Naming names

I’ve never been too crazy about my first name, Anita. Anita always felt ill-fitting and uncomfortable. I never met other girls named Anita until college. Someone in my dorm yelled “Anita! Phone call!” Seconds later, not one but two other Anitas almost collided with me at the dormitory’s pay phone. (This was during the Dark Ages – 1969 – before smart phones or even stupid portable phones.) We looked at one another in surprise. None of us had ever encountered another Anita of our own age before, let alone two Anitas.

Deep inside, I felt almost offended at meeting them. I had become so accustomed to going it alone through the crowds of Barbaras, Patricias, Donnas and Debbies in high school, that I felt Anita was my own personal cross to bear. Nobody else could have it! Unless I could trade it for Lynne or Linda. Linda was doubly acceptable to me because it was an Estonian name as well as an American name popular for female babies in the early 1950s. But my Estonian immigrant parents may have considered Linda a bit old-country. My mother explained once that they considered Anita a nice international name for me. Furthermore, it was a diminutive of Anna, my mother’s name. Anna was also the name of a great-aunt and one of my great-grandmothers. And my father’s middle name was Anton. Eventually I continued the tradition by giving my older daughter the middle name Ann. But I’ve never felt truly reconciled to the name Anita.

It could have been worse. I could have gotten a real old Estonian name like that of one of my great-grandmothers, who was evidently called Gröta. I discovered this recently while searching through online copies of old Estonian Lutheran Evangelical Church parish records and finally finding the recorded marriage of my great-grandfather Peter Laur, son of Jürri, to a Lisa Püsnik, daughter of Gröta, way back in 1878. I stared at that name for a long time. The records are written in old-fashioned German, and sometimes the handwriting is impossible to decipher. In this case the script was fairly readable, and it said Gröta. I had never come across such a name in all my searches.

Great-Grandmother Gröta

I have seen names like Krõõt, which looks and sounds gosh-awful, like the sound of someone vomiting heavily after a night of imbibing potent Estonian vodka. But Krõõt is merely an old-fashioned Estonianized spelling of Greta, sometimes short for Margareta or Margaret, but often enough just a sinple one-syllable first name of the kind 19th century country Estonians loved. I’ve also found Krööt, a slightly different spelling, in church records. And I’ve seen the name Kreet bestowed among contemporary Estonians.

I don’t know how reliable or up-to-date the website namerank.com is, but to my very great surprise, it states that Kreeta is the 7th most popular girls’ name in Estonia, with Kreet at 11th place and Kreete at 47th. For those of you who don’t speak Estonian, Kreet is pronounced something like crate.

However, the Estonian Interior Ministry states that the top girls’ names of 2014 are as follows:

Sofia (102), Eliise (74), Maria (73), Mia (71), Lisandra (60), Mirtel (59), Sandra (58), Emma (55), Laura (55), Darja (50), Arina (49), Milana (48), Alisa (47), Anastasia (47), Lenna (47), Liisa (47), Anna (45), Viktoria (4), Elisabeth (44), Polina (44), Marta (42), Aleksandra (39), Marleen (38), Hanna (37), Nora (37). Kreet, or Greta don’t even make th3 list.

Boys: Rasmus (91), Artjom (89), Robin (83), Martin (80), Oliver (74), Romet (71), Sebastian (70), Robert (68), Artur (64), and Maksim (63), Markus (60), Marten (60), Karl (58), Kristofer (58), Oskar (57), Daniel (56), Hugo (56), Henri (55), Mark (54), Nikita (53), Kirill (52), Sander (52), Kevin (51), Aleksandr (50), Daniil (50).

In June, 2014, the top 15 female names included Grete at 6th place. The others are 1. Sofia, 2. Liisa, 3. Darja, 4. Lisandra, 5. Mia, 6. Grete, 7. Maria, 8. Marie, 9. Aleksandra, 10. Anastassia, 11. Eliise, 12. Emma, 13. Lenna, 14. Marleen, and 15. Melissa.

Sorry, namesrank.com. Your rankings are not very close to reality.

Names and their popularity appear to be a passion of kodueestlased, the term among Estonian-Americans for those born and raised in Estonia. The Estonian Interior Ministry, undoubtedly due to popular demand, publishes annual and even monthly lists of the most popular baby names in the nation. It’s nice to know that my personal passion for names is in my genes.

At any rate, Krõõt and its variants are probably the same as Gröta, although the use of the first letter G in Estonian nomenclature isn’t that common. When I did an internet search for Gröta and similarly spelled names, I found it was used at one time in Sweden and Norway. Did some long-ago immigrant pass a parent’s name along to an Estonian-born daughter, thereby setting off a trend?

Lots of Grötas

For trend it was, at least in the area of Pangodi, a small community in Tartu county. It was called Spankau by the German barons who lorded it over the Estonian peasantry for many centuries, and Spankau was where my great-grandmother Lisa Püsnik was born. By the way, a good resource for looking up the Estonian version of an old German place-name is this: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste_deutscher_Bezeichnungen_estnischer_Orte

When I started browsing through the parish records for the congregations (Nõo, Otepää and Suure-Kambja) serving residents of Pangodi in the mid-1800s, I was startled to find at least a half-dozen women bearing the name Gröth.

Unfortunately the interior ministry probably didn’t notice that trend, most likely because it didn’t exist at the time. Estonia was ruled by Russia, the Russians having ordered the German barons to free Estonians from serfdom in the early part of the century.

Be nice

I suspect that was just about the last nice thing they did for Estonians, who had to battle furiously for their all-too-brief first period of independence at the end of World War 1. Then, like a very bad case of the flu that simply will not go away, the Russians came back at the end of World War 2 and took Estonia over again, at least until 1991. And now, like a bloodthirsty vampire, it once again appears to be threatening the freedom of its tiny, ethnically distinct neighbors Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. What will it take for the Russians to grow up and get over their obsession with us? To learn to live and let live? To respect national boundaries?

