Maria Michelson on the Cultural Traditions of Kihnu Island, Estonia

| Published: | Updated: July 31, 2022 | , , , ,

Kihnu Island, Estonia

Maria Michelson is a steward of Kihnu Island’s unique cultural heritage. Photo: Meg Pier

Maria Michelson studied anthropology and is a cultural liaison with the Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation, located on the seventh-largest of the 1,500 islands off the coast of Estonia, in the Gulf of Riga. UNESCO proclaimed Kihnu’s cultural space and traditions as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003. These practices have ancient roots and include attire, songs, dances, wedding ceremonies and handicrafts, all preserved as a result of the island’s geographic isolation, a strong sense of community spirit and the Kihnu people’s steadfast attachment to the customs of their ancestors.

I spent a day with Maria during an August visit to Estonia and stayed as a guest in her aunt’s home. Our time together was a window into the Kihnu culture and an education on the various factors that contribute to the development — and maintenance — of traditions unique to a particular people. The visit with Maria was also a lovely reminder that while it is essential to honor the differences that make us special, it is also important to remember our common heritage in the human condition. Maria and I realized we has shared a similar experience of lifestyles involving periods of intense interaction with others, followed by stretches of solitary time. We forged a connection in discussing the need for balance. That concept of equilibrium was borne out in this conversation with Maria, which covers both Kihnu’s past and present and offers an instructive look at the successful integration of old and new.

Exploring Kihnu Island’s Heritage, Ancient Practices & Human Need for Balance

The coastline of the remote Kihnu Island, reached by a ferry from the cape of Lao on Tõstamaa Peninsula. Photo: Meg Pier

Meg: Can you describe Kihnu Island?

Maria: Kihnu Island is a small island located in the South-West of Estonia, 10 km from the mainland, with four villages on its 16.8 square kilometers – Rootsiküla, Linaküla, Sääreküla and Lemsi, inhabited by around 600 people total all year round. Life on the island is a mixture of modern and traditional.

Kihnu Island has a rather interesting and colorful local culture and this is mainly why the island is filled with tourists in the summer season – there are about 15,000 visitors each summer. Wintertime, on the other hand, is quite quiet. In the summer two ferries serve the passengers daily, but when ice starts paving the road to mainland, a tiny (8 seats) airplane will have to satisfy the locals’ needs. Of course, when there is fog or too much wind, the airplane will not fly. If this should happen, there is a hovercraft ready. And depending on the winter, there can be an ice-road for a rather long time. Nevertheless, it still happens that you have to be ready to sometimes wait for days before getting to the mainland, or home.

Every house on the island has a name and locals are called by that name. Kihnu people also speak a local dialect, which is rather different from the Estonian language. Almost every farm cultivates land and therefore has their own vegetables and fruits. It is also common for a farm to have sheep, chicken, and while less nowadays, also horses, cows and pigs.

Men are mostly fishermen or work on ships–local ferries, but also on the big seas. I guess the call of the sea is very strong even nowadays. Some men are also entrepreneurs. Women work mostly in the culture sphere or in state institutions, also in tourism. It is common for women to wear traditional skirts (kört) and kerchiefs every day. Although modern life has settled into everyday life – there is internet, television, mobile connection, machines, home appliances, paved roads – they are side by side with ancient traditions, customs and belief. What makes Kihnu so charming is the fact that locals can go about doing their jobs, surfing on Facebook and then naturally sing 1,000 years old wedding songs and knit very fine traditional stockings.

Meg: Can you describe the Kihnu Cultural Space?

Traditional Kihnu home. Photo: Meg Pier

Maria: Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation was founded in 2002 in connection with applying for UNESCO’s list of cultural heritage masterpieces. The foundation’s goal is to develop and preserve Kihnu way of life. We teach traditional musical instruments to children – violin, accordion, guitar and diatonic accordion. We organize two festivals a year – Kihnu Mere Pidu in the summer and Violin Festival in autumn, plus smaller traditional events. The foundation is currently developing Metsamaa farm, which will in a few years be a traditional culture and music center. We also publish a local newspaper Kyne, which appears in Kihnu dialect. Kihnu Cultural Space is also engaged in valuing and selling the local handicraft through an internet shop and database, giving locals the chance to have a year-round income through selling their products. We help organize the traditional three-day weddings, starting from applying for money from different funds; to helping prepare the dowry. The foundation arranges trips to international folklore festivals all over the world.

