It’s Estonian Women’s Day – have some red beer!

Today, February 2, is popularly known as Groundhog’s Day in the U.S., but unfortunately, the fun is generally over after the drowsy rodent has seen/not seen its shadow and predicted more winter/early spring.

However in Estonia, Küünlapäev, literally candleday (Candlemas) is an all-day festival for women, who head out to pubs and quaff red-dyed beer or vodka, while the men stay behind to mind the children and do the housework.

What a great idea! I always knew Estonians were geniuses, especially Estonian women. Moreover, this holiday is not just some brainchild of modern-day Estos – it’s been a tradition for perhaps centuries.

February 2 is also known by the name naistepüha or women’s holiday. Women put on their best clothes and necklaces, and went visiting or dancing at local cafes and pubs.  The special beverage of the day is called naistepuna, which literally means “women’s red”. This is beer or another alcoholic beverage colored red.

St. John’s Wort flowers

The word Naistepuna also happens to be the Estonian folk name of a plant called St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum in Latin. Traditionally women gathered the plant’s bright yellow flowers during the summer solstice and dried them to make red dye for the Candlemas beer.

Many of you may have heard that St. John’s Wort is considered an herbal treatment for depression, especially by people in northern Europe.  It makes me wonder if the dried flowers were put in the beer on purpose to relieve the gloom of a long northern winter and cheer the women up.  Estonian women still drink red beer on this day, but I believe it’s usually done with food coloring.

The Open-Air Museum outside Tallinn, Estonia, featured a program today in which visitors got to make candles from sheep fat, taste traditional foods and sip St. John’s Wort tea, which supposedly made people’s cheeks rosy. Pink cheeks were considered sign of good health.

In Toronto, Canada, home to a large population of Estonian immigrants and their descendants, members of Estonian women’s academic organizations will probably celebrate their 53rd annual Candlemas event this weekend.

Traditional beliefs of February 2

Traditionally, this day signifies that winter is half over, and that half the food stored for winter should still be in the larder and the barn.  Like Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas was a day for forecasting weather. A rainy day was supposed to predict a rainy summer, while a sunny one meant a dry summer.

All of the women’s winter spinning had to be finished before this day, since it was forbidden for women to spin on Candlemas, lest the sheep get sickly weak and attract wolves.  Sewing was allowed in southern Estonia, where each stitch represented a poke in a wolf’s eye. Almost all other housework was prohibited, maids got the day off, and wages were paid. People ate flitch (unsliced bacon) and barley porridge.

It was believed in Estonia that candles burned brightly on this day.  Candlemas was a Christian holiday when the church candles were blessed for the coming year. In pre-Christian times, candles and fires were used in rituals and magic to honor goddesses and gods of fertility.

The Exalted One

In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began as a pagan goddess, Brid or Brighid. St. Brigid remains the most celebrated and revered figure in Ireland next to St. Patrick. Sometimes this day is also called Midwinter Day, because it falls midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

Fire and purification are an important aspect of the ancient pagan festival of Brid (pronounced breed). In the Celtic world, she is also called Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. It is believed the name comes from a root Sanskrit word Brahti meaning “The Powerful One” or “The Exalted One”.

Brid was the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. Both goddess and saint are associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. On her day, the home was cleaned, old ashes removed from the fireplace, and new fire kindled.

Brid originally was a sun and fire goddess, and this is reflected in her legends: she was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. She was patroness of healing wells and springs, because the fire of the sun was believed to give the water healing properties at certain times of year.

In Pagan belief, the divine aspect of the feminine is associated with water, abundance and fertility. There are wells dedicated to Brigid throughout the United Kingdom, with Brigid’s well in Kildare being the most revered. People cast offerings such as coins, rings or bits of metal into wells. In a 19th century survey it was found that Ireland was home to nearly three thousand holy wells. Of these, at least fifteen are dedicated to St. Brigid.

Wives’ Feast Day

In Northern England and Scotland this day is known as Wives’ Feast Day, which sounds a lot like the Estonian women’s festival. Other members of the household cook dinner for the lady of the house, and she is given small gifts and honored as keeper of the hearth and home. It looks like they’ve got the right idea, but do they drink red beer?

