They say our ancestors worshipped nature. What on earth does that mean? In Tartu, we meet Ahto Kaasik, Head of the Centre for sacred Natural sites.
Beside a stone which looks to me very ordinary, rather boring and dull. Ahto pointed out that there were pennies and nails slotted into the cracks and said there are still hundreds of sacred places in use in Estonia.
He said the stone is a teacher of natural knowledge.
In 1880 an important theologist complained about this stone and asked Rector of the University for it to be removed. He agreed it was pagan and gave orders for it to be broken. It disappeared.
Some time later the professor of Archeology asked what had happened to it and the builder who was to destroy it admitted that he had hidden it. Now its protected and many come; for example newlyweds come with flowers or seeds to bless their marriage.
This stone is unlike any others in the area. It was brought here by the last ice age. It is 1.8 billion years old, way older than anything else around it. How on earth did the people who chose this as a sacred stone know this? I mean it looks seriously ordinary. Unlike many of the other prettier stones I have seen here…
The Estonian traditional belief is that everything has a spirit. In the North of Estonia are stories of trees that have walked. Near Viljandi (I think it was here), some women had washed dirty nappies in the lake. The lake was highly offended so it also got up and moved away. Not only every natural thing has a spirit also every manmade thing. Like this well, most Estonian houses in the country have a well..
Or these gloves which have been darned? Do they have a spirit?
Then we went to the sacred forest.
In the entrance was a stone and when Ahto first came here it was filled to the brim with money – roubles and Estonian crowns.
Ahto, gentle, alert, told us the traditional rules for how to be in this forest: Never harm anything in this place. If we curse our mouth might well swell up and if we relieved our physical needs other body parts might become swollen. If we even think of anything bad we might be cursed and that curse might hit not just us but our children down to the seventh generation.
Ahto told of an old man he had met – around 65 years old, being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother. He told Ahto he had once been the boss in a road making company. He had been preparing to remove some forest for a road. As he stood checking the site, an old man had approached, saying: ´Dont do this son, this is a holy ancient Hiis.´
The young boss didn’t listen and gave orders for the work to begin. Soon after this he suffered a stroke and since then has been in a wheelchair. As for the man who carried out the work – he was a normal man, didn’t drink or seem unhappy. Soon after he committed suicide.
Ahto said – ´Our ancestors came here a lot. They may have walked on a pilgrimage the further the better. Here they played music, they danced. They said that the trees spoke to them. They gave advice – you might ask them if you were thinking of marrying for example.
As we enter we should think good thoughts. Our wishes and deeds should also be pure.´ Ahto said that he himself at times speaks to trees.
Before they entered the old Estonians would greet the forest and bow to it. We did the same. We had with us red wool as they might have, and we discovered that many others had been before us.
Lastly we went to the graveyard. Outside the gates stand tall Pine trees. After the funeral the godson or another relative may cut a cross. Here is a fresh one.
Others are filled with sap, welled up as if a jewel.
Each cross looks different. The cross is said to connect the soul of the departed with the tree. The tree stopped souls from leaving the churchyard to haunt the living. Only on special times could they leave such as all souls night, Christmas eve or Easter. Then they might visit their old home.
There are about 300 of these places with crosses cut in the trees. They are not recognised by the church officially but they are not forbidden either.
In the 1990s a study was done showing that 65% of Estonians believe that trees and plants have spirits and a similar study was done in 2010.
Thanks Piret Estonias amazing storyteller for bringing me here!