 

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Struggling to turn American

I dreaded my mother’s visits to our school.

Normal American moms were a common sight at Pines Lake Elementary School. They came for teacher conferences and volunteered in classrooms back in the day when the majority of moms didn’t go to work.

Much as I loved Mama, around 4th or 5th grade I grew deeply embarrassed by her clothes, which positively screamed “I am an immigrant from someplace weird,  and not your normal American mom.”

That headscarf she wore, for example. She called it a babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.  It was a big square cotton scarf, folded in half diagonally, the ends tied under her chin, and the other corner resting  on her back.  You know, the Eastern European peasant look. Mama wore scarves outdoors most of the time, except in summer. I didn’t know anybody else at school whose mother wore a scarf like that.

The scarf wouldn’t have stuck out too much in Paterson, the nearby city where we lived until I was in first grade. Our old neighborhood was full of women who were recent immigrants. I remember seeing them hang  laundry and  converse over backyard fences in other languages, probably German, Dutch or Polish.  Our landlord, who lived upstairs from us, was Polish.  My mother fit in fairly well there, since she was fluent in German and knew some Polish, but my family moved to the suburbs for better schools and a bit of yard around the house.

Stumpy shoes with laces

In addition to the scarf, Mother always wore a dress or a dark skirt and a pullover, with  Hush Puppies shoes on her feet.  Usually she sewed the skirts herself. I never saw her in slacks until I was in college. Outside the house, she often wore stumpy leather shoes that laced up the front, with thick heels like the ones worn by nuns and old ladies.

Worse yet, she insisted that I wear similar stumpy shoes that laced up the front, only mine had a lower heel. She found them in some unimaginable shoe  store that seemed to specialize in ugly footwear. The shoes she picked out for me were, she said, of  good quality, good for my feet,  and would last a long time. (She was right about that last part, as I’ll explain.)

Normal American girls at school wore black patent maryjane shoes, penny loafers or something along those lines. Maybe kids somewhere in Estonia wore stumpy shoes that laced, but I attended school in Wayne, New Jersey, less than 20 miles from New York City, and I would almost rather have died than be seen wearing those shoes in public.

I was bullied and scapegoated at school, and knew for certain that wearing those shoes would make me even more of a target for mockery.  For the first time in my life, I objected to an order from my mother.

Wear them or else

The way my brother and I were raised, an Estonian kid didn’t ever argue back to parents or elders. Mother had no idea how much I suffered in school, nor did I dare tell her. She would have tied on her headscarf and marched to the school principal to complain, like she did when I was in third grade.  And later I would have felt repercussions from the other kids.

My mom’s response to my objections was “too bad” or whatever the equivalent Estonian phrase was.  She pointed out again that the shoes were expensive and of good  quality, so I had to wear them.

At this point, I felt I had little choice: wear the dratted shoes and be jeered at by classmates, or get sneaky. I got sneaky.

Every school morning in fifth grade I clomped out of the house in stumpy shoes, down the path through the woods to school. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, I put down the horrible big briefcase she forced me to carry, and took out a pair of tan canvas Kedettes, a slightly dressier version of Keds sneakers that she let me wear in the summer. I changed shoes in the woods every day, reversing the process  going home. It was not possible for me to petition for shoes like the other girls wore. We didn’t have the money, and that was that.

After a summer of blessed release from the obligation of wearing stumpy shoes, I started sixth grade, and somehow was allowed to acquire a pair of loafers. I wore them to school constantly. Mama complained that I never wore those nice, good quality stumpy shoes any more, even though they looked practically as good as new — as though they had never been worn!  I quietly said they were ugly and out of style. Unfortunately they still fit me, because I didn’t grow much.

Lime green stumpy shoes

Mom’s response was to buy a bottle of shoe dye in a particularly noxious shade of lime green, and paint the shoes to jazz them up. Now they looked more modern, and I could wear them in style, she said,  flourishing them in front of my horrified eyes.

Back I went to subtle resistance, smuggling loafers out of the house and switching shoes on the way to school. If life was tough in elementary school, it was nothing compared to the adolescent hormone hell of junior high school.

Around that time my mother started suffering intense back pain and headaches, thought to be arthritis. In consequence, she stopped supervising our before-school routine. Ever the opportunist, I ditched the Green Horrors in the closet, and wore my loafers every day.

I used to nurture a secret grudge against a pair of much-older second cousins, Inge and Olga,  who lived in a nearby town, because their mother gave me their hand-me-down clothes. Not only were the clothes at least eight years out of style, but some of them looked downright  awful to me. I particularly loathed a dark green plaid dress that  was too big for me and featured a small rhinestone poodle on a white collar. Then there were dirndl dresses.

How to look like a yodeling contestant

Dirndls, which are worn in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, have a white blouse with a wide neckline and puffy short sleeves, with a wideish black cummerbund sort of thing and a colorful skirt trimmed with rick-rack ribbon in contrasting colors. When I wore one, I looked like I was headed to a yodeling competition, definitely not like the Normal American Kid I yearned to be.  Those dirndls were meant for kids of average size, but I was small and skinny so they hung on me like flour sacks. Mother and Aunt Hilda thought I looked adorable in them, naturally.

Once Mother became ill, I was no longer forced to wear the poodle dress or the dratted dirndls.  I picked out a few things that seemed  less weird than the others, and made do with those. In 7th grade my classmates wore wraparound skirts, Madras plaid shirts, nylons and black t-strap shoes with pointy toes. In my hand-me-downs I still looked odd, but not quite as odd. Then  I inherited some clothes from my Estonian friend Kati, who was a year older. Her clothes weren’t out of date, to my vast relief.

