Information about the pre-Christian and medieval Estonian mythology is scattered in historical chronicles, travellers' accounts and in ecclesiastical registers. Systematic recordings of Estonian folklore started in the 19th century.
Estonian mythology in old chronicles
A traveler called Wulfstan reported to the king Alfred the Great (871-899) about Estonians' burial customs that included keeping the dead unburied in the house of their relatives and friends, who would hold a wake of drinking until the day of the cremation.
According to the Chronicle of Henry of Livonia in 1222 the Estonians even disinterred the enemy's dead and burned them. It is thought that cremation was believed to speed up the dead person's journey to the afterlife and by cremation the dead would not become earthbound spirits which were thought to be dangerous to the living.
Henry of Livonia also describes in his chronicle an Estonian legend originating from Virumaa in North Estonia - about a mountain and a forest where a god named Tharapita, worshipped by Oeselians, had been born.
The solstice festival of Midsummer (Estonian: Jaanipäev) celebrating the sun through solar symbols of bonfires, the tradition alive until the present day and numerous Estonian nature spirits: the sacred oak and linden have been described by Balthasar Russow in 1578.
Mythical motifs in folklore
Some traces of the oldest authentic myths may have survived in runic songs. There is a song about the birth of the world – a bird lays three eggs and starts to lay out the nestlings – one becomes Sun, one becomes Moon and one becomes the Earth. Other Finno-Ugric peoples have also myths according to which the world has emerged from an egg.
The world of the Estonians’ ancestors is believed to have turned around a pillar or a tree, to which the skies were nailed with North Star. Milky Way (Linnutee or Birds' Way in Estonian) was a branch of the World Tree (Ilmapuu) or the way by which birds moved (and took the souls of the deceased to the other world). These myths were based on animistic beliefs.
Changes occurred in proto-Estonian mythology as a result of the contacts with Baltic and Germanic tribes, as well as the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. Personifications of celestial bodies, sky and weather deities and fertility gods gained importance in the world of the farmers. There may have been a sky and thunder god called Uku or Ukko, also called Vanaisa (Grandfather) or Taevataat (Sky Father). Proto Estonian pre-Christian deities may also have included a sky-god by name Jumal, known also by other Finnic peoples as Jumala in Finnish and Jumo in Mari. Many recorded legends and myths depicting a supreme sky god are however probably of later origin and feature Christian or foreign influences.
Estonian legends about giants (Kalevipoeg, Suur Tõll, Leiger) may be a reflection of Germanic (especially Scandinavian) influences. There are numerous legends interpreting various natural objects and features as traces of Kalevipoeg's deeds. The giant has merged with Christian Devil, giving birth to a new character – Vanapagan (a cunning demon living on his farm or manor and his farm hand Kaval-Ants (Crafty Hans).
Other mythical motiffs from Estonian runic songs:
- a mighty oak grows into the sky, is then felled and turned into various mythical objects
- Sun, Moon and Star are the suitors of a young maiden, she finally accepts the Star
- a crafty blacksmith forges a woman of gold but is not able to give her a soul or a mind
- a holy grove starts to wither after having been desecrated by a love-making couple; only the scarification of nine brothers cleanses it
- mighty heroes are not able to kill a terrible giant ox, but a little brother is
- a woman is forced to kill her daughter who then goes to live in the heaven as Air Maiden
- a girl finds a fish and asks her brother to kill it – there is a woman inside the fish
- young girls go out at night and young men from the holy grove (or the land of the dead) seduce them by offering them riches
- a lake travels to another place when it has been desecrated by an inconsiderate woman or an incestuous couple
It has been suggested, among others by ethnologist and former president Lennart Meri, that a meteorite which passed dramatically over populated regions and landed on the island of Saaremaa around 3,000-4,000 years ago was a cataclysmic event that may have influenced the mythology of Estonia and neighboring countries, especially those from whose vantage point a "sun" seemed to set in the east. In the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, cantos 47, 48 and 49 can be interpreted as descriptions of the impact, the resulting tsunami and devastating forest fires. It has also been suggested that the Virumaa-born Oeselian god Tharapita is a reflection of the meteorite that entered the atmosphere somewhere near the suggested "birthplace" of the god and landed in Oesel.
Friedrich Robert Faehlmann and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald compiled the Estonian national epic Kalevipoeg out of numerous prosaic folk legends and runo verse imitations that they themselves had written. Faehlmann also wrote eight fictional myths combining motives of Estonian folklore (from the legends and folk songs), Finnish mythology (from Ganander’s "Mythologia Fennica") and classical Greek mythology. Matthias Johann Eisen was another folklorist and writer who studied folk legends and reworked them into literary form. Many of their contemporary scholars accepted this mythopoeia as authentic Estonian mythology.