Since it is a small organization, I get to do everything from making money applications and guiding tours to driving musicians around the island and cleaning up after parties. I started learning violin less than a year ago and now I am teaching children. I am also in charge of the Kihnu internet shop and handicraft database.

It is actually funny how I moved to Kihnu in the first place – I went to university in Tallinn at the time and to write my final thesis I had to do at least one month of fieldwork. Since my thesis was about selling the culture and tourism in Kihnu, I had to figure out a way to spend the necessary amount of time on the island. I had a full-time well-paying job in Tallinn. I had been working on the logistics for a few days when suddenly the manager of the community center of Kihnu called me and offered me a job as a cultural worker. It was clear that this was a sign.

This was 2.5 years ago and the first event we planned together was Midsummer’s day, which is one of the biggest events in Kihnu. I loved the job, but in the winter period it was part-time. The first winter it was alright since I had time to work on my thesis, but the second winter I started to look for an extra job. The Cultural Space Foundation needed someone to do the Kihnu internet shop and offered me the place. In time I started learning–and then teaching–violin and began helping out with other things in the Foundation. Eventually, I had to make a choice between the community center and Foundation. I feel like in the Foundation I have more freedom and opportunities to make something happen, even though the workdays can be very long. But it is certainly worth it.

Locals rent out rooms in their homes to visitors. Everyday life features colorful traditional textiles and music! Photos: Meg Pier

Meg: Estonia is known as one of the most “wired” countries in the world–could you describe the role of the internet in Kihnu?

Maria: In Kihnu most houses have internet and there is a free internet point in the community center. It is absolutely irreplaceable since you can do all the transactions and communicating on line. Going to Pärnu (Ed note: on the mainland) to run errands takes the whole day and it is wonderful we can do at least half the things through the Internet! Our internet shop is also a good example of the benefits of Internet – we can get to people without leaving the island.

I personally use internet to communicate with my friends on the mainland or abroad and find it indispensable in everyday life.

We sell different kind of handicraft in our e-shop and the important thing is that all of the items are made by locals on the island. We guarantee that all is authentic and done correctly. Before the opening of Kihnu Kauba Maja the locals only had the chance to sell the handicraft in the summer, but now it can be a year-round income. I think it has given an impulse to do more handicraft for sale, do more handicraft at all.

In 2008, the Kihnu cultural traditions were inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

My aunt has transformed half of her house as an accommodation. She can put up five guests in two bedrooms. The business is good, her house allows to take in guests even in the winter period (some of the accommodations on the island only work in the summer season). There are guests from all over the world! She also has a site on the internet that helps people find out about it and this is mostly how people find her.

Meg: You studied anthropology–why do you think you were drawn to that?

Maria: I suppose my roots dragged me to that field. Being an amphibian my whole life I had the chance to live Kihnu life and observe it at the same time. It always fascinated me, especially the role of outsiders’ influences on the culture – scientists, tourists, filmmakers etc.

Scientists and folklorists have always had an interest for Kihnu and with the wave of revaluing folk culture 30-40 years ago there came to be more and more of them. They have studied different fields – mostly songs, dances, customs, ways of life etc. Kihnu people have welcomed them pretty well and shared the knowledge and history, many books and films have been published. After the acknowledgement of UNESCO, more and more international journalists, researchers and filmmakers have found their way here. They usually come in the summer and by September, local people would much rather flee to their houses than share their life with dictaphones and cameras.

After Estonia’s re-independence 20 years ago tourism became an important branch of economy and it has stayed like that until now. This had a great influence on the balance of everyday life. At first Kihnu men were trying to fight it – they did not like outsiders coming and taking over the island. They would even sometimes be violent towards the visitors. But when tourists outnumbered them, they calmed down. But until now, men are out of the picture, Kihnu is known as a kingdom (queendom) of women. This is a new and certainly interesting research topic.

