Religion in Estonia

Estonians are a small nation, unknown to many. But when we’re given the chance to present us, we do it with great splendour. It’s the world famous things, leading the whole universe straight to the future, we like to identify with: Skype, TransferWise, e-elections, the number of mobile phones per capita; and secularity. Estonians are one of the most secular people of the world.

Does it even matter in the age of technology?

Measuring spirituality is an ambitious task. In 2011, the population and housing census was carried out by Statistics Estonia. Among other questions the respondents were asked about their connections to religion. Only around third of correspondents confirmed any affiliation to a religion – and out of these, about 96% affiliated with Christianity.

Ruhnu Church - Reigo Jõe

Altogether there were 65 various ways for the poll takers to identify their religiosity – 25 specified Christian denominations and 40 religions from all over the world, including the ancient and well-known (eg Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Judaism) and the somewhat more recent ones (eg Light Bearer, Brotherhood of Violet Flame). So, if you are looking for a way to carry on your familiar worship, you probably find an opportunity for this in Estonia. Religious freedom is guaranteed in Estonia as one of the constitutional rights.

Still, there were about 60% of people who do “not feel an affiliation to any religion”. So, if you are a religious person working and living in Estonia, don’t be surprised if your colleagues don’t share your enthusiasm towards fulfilling your duty to the unworldly.

Alexander Nevski Cathedral - Toomas Tuul

As hinted before, Estonia is predominantly a Christian country and has been Lutheran since the second part of the 16th century. This is due to the historic links to Germany. But the latest census stated that Lutheranism, historically the most popular and the biggest confession in Estonia, has now handed its primacy over to Orthodox churches. 108,513 people considered themselves Lutheran, 176,773 Orthodox. Other sizeable Christian confessions are: Baptist (4,507 people), Roman-Catholic (4,501), Jehovah’s Witness (3,938), Christian Free Congregations (2,189), Adventists (1,194).

Spirituality is still a player

In the pre-Christian period, Estonians were not completely faithless. They were drawn to the animistic religions: Taaraism, whose god Tharapita was worshiped in forest groves, and Maausk, which translates as “faith of the earth.” Their god was in nature. Although Estonians are quick to dismiss modern religions, ancient beliefs like these are still embedded in the Estonian culture.

Throughout the long period of foreign grip on Estonia, ancient beliefs survived in the form of folk tales. In tales, the sins of humans resonate in nature — lakes fly away to punish greedy villagers, or forests wander off in the night, never to return. Trees demand the respect of a tipped hat, and holes in the ground must be fed with coins.

Tuhala - Janek Alliksaar

Census tends to remain impersonal and at the same time leaves room for emotions – as people, not institutions fill in the answers. In that respect another survey, Estonian religious life: does faith form people’s values, carried out by Saar Poll market research in 2010, adds colour to mere numbers. There lays one possible explanation why Estonians feel so indifferent towards organised religions. To the question, “as a child, did you get information about religion?”, 69.3% of non-religious people gave negative answer. Religion was banned from the Soviet educational system. Religious education has found its way back to schools during the last 20 years, but it remains a voluntary subject and is not taught in every school.

Yes, spirituality is still a player, even in the age of machines. It’s not the approval from higher powers, but their own peace of mind that people are after. People are looking for answers beyond. Esoteric section in any bookshop in Estonia is impressive. There is a weekly two-hour radio show on Radio Two called “Hello, cosmos!” that occupies itself and the listeners with the “outer space”. Folklore – the “back to the roots” ideology – is gathering momentum, too.

Aarne Leima, Ülembsootska (Viceroy in Seto language) from 2013-2014 posing with a representation of Peko, his king on the hill of the gods of Kolossova. Historically Peko is also the fertility god. In the past, villages of Setomaa had a statuette stored in villager weakest man's barn. Peko then brought him strength, help and luck. Each fall after harvest, the village men fought themselves. The first one to bleed, earned the right to be protected by Peko. Now, since the restoration of Estonian independence and division of Setomaa by the Russian-Estonian border the Seto made Setomaa their kingdom and Peko their king. Since then, it is said that Peko is resting in the Petseri monastery caves in Russia. He will wake up only to defend the Seto from a great danger. His representative, the Ülembsootska, communicate with Peko through his dreams and must pass messages to the Seto people. The Ülembsootska is elected annually by the Seto during the day of the Kingdom, Kuningriik päev. There are various legends about the hill gods Kolossova: there, God would take souls to lead them to heavens by putting them on a carriage. There would be a departure once a year. From this hill it was possible to see the domes of the Petseri Monastery. Believers used to come and pray, bowing to the monastery. Kolossova, Setomaa, Estonia. 1st August 2014.

Ethnologists have already completed a huge hunk of work and gathered old Estonian traditions to the web-archive, this work is ongoing. It is worth mentioning though that there is no such thing as Estonian national religion, it was artificially composed by scientists in the 1920s-1930s.

To end with a paradox: according to the poll conducted in 2010, the problem of finding purpose in life was equally complicated for people who feel supported by divine powers and for those who don’t recognise these powers exist. In the end, we are all the same.


Cover: Faith of the Earth followers in Estonia (credit: Maavalla Koda). Read also: Tuhala Witch’s Well and ancient Estonian mythology

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About the author: Kadri Metsma

Kadri Metsma is a trained theologian (Master of Theology, University of Tartu). For now, she has turned away from celestial spheres to wonder about the Big Surprising – our mundane life, on Earth and in Estonia, in particular.