The importance of cultural memory
Archived Articles 17 Mar 2006 Alfred SarougheEWR
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Ants Viires. Old Estonian Folk Life. Translated by Mart Aru. Ilo Publishing House, Tallinn, 2004, ISBN 9985-57-573-3

Ethnologist Ants Viires is without doubt one of those unsung, little known outside his field, yet significant Estonians of the twentieth century. Up until the publication of this very valuable book, his extensive contribution to keeping our cultural memory alive was available primarily in Estonian. For those more at home in English rather than their ancestral tongue, Old Estonian Folk Life is a must read. It provides contact with the roots of our ancestors, allowing better understanding of our unique nature and culture.

Viires, born in 1918, has devoted his life to researching Estonian folk culture and folk life, and every book with the author's imprimatur confirms his passion for the cultural history of his people. The author began collecting ethnographic lore during the first period of Estonian independence, and it speaks volumes about the determination of the Estonian people during Soviet occupation that Viires was able to publish in his mother tongue his findings and studies. Since independence was regained, some of his works have seen reprint, as is the case, for example, with the splendid Puud ja inimesed (Trees and People). His latest publications include a collection of articles Kultuur ja traditsioon (Culture and Tradition), 2001, and Meie jõulude lugu (The Story of Our Christmas), 2002, which provides and overview of historical traditions as well as recent trends in how Estonians celebrate Christmas.

Ants Viires also edited the highly acclaimed Eesti rahvakultuuri leksikon, (Lexicon of Estonian Folk Culture), the 2nd edition of which was published in 2000, and was co-editor and co-compiler with Elle Vunder of the indispensable Eesti rahvakultuur (Estonian Folk Culture), 1998.

This welcome book is based on that life work. About the only shortcoming of this volume is that there is no indication as to whether this is an original work or a compendium of earlier efforts. Translated by Mart Aru, Old Estonian Folk Life is truly that rare Estonian book in English that reads as if the original thoughts were penned in the latter language. To truly reach the reader clearly, understandably and concisely is an excellent achievement. The translation is superb on this level.

The book addresses the key points of Estonian culture, which have always rested on certain principles. Changing along with the world around us, these characteristics have shaped the Estonian people. Viires addresses the foundations, the groundwork of the forces that shaped Estonian life over the course of the centuries. That essence of being an Estonian was critical to the development of nationality, leading to the awakening of our people in the 19th century, and then to the emergence of the independent Estonian nation.

Although the circumstances have thoroughly changed during the past century, this truthful picture of the old Estonian way of life and the basis of its development can and will help the reader to understand not only the life of Estonians today, but also their links with the past.

It is our daily life that gives us understanding. It is the central part of human culture, known on a scholarly level as folk life. The farther we go into Estonia's past, the fewer sources there are about Estonian folk life. Even more difficult to get a feel for what it was like to live in an agrarian society, where knowledge of the natural world was but a starting point.

The 19th century, which has been extensively studied, having roots back to the prehistoric period, is the starting point of this book. Viires goes, when necessary, even further back in time, to introduce and/or explain individual phenomena and look at the Estonian spheres of life.

The book is divided into clear, well-researched chapters. Beginning with the "Where we come from, who and what we are" introduction, the segues are seamless. Among them are the Estonian relationship with the Living Environment, Beauty and Joy, Landmarks and Highlights of Life, and Handicraft. Viires ends with a look toward the future, analyzing modern development trends, speculating on the direction of the Estonian people.

Illustrated with a large number of drawings, photographs and reproductions, this is no overview but rather a cultural anthropological guide. It is certain to captivate Estonians interested in their past, as Viires shines the torch as bearer of cultural memory. Estonians the world over, world-leaders at home today in the IT revolution, and searching for national identity and understanding abroad, would do well to read this book, to know how the nation came to be. The historic values, beliefs and understandings of the Estonian culture are unique, and as Viires emphasizes, the bedrock of our nation.

(Note: This book is among the many English language books that can be borrowed for a three week period from the Tartu College Estonian Studies Library, now accessible from the Madison Avenue entrance to the building, open on Tuesdays and Fridays 11 AM - 3 PM during the academic year.)

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