To be fair, Mama wasn’t any happier among those normal American housewives than I was among their kids.  Most of the neighborhood women had high school diplomas or beauty school certificates, while she was one of the first women to study law at Estonia’s prestigious Tartu University before the war intervened.  Her father had a law degree from the same university, and her grandfather was a professor of theology there.  My mother was cultured, highly intelligent, and spoke four languages fluently. She was bored out of her mind in our community, longing to live in a city where she could visit the opera or ballet, and discourse with other educated people.

There were a couple of German neighbors she befriended gratefully, and she had Estonian friends who lived in other towns. However my father wouldn’t allow her to learn to drive, so the only times she got out of the house were for the weekly grocery trip on Saturdays, or accompanying us to Estonian school and church, rarely to visit friends.  Mama could have been one of the first female lawyers in Estonia, but she was stuck, carless, in suburbia. I’m sure this played a part in the deep depression she endured until  her death in 1975, when she was 54 and I was 23.

Trying to keep us Estonian

I understand now why she made me dress like an Estonian school kid, and why she forced me to bring the teacher a bouquet of flowers from the garden on the first day of school every year, like kids did in Estonia.  She wanted to keep me as Estonian as possible, in case Estonia regained its freedom from the Soviet Union and we could go home.  But my parents didn’t realize that the Estonia they left during the war no longer existed. Estonia changed with the times too.

Immigrant parents the world over want to teach their children their old ways, just in case they someday can go home. And like me, first-generation kids born in the new country get caught trying to balance between two worlds — their parents’ old world, and the contemporary world around them. It’s a struggle for everyone involved.  Especially if your family’s from a tiny country practically nobody ever heard of, and there aren’t other kids like you so you can stick together.

Women don’t drive cars – or do they?

The Old World-New World struggles in my family weren’t limited to clothes. I was never allowed to speak English at home until I went to college.  Worse, my father refused to let me learn to drive, because women weren’t supposed to drive cars. I got a boyfriend to teach me secretly and take me to get my license. Even though my father found out, there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. I’d become an expert at sneakiness with those ghastly green shoes.   Sneakiness to some, self-preservation to others.

I wasn’t supposed to go to college because there wasn’t enough money, and males went before females. I was supposed to live at home and work at some retail job while my younger brother went to college, only it didn’t work out that way. My  grades were good enough to earn me a full scholarship to Northeastern University, and a partial scholarship to American University. My father, however, wanted me to attend Paterson State Teachers College  (now called William Paterson University) because it was cheap, and because I could walk there from our house. This way he could save the cost of room and board, and avoid buying me a used car. Since my second cousins went there and became teachers, Paterson State was considered acceptable.

The application to Paterson State mysteriously disappeared into my school locker  and wasn’t unearthed until the application deadline had passed. Oops, I said innocently.

In addition to the scholarships, I was accepted at the new Livingston College  that was part of Rutgers University. My father grudgingly borrowed the money from my godfather, and I was free at last, free to try to become a normal American college student.

A belated Happy 10226!

It’s the Year 10226 for believers of Maausk, the Estonian native religion.

Obviously I’m a little behindhand in offering greetings, since their New Year began on December 25. We’re already a couple of weeks into the calendar. But what’s a few weeks, compared to more than ten millennia?

For the puzzled, who are doubtless wondering what kooky event this dating system memorializes, the answer is simple: it’s the birth of Estonia. And this is not Estonia as we know it today, a remarkably flat country with many forests. Back then it was a remarkably flat country most likely covered with a lot of mud and dying seaweed.

Billingen Catastrophe

It appears that 10,226 marks the number of years since the land now called Estonia appeared from the receding waters of the Baltic Sea due to what is known as the “Billingen catastrophe.”  This is when the waters of an ancient ice lake, known formally as the late Baltic Glacial Reservoir, penetrated an area near Mt. Billingen in what is now Sweden, to meet the Atlantic Ocean. It drained a heck of a lot of water from the Baltic, leaving behind new coastlines, islands and territories.

This was not a long, slow process. Research into sediment deposits makes it possible to date the event rather precisely. In 8213 BCE (Before Common Era), evidence indicates that water levels in the Baltic sea dropped about 30 meters in a single year, revealing – ta-da! – Estonia. Here is a more technical description of the event.

“The Baltic Sea, with its unique brackish water, is a result of meltwater from the Weichsel glaciation combining with saltwater from the North Sea when the straits between Sweden and Denmark opened. Initially, when the ice began melting about 10,300 ybp, seawater filled the isostatically depressed area, a temporary marine incursion that geologists dub the Yoldia Sea. Then as post-glacial isostatic rebound lifted the region about 9500 ybp, the deepest basin of the Baltic became a freshwater lake, in palaeological contexts referred to as Ancylus lake, which is identifiable in the freshwater fauna found in sediment cores. The lake was filled by glacial runoff, but as worldwide sea level continued rising, saltwater again breached the sill about 8000 ybp, forming a marine Vittoria Sea which was followed by another freshwater phase before the present brackish marine system was established.

“At its present state of development, the marine life of the Baltic Sea is less than about 4000 years old,” Drs Thulin and Andrushaitis remarked when reviewing these sequences in 2003.

“Overlaying ice had exerted pressure on the earth’s surface. As a result of melting ice, the land has continued to rise yearly in Scandinavia, mostly in northern Sweden and Finland where the land is rising at a rate of as much as 8-9 mm per year, or 1 meters in 100 years. This is important for archeologists since a village that was coastal in the Nordic Stone Age now is inland.”

Link to this website is http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=127303

My note: ybp means years before present (time).

Whew. Got all that? I’m not clear on why they need to create so many different lake names. And the term catastrophe is a presumption, not necessarily a fact.

“This retreat (of the waters) is so sudden, and probably has such a profound effect on the early inhabitants of the Baltic area, that it is known as the Billingen Catastrophe,” says the unnamed author of a History Files website section on Eastern Europe.

Link: http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsEurope/EasternPrussia.htm

Was it really a catastrophe?

