Lost in Setomaa

Day 16 – The unique history of Setomaa


Setomaa is the home of the Seto people, who hold their own unique traditions of singing runic verse and worshipping pagan deities and are one of the last remaining traditional folk cultures in Europe. When most Estonians were converted to Christianity, the Setos remained pagan. Although converted to Orthodox at a later date, many of their pagan beliefs still hold true. The true home of the Setos is now divided between Russia and Estonia and the culture is somewhat dying out.
We headed to Obinitsa, where the Seto museum is housed. Turns out we could have travelled around more of the area, however the staff at the museum told us that there was only one bus out. Seems as though there might have been a few more, if we had of taken our chances. That said, we managed to listen to some Seto singing, which was so amazing that I bought the DVD.
Seto villages are built in a circle. Closed cluster-villages in Setomaa are built in a way that you cannot peek into a neighbour’s yard. A typical Seto homestead is a closed inner courtyard surrounded by buildings, high gates and partition fences – a “castle homestead.” Every household has its own icon corner (pühäsenulk) and almost every village has its own small chapel (Tsässon). This kind of planning resulted from the need to protect the farm from the damages and looting that accompanied the battles of the great Northern War early in the 18th century.

Here’s an example of a typical chapel (tsässon). The chapels were small wooden buildings filled with icons in cupboards, icona cupboard scarfs, candles and flowers. The tsässon was built and maintained by village people. Like churches, every tsässon had a guardian angel and a titular saint.

Here’s an example of a typical room and some of the national costumes. The cosy exposition of the small museum features objects collected from the neighbouring villages. The handicraft collection of Seto women is very unique: it includes colourful towels used to decorate the corner where the icon stood, decorative towels and national costumes.

After visiting the museum, we grabbed some lunch from the local equivalent of a 7-Eleven store and went out to the lake to eat it. As we sat down, it started to bucket down but we managed to find a spot under a large tree and enjoyed our bread, meat and cheese.

We then jumped on a bus back to Voru and another bus back to Tartu. Overall, a worthwhile trip but probably one we could have done better.