Meg: You mention Estonia’s break from the Soviet Union in 1991–can you describe what you know about life on the island during that era?

Maria: Talking to the older people, I have heard that life was good in the Soviet times. Because of Kihnu’s relative isolation from the mainland there was not very much control – the few Russian officers here married local women. Collective farming and fishing was not new to locals, it was already natural and everyone had work. It seems that communism fitted the traditional pattern well.

Meg: Can you talk a bit about your own personal connection to Kihnu?

Abundant gardens are a feature of every home on Kihnu, where people need to be self-sufficient. Photo: Meg Pier

Maria: My mother’s side of the family is from Kihnu. She was born on the island and also grew up here. My father is from Tallinn, but that doesn’t make me a massakas (someone from the mainland in Kihnu dialect). As a child I spent much time on the island, then went to school in Tallinn, then to university, I also spent a semester in France. But all of my summers have passed mostly in Kihnu, also most vacations and holidays. I have a lot of relatives and friends here, I have always worn Kihnu kört, I know the local dances, songs and I speak the dialect. My grandmother has taught me all the necessary skills from an early age, starting from knitting, making bread and beer to fishnet cleaning, sheep shearing etc. Two-and-a-half years ago when moving here I was a little worried, but fortunately there was no problem fitting in. I see myself as a Kihnu woman and I feel like here I can really do something, accomplish goals important to me and also for the whole island. I feel like nowhere else could I find peace. It is the rhythm of nature I still have to get used to here. The winters can get really long and dark here and the summers are, in contrast, extremely busy.

The Stone Ships & Strong Women of Kihnu Island

Meg: Can you give an overview of what life was like on Kihnu for your ancestors?

Maria: Life on Kihnu Island has been similar to that of all islands. Since Kihnu is situated quite far away from the mainland, the connection with the mainland has not been very good over time.

The traditional livelihoods have been fishing, seal hunting, farming. The men have always been at sea, leaving the women in charge of the households, fields and local life. 100 years ago the number of inhabitants was double – around 1,200 people. Times were poor and families were big. Girls would go working on the mainland as helpers in farms. In 1933, 22 families took their houses apart and moved to a neighboring island – Manija. Manija has been inhabited since then and Kihnu dialect and customs are alive there even now.

In the 19th and also the beginning of the 20th century, men would travel on “stone ships,” which are two- or three-masted sailboats used to transport stones and rocks. Men had special devices to get the stones from the bottom of the sea and once the cargo was loaded on the ships, the journey would begin. They brought stones to different cities and the old towns of Riga and Pärnu are made of Kihnu stones. These kinds of “stone ships” were also built here on the island at the time and it is recorded that one summer there were seven sailboats being built concurrently!

The Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation offers exhibits which provide insight into daily life and history of Kihnu residents. Photo: Meg Pier

Kihnu men would also work on other ships and during the long journeys they would write long narrative songs describing their journeys. These songs are still sung today, but mostly by the local women, some of the songs have gained popularity through Estonian folk bands. There are short versions of these sailor-songs since they can be really long and detailed. Every man had a wooden box as a suitcase and during the trips the covers of these were used as canvas – men would paint their ships. The paintings were in the style of naïve art and we have had some local well-known naïve painters such as Jaan Oad, Georg Vidrik, and Harri Vesik.

Since women mostly stayed on the island, men were also the ones bringing innovations to Kihnu. They started bringing colorful kerchiefs and fabric, also yarn colors. Some 120 years ago the traditional skirt kört was sheep white or grayish, not colorful and striped as we know it now.

We also have a famous captain – Kihnu Jõnn (Enn Uuetoa). He started going to sea at a very early age with the men; it was usual for boys to work on the ships as chefs, already at the age of 7-8. He learnt from older men and started sailing himself. He went to a marine school for only 1.5 days, but since he had so much experience on the sea, he got the permission from the Russian Czar to sail on all ships on all seas. His last ship was Rock City – this is also a name of a beach and guesthouse in Kihnu. It sunk in 1913 near the coast of Denmark and Jõnn was buried there for a long time. In 1992 Jõnn and the ship’s carpenter Karl Jerkwelt were brought to Kihnu and buried in the local cemetery. My brother, who was 12 years old at the time, was also part of the expedition to bring him home. He sang sailor songs and there is even a short documentary made of him called “Kihnu Kristjan”. It was the time of re-independence and a filmmaker Mark Soosaar found it interesting to film the thoughts of a young Kihnu boy.