Catastrophe? Are they sure about that? Did they ask anybody who was there? Maybe folks stood there open-mouthed, staring until someone said, “Wow, new beaches! Last one in is a rotten… aieeeee…that’s cold!

Maybe some of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers looked around at all the mess and decided that this brand-new territory would make a dandy new homeland, if only it were cleaned up a smidgen. All the hunters (men) suddenly remembered an urgent appointment with a herd of elk, and took off running as if pursued by demons. This, as usual, left the gatherers (women) to gather up their prehistoric brooms and dustpans, shoo the kids out from underfoot, and begin the massive, unsung struggle to tidy up. That struggle continues, 10226 years later.

Who were those early settlers? I’m not sure if they were the ancestors of the Estonian people or not. The oldest known evidence of human settlement in that part of the world dates back to 9000 BCE, or 11,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. So people were living in the region well before the so-called catastrophe. Some authorities claim that those people were of Indo-European origin, reindeer-hunting ancestors of the Prussians, Latvians and Lithuanians who eventually settled parts of the southern and eastern Baltic coast. Others insist that the ancestors of the Finns and Estonians, or possibly the ancestors of the Saami (Lapps) people, were the first inhabitants.

Strange new land

How weird and wonderful to think of people witnessing the then-inexplicable appearance of thousands of kilometers of land in so short a time. It sounds like something from a fairytale. One wonders whether those early witnesses told and retold the story for many generations.

It reminds me of the well-known stories of Atlantis, and the Arthurian tales of the lost land of Lyonesse, which according to legend sank off the Cornish coast of England. One wonders what happened to the lands off the Atlantic Ocean that were affected by that sudden onrush of water from the Baltic region. Did some coastal settlements disappear under the rising water? Was that the basis for the legend of Lyonesse?

At any rate, those Estonians who practice Maausk in the present day have adopted the year of the Billingen event and the subsequent rising of Estonia as the beginning of their chronology. The native believers call this year “the birth of the land.” Estonia, they say, has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. They consider Maarahvas (Earth folk or Earth people) and their religion just as old as the land itself.

Link: http://www.maavald.ee/eng/uudised.html?rubriik=50&id=293&op=lugu

It must be pointed out that my translations of Maausk and Maarahvas as Earth religion and Earth people are not wholly accurate, since the word maa in Estonian has many meanings. Ahto Kaasik, scribe for the Maavalla community, explains it far better than I possibly can, on the Maavald website.

“When Maausulised (followers of Maausk) are told that Maausk is not a religion they generally agree, adding that Maausk is something much more than a religion. Maausk is our vernacular, our songs, our customs, our beliefs, our archetypes and culture. Maausk is thousands of years old, a tradition that binds us to our land,” Kaasik writes.

“To understand Maausk better it is essential to understand that the word maa in Estonian has many meanings and connotations. Maa can mean Earth, mother Earth, ground, land (as opposed to sea), cultivated land, earth (as soil), also country (state), country (as rural, opposed to the city) or finally as a suffix in the name of an Estonian county. But foremost maa denotes the land or country of indigenous Estonians. Thus Estonian’s have called themselves maarahvas, their country Maavald and their traditional nature-worship Maausk.”

Link: http://www.maavald.ee/eng/uudised.html?rubriik=50&id=363&op=lugu

It’s an incredible story, another one of those cool things about Estonia that we never learned in Estonian school. But now you know.

One wonders how many other peoples of the world are able to point directly to a geological event in the far past and say that this was the year when their land was created?

Are we not Mehkas?

Discovered something interesting the other day. It turns out that my father’s ancestors lived in a teeny-tiny area in southeastern Estonia called Mehkamaa.  Which means Land of the Mehkas.  It consists of two villages called Saru and Mõniste (pronounced money-steh) and the area around them.

O frabjous day! Does this make me a Mehka too?

Not quite.

My brother might call himself a Mehka, but I would be a Hipp.  Really. And no smart remarks about that, thank you.

The men in Mehka Land are called Mehka, roughly the equivalent of our American catch-all nickname Joe, as in “Hey Joe”, when you don’t know the fellow’s real name.  In Scotland, the all-purpose mens name is Jimmy, as in “Pass the whiskey, Jimmy.”  Or “Hey, Jimmy.”  But Mehka can be a genuine first name. Several  of my ancestors were named Mehka. However I strongly doubt the name is used today.

The origin of Mehka is a mystery. It could be related to mehis or mees, which means man-like or man. One source claims that it might be a variant of Mihkel, which is the Estonianized version of Michael. Lots of words that are spelled one way in standard Estonian undergo a sea change in the Võro dialect in southeastern Estonia, acquiring extra  õ’s or letters such as q and y, which never appear in regular Estonian. Võro is spelled Võru in Estonian. The name Mehka appears only in one small area of Võro, and is not found in the rest of Estonia.

The origin of Mehkamaa, however, is a sad story.

Suffering serfs

According to the book “Võrumaa ja Võrulased”, edited by H. Kasesalu and published in 1986, which I acquired either from my late father or from my aunt in Estonia, the tale grew out of the extreme hardships experienced by the Estonian peasantry in the 17th Century.  Võro in those days was part of Livonia, which consisted of southern Estonia and northern Latvia, and included Estonians, Latvians  and Livonians under  the unwelcome rule of the Livonian Brothers of the Sword.

Livonia, called Liivimaa (Sand Land) by the Estonians, was home to a Finnic-speaking people and existed long before this military order of German “warrior monks” (What an oxymoron!) was created in 1202 by Albert, bishop of Riga to forcibly convert the pagan Livonian, Curonian, Semigallian and Latgalians who occupied the area.

These  Finnic and Baltic speaking tribes did not take kindly to giving up their belief in the Latvian and Lithuanian sun goddess Saule, or Estonian  gods such as Pikker, Peko, Uku and Ahti, not to mention the many earth, water, fire and sky spirits that populated their surroundings and guarded their homes.

