Maausk and followers of maausk in Estonia

This interview was published in September 2011 at a web magazine of Thyrsos (an Ethnikoi Hellenes Organization) named Ideon Antron on pages 16 to 26. Answers are given by Kadi-Ann Kraut, who is a member of Maavalla Koda.


1.  Please tell us a short story of Maavalla Koda for example, when and how did you start, the meaning of the name etc.

Koda means a hall or a house, and Maavalla is genitive case of the word Maavald. Maavald is the ancient traditional name of our land, now known as Estonia. Our nation started to identify itself as Estonians in mid-19th century. Before that our ancestors called themselves maarahvas – people of the land, people of the Earth (word maa has many meanings – it could be translated as a land, an earth, soil, a country). Maavald could be translated as the Authority of Earth or the Kingdom of the Country. To put it simple – in English our organization could be called The Estonian House of Native Religion.

Maavalla Koda was founded in March 1995. It was understood that in the changed social conditions the following of the customs of the indigenous religion is not possible any more without a modern religious organization. On March 14, 1995 Maavalla Koda was entered in the register of the churches and congregations of the state as a union of religious organizations. Currently Maavalla Koda consists of five local Houses of believers in Estonian indigenous religion – nature worship.

The aim of Maavalla Koda is to provide prerequisites for the maintenance and development of the indigenous religion and culture, following its creed and customs. We can freely develop as the indigenous people only when the Estonian legislation recognizes indigenous values and customs. Thus one of the tasks of Maavalla Koda is to represent the religious interests of the indigenous people in the relations with the state.

One of the most important tasks of Maavalla Koda is the introduction and evaluation of the indigenous tradition. For example, Koda compiles and publishes Estonian runic calendar that reflects indigenous chronology and festivals. Also, public lectures are held and articles published in the media to introduce the Estonian traditional religion. At the moment a documentary film is being made about the sacred groves of Estonia.

Maavalla Koda organizes the research, introduction and evaluation of the traditional culture. We have in Estonia a strong tradition of folklore research but it is based on the Western-Christian worldview. Thus Koda has to organize the research and interpretation of the indigenous tradition based on the indigenous worldview.

In 2008 Hiite Maja (literally: the house of sacred groves) Foundation was established to explore, present and support the natural sacred sites – sacred groves, trees, stones, springs, etc – as well as the broader indigenous heritage of Estonia, thus maintaining diversity in Estonian culture, landscapes and nature. The foundations activities include finding resources for the maintenance and studying of Estonian natural sacred sites, publishing information about the sacred sites, organizing events, introducing people to sacred sites, international cooperation in the field of natural sacred sites. For example, the foundation is currently organizing a general and complex survey of ancient indigenous shrines (sacred groves, holy springs, sacred trees, stones, etc.). This survey is a part of an international project in cooperation with our neighbours, the Latvians and the Swedes.

Special attention in Maavalla Koda is paid to the educational life in Estonia. Koda, together with other non-Christian religious organizations has opposed actively the introduction of the compulsory religious instruction in comprehensive schools. Koda has also emphasized that the present curriculum of the Estonian schools does not pay sufficient attention to the traditional culture and religion and treats it inadequately.

In 2001 Maavalla Koda together with Estonian Buddhist Congregation /Drikung Kagyu Ratna Shri Centre, Tibetan Buddhism Nyingma Estonian Congregation, Estonian Muslim Congregation and Tallinn Baha’i Congregation founded the Roundtable of Estonian Religious Organisations. The aim of the Roundtable of Estonian Religious Organisations is to contribute to the development of religious tolerance and religious freedom in Estonia.

In addition to the alreay mentioned, Maavalla Koda has many other challenging but also emotionally very rewarding tasks, such as organizing annual sacred site’s photo contest and consulting people who need information about our indigenous culture (how to get married in our ancestors traditional way, how to find some sacred site, how to behave in sacred grove, how to celebrate our indigenous festivals etc.).

In our five local Houses people organize various get-togethers for the members and their friends and families – to celebrate the festivals, to work together for some common target (to build a sauna for example), to learn something from each other (traditional handcrafts, local oral traditions or local dialects etc.), to visit sacred places or simply places of interest, or to sing folk songs and just have fun.