The Estonian literary mythology describes the following pantheon: The supreme god, the god of all living is Taara. He is celebrated in sacred oak forests around Tartu. The god of thunder is Uku. Uku's daughters are Linda and Jutta, the queen of the birds. Uku has two sons: Kõu (Thunder) and Pikker (Lightning). Pikker possesses a powerful musical instrument, which makes demons tremble and flee. He has a naughty daughter, Ilmatütar (Weather Maiden).
During the era of Estonian national awakening the elements in the literary mythology were quickly and readily incorporated into contemporary popular culture through media and school textbooks. It can be difficult to tell how much of Estonian mythology as we know it today was actually constructed in the 19th and early 20th century. One should also note that some constructed elements are loans from Finnish mythology and may date back to the common Baltic-Finnic heritage.
Estonian mythological and literary mythological beings, deities and legendary heroes
- Äiatar – a female demon, Devil's daughter
- Äike - Thunder
- Alevipoeg - Alev's son, a brother of Kalevipoeg
- Ebajalg - demonic whirlwind
- Ehaema - Mother Twilight, a nocturnal spirit or elf, encouraging spinning
- Eksitaja - an evil spirit who makes people lose their way in a forest or a bog
- Haldjas (the ruler) - elf, fairy, protector spirit of some place, person, plant or animal
- Hall - personification of malaria
- Hiid - a giant
- Hiiela - another world, land of the dead
- Hiieneitsid - maidens from the land of the dead
- Hiis - holy grove
- Hingeliblikas – a person's spirit in the form of a moth
- Hingeloom - a person's spirit in the form of an insect or a small animal
- Hoidja - protector, keeper
- Hämarik - personification of dusk, a beautiful young maiden
- Hännamees – a demon who stole and brought food, money and other worldly goods to its maker and owner
- Härjapõlvlane - goblin
- Ilmaneitsi, Ilmatütar - Air Maiden, Sky Maiden
- Ilmarine, Ilmasepp - a mythical blacksmith who forged among other things the Sun and the Moon (cf. Ilmarinen)
- Ilo - Joy, the hostess of feasts
- Jumal - God
- Jutta - queen of the birds, daughter of Taara
- Juudaline - demon
- Järvevana - Old Man from the Lake
- Kaevukoll - bogeyman of the well
- Kaitsja - protector
- Kalevipoeg, Kalevine, Sohni, Soini, Osmi - giant hero, mythical ancient king of Estonia
- Kalm - grave; spirit of a dead person; ruler of the land of the dead
- Kalmuneiu - Maiden of the Grave; a girl from the land of the dead
- Katk - personification of plague
- Kaval-Ants (Crafty/Sly Hans) - wicked farm hand who deceives his master Vanapagan - the Devil
- Kodukäija - a restless visitant ghost
- Koerakoonlane - a demonic warrior with a dog snout
- Koit - personification of Dawn, a young man, eternal lover of Hämarik
- Koll - bogey
- Kolumats – bogeyman
- Kratt - a demon who stole and brought food, money and other worldly goods to its maker and owner in the form of a whirlwind or meteor-like tail of fire (also called pisuhänd, tulihänd, hännamees)
- Kuu - Moon
- Kõu - Thunder; son of Uku, brother of Pikker
- Kääbas - grave, death spirit
- Külmking - a spirit of an unholy dead, eats children when they bother the forest spirits
- Lapi nõid - witch of Lapland
- Leiger (player) - a giant living in Hiiumaa island, younger brother of "Suur Tõll"
- Lendva - an illness sent by an evil witch
- Libahunt, Sutekskäija - werewolf
- Liiva-Annus or Surm - Death
- Linda - mother of Kalevipoeg
- Lummutis - ghost, wraith
- Luupainaja - incubus, nightmare
- Maa-alune - a creature living under the earth and causing illnesses
- Maajumalad - Gods of Earth
- Maaemä - Mother Earth
- Majauss - domestic grass-snake, protector spirit
- Mana - a hypothetical ruler of the dead
- Manala - land of the dead
- Manalane - inhabitant of the land of the dead
- Marras - spirit of death, predictor of death
- Mereveised - Sea cows
- Metsaema - Mother of Forest
- Metsavana - Old Man of the Forest
- Metsik - a fertility god
- Mumm - bogey, monster, ghost
- Murueide Tütred - daughters of Murueit, beautiful maidens
- Murueit - a female spirit of forest and earth, connected to the land of the dead
- Näkk - mermaid
- Nõid - witch
- Olevipoeg - the brother of Kalevipoeg, city builder, related to St Olaf
- Painaja - nightmare, incubus
- Pakane - Frost
- Pardiajaja - (< Parteigänger) half-demonic warrior
- Peko - Seto god of fertility and brewing
- Peko - a fertility god
- Peninukk - half-demonic warrior
- Peremees - Master
- Pikne, Pikker - Thunder, "The Long One"
- Piret - wife of Suur Tõll
- Pisuhänd - tail of fire, treasure-bringing goblin
- Puuk – treasure-bringing goblin