Just 34 years later after they were founded, the Sword Brothers were nearly wiped out by the Samigotians of Lithuania, joined by Latgalians, Livonians and Estonians in the Battle of Saule, Saule being the aforementioned sun goddess.

Saule

In 1413, the Samigotians of western Lithuania became the last group of Europeans to be forcibly converted to Christianity.  The conversion, however, was not altogether successful. Lithuanians to this day maintain an active pagan faith called Romuva, a surviving folk religion practiced not only there, but in Lithuanian immigrant communities around the world. Saule is their principal goddess.

Estonians have two much less widespread pagan faiths, Maa Usk (Earth Faith) and Taara Usk, which centers on the deity Taara, possibly related to Scandivanian Thor.

As an aside, my paternal grandfather practiced Taara Usk during a revival in the early 1900s.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, wrote around the year 45 that the Baltic peoples worshiped the mother of the gods, which may or may not have been Saule.  But more on Saule in another post.

Getting back, the surviving Sword Brothers joined the Teutonic Knights  in 1237 and proceeded to wreak revenge, conquering all of Livonia, Courland and Semigallia.

Meanwhile, in 1261, Estonia, which lay north of Livonia,  was completely subjugated by German and Danish crusaders, who imposed taxes and duties and built manor houses all over the place. The church demanded additional money from the natives and repressed their old folk religion.

Pagan rebellion

On St. Georges Night, April 23, 1343, the indigenous  (and thoroughly indignant) Estonian pagans rose up in battle against the Christian religion  and their hated Danish and German rulers and landlords.  Although initially successful, the pagan rebellion was quashed three years later by the invading Teutonic Order.  That year, 1346, the king of Denmark, Valdemar IV, sold the unruly Duchy of Estonia to the Teutonic Order for 19,000 Köln marks.  More information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._George%27s_Night_Uprising

At any rate, the hapless Livonians subsequently got tossed back and forth for centuries among the Teutonic Order, the Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians and Russians. The country was finally split between the new nations of Estonia and Latvia after the first World War. From 1918 to 1920, both Soviet Russian and German troops fought against Estonian and Latvian troops to control Livonia, but were defeated.

But as usual, I digress.

The 17th Century was rough on the long-suffering Livonian peoples and particularly so in the Võro region, where two generations of warfare (1558 to 1629, the Swedish-Polish war), plague (1657), and massive crop failures (1695-97) decimated the peasant population even as oppression by the manor lords increased.  In Mõniste, there was only a single survivor, a man called Mehka.

Lonesome Mehka

The lonely Mehka wandered from farmhouse to farmhouse, calling out and searching for signs of human life, but finding none.  When he reached a nearby community called Saru,  his cries were finally answered. A woman’s voice called back.

The woman’s name was either Hipp or Hippõ (Hipp-uh). She and Mehka lived together in that empty land, and their descendants were joined by people from other areas to repopulate the region. The communities of Saru and Mõniste together are still called Mehkamaa, or Mehka land. A number of folk songs tell the story of Mehka and Hipp.

In 2006, there was a Mehkamaa family tree exhibition to mark the 620th anniversary of the founding of Mõniste, called Mendise (also Menzen), in 1386 by the von Uexkülls, a Baltic German family of nobles. It is believed  they took their own name from Ikšķile, a Latvian  town in Livonia.  That name comes from the Livonian word ükskül, or üksküla  in Estonia, which simply means one village.  It may mean the first (German) village.

My family tree searches turned up several Hipps and Mehkas on my father’s side, which is why the section in the book “Võrumaa ja Võrulased”, captured my attention.  I have no idea whatsoever if I’m descended from the original Mehka and Hipp who repopulated Mehkamaa.

To an American, these are very odd names.

But wait, it gets weirder. A not uncommon endearment for women in Mehka Land is Hipõkõnõ, according to the online Võro dictionary.  The Hipõ– is a variant of Hipp (of which there are many) and the -kõnõ is the Võro version of the common Estonian suffix -kene, which means little one, dear one, and so forth.  In other words, dear little Hipp.

My parents sometimes used the diminutives Anitakene or Kikukene, Kiku being a self-given nickname when I was too young to pronounce Anita. At around age 12 I threatened everyone with death if they ever called me Kiku again. Now I’d love being called Kiku.  Alas, nearly everyone who called me Kiku is long gone.

When my Aunt Aino in Estonia was going over the family tree with me some years ago, she said her grandmother’s name was Hip, not Epp as I had assumed. I’ve met Esto women called Epp, but had never heard of Hip or its variants. Born in 1853, her maiden name was Hip Rebbane or Rebane, the surname meaning fox, a common last name in that area.  Hip married Jaan Kalkun (which means John Turkey) and was the mother of my paternal grandmother, Emilie Kalkun Susi, who died eight years before I was born.

Okay, so where did Hip come from? I thought it was a version of Epp, which I thought was a short variant of Elizabeth, but apparently I was mistaken.  The Võro-Estonian dictionary, helpfully  defines the possibly related words hebo and hipi as edustaja, eputaja. Looking those up, I gather they mean, roughly, achiever and show-off. Hebo further means pirtsutaja, a fussy or picky person. Whether they are the roots of the name Hip, I don’t know.

This name also carries the variants Hebbo, Ebbu, Hipe, Hepp, Ipp,  Eppu, Epu and Ebu, Ebu being the version in Tartu County where my mother hailed from.

Epp= Joyful?

I’ve also seen Epp described as a very old Estonian name meaning rõõmsat (joyful) and possibly edevat (coquettish).

However Raivo Sepp’s fascinating book “Elavad Nimed” (Living Names), which I picked up on my last visit to Estonia, makes the claim that Hipp and its variants come from the Greek name Hippolyta, after the queen of the Amazons.  I cannot figure out how Estonian peasants got hold of a name like that.  Sepp says Eufrosiine, the Estonian version of Greek Euphrosyne, (Goddess of Joy,one of the three  Charites or Graces) gave birth to the Estonian names Ebu, Epp, Epru, Hebu, Hepp, Hipp and Ipp as well as Roos, which I thought was a version of Rose.  Greek Hippolytus, Sepp says, yielded the male names Hipp and Ipp.