2. How many followers of the Old Faith exist in Estonia? Are they all under Maavalla Koda?

It’s difficult to estimate the number of followers of the indigenous religion. At the last census in year 2000 it wasn’t generally possible yet to get yourself registered as a follower of the Estonian native religion. The results of the next census at the beginning of year 2012 are going be interesting – it’s the first time the Estonian indigenous faith is listed among the choices of religious affiliation. Until then we have only the data collected in several surveys. For example, according to a survey done in 2002, 11 % of Estonia's population claim that out of all the religions they have the warmest feelings towards our native religions.

Estonia's religious landscape is unique and differs clearly from that of Christian countries. According to the 2000 census, only 25 % of Estonia's population claim any religion at all and belong to some religious association. Thus Estonians could be said to be a secular people. Even more drastic figures can be found to illustrate this – an international survey in 2008 showed that only 14 % of Estonian people consider religion to be important in their lives. With these numbers Estonians are ranked as the least religious nation in the world!

The secularism of Estonians has its basis in history. The Christianisation of Estonia in the 13th century took place as a result of the brutal military expansion of the Teutonic Order and the Danish kingdom. Estonians suffered great casualties. For centuries the knowledge that Christianity had been brought to Estonia by fire and sword became embedded in the psyche of the people.

During the following centuries the occupiers suppressed the beliefs and traditions of the people by clerical, administrative and military means. Despite this nature-worship was still quite vigorous at the end of the 19th century. All over the country there were sacred groves, stones, springs and trees where people went to sacrifice and pray in secret.

The traditional and also religious viewpoint of Estonian's is nature oriented and pragmatic. Therefore, Estonians are fairly sceptical towards spiritual teachings, which do not originate from empirical reality. Most Estonians have retained their connection with the nature and are therefore also open to the other traditional indigenous values. For example, 65 % of Estonians believe that trees and other plants have souls (according to the survey in 2010). It’s quite common that an Estonian asks for permission or forgiveness from a tree before cutting it. A recent survey revealed that 70 % of Estonian population considers preserving the sacred groves and other natural sacred sites to be important.

Estonian secularism of today is actually quite similar to nature-worship. Several ancient customs are still observed, for instance bonfires at midsummer, before the winter solstice the season of souls is observed, before feast days a sauna is traditional.

From the followers of the native religion only a small percentage is a member of Maavalla Koda, but we consider this to be absolutely natural. Being an official member of a religious organisation is by no means necessary among the followers of the old faith. Most of the main aspects of our religious life and traditions are very intimate and home- and family-orientated. The organization is for those who are socially more active and who just enjoy the company of people who share the same values. Besides, many of our get-togethers are open to non-members.

3. Which is the status between the state and the Old Believers? Does the State show tolerance to the different religions in your country?

The status between the state and Maavalla Koda as a legal, registered religious organisation is official and the relations are mostly sensible. The religious intolerance is generally not a problem in Estonia. Nevertheless over the years there have been several issues where Koda has had to defend the religious interests and legal rights of the indigenous people in the relations with the state.

According to the Estonian constitution we have a freedom of religious beliefs, and the separation of the church and the state is also prescribed in our constitution. In spite of that, the state provides several legislative and financial concessions to the Christian religious organizations.

Some hopeful steps towards more constructive cooperation with the state have been made in recent years. For example, in 2008 Ministry of Culture approved the conservation plan “Sacred Natural Sites in Estonia: Study and Maintenance” for the years 2008–2012. The plan aims to protect and value Estonia’s material and spiritual heritage, including reviewing and mapping all the sacred groves and other sacred natural sites and arranging the protection of them. Unfortunately carrying out of this plan has got entangled as the government hasn’t provided it with the promised financial support.

There are more than 2500 historical sacred natural sites in Estonia. Protecting and studying them is one of the main tasks of Maavalla Koda. Some of these sacred sites were under the state protection in soviet times already, many are yet unprotected. There are many cases where the owner of the land (a private owner, the local authorities or the state) plans to destroy the sacred site in order to gain some material benefit. It’s hard to understand people who cut the sacred grove to sell timber or who build a skiing centre on a sacred hill. On such occasions Maavalla Koda has to use all the possible legal means up to the Supreme Court to protect these sites from destruction.

