Merili Metsvahi
Pre-modern Estonian Peasant's Relationship with the Lakes and Rivers

Klipi teostus: Kikee Doma Bhutia, ZOOM 12.08.2021 500 vaatamist Folkloristika

Lecture Series "Unraveling Tales: Exploring Intersections between Folkloristics and Literature" - 8th July to 26th August 2021

This presentation introduces folk beliefs that reflect peasants’ relationship with the bodies of water in the Middle Ages and Early Modernity. Since the objective is to get closer to the ways how Estonian peasants perceive the world, this study does not use the concept of “nature”. Moreover, nature as a separate category distinct from humanity has not existed in most societies. Such a dualistic way to conceptualise the world appeared among European intellectuals in the 17th century. Rivers and lakes reacted to peoples’ behaviour. Unacceptable behaviour could influence the environment in such a way that a lake could move from one place to another, or an entirely new lake could come into being. For instance, in 1489, monk Siegbert wrote down a story about the creation of the lake Valgjärv, that appeared in the place where the people were celebrating the marriage between brother and sister. Similarly, the ability to punish people was attributed to rivers, as well. For example, when the flow of the holy river Pühajõgi was blocked because the manor owner had ordered the building of a dam and a mill on the river in 1642, the weather turned terrible. For the peasants living along the banks of the Pühajõgi, the blocking of the normal flow of the river and continuous bad weather were undeniably connected. In order to please the river, the peasants organised a revolt and destroyed the watermill. Although these peasants were harshly punished, the final result was beneficial for them and for the environment – watermills were never built on that river anymore. In this paper I use the neo-animistic approach in my attempt to discover how Estonian peasants understood their relationship with the environment.

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