Male names? I am definitely getting confused!

I grudgingly suppose the Greek names could have come north through the Orthodox Church, but it does not make sense that illiterate peasants would have even heard of them, let alone borrowed and shortened them.  There is an interesting theory that the Finnic peoples once inhabited most of northern Europe and ran a brisk trade in amber with the peoples of the Mediterranean, leading to cultural exchanges few today suspect.  But more on that another time.

My wild guess is that Epp may have distant  roots in Epona, the Gaulish goddess who protected horses. Inscriptions dedicated to Epona are found in the Danube region of Germany, throughout the Roman Empire and in Celtic countries. Her Roman feast day was December 18. Epona and hippus, the Greek word for horse, are closely related.  But I will keep searching to see if there is more to learn about the origins of Hipp, Epp, et al.

Mango? Peep?

During these  ramblings through the internet, I came across some names that used to be distinctively southern Estonian in 1840: Margus, Ebbo, Mango, Toots, Kaabriel, Albert and Jaak. Mango! I KNEW southern Estonians were an odd bunch.

Margus is a version of Markus, Ebbo is a male version of Ebbu/Epp/Hip, Mango stems from Magnus, aq Latin name meaning “great”, Toots (pronounced like Totes) is from Theodoric, Kaabriel is naturally Gabriel, Albert is Albert and Jaak is a form of Jacob.

Around the same time, the denizens of nearby Viljandi rejoiced in names such as Epp and Peep. These were not pronounced Eep and Peep.  Peep, pronounced like pape, is a short version of Peter.

And with this, my alter-ego Hipp, whose ancestors and ancestresses dwelt in distant Mehkamaa, signs off for today.

Immigrants on the loose

So here we were in Wayne, NJ, the immigrant kids (as we thought of ourselves even though we were born in the U.S.) dumped among the white-bread White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, German, Irish and Italian kids whose families had arrived a couple of generations earlier.  And the Dutch kids whose ancestors colonized north Jersey, and whose language was spoken here widely before the English took it over.

When we were children, there were no Asians, no blacks, virtually no Jews and pretty much nobody else too unusual in our community.  We were less than 20 miles from New York City, and Wayne was as white as Wonder Bread.  And equally lacking in flavor.

My mom, like any good Estonian mother, forbade us to eat Wonder Bread or anything like it.  She called it soft white mush. Our sandwiches, when we toted them to school, were made on heavy dark rye or pumpernickel, breads with substance. And they were made with butter.

None of this foreign stuff like mayonnaise was acceptable to my mom; Estonians used butter.

And not salted butter either. Salting butter, she claimed, was done solely to conceal the fact that it was spoiled.  Even now, just a few months shy of turning 60, I regard salted butter as an exotic delicacy.

Our determined mom even spread butter under the peanut butter.

Pumpernickel – butter – Skippy -strawberry  jam – pumpernickel. That was the recipe for one of our lunch sandwiches, and it definitely did not look like the sandwiches of our classmates. Another day’s sandwich might be rye – butter – salami – rye.  Or pumpernickel – butter – ham – pumpernickel.  Rye-butter-tuna salad-rye.

And then came sixth grade, and the school cafeteria. Hot lunch, cold lunch, submarine  sandwiches: American cuisine as interpreted by the lunch ladies.  Among my discoveries was pizza. At school it was presented as a flat disc about six inches in diameter, topped with a bland tomato sauce and bland melted cheese. How amazing! How different from our Estonian diet of meat and potatoes and sauerkraut. I raved about pizza at home.

One day at the supermarket, I spotted small  pizzas in the frozen food section, and urged my mother to buy some. To my surprise and delight, she did.

However, she did not put them in the oven to bake. Mama added a special twist of her own: she fried them in butter. She even flipped them over and fried the side with the sauce and cheese, which made quite a mess. But we all loved them. The fried pizzas were juicier and tastier than the ones at the cafeteria, and we devoured them in happy ignorance.

So the very first time I begged a quarter from my father and went with a friend to Tony’s Pizza in Pompton Lakes, I experienced Pizza Nirvana.

That huge hot pizza slice , speckled with unfamiliar oregano and dripping with melted mozzarella, was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. After conducting more research, I went and informed my mother that Americans-do-not-fry-pizzas-in-butter-they-bake-them-in-ovens.  I must have been about 12.

Mama, ever the cosmopolite, decided to branch out into the mysteries of pasta, only we didn’t call it pasta back then; it was either spaghetti or macaroni. She clipped a recipe out of Family Circle and proceeded to make tomato sauce and meatballs, with boiled spaghetti.

When it came to the table, the dish looked peculiar, to say the least. It was pink. My brother and I knew that regardless of how the lunch ladies might decide to  interpret spaghetti sauce in the cafeteria, it was always red.  We didn’t discover pasta Alfredo and pasta Aglio e Olio and pesto sauce until considerably later in life.

Not only was the sauce pink, but the spaghetti underneath it was littered with bits of potato.

Mom explained that the sauce, as made from the recipe, looked thin to her, so she added some heft in the form of sour cream. My brother and I groaned.

And the potato pieces? Evidently our father insisted on potatoes at dinner, and refused to eat this peculiar foreign spaghetti stuff.  Not wanting to wash two pots, she simply boiled the spaghetti with the potatoes. At least the meatballs seemed normal to our uneducated palates. I don’t believe  my mother ever purchased garlic in her life.

We didn’t have the money to go to restaurants, so our experiences with cooking other than our mother’s was limited to  meals at the homes of family friends who were Estonian, snacks at the homes of our American playmates, and the culinary delights of the cafeteria at  Schuyler-Colfax Junior High School.

