Happy Finno-Ugric Day
Saturday 17 October 2020 is celebrated as Finno-Ugric Day.
Head soome-ugri päeva!
Hyvää sukukansojen päivää!
That’s ‘Happy Finno-Ugric Day’ in Estonian and Finnish. There are many more Finno-Ugric languages in which to say that in, but we’re not sure how— sorry. Let us know in the comments.
Who are the Finno-Ugric Peoples?
The Finno-Ugric peoples are indigenous to Europe, having lived here for about 10,000 years since the end of the last glacial period, predating the arrival of most other European groups. It’s worth noting though that different Finno-Ugric peoples are united by language and culture, not ethnicity.
Their fortunes over the past ten millennia have been… mixed, to put it simply.
They are no longer the majority in central and eastern Europe as they once were, now living as a relative minority on the continent with 25 million speakers of Finno-Ugric languages living today largely in the north-east. And that number is dwindling.
However, Finno-Ugric culture has influenced the world in surprising ways — from saunas to Christmas trees.
More importantly, three Finno-Ugric peoples now have their own independent states — Finland, Estonia, and Hungary — while many others enjoy varying degrees of regional autonomy or official recognition across the Nordic and Baltic regions and Russia. The Sámis, for example, have three Parliaments and three Presidents — one each for inside Sweden, Norway and Finland. They are also campaigning for a Sámi Parliament in Russia.
I think it’s fair to say that being part of the Finno-Ugric family is a much bigger deal here in Estonia than in Finland — and certainly more so than in Hungary. Recognising the voices of small national peoples is a key part of why Finno-Ugric Day exists, and that’s particularly important to Estonia.
Estonia is the Finno-Ugric state with the smallest population, although interestingly Russia is actually home to twice as many Finno-Ugric peoples.
In addition, Estonia was occupied illegally by the Soviet Union for half of the last century. The Soviet Union refused to recognise the existence of Finno-Ugric peoples, preferring to lump everyone into simple national categories of peoples that had happily merged into one union (supposedly).
One person who challenged that narrative most directly was an Estonian historian named Lennart Meri who traveled deep into Russia to document Finno-Ugric cultures — at times having to smuggle his footage past communist officials. To say his work was appreciated here in Estonia is a bit of an understatement.
Meri became President after Estonian independence was restored and remains one of the most revered Estonians of all time.
The third weekend in October has been celebrated across the Finno-Ugric world as ‘Finno-Ugric Days’ since the 1930s.
However, in 2011, Estonia also changed its law to officially declare the Saturday as Finno-Ugric Day. As a day of national importance, this is also an official flag day when everyone is invited to raise their flags on their homes. Here’s ours going up this morning.
Understanding Finno-Ugric mindset
The Finno-Ugric identity is most fundamentally rooted in language, which gives them a shared worldview and culture connected to that.
Although there are many similarities in vocabulary and grammar, the languages are not actually mutually intelligible to a great extent — although many Estonians learnt Finnish by defying Soviet censors and secretly tuning into Finnish TV and radio waves during the occupation.
That mutual worldview is important though. Languages shape how we see the world around us. And Finno-Ugric languages are very different to other European languages.
I regularly work with translators between English and Estonian, but we never get texts translated anywhere close to word for word. The translator’s brief is always to convey the same information, but re-interpreted in a way that is more culturally appropriate. For example, my English writing always sounds way too dramatic to Estonian ears!
Crucially, Finno-Ugric languages have much greater reverence for the natural world, the animals we co-habit it with, and the cosmos beyond.
This paper explains better this Finno-Ugric mindset:
This distinctive construction of their languages has influenced the Finno-Ugric peoples’ frame of mind, as well as the way they perceive the world around them. This facilitates mutual understanding between the Finno-Ugric peoples.
At the same time, the specifically boreal attitude of Finno-Ugric peoples enriches world culture via its unique way of thinking. Unlike Indo-Europeans, individuals thinking in Finno-Ugric languages would, for instance, tend to consider nature not as an object, but rather as a partner for coping with life. Nor are the cultures of the majority of Finno-Ugric peoples aggressive — throughout history, Finno-Ugrians have tried to accommodate themselves to ever new neighbours, until they have had to migrate in order to maintain their own identity.
As I write this here in Estonia, the annual great migration of birds from their arctic breeding grounds is taking place above me. So here’s an interesting fact. The Milky Way has an important role in Finno-Ugrian mythology and is referred to as the pathway of birds. It’s only relatively recently that scientists figured out there is some truth in this ancient belief about how birds navigate. Those birds really are steering by the stars.
The Finno-Ugric mindset has positively influenced the world, while their cultural traditions have been adapted by people around the world in ways many people using them may not even realise. The two most notable examples are Christmas and the sauna.
Many Christmas traditions are based on the winter solstice festival of Finno-Ugric peoples, which were then adapted by Christians. Even the first Christmas tree was erected in Estonia by German merchants who adapted local pagan traditions. (Our Latvian neighbours claim the same thing though).
And, while many different cultures around the world have ancient sauna-like sweat bathing traditions, the sauna as most people know it today is rooted in the cultural practices of Finno-Ugric peoples. This is primarily due to the Finns, of course. Their long period of indepencee and the great migration of Finnish peoples, particularly into the Great Lakes region of America, helped popularise their sauna practises globally.
More people are now learning about Estonia’s sauna heritage and expertise too though, particularly through contemporary Estonian sauna design, which is increasingly popular globally. We export Estonian-made HUUM stoves, including now to the US, so we often find it helpful to explain abroad that Estonia is a sauna-loving ‘Finnic’ or ‘Finno-Ugric’ nation, just like the Finns.
Sauna is saun in Estonian, although we have many smaller dialects too, including Võru, which is where most of our smoke saunas are located and where they are listed by UNESCO as part of the intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In the Võru language, sauna is sann and smoke sauna is savvusanna, which is actually closer to Finnish.
On the subject of seeing the world differently through languages, it’s worth noting that the saun or sann is not just a hot room as commonly understood in English. It’s the entire building and tradition. We have a separate word for the hot room, which is leiliruum. Socialising in the eesruum (pre-room) or scrubbing yourself in the pesuruum is just as important a part of the sauna.
All Finno-Ugric languages have a word for the steam generated by pouring water onto hot rock inside a sauna. And it’s a very special word. In all Finno-Ugric languages, it originates from an older word for ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’, the very essence of what it means to be alive. In Estonian, this word is leil. In Finnish, it’s löyly.
As more people seek out authentic sauna experiences, we decided to try and get the word leil into English as the very first Estonian word to enter common usage globally. For a bit of fun, we even made these t-shirts and hoodies if you want to help us.
The fact that we can still enjoy these ancient Finno-Ugric traditions in our independent states — and also share them along with our language with more people around the world — is really something worth celebrating.
So, to all Finno-Ugric peoples wherever you are in the world, happy Finno-Ugric Day.
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