There are thousands of texts about groves and other sacred places among the popular narratives stored in the collections of the Estonian Folklore Archives. The present article discusses the tradition related to the word hiis ‘sacred grove’. There is no accurate survey about the number of sacred groves in Estonia, but the database of place-related oral tradition of the Estonian Folklore Archives allows making some statistical conclusions about the western and northern regions. The data indicates that the number of sacred groves is between 6 and 16 per parish. Some places are mentioned in several texts (5–6 or even more) while there are only one or two notes about most sites.
The narrative tradition has been collected and stored considering that its value increases over time. However, it is not a dead corpus, but a demanded and appreciated common heritage, which keeps old traditions alive. Nevertheless, one should keep in mind that each generation sets century-old and even older stories about groves into a new context and that the present interpreter is not able to fully comprehend the environment where the stories originated. it is evident that folk stories may seem old to us, but usually they deal with events that seemed dim and distant even at the time when they were written down. The content and choice of words of the stories depend on the background of the storyteller and the collector of stories. Behind each text there is always a particular individual with his/her personal experience.
Folk texts provide reliable information about the time when they were collected. However, the degree of reliability of the content of the texts should be established by studying some comparative data, including texts that deal with the same topic, or come from the same region, or are about the same site; other materials collected by the same person can be useful, too. It is possible to construct the relevant context even in the present time.
Information contained in folk texts ref lects conscious and subconscious choices. The informativeness of a text depends on the background knowledge and expectations of the collector (reader or listener) because everyone sees what he can or wants to see. Texts about a certain place are usually not descriptions of the place, but they first and foremost substantiate the importance of the place. A description of the site assumes that the listener or reader has not seen the place.
People often presume that the tradition of sacred places provides information about events and prehistoric beliefs and rites. However, the information is selective and incomplete, and it is inf luenced by stereotypical opinions. The essence of the message of the Estonian tradition of holy groves should be analysed against the background of the related traditions of other Finno-Ugric people. Local history, including Christian inf luences, has left a specific imprint on the tradition. The tradition of holy groves related to the concepts of sacredness and religiosity is not an isolated phenomenon, but it is part of the oral cultural heritage which resulted from the combined effect of certain historical circumstances. Local regional peculiarities occur also within northern Estonia where the word hiis is commonly used. It should be stressed that knowledge about holy groves has been preserved and improved up to now.
The origin of the word hiis is unknown. It is also difficult to determine unambiguously the meaning of the concept because it includes both the site and spiritual beings. The word hiis occurs mostly in its genitive form hiie in toponyms and narratives. Ancient runo-songs indicate that the word hiis was part of the mythological perception of the world, which sets the holy groves apart from other natural sacred places. Attitudes, communal approaches, and green thinking ref lected in the oral tradition are more reliable than the descriptions of rites that often tend to be pseudomythology. Warning narratives with stereotypic motifs (the one who damages the site is punished; a lake or a grove changes its place, etc.) are also authentic in their nature. Sometimes it is necessary to consider the whole body of related folkloric data in its full complexity and variability to identify possible holy groves. Folklore about the tradition of holy groves commonly includes information about sacredness of the site, but days suitable for visiting it and deities that occur in popular beliefs (Uku, Tõnn, and others) are also mentioned. Texts recorded in the 1930s indicate how the oral tradition served to promote the official ideology with the aim to reinforce national or local identity.
The concept hiis has become a general term to designate sacred sites/groves in present-day Estonia; the term is also used in specialized texts do denote all natural sacred places. The aim of the tradition is to send the message that the site is important and worth remembering.