Seto Songs & the Cycle of Life in Estonia

It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something

that makes a life worth living.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809 – 1894

Varska, Estonia


In the golden glow of late afternoon light, the six women filed through an aged arched wall and toward a wooded area behind the church.  I followed at a distance, admiring their exotic costumes and intrigued by their purpose.  They reached a grove of aspens, evergreens and birch, through which sunlight streamed down on the grave markers below.

The group was mostly elderly women, including two who walked with the help of canes.  With them was a tall blonde girl who carried a heavy wicker basket, which she set down on a bench amidst the scattered headstones.  The girl and one of the women leaned in closely together and lit a candle, which the woman set on a grave marked with a pot of cheery red geraniums.  Next to it, she spread out a brightly-patterned cloth that was soon laden with food taken from the hamper.

The women saw me hovering in their orbit and with smiles motioned for me to join them in their meal. In the pine-scented air of the Orthodox cemetery we had a picnic of soir, a special kind of cheese spiced with caraway seeds; local fish of smoked bream and raabis; sandwiches made of butter and smoked vendace–another local fishon dark rye bread; cucumbers; organic apple juice and local mineral water from the spring.

I had been invited to partake in this tradition of the Seto people of southeastern Estonia by a new friend Elina.  A Finn by birth, Elina came to Estonia 16 years ago for the weekend and never left.  She was introduced to the Seto community, an ethnic and linguistic minority who live along the border of Estonia and Russian, and their way of life struck a chord with her. In time, she “adopted” Veera–84 years old and the eldest of the women clustered around the grave–as her honorary grandmother and embraced many of the Seto traditions.

A tradition that is a cornerstone of Seto identity is leelo, an ancient polyphonic style of singing. The women are all members of a Seto choir called Varska Leelokoor Leiko, which means “play.” The choir now has seven members. In the past two years, two members of the choir passed away. Veera’s grandaughter Ruti, 16, is an “honorary member.”  Ruti recalled with a smile that Veera sang lullabies to her when she was a child, and that if her grandmother didn’t sing her favorite songs she would pout and cry.  Ruti began singing herself when she was three or four.

The Leiko choir had come to the cemetery to commune with Veera’s husband’s sister, who never married.  I was struck by the women’s easy camaraderie and how natural it seemed to have a picnic among the graves under the leafy green trees.  After a bit of food and some banter, at an unspoken signal, the women moved to the perimeter of the plot.  A prayer was said and then Veera led the singing, with a song she improvised that began Lydica, sister of mine, I am here to greet you on your birthday, I can’t give you my hand, our fingers won’t touch each other, Let the soil be light on your grave, let your sleep be peaceful sleep.

There are four categories of leelo songs—those that are improvised, which are the most prized; those folk songs that all universally known among all Setos; songs in which the tunes are familiar to all but the words may vary from village to village, and vice versa–songs for which all Setos know the words but the melodies may vary in different communities.

Seto songs are also known for being epic sagas.  I was told that the Leiko choir once improvised for eight hours.  Each of the women take turns leading the group and creating the verse, which has to rhyme, and the others chime in together as the chorus at specific intervals, repeating the last line sung by the leader.  The Leiko choir is atypical in its shared leadership—typically the post is given to one person, known as the iisutleja, who is seen as having the “power of songs.”

Lidia, age 80, has been singing for 50 years and explained that as a beginner, someone new to leelo singing becomes a student of someone who is proficient. The choir she is in became “registered” under the Soviet system–previously it was an informal group that sang strictly as a hobby.  The Soviets allowed the Seto to practice their traditions and in fact organized the leelo singers and encouraged public performances.

But there were strings attached–officials often required that the singers submit the words to their songs in advance for approval.  In other cases, Setos were not totally forbidden to improvise but were expected to know what not to say.  The choirs might be permitted to sing praises about their village but in turn, they had to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Soviet Union and include in their repertoire a song about some favored Communist theme such as a tribute to Lenin or commemoration of a significant Russian milestone, such as May Day or October Revolution Day.

A time-honored gathering spot for Estonians, including the Seto, is the community swing.  I saw these structures all over the country in my travels, huge wooden platforms that can accommodate a crowd.  With Elina, Veera and the others, I made my way down the road to the center of Varska and the town’s iconic swing.  Maimu, 64 and Ruti climbed up on its platform and Veera, Lidia and Anna, 82 years old, stood alongside it.

The group sang a song of thanks to the men who built the village’s swing, which gives the people such pleasure.  The lyrics tell of the girls giving the builders Easter eggs, a reference to the fact that a village’s swing would be built during that season.  In mid-March or April there was no agriculture work to be done, and the men’s thoughts turned to courting—the swing site is where romance blossomed among the village young people.  The mothers of the young bachelors would also come here–to eye the eligible girls, check out their posture and handicrafts, and assess who was good enough for their son.

