What’s a lau, anyway?

Here are the days of the week, in Estonian, the way I learned them as a small child. Note that there is no capitalization. Esmaspäev (first day), teisipäev (second day), kolmapäev (third day),  neljapäev (fourth day), reede, laupäev, and pühapäev (holy day).

Like residents of other Baltic countries, Estonians start their weeks on Mondays, so using the term first day for Monday makes sense.  So does numbering the next three days, and calling Sunday holy day.

But what does reede (pronounced RAY-deh) mean? And what’s a lau, as in laupäev? Nobody explained stuff like this back in Estonian Saturday school.

Reede’s meaning

The meaning of reede wasn’t that difficult to track down once I started looking into it. The wonderful “Eesti Keele Etümoloogiline Teatmik”  (Estonian Language Etymological Dictionary) by Alo Raun, purchased on my last trip to Estonia in 2010, indicates that the word reede has German and Swedish origins, and was derived from the word fredag, which is the Danish and Norwegian word for Friday. My three years of tortured high school German tells me that fredag sounds very much like Freitag, the modern German word for Friday.

That, too, makes sense because the Germans and their language, though utterly unrelated to the Estonian native tongue, heavily influenced modern Estonian. Indeed, German was the lingua franca of Estonia for 700 years. *See note below.

For example, the 19th century Lutheran parish records I’ve been examining  online in my search for ancestors are mainly written in German.

But back to reede and its origins. In Latin-based languages, the word for Friday is based on the Latin dies Veneris or “day of Venus”. In Italian it’s venerdi, vendredi in French, and it originally honored the Roman love goddess Venus.

The word Friday too honors a goddess, the Germanic goddess of married love  known as Freya,  Freja or Frigg.  Wikipedia states that the English word Friday  comes from the Old English Frīġedæġ, meaning the “day of Frigg”, the result of an old convention associating the Old English goddess Frigg with the Roman goddess Venus. So Estonian reede is actually borrowed from the Germanic word for Freya’s Day in honor of this goddess.

English days of the week

Incidentally, the sources for naming our other weekdays in English are the moon (Monday), the Norse god Tiw (Tuesday), the Norse god Woden (Wednesday), and the Norse god Thor (Thursday). Saturday derives from the Roman god Saturn.

Wikipedia gives us this explanation for Tuesday:

“The English name is derived from Old English Tiwesdæg and Middle English Tewesday, meaning “Tīw’s Day”, the day of Tiw or Týr, the god of single combat, victory and heroic glory in Norse mythology. Tiw was equated with Mars” the Roman god of war whose name is the source of the French word for Tuesday,  Mardi  (think Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuesday

Estonian teisipäev, Tuesday, means second day, as I wrote earlier, but one wonders whether there is a possible connection between teisi and Tiw’s day because of the similar letters. However my etymological dictionary says the Estonian word teine, which means second, originates from the  läänemeresoome (Baltic Sea Finnic) root language  and then from the soome (Finnish) word toinen (second), and thus is not of Germanic origin.  Note that Estonian and Finnish are not members of the Indo-European language family, to which English, German and most other European languages belong.

And now to lau

So where does lau come from? Not only is it used for laupäev, Saturday, but also for the evening preceding Christmas. Christmas Eve is called jõululaupäev. That’s another thing that really stumped me as a kid: why did Estonians call this night Christmas Saturday, when it didn’t always fall on a Saturday?

I knew that laud means table or a wooden board.  Lause means a phrase. Laul is song.  But none of these words is a root for lau.

Turning to my handy reference tool, the etymological dictionary, I discover that  laupäev is an Estonian and Votyak (another Finnic language) word but derives from a Scandinavian language, Norwegian. It’s based on the Norwegian word lau(gar)dag.  Incidentally the Estonian word päev, which means day, comes from Baltic Sea Finnic and is based on an earlier Saami word, päiwe. My dictionary says it originated from the Saami people of northern Sweden, who are sometimes called Laplanders.

Beiwe, which I imagine is pronounced much like päiwe,  is the Saami goddess of the sun, spring, fertility and sanity. So I guess you could say that the Estonian word for day comes from another goddess-name.  When the sun once again appears in polar regions after winter’s long darkness, the Saami smear butter on their doorposts to encourage Beiwe’s return.  Beiwe’s daughter, Beiwe-neida, whose name means sun or day maiden, often traveled with her mother across the sky riding in an enclosure made of reindeer antlers. The Saami word neida is the source of neiu, the Estonian word for maiden.  To the ancient Finns, Päivätär was the goddess of spinning and weaving, and was likely the equivalent of Beiwe-neida. It seems like we Estonians owe a number of words to the reindeer-herding Saami.

I keep drifting off the topic of lau. I looked up its Norwegian source-word on Wiktionary, and this is what it says:

Laugardagr = From laug (“pool”) +‎ dagr (“day”), literally “bathing day”.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/laugardagr

In other words the Estonian name for Saturday literally means Bath Day.  Lau = bath. And our name for Christmas Eve literally means Yule Bath Day.

It’s nice to know the ancestors bathed at least once a week, often twice on the week before Christmas.

To the saun

However, Estonians usually  didn’t just hop in a tub with their rubber duckies and lather up. They generally lit a wood fire in the saun (sauna is a Finnish word)  to heat the saun stones, tossed water on the stones to generate steam, and remained in the steam to perspire, thereby removing dirt, germs and other impurities.  Often they livened things up by whipping one another lightly with switches of birch twigs to bring the blood (and its impurities) closer to the skin surface. Estonians still go to saun on Saturday evenings if they have the opportunity, and they still employ those birch twigs. Many still follow up a nice steamy saun session with a plunge into a cold pond or even snow, although you couldn’t pay me enough  to try that. It’s supposed to be great for health, but I’d prefer not to catch pneumonia.

I made up a chart showing the origins of the days of the week  in English, Latin-based Italian, and Estonian.  Note that in all three languages, Friday is a day honoring a goddess of love.

 

English Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
origin Sun Moon Tiw Woden Thor Freya Saturn
Italian Domenica Lunedi Martedi Mercoledi Giovedi Venerdi Sabato
origin Lord’s Day Moon Mars Mercury Jupiter Venus Saturn
Estonian pühapäev esmaspäev teisipäev kolmapäev neljapäev reede laupäev
origin holy day first day second day third day fourth day Freya bath day

 

*Note: Before 1200 the Estonians and their neighbors the Latvians were free pagan people,  but early in the 13th Century they were attacked by German crusaders seeking to forcibly Christianize them by order of the Pope. The Estonians and Latvians successfully resisted for about 20 years, until the Danes moved in from the north and captured the principal city, Tallinn, while the Germans took the rest of the country.

On April 23, 1343 the Estonians rose up, renounced Christianity  and fought for their freedom, burning manors and killing every German they could find. This was called the St. George’s Night (Jüriöö) uprising and lasted nearly three years, until the rebellion was crushed by the invasion of the Teutonic Order. The indigenous Estonians were forced into serfdom under the German ruling class, which remained in power during subsequent Swedish and Russian conquests.

Under Russian Czar Alexander I, serfdom was abolished in Estonia in 1816, and in Livonia (which consisted of southern Estonian and northern Latvia) in 1819. The German nobles still controlled all the land, but new laws were established beginning in the 1840s allowing Estonian peasants  to move freely, own property, and govern their own local affairs. Between 1822 and 1835 Estonians acquired surnames for the first time.

 

 

 

 

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