To help preventing such an ignorant violence against our common inheritance, a support group for the sacred natural sites was founded in Estonian Parliament in May 2011.

4. Can you tell us about your major fests? Which are they and which times of the year do you celebrate them?

Native Estonians experience time as a circle. In our climate winter, spring, summer and autumn follow one another. Every coming of a new season means great changes in temperature and vegetation. All nature is changing constantly and with great contrasts, but everything will come around again. The holidays and customs of native Estonians designate the breaking points of nature. During the festivals we follow the customs of our ancestors to gain power from nature.

The most important holidays of native Estonians are:
1) jõulud (December 21 – 24): winter solstice, the end of souls' time and the beginning of the year (December 25th);
2) munapühad, suvisted: the arrival of spring. In northern and southern Estonia spring arrives and therefore is celebrated in different times (March or April in the south, May or June in the north);
3) leedopäev (June 23th): summer solstice, midsummer night;
4) kasupäev (September 29th): the end of the harvest, the beginning of the winter half-year and the beginning of the souls' time.
In addition to those, native believers of Estonia celebrate many other holidays.

5. Can you inform us about the major deities of your Pantheon and a brief summary of your Theology and the Values that represents?

The Estonian native religion was never created, it has arisen and changed in this country together with it’s people during innumerable generations. Estonia has been inhabited for about 10000 years. Our nation and religion are considered just as old.

Just as our native language varies and has different dialects in different regions, so does the religion vary. We meet somewhat different customs in different regions. For example, as I already mentioned, in the southern and western regions the arrival of spring is celebrated some weeks before than in the northern regions. The variability of the native religion arises from different landscapes, weather, languages and cultural contacts. That’s also why we emphasize the importance of knowing where your roots are.

To be an adherent of the Estonian native religion means to know and evaluate the tradition. In our customs, beliefs, attitudes but most of all our language there are many elements similar to those of our ancestors. This part of the tradition that has reached our time, often indescribable, that we gain from home by personal experience, is the most important.

Also important is the tradition written down and gathered into the funds of different museums during the last 150 years in nationwide campaigns. In Estonia we have one of the world’s largest folklore collections. The data from the ancient chronicles and the earliest literature are also of interest.

The Estonian native religion is a nature worship. For us the nature is animated and the human being is not seen as a master of all other living creatures as in Christianity. Everything that dwells, has a soul - the stars, the Moon, the Sun, water, fire, earth. Man is only one animated being among many others. Human beings together with stones, plants and animals have a common mother – the Earth. We are in a thousand ways connected to the Earth and nature.

In our tradition particular gods and guardian spirits represent different forces of nature, but there is a local variability and no complete hierarchy system or Pantheon. Mother Earth, Father Sky or Thunder, Mother Water and Mother Fire have been perhaps most commonly known and traditionally worshipped over the country, and in addition to them we know of some local fertility gods and home guardian spirits such as Peko and Tõnn.

Besides the nature (or as a part of the nature) we honour our ancestors. According to the native belief, man's life doesn't end with his death. The dead relatives come back to visit us on certain festivals. In our thoughts we are always together with them, we can ask for an advice or tell them about our grief. The living and the dead are strong together. The souls of departed relatives spend the time from the end of September until Christmas at home. This period is known as the season of the souls and is sacred. The souls are eagerly awaited. In preparation for their coming the house is tidied, a feast is prepared, the sauna is heated. The same is done at the end of the season of the souls when they are sent back to the other world. Even those Estonians, who do not profess the indigenous faith or any other religion, usually light a candle on the second of November, the eve of the season of the souls, and place it in the window so that those lost would find their way home.

We don’t build cathedrals – the sacred groves are our sanctuaries. They are the sacred places of tens and tens of generations where people go on more important festivals or other important occasions. We can talk to the powers of nature there, experience peace and gain power. They are the places where we feel the presence of our ancestors, who have been there years ago.

A sacred grove is a limited area together with ancient trees, stones, bodies of water (springs for example) and plants. Sometimes a swing and a fireplace are built in a sacred grove or near it. Before going to the grove body and mind are purified; in the grove it's not allowed to have bad thoughts, to swear, to break twigs or to gather plants. It's not allowed to be drunk or do any kind of cruel deeds. There are many folk stories about people who have broken these laws and were punished by the powers of the grove.