17 thoughts on “Seto Songs & the Cycle of Life in Estonia”

  1. A nice thought by Holmes,
    and a great image of the young blond facially flawless woman with the four aged matrons,
    all sharing and expressing together a bond of music and love and respect and womanhood.
    A remarkable view of a vanished way of life that was the fabric of nearly all communities
    in the past!
    So, the Soviet repression could not extinguish that, and indeed even preserved it,
    — since virtually nowhere in the progressive western world can that be found !
    Not only that, the vestige of the swing as a community binder, and
    element of courtship and ongoing progeny and life in their community.
    What a lovely and poignant journey — perhaps, in some ways, as spiritual
    as in the heights of Tibet or peace of a Budhist sanctuary, though different.
    Thanks, Meg, for that journey to a different place — a place of richly different mindset.

    1. Judy, wow, your comments zeroed in on exactly my “take-aways” from what was a profoundly meaningful encounter for me. That you extracted the same meaning as precisely as I tried to convey it only serves to continue the indeed spiritual nature of this particular leg of my journey. That said, I guess it is my sense that while in fact some of the traditions are dying out in many parts of the world, we are forging new ways of creating and sustaining “community,” such as through the web! Judy, I am so pleased to share the journey with you and am grateful for your active participation!

  2. What a fantastic, fresh off-the-press (and plane) visual and literal insight! I felt like I was with you, Meg, as I read the piece, except that when you joined the women, I stayed behind, peeking from the bushes. I am thrilled that such delights still exist, and really grateful that you bring them to us.

    1. Iris, thanks for chiming in…my enjoyment of these encounters is extended when I hear from folks such as yourself that there is a “ripple” effect. I am glad you felt you were there…maybe someday you will meet the Seto women yourself! : )

  3. There is a mixture of sadness and joy in their faces which reflects what life really is. They accept the sadness of the lost loved ones but maintain the joy of life and the life they shared with those that went before!

    1. Tom, absolutely–you saw and felt what I myself experienced…and you know more than most what a powerful and poignant lesson this happens to be for me now. I look forward to us seeing Estonia together! : )

  4. Meg, I am impressed that in couple of days you managed to reach such an understanding of the Seto culture! Yes, you are correct – the visible and unvisible worlds are similarly important in Setomaa. Yes, the power of Seto women, especially the major singers (lauluimä, in English “mother of songs”) is an admirable issue. Yes, the Leiko choir consists of warm people – every time as I meet the women, I feel welcome here.

    1. Dear Ulle, how wonderful to hear from you that my “take-away” was on the mark! I am sorry that our paths did not cross when I was in Setomaa but I “felt” your presence through the visits you arranged for me. I look forward to sharing the stories of those people–such as Aare–in the coming months! And I thank you for your hospitality “in absentia”! I hope someday we will meet!

  5. Meg,
    Your descriptions and beautiful photos are so interesting. It must have been such a peaceful and uplifting experience. I also felt like I was there with you. It is so wonderful to learn about other people and cultures and it also makes me want to know even more about my ancestors and their traditions.

    1. Barbara, wonderful to have you to pop in for a visit! Yes, this really was a serene spot and being in the company of these women made time seem to stand still–which was most welcome as I tend to move a little too fast when travelling…so eager to take it all in! (I’m working on that!) And you are right–it is often through learning about the traditions of others that I am inspired to investigate my own heritage! At the same time, my afternoon with the Seto women was a reminder of how universal certain aspects of life are. Thanks for commenting Barbara!

  6. Thanks for sharing your unforgettable travel experience and photos, Meg. Like you, I’m enriched by the interactions I have with diverse cultural groups in my travels. Before reading your article, I hadn’t known about the Seto people of southeastern Estonia. Your writing opened a window for me into their way of life, their values and traditions, and I am better for it.

    1. Nancy, so nice to get your comment and hear from a fellow traveller who enjoys the rich diversity that exploring affords us. Experiencing the Seto’s sense of inter-connectedness between the “here” and “there” was a particularly poignant encounter for me and its never fails that the life lessons I learn while getting out of my comfort zone are exactly the ones I most need. I hope you’ll continue to visit and chime in!

  7. I love that Seto men look for a mate who can sing and do elaborate handicrafts. It says a lot about what is valued in their society.

    1. Judy, youre right–while much of the Seto’s traditions have practical value, there is indeed an appreciation for celebrating life, cultivating traditions and JOY! That was so evident on the faces of these women, who in their 80s had less wrinkles than moi! THAT tells you something! Thanks for sharing what resonated with you!

  8. Dear Meg — What a beautiful experience, and what a beautiful telling of it! Your ability to find a point of connection with people and place always impresses me; I admire that ability. What’s more, you always seem to find both instruction and inspiration from your travels – something I wish more people would do and to which I relate very much. Thanks for the great read!

    1. Jeff, we are kindred spirits in seeking those connections and then passing them on! I think you cherish that as much as I do…and I look forward to continuing to share our adventures! More to come!

  9. Thanks for the wonderful elaborated description of the Seto people.
    I had the pleasure to make this journey six years ago with my dear
    friend Elina. I was then and today even more impressed by the Seto
    people and their culture – thanks to Elina and this enthusiastic reading.

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