Author:Koiva, Mare
  1. Introduction

    For most religions, nature has been an important medium and, to a smaller or greater extent, all religions use nature or its sacredness as a metaphor for religion. For Lutheran Christianity, which has dominated in Estonia for the last couple of centuries, nature has been of little importance traditionally, representing above all God's creation. However, in the twenty-first century changes have occurred, and nature, and especially sacred nature has become a significant feature also for Christian trends, in pagan traditions emphasising continuity, and in vernacular contemporary religious practices. Yet the concepts of sacredness and intactness are related to nature more widely, especially in the climate change discourses of the past couple of decades and, in an Estonian context, also in the concept in which, for historical reasons, nature protection is closely connected with the preservation of the nation and national culture (Jonuks and Remmel, in press).

    In terms of worldview, alongside ethnic and new religions, the sacralisation of natural places (and nature as a whole) is among the messages of many humanistic movements, beginning with religious groups and ending with the bearers of the radical and critical idea of the equality of humans and nature. Although different religions use nature in very different ways, one of the most intriguing outputs in Estonia has been taking sacred places under state protection, which in 2008 was formulated as a state development plan. However, the fulfilling of this most well-grounded and noble objective has been hindered by differences in worldviews as, under the leadership of the National Heritage Board, attempts have been made to merge the official level, academic humanities, and nature protection, and on the other hand the maausk (Earth belief), the dominating trend of contemporary paganism in Estonia. Due to these differences in worldviews, the initially simple and clear-cut activity has become a source of many problems and personal conflicts. For the academic worldview, the problem is the presentation of inner-circle and personal practices as general norms.

    Such a situation foregrounds the individual as an entity, and his/her importance as a maker of connections with phenomena in the past; this is accompanied by the invention of appropriate pasts and rituals. Personal visions of sacrality, history, and the value of a place are presented as real history, and personally created systems of values and beliefs are extended to ancient tradition.

    Firth (1996: 14) emphasises: "Religious beliefs appear less stable than ritual, more open to personal variation and modification. Their vagueness and lack of definition are seen in two respects. Different individuals in the same religious communion vary in their beliefs on a given topic, which makes it difficult to assign to any synoptic expression a truly representative value."

    The cumulation of such problems has resulted in a situation where academic science has been left with practically no options to direct the processes, as the clamant spokesperson as well as personal perception and experience have become more influential.

    The marking of natural sacred places has become one of the significant sources of problems. Traditional sacred places are known only from folklore and they were not widely marked throughout the twentieth century. Changes occurred at the end of the 1980s, when the contemporary pagan tradition maausk [Earth belief] became popular; at the same time a new tradition--marking personally relevant places with small objects, such as coins, strips of cloth, etc.--spread across Europe. It is obvious that the one who placed the first marker determined the narrative of the place for the future. Once such a space is created or adopted, along with any monuments located there, connections can be started to be made with memorial practices, and with the biographies of monuments and buildings along with their latent religious and folkloric potentials. In addition to vernacular markers--coins, strips of cloth, small sacrifices--official markers are also influential. There are many examples (Avrami et al. 2000), where the area marked with a sign of state protection becomes mentally more significant than a similar kind of area next to it--authorized power legitimizes the meaning.

    The numerous sacred places of official, semi-official, and vernacular religions which have emerged within the framework of the twentieth and twenty-first-century religious pluralism, as well as their marking, has been widely studied (Rountree 2015, Ivakhiv 2015, Butler 2020, Strimska 2005, 2017, York 2015, Harvey 2015).

    International consideration has been given to the altars, small figurines, and religious objects of new modern religious groups are studied globally (see e.g. Maggliocco 2001), while less attention is paid to temple architecture (Shizhenski and Suroveghina 2018, Gunnell 2015). Different sacral places have been described, on the European and American examples, by Jonuks and Aikas (2019), Koiva (2017, 2018, 2019), Hiiemae (2017), Toncheva (2019), Koiva, Kuperjanov, and Vesik (2018), Povedak (2011), Vaiskunas (2004), etc. On the basis of the authors' fieldwork materials, this article focuses on the practices of different religious groups, on how sacred places have been marked, and how this has established authority and the right to decide about the place.

  2. Marked and unmarked places

    Since the end of the 1980s, groups have been mentioned in interviews who have their own sacred places in a forest, meadow, or somewhere else in nature. This may be a personal, individual place not shared with others, or it may belong to a smaller group or a group of friends. The descriptions indicate that these are unmarked personal spaces; they have been found by happenstance and then acquired a special status; among other reasons, people return there to conduct small rituals. Sometimes the places are minimally marked: an unremarkable bit of string has been tied to a tree, or minimal modifications have been made (such as tying some of the branches together), giving the next visitor the signal that the place is universally sacred (EFITA, KK-034, 81-93).

    Traditionally, the marking of sacred places was practiced only seldom and it is also not done very often by members of Maavalla Koda (The Estonian House of Taara and Native Religions)--the main institution representing contemporary pagan religions in Estonia. Although historical records mention statues in sacred places (HCL) and trees decorated with red ribbons (Olearius 1669), historically sacred places have been characterized through forests--lucus sanctus or heilige Hain. As marking traditions, fences around sacred places have been mentioned, yet historically these have been rather around places in the vicinity of living places (see, e.g. Loorits 1935) and only during the past couple of decades have been integrated into the tradition of individual sacred places by the pagan trends (see, e.g. Kiitt 2007).

    Traditionally, however, the main characteristic feature of a sacred place has been the lore related to it--knowledge of the singularity of the place and different rules of behaviour established there. In addition to ritual behaviour and official marking. layers of meaning are created by narrations of the landscape, which help to place the real or hypothetical events related to it and people who have lived there into place narratives, which makes them part of the place memory (see also Ryden 1993: 64-66). There are several folklore motifs referring to the singularity of the place; in addition to traditional sacred place narratives, stories of 'travelling' nature objects or found treasures can refer to a onetime sacred place (Kalda 2011).

    In most cases, the natural object is not marked; for its visitors it is a mark of personal religiosity, which does not require any additional designation. In general, the rocks, trees, and other objects under state protection in Estonia also do not have special markings. Clearly, if an organiser of spirituality courses lives nearby, participants in the courses leave their offerings. Even today's excursions presume that out of gratitude to the guide, or spontaneously, one leaves offerings, which may often be the reason for their diversity and chance occurrence...

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