Despite these minor mishaps, our mother was a wonderful cook. Like her own mother, she could make  tasty gravy out of almost anything. She brewed marvelous fragrant coffee. She made sweet-tart lingonberry jam from imported lingonberries, which are like tiny cranberries that grow in northern Europe.

She made pickled pumpkin, a lovely traditional sweet-and-sour addition to Estonian smorgasbord tables.  Her pink beet-and-potato salad (called rosolje  in Estonian), mushroom salad, herring salad and regular potato salad were better than anyone else’s.

Her cakes were out of this world. She made heavy moist sponge cakes using a dozen carefully separated eggs. You tiptoed in and out of the kitchen while it baked, lest it fall.

When the sponge cake was done and properly cooled, she would slice it into two layers, and fill the middle with crushed strawberries steeped in a little red currant wine and sugar. The top layer went back on, and she covered it with her mocha frosting, made with butter and sugar,  coffee and a little cocoa powder, and I can’t recall what else.  This cake was sublime.

She grew gooseberries and made gooseberry tart, which I imagine few Americans have tasted.  She made delicious Estonian-style sauerkraut, which is only slightly sour and definitely sweet,  laced with caraway seeds or cooked barley. I can’t really describe it, nor can I make it. My brother can.

Years after she passed away, many old family friends remembered my mother as an excellent cook.

But there was one thing she made that I avoided like the plague. Sült. Americans call it head cheese, but it’s more like an unsweetened Jello mold made with pigs feet that have been boiled to bits and the bones taken out. Real Estonians love the stuff, devouring it with vinegar or mustard. I used to get nightmares just looking at it.

Because we stuck to Estonian food at home, I never tasted a bagel with cream cheese and lox until college, when Jewish friends dragged me to a diner. Heavenly!

Another college friend introduced me to the joys of falafel in Greenwich Village. On another trip to the city, he tried to refrain from snickering when I innocently ordered the hot version of a dish at a Pakistani restaurant, choking some of it down with glass after glass of water, tears running down my face, before giving up. I never dared to tryPakistani food again, though I adore Indian cuisine and enjoyed dining at a Nepalese restaurant last summer.

Chinese food was also a novel experience after the bland chow mein at school. On one dreadful  occasion, the cafeteria crew at our high school ran short of canned chow mein, and stretched it out with canned spinach and oatmeal, of all things.  It was ghastly.

Not all the food at school was bad. Our high school cafeteria served a wonderful macaroni and cheese dish with stewed tomatoes. I liked it so much that when I came home from college early for Thanksgiving break, I sneaked into the high school cafeteria and bought a plate of it.   In later years, I tried to re-create it from memory, and achieved a reasonable facsimile:

Wayne Hills High School Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz. dry elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons white flour

1½ cups milk or skim milk

Paprika and celery seed or celery salt to taste

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian seasoned.

Olive oil cooking spray

Cook a package of elbow macaroni according to directions. – do not overcook. Meanwhile spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray. Add the macaroni when it is cooked and drained.

While the macaroni cooks, slowly melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour until thoroughly blended. Then gradually stir in 1½ cups of milk, stirring with a whisk until the mixture is blended and free of lumps. Add salt and a dash or two of paprika and celery salt or celery seed.  Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and pour over the cooked macaroni.

Stir in 1 cup or more of grated cheddar – depending on how cheesy you like it.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and spray lightly with the cooking spray.

Bake 35-40 minutes at 350°.

Top each serving with stewed tomatoes. Serves 6.

(To reduce cholesterol, substitute olive oil for melted butter, and use low-fat cheese and skim milk.)

Stewed tomatoes

2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

1 15-ounce can water

½ can water

Pour the tomatoes and liquid in a pot and add a can of water. If you want, cut the tomato slices into quarters. Heat slowly.

Meanwhile, stir 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch in about 1/2 can of water until dissolved. When the tomatoes begin to simmer, add the water-cornstarch mixture and cook until the liquid is thickened.

Serves 6.

Enjoy!

How do you say “witch” in Estonian?

I am astonished to discover that the Estonian language possesses an extraordinary number of words for “witch”.

Nõid is the word I was taught as a child.

But they have other words such as loits, võlu, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, synaja, kaldun…

It’s enough to make you dizzy.

How does a tiny nation — one that is geographically about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined — manage to have such great diversity in dialects and words for things?

Estonia’s population today is roughly 1.3 million, of which about 300,000 are ethnic Russians.

My county — Montgomery County in Maryland –has about as many inhabitants as there are ethnic Estonians in Estonia, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million. We are an ethnically diverse county. Yet we don’t say witch in Silver Spring, and something entirely different in Poolesville or Olney. True, someone of Hispanic origin might say brujo or bruja. Someone from Taiwan or Ghana might use an entirely different word in their own language.

But in our common tongue, English, we all use the word witch when we want to describe someone who claims to use magic to achieve their ends, or perhaps dresses in a particular Halloween costume consisting of pointy hat and long black gown. Or who is a practitioner of Wicca.

The Free Dictionary offers this definition of witch from the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, (Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)

“1. A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
2. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
3. A hag.
4. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.
5. Informal A woman or girl considered bewitching.
6. One particularly skilled or competent at one’s craft: “A witch of a writer, [she] is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity” (Peter S. Prescott).
v. witched, witch·ing, witch·es
v.tr.
1. To work or cast a spell on; bewitch.
2. To cause, bring, or effect by witchcraft.
v.intr.
To use a divining rod to find underground water or minerals; dowse.
[Middle English wicche, from Old English wicce, witch, and wicca, wizard, sorcerer; see weg- in Indo-European roots.]”

There are all sorts of theories concerning the roots of Old English wicce, from which we get witch. One is that it derives from Sanskrit uei, a flexible twig used in binding. Another claims it comes from one of several meanings for Sanskrit ueik; in this case, divination.

