From oral to written: Setu oral-derived epic
Affiliation: University of Tartu

The Setus are Fenno-Ugric people living in the southeast Estonia and partly in Russia. The number of Setus is only some thousand of speakers. Since the 19th century the ethnography and folklore of Setus have been attractive for Estonian and Finnish researchers. Especially the old folk songs have been the object of interest and there is big amount of them collected in different archives, also published in academic volumes. Still, there cannot be met epic as the long format in the oral tradition of Setus. The longest narrative and mythological songs are up to 500 hundred lines long, usually shorter, and the singers in the last centuries have been mainly women. Thus, the nature of Setu (as well Estonian) folk songs is mainly lyrical, feminine.

The 20th century for Setus in the Estonian Republic brought along modernization. That was time when among Estonian learned men arose idea to create Setu epic in the written form – as in the 19th century, based on folkloristic sources, Karelian-Finnish “Kalevala”, Estonian “Kalevipoeg” or Latvian “Lāčplēsis“ were created. In 1927 the first part of present Setu national epic “Peko” (in the printed form since 1995) was compiled. The creation process of that was particular – Estonian folklore enthusiast Paulopriit Voolaine presented to illiterate but talented Setu female singer Anne Vabarna the main story-line of the epic compiled by himself, which she sung in the traditional authentic Setu style to be written down. In 1930 the second part of the epic was composed. In the similar way of cooperation some other feminine epical works were created and some of them in 2003 were published by Lauri Honko for international reader (“The Maiden's Death Dong and the Great Wedding: Anne Vabarna's Oral Twin Epic Written Down by A. O. Väisänen”, FFC, Helsinki).

It must be mentioned that the content of “Peko” seems somehow artificial. The main character of the epic is fictional King Peko, the personage not known in the authentic folk tradition. “Peko” has some similarities to the heroic epic, but in general it is fully feminine discourse reflecting at the same time the history and fate of Setu people. Quite the contrary, in the traditional Setu agrarian society Peko as such has been the anthropomorphic fertility idol, made of wood or wax. Up to the beginning of the 20th century it has been worshipped by people to gain better crop from fields. The traditional fertility idol has not very much to do with the King Peko of the epic who is first of all quite dynamic and human-like personage.

This way we are witnessing interesting transformation typical for the 20th century changes in the popular culture in Eastern Europe – one-time mythological personage has became a quasi-historical leader of people, transposed from (and through) the oral performance to the written epic. Even more, Peko has not remained only the character of the book, but has become the symbol of Setu people today. Since 1994 in every summer folk festival “The Day of Setu Kingdom” takes place somewhere in Setumaa (traditional habitat of Setu). Every year on the festival new sootska – the earthly representative of King Peko – is chosen, the competition of traditional singing takes place, and also many other Setu traditions are activated and displayed. Thanks to this event King Peko has become quite known amongst Setus, and even wider.

In the contemporary world small ethnic groups are living in the constant risk to be blended in with the big nations. When the traditional folk culture and corresponding way of life disappears in the modernization process, the whole ethnic group may have the same fate if there is no modern newly created means to support their identity. In the 20th century the traditional way of life of Setus has changed a lot, although their oral singing tradition luckily has not died out. Not similarly to many other small ethnic groups around the world Setus have relatively well survived modernization, and the important part of this (amongst many other factors) seems to be the oral-derived epic “Peko”, its main character, and the new traditions created in connection with it. Thanks to all this being Setu in the contemporary Estonia seems to be attractive and motivated. We can witness how epic as a cultural phenomenon still functions as a mean for consolidation and identity-strengthening – be it oral or written, in traditional or modern world.