Estonians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. A Danish monk by the name of Fulco introduced Christianity to the Estonians in the twelfth century, although it was not until later that the Estonians converted. Moreover, it was not until the eighteenth century that beliefs concerning the supernatural became more or less fully Christian. In 1934, before Soviet domination, nearly 80 percent of Estonians were Lutherans, and almost 20 percent were listed as Orthodox. There were also very small numbers of Baptists, Methodists, Jews, and Catholics.

Religious Practitioners. During the period of independence between the world wars, the Estonian Lutheran Church was governed by the Church Assembly, composed of the members of the various synods, the members of which in turn were the pastors and lay officials of the parishes. Each parish was controlled by provosts, prominent pastors elected from among the synod membership. The Church Assembly elected its bishop, the head of the church, and legislated church rules. Some of the more prominent clerical and lay people together formed the Consistory, which made decisions on the basis of religious rules.

After independence in 1920, the Orthodox Church of Estonia broke from the Russian church and became the independent Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. The head of the church was the metropolitan, who approved the executive decisions of the synod and who was consecrated by the patriarch of Constantinople. The Church Assembly, made up of church members, elected the metropolitan, the bishops, the membership of the synod, and the priests.

Recently another denomination, the Free Estonian Church, has become an important link between Estonians in exile.

Ceremonies. The most important rituals, in terms of the amount of effort expended in celebrating them, are baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. In rural areas wedding celebrations could last a week.

Arts. Traditional Estonian folklore has as its subjects animals, witchcraft, and humorous material. Estonian folksongs are of two kinds. The older, traditional, style is known as runo and is characterized by short and simple musical phrases that are repeated again and again as the epic lyrics are sung. The newer style, influenced by German choral music, is more lyrical and has longer musical phrases and a wider range of rhythms. The modern Estonian musical had its start in the choirs and brass bands that were first established in the early nineteenth century. Estonians have a penchant for large musical festivals, and in some of these celebrations there are as many as 21,000 performers and 100,000 spectators. The larger festivals may have a choir with as many as 15,000 voices or a band of 2,000 musicians. During the period of independence, Estonia established several symphony orchestras and theaters and two music schools. The arts in general were supported by grants from the federal government during this era.

Much of Estonian literature has been influenced by foreign trends, and foreign literature continues to be popular. Early literature (1200-1700) was often the work of resident foreigners who had little proficiency in the Estonian language. Only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did fiction by Estonians begin to appear, including that of the poet Kristian Jaak Peterson. During the national renaissance of the late nineteenth century, physical conditions had improved to the point that authors were free to write, although Russian political domination also included heavy literary censorship. During this time poetry, particularly epic poetry, became the most popular form of literature; the most popular poet of the era was Lydia Koidula. The realist period of 1890-1905 saw the introduction of modern foreign literature into Estonia, the publication by Estonians such as Eduard Vilde of historical-political novels, and the performance of political plays by August Kitzberg and others. Neoromantic and symbolic poetry became popular in the period 1905-1920, and names such as Gustav Suits, Marie Under, and Friedebert Tuglas became famous. After World War I, the neorealist novel became preeminent. Some of the more important authors of the period are Anton Tammsaare, Albert Kivikas, and August Jakobson. Soviet domination from 1940 on all but destroyed Estonian literature; only approved Soviet Communist themes were tolerated. Many Estonian authors escaped to the West, where they continued to write, but of those who remained many were imprisoned or had their works banned.

The Estonian pictorial arts followed a similar pattern of mixing foreign influences with indigenous invention. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, painters and sculptors were trained in St. Petersburg, and later in Paris and Germany. Some of the most important names are Eduard Jakobson (who established Estonian graphic arts) and the "Young Estonians" Magi, Triik, Koort, Jansen, and others. The 1930s saw the rise of three important wood engravers: Wiiralt, Mugasto, and Laigo. Soviet political control later resulted in uncreative work, although some good works have been created in exile.

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