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.


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:

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.


Alphabet fun & games

For our edification, I am posting the standard Estonian ABD alphabet. You must have been panting with excitement to see it.

Here is how I learned it as a small child in my aabits (alphabet book).

A, B, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü

The official modern-day Estonian alphabet consists of:

A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, Š, Z, Ž, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü.

F,  Š, Z and Ž are considered foreign letters that only appear in words borrowed from other languages. The  Š is pronounced sh, and the Ž is zh, as in BreŽnev.

This alphabet does not include our English letters, C, Q, W, X and Y, which are only used in foreign words and proper names.

There will be a test on this in 15 minutes.

I neglected to mention in my previous post that the letter Ö is pronounced like the U in purse, symbolized phonetically by the linguistically educated as ø.

The Ä sounds like the a in cat or hat,  for which the phonetic symbol is æ. We would write The Cät in the Hät. Except that we wouldn’t. We would instead write Mütsis KassMüts means hat, and kass means cat, and the extra is at the end of the first word means “in the”.  Checking the internet, I find that the Estonian title of the famous children’s’ book by Dr. Seuss is Kübaraga Kass. Kübar is a fancy-schmantsy Estonian word for hat, and the -aga suffix means with the, not in the.  No doubt they chose the word kübar to go with kass because there are few things Estonians love more than alliteration. (This does not count beer, sauerkraut, singing and many other things Estonians adore, such as sour cream…dill…pickled herring.)  More on alliteration in another post.

If you think our letter Õ is weird-looking, its phonetic symbol is even odder: ɤ. Bunny ears! It sounds like the u in duh (think Homer Simpson) if the speaker gets punched in the gut while saying the word. You get used to the pain after a while.

Trying to explain the pronunciation of  Ü gives me a headache.  Its phonetic symbol, unhelpfully,  is y, and sometimes modern Estonians like confusing people by replacing their ü’s with y’s when writing.  The letter is pronounced like the similar-looking umlauted  Ü  in German, but if you don’t know German, you’re out of luck. It sounds something like the “ew” in eww, but first you have to purse your lips as if you’re going to whistle.

We double our fun, and drive non-Estonians doubly crazy, by doubling, sometimes tripling or even quadrupling our vowels.  The i in the word kits (goat) rhymes with it’s.  A word like piim (milk) is pronounced peem. The word tass (cup) has an a like car,  but the a sound  is extended in klaas (glass).

We double  consonants too, like  in lipp (flag) to give the p sound a perky extra emphasis.

Confused yet?  At least we don’t go overboard like our wacky northern cousins, the Finns, who seem to double most of their letters for the sheer hell of it.  Maybe they see double after frequent weekend ferry trips to Tallinn swilling bargain-priced (to them) Estonian booze.

Here’s your typical Finnish word: hyppyyttää. It means ” to make someone jump repeatedly”, which is something those fun-loving arctic pranksters have been doing since their Viking days, even in 8 feet of snow.

Estonian is a piece of cake if you learn it from babyhood and get a few grammar lessons as a kid.  But it is a bitch to learn if you’re over the age of 7. It has more cases (14) than Latin, and my eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of words like case. My Estonian, like my English, is instinctive, but if I sit down and try to analyze each part of speech, my head starts to swim like a herring in the Baltic Sea.  Trying to diagram English sentences in 5th grade had the same shattering  effect. I know how to use the parts of speech correctly, but I can’t tell a pronoun from a participle. My brain just doesn’t function that way.

I had to pick up English fast, partly as self-defense  so I could figure out what the other kids were yelling  on the playground. I was also curious about what we were chanting when the teacher made us stand and place our right hands on our hearts while looking at a colorful red, white and blue piece of cloth at the front of the classroom.  I simply had no frame of reference for this strange activity.

Sudden immersion into English worked well — I couldn’t help but learn it. I don’t have a trace of  foreign accent, unless you count the New Jersey accent that hasn’t quite ceased, even after 21 years in Maryland.

As my mother, who learned Estonian, German and Russian from the cradle, used to say, they should begin teaching foreign languages in first grade, no later.   She and my father learned to speak English with a British accent because that’s the way it was taught in Estonia before World War 2. I think they learned some Latin when they were in law school, and my father mastered  Esperanto, the artificial language that was created in 1887 to be the new international lingua franca.

I think once you learn a few languages, you learn how to learn additional ones. My parents picked up bits and pieces of Finnish, Swedish, Polish, Latvian and other European tongues during their years in a post-war refugee camp. Of course the most important thing they learned was  how to curse in multiple languages. I can’t remember exactly how many, maybe 16. My brother and I were suitably impressed.

When I was in grade school, my mother studied French from educational  television programs.  We were taught French by volunteer mothers at our rather unique elementary school, but I never quite got the hang of it, nor could I get past the grammar in three years of high school German. I don’t possess  the gift of learning languages; the only reason I’m bilingual is because I learned Estonian as a baby, and English by immersion at age 5.

If only I’d inherited the linguistic skills of my great-grandfather, who was a Russian Orthodox priest and professor of theology at the University of Tartu, the oldest and most venerated institution of higher education in Estonia (founded in 1632). He managed to master 17 languages including Hebrew and Aramaic. My mother held him up as an example to me when I struggled with German. His name was Arseni Zarewsky, the last name spelled Tsarefski  in Estonian and heaven knows what in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russians.

My mother tried to teach me Cyrillic, too, but all I can remember is that h stands for n, and a backwards r stands for b, or something like that. Why they have to be so stubborn about using Cyrillic,  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s really at the bottom of our differences with the Russians: they cling to an archaic alphabet instead of getting with the program and using the Roman one like much of the rest of the world. And they’re bitter about it.

With a great-grandfather named Arseni Zarewsky, it’s obvious that I’m not a full-blooded Estonian. My Estonian grandmother, my mother’s mother, married Arseni’s son Boris, who got his law degree from Tartu University but decided he preferred hunting and fishing and living in the woods. Boris became a forest warden, and my grandmother learned how to cook swan and other fauna that he confiscated from poachers, so as not to waste anything.

My grandmother likely wasn’t a pure-blooded Estonian either; I don’t know if a pure-blooded Estonian exists today. My mother hinted that there was some Dutch way back on her mother’s side of the family tree.  After fruitlessly searching the internet about my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Püsnik, and finding nothing whatsoever  in Estonia, but discovering veritable hordes of Pusniks in Slovenia, I began to wonder.  Could she have had a Slovenian ancestor?  Or perhaps one of her Estonian ancestors was a serf on the manor estate of someone from Slovenia back in German Times.

Soon: Conquering Estonia for Fun and Profit.