But the Estonian language does not originate from Sanskrit, or its ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, unlike most of the languages in Europe. Instead, it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family, of which the most widely known modern languages are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. This was pounded into our heads in Estonian school. We generally got blank stares when we tried to explain this to non-Estonian kids, or even to teachers. We first-generation Estonian-Americans were forced to accept the sober fact that our parents’ native language was weird.

Little did I suspect that Estonian is weirder than anything I could imagine. In this tiny nation, there are more than 40 words for witch, and likely more. Only a few are related to one another.

I found this out during a Google search. Someone at http://www.Estonica.com, a website about all sorts of information about you-know-where, went to the trouble of searching for all these words, plus words for witching and witchcraft, and created a map of Estonia’s counties showing where each of these words was used, with three colors indication which of Estonia’s three major dialects it sprang from.

The link for the witch-words and accompanying charts is:

http://www.eki.ee/cgi-bin/vms.cgi?mrks=n%F5id&maxm=100&kk_yks=&nmin_yks=1&nmax_yks=116&mmin_yks=0&mmax_yks=116&kk_kaks=&nmin_kaks=0&nmax_kaks=116&mmin_kaks=0&mmax_kaks=116&kk_kolm=&nmin_kolm=0&nmax_kolm=116&mmin_kolm=0&mmax_kolm=116

Truly, witches must be deeply significant personages in Estonia, or were so in the past.

Leaving out the dozens of words for witchcraft and witchery included on the Estonica web site, we can begin our list with ammamees or hambamees, which literally means tooth-man, and continue to arp, ask, jalapoiss (literally leg-boy), kaalunaine (weighing-woman), kade (which means envious) to kaldun.

Then there are maanatark (earth-something or other-wise), norts, nõiakas, nõias, and the widely used nõid, as well as nõidlik, with nõid being pronounced the way a denizen of Brooklyn, NY would say “nerd”.

Continuing alphabetically, we find poltarak, porss, punk, rabi, ragan, rõugutaja, silmänuumija which comes from Setu county in southeastern Estonia, sorbik, sorp, sorpja, sort and sorts, these last two related to our English word sorcerer somehow, along with sortsikas.

Sumpja is another word from the Setu dialect, followed by suri, taigaline and the widespread tark, which means “wise”. Teadlane, which can also mean scientist (!), is used in a few areas, along with related teadmamees (knowing-man). Tontinimene (ghost-person) comes next, followed by Russian-sounding tsarovnik.

We also have tuusija, velets, vilpus, viuh-änd, vornik and finally võlu, another one that has a rather wider use.

And the list from Estonica.com doesn’t even include some of the words I mentioned at the beginning, like loits, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, and synaja, which I discovered in other rambles through Google. That makes a grand total of 46 words for witch, and I’ll bet there are more.

I can draw a few conclusions from this.

One is that witches and their works played an important role in Estonian society at some time in the past. This is understandable when you have people depending on the success of their harvests, their fishing catches and their herd animals as matters of life or death. There were both male and female witches in Estonia, while the dictionary definition above tends to view witches as mostly female.

Estonia was one of the very last places in Europe to be Christianized. Christianity has always lain thinly over a strong undercurrent of pagan belief, including, evidently, a belief in supernatural powers.

A BBC article published in August, 2011, states that: “When Estonians were recently asked whether religion played an important part in their life, only 20% said yes. It suggests the Baltic country is, statistically, the least religious country in the world.”

Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14635021

Another surmise I can make from this is that Estonians in the past were not a very mobile people, being tied to their land by the hard labors of summer, and the deep snows of winter. Before there were trains and cars and telephones, many Estonians stuck to their small communities and did not have much contact with other hamlets outside their immediate area. When Estonians were mainly serfs laboring on the vast manors of their German overlords, their opportunities for travel were severely limited.

As a result, each region may have developed its own slang names for that important man or woman who practiced healing and encouraged good crops to grow.

Estonia has been conquered and re-conquered repeatedly by some of its near-neighbors since the early 13th Century. The conquerors, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia, have lent bits of their language to the Estonians. It may be that some of the witch-words I listed above derive from those languages.

And although northern Europeans have enlarged the lexicon of the Estonians, Estonians haven’t returned the favor. I can’t think of any Estonian-based words in English. Even our Estonian word saun isn’t known; the Finnish word sauna is the one that made it into English.

More’s the pity. What fun it would be to have 46 words for witch.

A few Estonian jokes

(Thanks to my brother Pete!)

After having dug to a depth of 100 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 1000 years ago.

Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, English scientists dug to a depth of 200 meters, and shortly after, headlines in the newspapers read, “English archaeologists have found traces of 2000 year old fibre-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the Scots.”

One week later, Estonian newspapers reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5000 meters in Narva, Estonian scientists have found absolutely nothing. They, therefore, have concluded that 5,000 years ago, Estonia’s inhabitants were already using wireless technology.”

***

An Estonian stands by a railway track.
Another Estonian passes by on a handcar, pushing the pump up and down.
The first one asks: “Is it a long way to Tallinn?”
“Not too long.”
He gets on the car and joins pushing the pump up and down.
After two hours of silent pumping the first Estonian asks again: “Is it a long way still to Tallinn?”
“Now, it is very long way to Tallinn.”

***

A special offer from Estonian mobile phone providers: the first two hours of a call are free.

***

I told some Estonian fellows that they’re slow.
“What did they reply?”
“Nothing, but they beat me up the following day. ”

***

At -10 degrees Celsius, heating is switched on in British homes, while Estonians change into a long sleeved shirt.
At -20 Austrians fly to Malaga, while Estonians celebrate Midsummer Jaanipaev.
At -200 hell freezes over and Estonia wins the Eurovision Song Contest.
At -273 absolute zero temperature is reached, all atom movement ceases.
The Estonians shrug and say “Perse. It’s a bit chilly today isn’t it?”