In ancient Rome, Midwinter Day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of the god Mars. The word Februare in Latin means “to purify”. Fires were lit for purification, and candles were blessed and burned in her honor. Women carried candles in street processions in memory of Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone, as told in the Greek myth. Determined to stop goddess worship, Pope Sergius I in the year 453 ordered February 2 to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, forty days after she had given birth.

No matter which name it goes by, February 1 and 2 are celebrations of fertility, the divine feminine, and the awakening of the earth that eventually leads to spring. And, let’s not forget, it’s a day when women can and should celebrate themselves.

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A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

Nigulapäev

Just noticed that today is December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, called nigulapäev (Nicholas Day) in Estonian. Saint-days are not capitalized by Estonians.

The Estonian name-day calendar lists today’s names as Nigul, Nigulas, Niilas and Niilo.  Also Nils, Klaus, Laas and Laus.  All derive from the name of Nikolaos of Myra, the 4th Century saint who became known as Sinterklaas by the Dutch, and eventually developed into our American Santa Claus, who dwells in every shopping mall from Maine to Hawaii. He is currently the patron saint of Mastercard.

My first husband’s father, whose name was Nicola, the Italian version of Nicholas, didn’t celebrate his own birthday. Instead, like many native Italians, he celebrated on his name-day, St. Nicholas Day.

The original Nikolaos, who was the Greek bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, was called the Wonderworker for his many miracles.  He had a reputation for secretly giving gifts such as coins, in shoes that people left out for him.  He is revered by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians.

The saint’s relics, including his bones, eventually wound up in Bari, Italy. Several years ago these bones were studied by a forensic lab which found that the man was about five feet tall and had a broken nose.

In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas Eve, Dec. 5, is when children place their shoes in front of the chimney in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave gifts in them.  Children are given presents on the eve, and small gifts are found in the shoes the following morning. This day is still more important than Christmas in the Netherlands, and is also celebrated by German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch immigrant communities in the United States.

The shoe custom exists in much of Central Europe. Today’s Christmas stockings are an echo of this tradition.

In Estonia, nigulapäev is considered the beginning of winter, because under the old Julian calendar it occurred on December 19, close to the winter solstice. Legend says that on this day, the eagle falls from the tree because its claws lose their grip due to ice.

It is mainly celebrated by Estonia’s small Orthodox community as a religious festival.

In the olden days, December 6 supposedly shared similarities with the folk customs of mardipäev (St. Martin’s Day, November 10.) I don’t know whether this included the mardipäev tradition of dressing as beggars and going door to door for treats.  Today,  young Estonians still  go begging on Nov. 10 and receive coins and treats such as Snickers bars.

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.

Susi synad

I’m a Susi, which means wolf in the old literary language, as well as in the Võrõ language of Estonia.  The standard Estonian word is hunt. Heaven knows why some southeastern Estonian ancestor of mine chose Susi as a surname,  likely around the time Estonians started taking surnames in the 16-1700s.

Maybe a susi / wolf bit him in the pants. Maybe he spotted a susi near his herd. Maybe he liked to howl at the full moon. Maybe he was a werewolf  (libahunt). Estonia has a vast number of werewolf tales in its vast treasury of folklore.  Why didn’t they teach me important facts like this in Estonian Saturday school?

I don’t feel particularly wolfish, even though my brother and I are the last of this particular Susi clan, and there won’t be any more of us.  He’s not having kids, our Susi uncle didn’t have any, and my two daughters bear my husband’s last name. Although one never knows if they plan to change their last names for marriage or aliases.

An old Hungarian neighbor back in New Jersey spoke the truth when he told me what I was: a lone wolf.  I don’t travel with a human or wolf pack, and I love being solitary most of the time. Alone with my books, my words, my flowers, my weird interests, the internet.  And my pack of dogs, Penny and Bailey. Penny and I still struggle over which of us is alpha. But this does not make me a wolf.

Now for the second word of this post’s title, synad. Sõna means word in Estonian, but in the  Võrõ language or dialect, they spell it syna. Just to be irritating, I suspect. Synad is the plural, words. The spelling seems peculiar to me, since the  Võrõ (in standard Estonian, Võru) language is simply peppered with the letter õ, sometimes twice or even  three times in a single word.  As in õukõlõma, which is not the Võrõ word for Oklahoma, trust me. From what I can ascertain in the cryptic  Võrõ-eesti synaraamat (the Võru-Estonian dictionary) at http://www.folklore.ee/Synaraamat, it appears to mean oohing and aahing over something.