Meg: Can you talk about agriculture as a part of daily life on Kihnu Island?

Photos: Meg Pier

Maria: There used to be animals in every household – cows, pigs, sheep, chicken. During the Soviet time there was a creamery on the island, after that there was nowhere to put the milk so now there are basically no more cows. Life has gotten busy and nowadays there are not so many people living in one house so it is futile to have pigs. Sheep, on the other hand, have stayed. Sheep hold an important role in cultural life – they give wool, which is the basis of Kihnu handicraft, therefore wedding traditions; and nowadays selling Kihnu handicraft has become a livelihood for many local women. Every house still cultivates land – all the vegetables and fruits are self-grown.

Kihnu people have always depended on the nature. Life is seasonal – farm work, fieldwork, fishing are all dependent on the weather. Folk calendar holidays that celebrate the beginning of different work or are related to cattle or fishing are still celebrated on the island along with the church holidays. Most of the patterns used in our handicraft have come from nature – the snake-pattern and oak chestnuts, for example. In Kihnu the religion is a mixture of appreciation and fear of nature, church and also superstition.

Meg: Kihnu women are known for being strong–can you explain their role within the culture?

Photos: Meg Pier

Maria: Historically men have always been out at sea either fishing, sailing or seal hunting; and women have stayed on the island. The roles have not changed much over time. Women take care of the family, farm work and culture. Even nowadays the men who work on the field are called adramadrus (plow-sailor). In Kihnu women and girls dance together. There is an Orthodox church on the island and the whole community is baptized. There is a small church choir that consists of women only. They conduct ceremonies and funerals if there is no minister on the island.

In an orthodox church it is uncommon to have a woman as head of the church – one exception was Marina Rooslaid. She supplemented the work of the priest for years, she had an official status as the priest’s assistant.

Another outstanding woman is Virve Köster, a well-known singer and song-writer in Estonia, known to the public as Kihnu Virve. She has made songs her whole life, but became famous at the age of 80! Songs usually talk about her life, youth, love. She has written a song that every Estonian knows – Mere Pidu.

There are about 70 fishermen nowadays, men also work on ships, some are entrepreneurs. They have traditionally been away from the island and it seems that it is the same even nowadays.

Cultural Significance of Colorful Attire and Intricate Patterns

Meg: Can you describe the Kihnu attire?

Traditional Kihnu skirts are called “körts”. The average woman can have as many as 20-30 of them! Photo: Meg Pier

Maria: Women wear the traditional skirt – kört – daily. There are different kinds of körts. When going to church, women always wear the newest and brightest kört, usually a white blouse and always a kerchief. For parties they put on a kört that is a little older, then there are körts for everyday life and lastly you wear a kört when working on the field. An average Kihnu woman can have 20-30 körts. But they are not all red. There are körts of different colors – red, half red, kipsuga, blue and black. When everything is going well, a woman wears a red skirt. When there is sorrow or grief, a woman wears either black or blue skirt. When time passes and sorrow goes away, you can start wearing a redder kört again. Older women don’t wear a red kört and usually the women who have lost their husband, either. A married woman has to wear an apron and can also wear a coif so you can spot the status and state of a woman from far away. Women’s festive clothes are very bright and red.

Kört is made of wool and it is very practical. It is made on the loom and the weave is very thick. If kört gets dirty, we simply reverse it and it will look like new again. The dirt and stains will wear off against the underskirt and we can reverse kört for many times. It is also warm in the winter and keeps cool in the summer. Usually a kört’s life begins in church, then you go to weddings and parties with it, then you wear it every day and finally you goworking on the fields with it. Old körts are also used in interior design as newspaper holders, carpets, pillows etc.

For men it is comparatively free – they do have troi, which is a traditional knitted sweater and in cold times they do wear it. Not on a daily basis though.

Meg: I know the patterns used in Kihnu clothing are significant–and beautiful! Can you talk about these?

