International Conference:

Folk Culture and Boundaries in the Balkans

Volos, 7-8 June 2008

The concept of the conference Organizers and sponsors The conference programme


Ulo Valk (University of Tartu)
Drawing Discursive Boundaries: Estonian Identity from National Mythology to New Age.

The formation of Estonian nation was prepared during the first half of 19th century when the ideas of Enlightenment spread, which changed the views of the Baltic Germans who formed the intellectual and political elite of the country. The local peasants were raised from the status of primitive and superstitious savages to a people with history, cultural heritage and right for a better education. Estonian people became an object of scholarly interests and of the civilizing endeavors of enlighteners. During the second half of 19th century the ideas of national romanticism spread and the Estonian people became aware of themselves as a subject of history. Belief in a homogeneous Estonian ethnical community had its effect on the society and led to the political independence of the country in 1918 and once again in 1991.
To manifest its difference from other nations, the Estonian language and its uses in print have proved to be the most effective tool of identity formation. The project of folklore collecting, composing the epic, publishing books and newspapers in Estonian language contributed to the discourse of nationalism. Local writers composed new national mythology about pagan gods, based on classical and Germanic literary models and local folklore. First it was addressed to the non-native readers and had to prove the cultural capability of the Estonian folk. Later it spread among the Estonians and provided them with a prestigious "pre-Christian" heritage. Romantic search for the ancient cultural and spiritual roots has never disappeared in Estonia. In the politically new situation, when the country has joined the European Union, concern about the possible endangerment of the Estonian ethnical identity has reinforced these endeavors to discover, study and maintain the "ancient" wisdom. There is a historical lineage from the 19th century national mythology to the New Age type of beliefs and practices of the 21st century. The paper sheds light on these developments.