As I’ve already told, we have more than 2500 historical sacred natural sites in Estonia. (That’s only the number of the sites we know of today – but there are certainly many more, up to this time known only to the local people.) It’s a rare legacy we treasure, but at the same time it’s a big responsibility.

As a matter of fact, the sense of responsibility is considered very important among our people. The gnostic ideology of our religion is reflected in the Estonian language where there is neither gender nor future tense. Therefore there is no polarity of opposites, nor absolute goodness and evil in our traditional way of thinking. But there is always a result for every act. The cognitive emphasis is directed at the past and the present. What has been done cannot be undone, and the responsibility for what one has done cannot be annulled.

Among the attitudes of our people another of the central terms is harmony or enjoyment. If you want your life to be enjoyable, you must be in harmonious relations with other people, ancestors and the powers of nature. Healthy food, harmonious environment and other natural things belong to this kind of life-style.

When the followers of the Estonian indigenous faith are told that their faith is not a religion they generally agree, adding that it is something much more than a religion. Our native religion is our language (or dialects or vernacular), our songs, our customs, our beliefs, our archetypes and culture. The roots of Estonian native religion are thousands of years old, it’s a tradition that binds us to our land. It is an oral tradition that is passed on via stories, sayings, proverbs, songs and tacit attitudes. It has never been created, and there are no holy men, no dogmas nor scripture. It provides a culturally consistent harmony between our people and their environment. To put it simply, the Estonian native religion is a survival teaching that has enabled a settled people and its individual members to survive and live in harmony with themselves, other people and the forces of nature.

6. Some fellow folks including us I may say, believe that in our days, the need for solidarity and communications amongst Polytheists are stronger than ever and that maybe it is time to change our policy of actions as it is today, what is your opinion about that?

The communication amongst other indigenous nations and the followers of indigenous religions is naturally enrichening for all the parts included. It enables us all to learn valuable things from each other’s experiences. Living in mental isolation leads to ignorance and intolerance. Unfortunately the resources for wide cooperation (time, skilled people, finances) tend to be limited. So far the main direction of cooperation for Maavalla Koda has been our kindred peoples – the followers of the indigenous faith of the Finno-Ugrian peoples, but we also value highly our contacts with other indigenous people, the Native Americans for example.

In relations with other religions the general sequence of preferences for Maavalla Koda is following: nature worship of the Uralic peoples, nature worship of other peoples, ancient indigenous religions, new ethnic nature religions, world religions.

7. Do you find the uprising of the indigenous religions as a Curve of reaction because of the today’s problems or it is a full come back of the true values of the Indigenous Ethnic theologies?

It’s hard to say. There often is some major crisis before big turning points or changes in life. When something crucial is about to happen, you have to wake up and start acting instead of being passive. When speaking about individuals, many people have learned to appreciate traditional values and traditional way of life when they have found out by experience that modern, rootless, money-orientated rush trough the life doesn’t give them the satisfaction they were seeking. So returning to the tradition could be seen as a curve of reaction to today’s problems.

On the other hand, there are so many people in Maavalla Koda, for whom no such turn or conversion has ever been necessary, people, who have carried the same traditional values for generations in their family. For such people the indigenous faith is by no means a fashionable whim but a natural way of life.

But it’s not always obvious, especially for outsiders, what’s traditional and what’s new, what’s indigenous and what’s borrowed, what’s superficial and what’s deep – both in culture and in individual’s mind.

As for the full comeback of the true values of indigenous theologies – I don’t believe in such a thing as a full comeback. Life is in constant change, and change is a natural thing. Yes, some old things come back in waves of cycles and we also may say that the basics of life never change. Yet we can never go back to some point or period in history, we can never fully reconstruct the life that once was. We can’t even claim to have the same theology as our ancestors once had – we don’t live the same life in the same time as they did. So we can’t be a hundred percent sure what they were thinking and feeling about different aspects of life. They lived in a different reality! Yes, we may know a lot about our history and our cultural inheritance, but never everything. So the full comeback could only be an illusion and therefore it is not something desirable for us.