And just what is this letter o with the squiggle over it, the õ? I don’t know what Estonians call the squiggle, though Spanish speakers use the squiggle over their letter n sometimes to make a nyuh-sound, as in mañana. — maNYAna.  They call their squiggle the tilde.

The Estonian squiggle-o-letter is pronounced to rhyme with duh (duh!).  Like all good respectable Estonian alphabet letters, It is always pronounced the exact same way. It doesn’t sneak out and reappear as an oh, an ooh, or rhyming with the o in pot, like  the letters in our crazy wonderful  English language.  Man, did I have trouble with English when I first started learning to read it. I’d spoken only Estonian from infancy, and learned to read it around age 3.

My first encounter with the English language was in kindergarten (my parents spoke fluent English but theorized that I would master it quickly in grade school). I started picking up spoken English fast.

Then we got hit with sappy Dick and Jane.  See Dick run. Run, run, run.  See Spot run. Run, run, run. No problem.  But here in our reader came pesky little Miss Jane, and if I hadn’t heard the teacher pronounce the name, I might have tried to say the word Estonian-style —  something like YA-neh.

A few days or weeks later I froze in horror on encountering the word laugh in the Dick and Jane reader. Laugh, Dick, laugh. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. The arrangement of letters made no sense whatsoever to my Estonian brain, but I gamely sounded it out: la-OO-geh.  The teacher asked me to read it again.  La-OO-geh.  She explained that some letters in some words didn’t get pronounced, like the silent gh. So was it la-oo? No, it was read aloud as LAFF. Where in the world did that stupid FF sound come from, I wondered. It made no sense. Crazy Americans.

La-OO-geh is what Tarzan’s ape buddies hollered when they spotted some tasty bananas.

If I were transcribing laugh with an Estonian spelling, I would write it as LÄFF or  more correctly, LÄHV, since F is seldom used in Estonian.  Same with the letter B. The letters C, Q, W, X, Y and Z are excluded from our alphabet entirely .  I don’t know why Võrõ words contain  y’s and q’s. Maybe the Võrõlased (Võrõ people) stole them from the Estonians back in the misty past and hid them in their threshing-barns until needed.

And so their word for “word”, written as sõna in standard Estonian, is syna in Võrõ.  My father’s forebears came from Võrumaa, Võru county.

But don’t pity the Estonians for having a skimpy abbreviated alphabet. They boast an ä, our old friend õ, ö and ü. The characters š and ž were added in recent decades to cope with the foreign diphthongs sh and zh.

The ä is pronounced like the a in the word hat, and does not change its pronunciation for any reason, even in dire cases when it must appear four times in a row in a single word, jääääres. This chock-full-of- ääs word has three syllables and is pronounced yää-ÄÄ- res.

It means “at the edge of the ice.”

Notice the breathtaking simplicity. There is no “at”, no” the”, no “of”.  Just jääääres. If we want to say “ice edge”, we say  jäääär. By adding the suffix  es at the edge, the meaning changes to “at ice edge” or more accurately “ice edge at”. Being thrifty folk, the Estonians manage in this way to save 10 characters, at the of the, by replacing them with a simple es, for a total savings of 8 characters.

Estonian does not use articles, words like the or an or a. We just spit out our nouns willy-nilly with none of this frilly extra wordage.  Estonians are people of few words, or at least we like to think of ourselves that way. Slow, strong, patient, silent.

None of those four words describes me very well, but I’m an Americanized Estonian. Or perhaps an Estonianized American.  I can talk the hind leg off a donkey when the mood takes me.  I talk to my dog Penny a lot. Sometimes I talk to the trees and the vegetables and the flowers.  My mother strongly believed in talking to the flowers in her garden. She even spoke French to her red climbing rose, Madame Bouchard, although I do not know whether Madame replied.

Still, I do like being alone, and I do enjoy silence.  Except on those nights when the light of a full moon stirs something in my Estonian Võrõ blood, and I lift up my face and howl it greetings.