- Põrguneitsi - literally: virgin of Hell
- Päike - Sun
- Rõugutaja - a female deity, protector of the rye crops, women in labor and the city of Narva
- Sulevipoeg - Sulev's son, friend of Kalevipoeg
- Suur Tõll - giant hero living in Saaremaa Island
- Taara - the god of nature, sometimes considered supreme god
- Tharapita, Taarapita, Tarapita - mythological Osilian God of War
- Taevataat (literally Sky Father), Vanaisa ("Grandfather")
- Tallaja - trampler
- Tont - ghost
- Toonela - land of the dead
- Tooni - god of death, ruler of the dead
- Toor, Tooru - a deity known in western Estonia, related to Scandinavian Thor
- Tulihänd, Pisuhänd - "tail of fire" - flying house elf, helps to gather and protect the wealth
- Tuule-Emä - Mother Wind
- Tuuleisa - Father Wind
- Tuulispask - whirlwind
- Tuuslar - a sorcerer living in Finland
- Tõll - (see Suur Tõll)
- Täht - Star
- Udres-Kudres - serf, called "Son of the Sun", hero of folksongs
- Uku - the supreme god
- Vanemuine - the god of songs, art and literature
- Vanapagan ("The Old Heathen") Vanatühi, ("The Old Empty one"), Vanakuri ("The Old Evil One"), Vanapoiss ("The Old Boy"), Vanasarvik ("The Old Horned One") in some texts also Vanataat ("The Old Father") - The Devil
- Varavedaja - loot carrier
- Varjuline - shadowling
- Veehaldjas - spirit of the water, the weaver of a spring Ahjualune
- Veteema – Mother of Waters
- Vetevana - Water Spirit
- Virmalised - Polar Lights
Christian saints interpreted as gods:
- Jüri (St George) - god of agriculture
- Laurits (St Lawrence) - god of fire
- Mart (St Martin) - god of fertility
- Olev (St Olaf) - mythical builder of St. Olaf's Church
- Tõnn (St Anthony) - fertility god of the crops and pigs
Estonian mythical and magical objects
- White Ship (valge laev) - mythical ship that brings freedom or takes people away to a better land. This myth was born around 1860 when a small sect led by Juhan Leinberg (also known as Prophet Maltsvet) gathered near Tallinn to wait for a white ship to take them away.
- Hat of fingernails (küüntest kübar) - makes the bearer (usually Vanatühi) invisible.
- Mittens (kirikindad) – were believed to have protective or magic powers, especially church mittens and the ones that sailors wore. Mittens were (are) decorated with special geometric patterns and narrow red stripes; they have many whispers and spells in them because the crafter used to sing while making, dyeing and knitting yarn.
- Belt (kirivöö) - the belt had the most ancient and magical patterns of all the craft items, red woven belts and laces were a common item to sacrifice (they were tied to the branches of holy trees). A belt was tied around parts of body that were sick and, pulled tightly around the waist, had to protect and give strength to the bearer.
- Sacred stones - the last ice age has left a lot of great stones (erratics) in Estonia. Many of them were considered sacred and people came to them to sacrifice silver, blood, red ribbons and coins and ask for welfare and prosperity. Often, the stones have little holes in them, some of them probably used to place the sacrifice in. The meaning and function of the holes is however still disputed; according to paleoastronomer Heino Eelsalu they may have had a calendary function.
- Travelling forests - when people are mean, greedy and cruel in some place, the forests will leave this place. The most stories about travelling forests are found in coastal areas of Estonia.
- A History of Pagan Europe, P. 181 ISBN 0-415-09136-5
- The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia, Page 193 ISBN 0-231-12889-4
- Leach, Maria; Jerome Fried (1972). Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Funk & Wagnalls. ISBN 978-0-308-40090-0.
- Haas, Ain; Andres Peekna; Robert E. Walker. "ECHOES OF ANCIENT CATACLYSMS IN THE BALTIC SEA" (PDF). Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
- Lintrop, Aado (2001). "THE GREAT OAK AND BROTHERSISTER" (PDF). Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
- Kulmar, T. "On Supreme Sky God from the Aspect of Religious History and in Prehistoric Estonian Material"
- Lintrop, Aado. "THE GREAT OAK, THE WEAVING MAIDENS". Electronic Journal of Folklore. Retrieved 2008-10-26.
- Scandinavian Ghost Stories and Other Tales of the Supernatural Pennfield Press Iowa City 1995 pages 9-16
- "The Heavenly Wedding" Estonian Folktales (2005) Päär, P; Türnpu, A; Järv, R; Loigu, L. (ed), Varrak, Tallinn ISBN 9985-3-1146-9
- The Hero of Esthonia, collected Estonian tales, edited by W. F. Kirby
- Taarapita - the great god of the Oeselians, an article by Urmas Sutrop
- Introduction to Baltic Folklore from the University of Toronto