What dreadful summer weather! I went to my ancestral homelands to share the Jaanipäeva holiday with my cousins. Many is the year we have sat by Käsmu bay in our raincoats warmed by the Jaanituul and alcohol. But this year there was no chance of getting the rain-sodden Jaani-sticks to ignite. We stayed indoors and made do with the warmth of the liquor.
Käsmu is timeless. The hand of man (or woman) rests lightly on the sea, shore and forests: the village changes very little and very slowly. Everything is reassuringly predictable. The wooden houses of the sea people teeter on the edge of a bay littered with rocks left behind by ice-age glaciers including some very large ones with affectionate names such as Vana Jüri. The same people, the same routines, the same (simple but delicious) food. The cousins are always busy about the house and garden and keeping folk safe from the “perils on the sea,” to quote “Eternal father, strong to save,” the hymn of the British Navy. The last lines “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea” were later adapted for coastguards such as my cousin, navy nurses, submariners, astronauts (“O hear us when we seek thy grace, for those who soar through outer space”) and arctic explorers (“As they thy frozen wonders learn, bless those who wait for their return”).
There is always something interesting bobbing about in Käsmu Bay. A pirate raft appeared once - a wooden hut with a straw roof built on planks with ragged sails, an oil lamp swinging in the breeze and a gangplank. I suppose the idea came from Pirates of the Caribbean, but Baltic Sea pirates easily rival the Caribbean ones – one reason that the Germans, Danes and Swedes invaded our lands was to control the Estonian ‘Vikings’ (‘viking’ means pirate). Henry of Livonia writes in his chronicle of the northern crusades, that the Estonians were skilled sailors. A small Viking boat now rides the waves at Käsmu and I note with interest that two have been dug up on Saaremaa. I am sure there are more both on the islands and the ‘Rootsi rand,’ awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel.
In the 1390’s a gang of pirates called ‘The Victual Brothers’ made life in the Baltic Sea a misery for merchants and kings. They were hired by German dukes in Pomerania to stop the Danes controlling Scandinavia - the name ‘Victual’ Brothers refers to their first mission to bring provisions (Latin victualia) to a besieged Stockholm. The Brothers came from all over Europe and raided as far as Turku and Vyborg, now in Russia. Their battle cry was "God is our friend and the whole world our enemy". Trade and the herring industry suffered greatly. The Hanse succeeded in taking the Brother’s headquarters (on Gotland island, now in Sweden) in 1398 but this did not stop piracy.
The Brother’s successors were the Likedeelers (meaning “to share equally”) who shared their plunder with the poor. Their leader was Klaus Störtebeker who could swallow four litres of beer at once - his surname name means, "to empty a mug with one gulp.” In 1401 the warship “Brindled Cow” (great name but not very war-like!) captured Störtebeker and legend says he offered a chain of gold to encircle Hamburg in exchange for his life but he was sentenced to death. The mayor agreed to release those crewmembers Störtebeker could walk past after his head had been chopped off and he saved eleven men before the executioner tripped him. The great pirate’s famous beer mug was kept in Hamburg Town Hall until it was destroyed in the fire of 1842.
But, back to Lääne Virumaa - the perfect place to rummage around for our ancient pre-colonial Eesti! The small, ancient cemetery at Tõugu near Käsmu is in the middle of nowhere now but it was once a sacred place for four settlements. It has one of the mysterious boulders found all over Estonia (over 1,750) with shallow saucers in the surface. The one on Tartu Toomemägi was old when the Crusaders arrived in the 1220s. These venerable old stones were probably a simple alter for Estonian animistic pagans but as the ancestors never wrote anything down we can never be sure. The earliest Tõugu grave dates from the late Bronze (1000 – 500 BC) or the Early Iron Age (700- 500BC). Not that I wish to give the impression that Eesti was heaving with blast furnaces producing metals in the ancient world. The territory has neither copper or tin (for making bronze) and the measly few metal artifacts that have been found are imports. Tools and weapons were mostly made of flint, stone and horn. Things had improved a little in the technology department by around 0000 when the locals learned how to smelt iron from bog ore – a long and tedious process but common in north Europe – Vikings wielded some bog iron weapons when raping and pillaging.
The oldest Tõugu grave is a round cist (a hole with sides faced with slabs) that was common in Europe to the end of antiquity. It was excavated in the mid 1990s and human ashes and the remains of a headless adult (not Störtebeker) were found. More head business crops up in later Tõugu graves with the remains of an 8-year old who was, apparently, scalped – the only instance of such in Estonia. Another grave contained the head of a new born. Interesting! Heads were important to the ancient Celts who believed the head housed the soul: they had a cult of the severed head and collected heads as battle trophies. Is there a connection?
What were our ancestors doing from the third century BC onwards, the era of the rise of empire in China, Greece, Carthage, Rome and the Central American Maya, while the great religions of the world were being formed by Buddha, Confucius and Jewish rabbis and someone was inventing the camel saddle (very useful when travelling the great Silk Road that connected traders in Asia, north Africa and Europe)? There were few grave goods at Tõugu. It seems the ancestors were just as modest and frugal as modern Estonians – eight centuries yielded a bracelet, a piece of wire, a sickle and some knife fragments.
Have a good summer (when it eventually arrives)!
July's Bird Droppings from Estonia: Timeless Käsmu