Brightly-colored & intricately-patterned textiles are a strong Kihnu tradition and have a protective meaning. Photos: Meg Pier

Maria: I already talked a little about colors. The color red is good, protective. Especially if colored with bedstraw. In the bottom of every kört there is a red ribbon for protection – even black skirts. There are some patterns that have a protective meaning, such as kaheksakand or snake-pattern. These are used on gloves, waistbands, and uig (a white sheet used to protect the bride in wedding customs). Women’s festive blouses and coifs have marks of silence, obedience and patience embroidered on them. Each house or family also has their own sign to protect them.

Meg: Can you talk about music in the Kihnu tradition?

Maria: Music is very important in Kihnu. We have a rich tradition of music. Music has a tendency to travel across state borders and seas, and a big part of Kihnu music, too, has come from overseas. The tunes have changed a bit and become our own.

The most valuable are Kihnu wedding songs. Scientists say they are about 1,000 years old. They are sung in a certain manner, moving in a circle.

Then there are men’s songs, made on long journeys on stone ships and other vessels. Men’s songs are like journals, very long and narrative. Nowadays mostly women sing them. There are also village songs – made of certain people to mock them or retell a story. The musicians used to be men, now they are mostly women. One of our foundation’s priorities is to keep musical instrument playing, singing and dancing tradition going. About 80% of Kihnu school students play or learn an instrument! No party or any social event, really, goes by without dancing and singing.

Meg: Is there a particular well-loved traditional Kihnu song that you might describe?

Maria: This is a sailor’s song that also Kihnu Jõnn sang.

Ma märtsikuus läen merele,
must maha jääb mu pruudike.
In March to sea I will depart
I will leave my bride behind

Sest meri on mu elukoht,
mu rõõm ja lootus, hädaoht.
Because sea is my residence
My joy, my hope, my peril

Kus kohal ilusam on veel,
kui suisel ajal mere peal.
Is there a place more beautiful
Than on the sea in summertime?

Kui laev läeb kärmelt edasi
ja päike paistab soojasti.
When the ship sails fast
And the sun is warm

Siis merelained hõlpsasti
me laeva kandvad rannale.
Then the waves will easily
Bring our ship to shore

Kui vaiksed tasased nad on,
siis meremehel on hea õnn.
If they are quiet and mild
Then a seaman is lucky

Kui ilm läeb vahel tormile,
tuul tõstab lained kõrgele.
When the weather is stormy at times
And the wind raises waves up high

Ei julgust siiski kaota ma,
ei rõhu südant murega.
I will not lose my courage
I will not fill my heart with sorrow

Maal igaüks läeb puhkama,
peab madrus masti ronima.
Everyone goes to rest in the harbour
Only a seaman has to climb the mast

Kas olgu torm või pime öö,
vaat madrusel on mastis töö.
Whether it is stormy or dark
A sailor has work on the ship

Kui suren mere laintesse,
see olgu taeva tahtmine.
If I shall die in the waves of the sea
It is what the heavens want

Kõik asjad Jumal hästi säeb
ja pruut mu järel nutma jääb.
God will make everything alright again
And my bride will cry

Ei maa peal pole teenistust,
mis ära päästaks surma suust.
There is no service in this world
To save you from death

Kus inimesel loodud surm,
ei sealt ära päästa hirm.
When death is waiting
No fear will save you.

Meg: You mentioned to me that there are a couple of music festivals each summer on Kihnu–can you tell me about those?

Maria: At the beginning of summer there is Midsummer’s day. It is celebrated all over Estonia, but in Kihnu it has been crazy the past years! The second weekend of July there is a festival called Kihnu Mere Pidu (Kihnu Sea Party). It is dedicated to fishermen’s day. It is a big celebration with fishermen’s contests, good music, singing and dancing. The summer end parties also measure up to a festival. They are usually three or four days in a row all over the island. In autumn there is a Violin Festival which values Kihnu violin tradition and gathers all the best violinists and folk music players in Estonia.