8. Ethnicity and Democracy are threaten from the economic politics and the globalization it seems that a few people on the planet decided to conquer and prevail upon all Nations and also it seems that they want to create federations instead of free Nations .. .. Which are your thoughts about that?

It’s up to these nations themselves. It’s obvious that money wants to rule everywhere. Nations who have traditional values and strong cultural identity, who are aware and proud of themselves are less threatened by the temptations of money power. At least I hope so.

Freedom and independence, in whatever level or in whatever aspect of life is, on the one hand, the most natural thing, but on the other hand, should never be taken for granted. We must be constantly aware of the fact that freedom is a fragile thing and we have to earn it with our everyday choices.

9. Do you think that science destroyed the theological and Mythological way of believing and thinking or it has proved them? In other words the Polytheistic ideology and believing does it goes against science as monotheism does?

I’d say that in many ways science has proven our traditional beliefs and our way of life as well as our traditional values to be reasonable and suitable for us in this specific place on Earth. Well, everyday life itself has proven our ancestors way of life – living in harmony with our environment, our nature – to be suitable, coherent and effective for centuries.

Anyway, there’s no need to see an opposition between science and Maavalla Koda as we use the means of science in our work – research of sacred sites and cultural inheritance. Several of the members of Koda are well-known university teachers and notified researchers.

But as for relations between science and mythology – there are some remarkable examples how archaeology and also other sciences have proven right some events that have been preserved in nation’s oral memory for hundreds or even for thousands of years. So science finally proves something considered to be folklore, to be an actual historical event after all.

Perhaps the most well-known and amazing among such stories is the case of Kaali meteorite. In about 7th century BC an iron meteorite crashed on island Saaremaa (also known as Ösel) on the west coast of Estonia. The meteorite crater is still there today, there is a lake called Kaali in it. The lake has been considered to be sacred by our ancestors for centuries (and still is) and there is archaeological evidence that it was a place of ritual sacrifice.

The lake’s origin, i.e. the meteorite catastrophe was scientifically proven in 1937. But the remarkable thing is that the memory of this event, this catastrophe, most certainly shocking for those who witnessed it, has been carried to our days in numerous legends and songs.

In 19th century several runic songs were written down from Estonia as well as from Finland and Latvia, that most clearly describe Kaali catastrophe – the Sun crashing down and even dying, the Earth burning etc. In some of these songs written down by folklore researchers and sung by old people who had heard them from their ancestors, the event is described in details (meteorite’s falling direction, the place where it crashed, the impact on environment) which match perfectly with the scientist’s version of the event.

It’s important to point out that these songs were written down quite some time before the scientific discovery of the meteorite, so it’s clear that these songs are far older than our science-based knowledge of this meteor – it could be said that the songs are as old as the event itself.

(By the way – the Kaali catastrophe may have been noticed even further in Europe. For example, some researchers have an opinion that the tragic legend of Phaethon, the Helios’ son could be connected to the Kaali meteorite. There’s also a theory that it is possible that Saaremaa was the legendary Thule island, first mentioned by ancient Greek geographer Pytheas, and Kaali was considered the place where, according to Pytheas, "The sun went to rest.")

10. Do you have some future plans in Maavalla Koda regarding the spreading of your faith among your people?

The general view among the members of Maavalla Koda is that religious missionary work is not acceptable – we don’t do soul-hunting! Koda has quite actively been presenting his doings and views in Estonian media, especially in recent years, but it’s rather presenting our nation’s traditional cultural inheritance and indigenous traditions when media shows an interest in these matters, not speaking about Maavalla Koda as an organization. Those who join us have found us by their own interest and initiative, and they already have been interested in our indigenous culture and are keen to know more about their roots. The interest towards us as well as the appreciation of traditional values and the indigenous culture has increased year by year, and of course, we are glad about it – what could be more natural than a native Estonian being an adherent of the Estonian native faith and traditions, i.e. being aware and proud of his cultural legacy.

But as the Estonian native religion is only the religion of the indigenous people of Estonia and is an inseparable entity together with our land, traditional culture and native languages, the mission of this religion among other nations is in no way possible. The adherents of that religion think that every people must follow their own historical (pre-Christian) religion. Ancient religions reflect wisdom and experience, which enables us to live in harmony with nature and ourselves.