthfulness of folktales also disappeared.

The repertoire of jokes and anecdotes was also altered after the war. Prior to the war, humorous stories were generally about farmers and lords of the manor or village pastors, masters and help, shepherd boys, and traveling craftsmen, especially tailors. Stories related incidents between members of extended families, such as mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, about rich and poor people in the village, and about spinsters and bachelors who wanted to get married at any cost. Today, the anecdote repertoire contains jokes from the news, some of which have been translated from other languages, including political jokes.

In the twentieth century, when the older wonder tales disappeared, new, more realistic types emerged that were linked with specific events, people, or places. Stories are told about modern professions, different age groups, social and religious groups, historic events, and friends and family. Modern Estonians generally live in small family groups, far from their extended family’s place of origin, so stories about a family’s past have a special meaning that determine personal identity.

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The Storytellers

Good storytelling skills have long been a valuable asset. This was particularly true before World War I. The ability to spin a tale has helped many tellers to make contact with other people, gain trust in new situations, and even earn a living.

There are stories of beggars who were valued visitors due to their eloquence. Leena Udam was a storyteller in the early twentieth century who went begging with her father when she was young. Her father would tell fairy tales for his hosts in the evening in exchange for a place to stay.

Estonian men traditionally were the storytellers in a village. They brought stories home from their travels to markets in places such as Riga, Pskov, and Saint Petersburg. They spent the nights in taverns along the way, telling stories and making music. When they returned home, people came to hear the stories they had collected or invented during their travels. Some villages had so-called story houses, where people gathered to tell and to hear stories.

A storyteller named Miku Juhan lived in Tartu County in south Estonia in the nineteenth century. It is said that when he got carried away by the urge to tell stories, he could forget even the most urgent jobs. Occasionally, when Miku’s wife brought lunch to workers in the field, she would find Miku telling his tales for the workers from the village, keeping them from their tasks. And when a beggar happened to come from a place far away, there would be a storytelling feast at Miku’s farm, where people told stories well into the night.

In Kuusalu, northern Estonia, people tell of spike traders, people who traded honeysuckle spikes that were used to make rakes and other tools, receiving fish in return. Some of these tradesmen were great storytellers. One of them talked with an old man named Eerige for two days, and still there was more to talk about. From this story came an old Estonian saying about people who talk for too long. They are said to be “like the old man Eerige and the spikes trader.”

Venues and Audiences

The dark autumn and winter months were considered especially suitable for storytelling. During that time, it was customary to sit in the twilight, allowing for a rest period before lighting pine splinters or oil lamps. This was especially true on Thursdays, which had become the traditional storytelling night. One old adage says, “You should not work in the twilight; in the twilight you must sit and talk; then the crops will be good.”

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The first through tenth days of November were special nights, called jäguõhtud, in the coastal areas of Kuusalu and Jõelähtme. Throughout Estonia, storytelling was also part of the Christmas celebration, which was nearly two weeks long.

In southeast Estonia there was a strictly fixed time for stories—a period before Christmas when the cattle had not yet had their young. Once the first calf was born, storytelling and riddles were strictly forbidden until after the calving season. The reason for this lay in the belief that storytelling at an inappropriate time would attract evil spirits, which are especially dangerous to young animals. This was a remnant of an ancient belief that storytelling had magic functions. Telling stories was hoped to bring success in hunting and fishing, as well as in farming and raising cattle.

Current Trends

Estonian folktales came to the attention of folklorists at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Many audio recordings were made of storytellers between the end of that century and the middle of the twentieth. Most of the early repertoire also has been written down.

Studies of Estonian folklore have been formally conducted since the 1920s. By the beginning of 1987, there were more than 115,000 manuscripts of folk narratives cataloged at the Archive of Estonian Folklore, located at Tartu. A small part of the collection has been published in anthologies, collections, and children’s books, and as individual texts.

Traditional storytelling has been altered drastically in the modern age. Current lifestyles the world over do not present many opportunities for this traditional pastime. The numbers of stories and storytellers are dwindling. To keep the tradition alive, organizations such as the Estonian National Culture Center provide training courses, counseling, events, and publications to entice Estonians of all ages back to the art of storytelling. There is a movement in Estonia to revive this vital art form, and the graduates and teachers of the culture center’s School of Fairy Tales bring the joy of the genre to the people.

Storytelling clubs also have appeared in Estonia. These include the Solstice Club, formed in 2001 by a group of kindergarten teachers. They have designated the first day of spring as the Day of All Storytellers. The founders created the club so that there would be a place for people who are interested in storytelling and stories to tell, hear, and exchange stories so that the stories might live on.
Contemporary storytelling helps to develop eloquence and expression through the regeneration of traditional stories and creation of new ones.