Summer festival on the Estonian island of Kihnu. Video Credit: Andres Rootsi

Meg: I know your father is a well-known Estonian musician and that you yourself have recently experienced an “awakening” about your own musical interests and talents–can you talk about your personal perspective on Kihnu music and what about music that “calls” to you personally?

Maria: I have grown up with music, in music. In our family, it has always been natural to sing and dance. I suppose that is why it is natural for me too. My grandfather played the accordion, my mother and aunt do too. My grandmother has always sung and still sings in the church choir.

I used to sing a lot, too, even studied it for a time, until I experienced some problems with my voice. But I needed to express myself in a musical way and started to learn instruments – I knew a little guitar, then tried violin, diatonic accordion. That led to teaching children. I think music is a part of life. It can be any kind of music, really. But I think growing up partly in Kihnu has made me love Kihnu music most of all. I feel connected to it somehow.

Traditional Weddings on Kinhu Island

Meg: Tell me about the wedding tradition.

Maria: The traditional wedding lasts for three days, it is essentially a village wedding between two families like it used to be all over Estonia. The wedding customs in Kihnu have changed little over the last 100 years or so. The wedding is a combination of secular procedures, church, magic, rituals, and superstition. It is the event that ties everyday life, songs, dances, handicraft and traditions together.

The process starts in autumn when the future groom comes to ask for his bride’s hand. It is a big party with dancing, singing, rituals and if the groom gets a rolled waistband by the morning, it means there will be a wedding in the summer. This is when the preparation for the marriage begins – women gather together once a week and help prepare the dowry.

The wedding is held in two places – bride’s and groom’s. First there is an official ceremony on the mainland, then the couple crosses the sea and the whole wedding party (up to 200-300 guests) is at the port, waiting. Then there is a ceremony in church. After that the wedding company divides into two sides and the groom’s side goes to take the bride from her house.

There are different people assigned to help at the wedding. In every wedding there are wedding singers – they are the women who sing the 1,000 year-old songs three days straight. The songs teach how to live, how to say goodbye to old life and welcome new.

When the bride is taken from her house, she is covered with uig – this is a liminal phase, she is not a girl, not yet a married woman and therefore she is very vulnerable. Uig will protect her from the evil eye. The bride has to make peace with the new village, with the new house, with her mother-in-law, the whole family, even ancestors. She hands out the dowry chest first to the relatives of the groom, then to other wedding guests. A very important part of the wedding is dressing the bride – she will be wearing an apron and a coif to mark her status as a married woman. The first dance is with peiupoiss (similar to best man), the second one with her husband. There are many wedding jokes such as wedding sauna, candy throwing, smoking the other side’s guests etc that have most likely derived from ancient customs. It is not a marriage between two people, it is between the whole families.

There was a break in traditional marriages for over 10 years and we were worried about the tradition par excellence to fade out. But then in 2007 there was a traditional wedding and quite a few after that. It is costly and time demanding, but fortunately many young people want it. I think it is a viable tradition and it is also open to some changes. Even though life has changed and the woman does not usually move in with the family of her husband or does not have to do the kind of work the ancient songs teach her, there is still something powerful and beautiful about these old traditions and I think all Kihnu people feel connected to these traditions and to their roots via these customs. It is like a collective memory of the past.

Meg: What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of tourism on preserving cultural identity?

Maria: In my opinion the outside attention is one factor that makes locals proud of their culture. One hundred years ago it was shameful to be from Kihnu. In Pärnu people would point fingers and call Kihnu people names. Those were poor times, there was nothing to wear but the traditional clothes and unlike city people they spoke a different dialect. With the valuing of traditions and culture it changed, it became an asset. There have been times (in the 1970’s) when younger Kihnu women did not wear kört at parties – they wanted to show wealth and fashion. But then in time it changed back. In short, to have others value the culture makes locals value it, too.

Maria Michelsen is an able ambassador for the lovely and fascinating Kihnu Island! Photo: Meg Pier

Tourism has become an important branch of the economy for the locals over the last 20 years and I think it is important to be aware of what is happening, not to get carried away, but to lead it to the directions that better suit locals. Kihnu people are not aborigines, the younger and middle-aged population is rather well-educated and aware of the situation. We just have to be smart in preserving what is necessary and also changing with time.

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