Wednesday, September 15, 2010

History Of Estonia 101: Part Two

Since the PMC has been going for some 60 years here in Estonia, during which time we've seen such comings and goings as the regaining of independence, the imminent introduction of the Euro, and the Beatles concerts at the Lauluväljak, we feel fully qualified to present this, a multi part set of posts on the history of Estonia which will appear, now and again as we're given time.
There's unlikely to be anything new for Estonians, who therefore don't need to read on unless they want to check we're not peddling complete mistruths. The sources are likely to be the usual internet sites such as wikipedia and any links that arise therefrom, but this should save the reader some time in finding all this stuff themselves, the one or two books we have on the subject, and maybe the occasional word of mouth stuff.
You might also want to check out our posts about a year ago now, on the Estonian language.
At the very least we hope to dispel any misconceptions of Estonia being a slavic speaking country, being located in the Balkans or being a place with a lot of stones (although this last is in fact true)...

Part Two: Of Iron, mythology and the first documented mention of Estonia

One particularly cataclysmic event in Estonian history took place towards the end of the Bronze Age (see previous post) in around 660 BC (give or take 85 years on way or the other) and for once it wasn't caused by human beings. A meteorite struck the island of Saaremaa (literally 'island land') with an impact comparable with the Hiroshima atom bomb and quite probably a comparable amount of destruction. There are various theories as to the impact's influencing the folklore and mythology of the area (e.g. the making of a new sun, ordered by the god Ukko, in the Finnish Kalevala, a spark from which was in fact the meteor(ite) and even a theory that Saaremaa was the location of the Thule of Greek legend, the name deriving from the Finno-Ugric word for fire ('tuli')).

Whatever else happened, the meteorite left a big crater (in fact 9 craters of varying size) which no doubt held mystical and religious significance. During the Iron Age (see below) the largest crater, the 'Kaali crater' was apparently enclosed by a 2 metre high, 2.5 metre thick stone wall. In fact it was only in the twentieth century that the origins of the crater were found to be meteroritic; it had previously been thought to have been of volcanic origin.

After 1000 years or so the Bronze Age in Estonia gave way to the 'Pre-Roman' Iron Age, around 500 BC as it did in much of Northern Europe. Actually this was of course the only Iron Age that occured here, the Romans never venturing anywhere near this part of the world, but the period after c 50AD is termed the Roman Iron Age for convenience sake - Roman expansion into parts of Northwestern Europe around this time, reaching a peak under Trajan in the early 2nd Century, meant that Roman influence, if nothing else, arrived in the form of trade; small quantities of Roman coins and other artefacts have been found. Smelting techniques were developed from iron ore found locally from around the first century BC.

We can speak of regional differences emerging during this period too; South Estonia had more contact with areas to the south via land, whereas seafaring tended to predominate in northern and western areas. Correspondingly it has been hypothesized that three broad dialects of 'Estonian', namely northern, southern and western (including the islands) existed by this time, distinctions which continue down to the present.

This Iron Age lasted for an incredibly long time; convention holds the end date to be around the year 1200 AD, shortly after which the Baltic Crusades began, and Estonian indepedence began to be eroded, not to be recovered again until the twentieth century. The first tantalizing possibility of documented recording of the existence of Estonia came from the Roman writer Tacitus in the 1st Century AD, who referred to a tribe known as 'Aestii'. Howver, it seems likely that these Aestii were in fact Baltic tribes living somewhat to the south, in modern day Žemaitija, Lithuania, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. In the following century Ptolemy, the Greek speaking Roman citizen from Egypt, mentions the 'Osilians' as dwelling in the Baltic. These were most likely the inhabitants of Saaremaa (the Germanic name for the island was 'Oesel'). The Osilians became quite notorious sea warriors, and a battle between them and Icelandic vikings off the coast of Saaremaa in 972 AD is recounted in the Icelandic Njal's Saga. They were nevertheless apparently defeated on the land, by a Norwegian invading force led by Olaf the Holy in 1008. The first proper reference to Estonia came in the writings of the Roman Cassiodorus, who was in the service of the Ostrogoths since the Western Roman Empire had already capitulated, in the sixth century AD.

Estonia did not remain a quiet corner of Europe, however, and even seems to have become quite wealthy. Various hoards of coins including Dirham coins from the Islamic world have been found over northern Estonia, including those at Maidla, Kumna and Kose, and a large proportion of the coins found were of Anglo-Saxon origin. Estonia of course remained a pagan land throughout this period (one wonders that, with the Dirham hoard, it didn't become Islamic after the 7th century AD) and were reputedly experts in wind magic. The national epic the Kalevipoeg presumably looks back to this period, though it wasn't compiled until the 19th Century. The folk were polytheistic, and then some, with gods including the aforementioned Ukko (also known as the 'Vanaisa', or grandfather) and a sky god called 'Jumal', the modern Estonian word for 'God'. Mythical motifs often appearing in runic songs included a girl finding a fish and asking her brother to kill it; on doing so a woman was found inside the fish, and a lake travelling to another location after desecration by an incestuous couple...Former president the late Lennart Meri spent a great part of his life researching the shamanistic religious cults of Finno-Ugric groups in what is now northern Russia in an attempt to shed more light on the religious practices of his own forebears.

As the Estonians were coming more and more into contact with their western neighbours, the same can also be said of the neighbours to the east, who were in the process of becoming Christianized. The monk Nestor wrote that in 1030 Yaroslav the Wise invaded the country of the 'Chudes' (which derives either from a Russian word meaning 'strange', or an entirely different term meaning 'wonderful' or 'attractive' - take your pick!) founding the town of Yuriev, modern-day Tartu. These developments however weren't necessarily all one way; it is plausible that the 'Chudes' were one of the founding tribes of Kievan Rus', the first Russian state as such.

Political and administrative developments continued apace during this time as well. The county (Maakond) and parish (Kihelkond) developed during these centuries, and a notable circular rampart fortress was built at Varbola. By the end of our period, on the eve of the Baltic crusades, the counties (in their modern terminology) included Saaremaa, Revala, Sakala, Virumaa and Ugandi. Incidentally the Finnish and Lativan names for Estonia, Viro and Igaunija respectively, seem to derive from these last two places.

But none of this was going to last forever...

Part one is here..

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