July 30, 2018
Much can be gleaned about the psyche of a nation by whom, or indeed what, they choose to celebrate.
In the UK we have our own Morris Dancing for example. It’s a tradition that is as inscrutable to the natives as it is to outsiders. Cecil Sharp (who conducted thorough research into the tradition in 1906) concludes that “the dancing comes from a very old tradition that has seasonal and pagan observances that seem to date back to primitive religious ceremonial.”
Perhaps this willingness for men to don skirts and dance around a maypole says more about our isolation from the mainland as it does about our desire to usher in the crop-growing weather; people tend to adopt peculiar habits in the absence of peer pressure.
Quite what the locals of Tori make of their own idiosyncrasies is anyone’s guess. As the token outsider I can say that their gathering on the village green was graceful, athletic, almost balletic and not a little strange.
I was on my way from Happsalu to Pärnu when I spied from the van a blanket of undulating white on a patch of parched grass. Music wafted in the breeze. There was an orchestra. A small stand had been erected and the good folk of the village were gathered together in bleached cotton garments. I pulled the van into a lay-by, climbed over a fence, and took a seat to watch the proceedings.
The action took place on the turf. At first, a company of young, athletic men lunged and strutted, brandishing wooden sticks. Their graceful movements belied the warlike gestures. They were followed by a troop of females who proceeded to glide in unison over the grass, extending their lithe bodies skyward on tippy toes, spinning around and around in perfect circles, stretching their long limbs into elongated poses. They left and a barrow arrived onstage, wheeled by a peasant girl and a farmer. She spoke for some time in Estonian. I have no idea what she said but it was passionate and the crowd were moved. She left to the sound of sad, mournful strings. The music swelled, crescendoed then fell silent. The choir started to depart the stage, singly at first but soon the grass was filled with a silent mass of white-robed men and women. Then it was deserted. You could hear the crowd hold its breath, waiting for something. A blanket on the barrow twitched and rustled. A young man emerged from underneath. The crowd tittered. He spoke. The crowd chortled loudly. Then he too left the stage.
I will leave the interpretation of the performance as an exercise to the reader. Suffice to say that human experience is universal and taps into something primal and primitive, perhaps even innate and irrepressible. You can hear emotion in voices; you don’t necessarily need to know what is being said. You can feel a frisson as it ripples through a crowd even if the stimulus is not experienced firsthand. The modern world has blunted but not removed these abilities and we still experience them from time to time, sometimes in very powerful ways. I once saw a man unburden his soul to a group of fellows. That he spoke in French and I could not follow his words is irrelevant. I was witness to his pain, and subsequent relief, through the tone and rhythm of his speech, the movement and actions of his body and the light waxing and waning in his eyes. We can become so entangled in the detail of our own lives that we forget the road travelled is one shared with our fellow wayfarers.