People of the Sea


The ''People of the Sea" description can quite rightfully apply to the Insular Swedes, Coastal Finns, Estonians, Letts, Lithuanians, Livs, Vods and Izhoras. Even though these peoples practiced farming, the sea was the main food provider for coastal area inhabitants. Their fishing catches consisted of sprat, smelt, eel, white fish, cod, salmon and lamprey, whereas the main hunt animal in the Baltic, Barents and White Seas was the seal. In the local shipyards, they built large sailing vessels, such as schooners, long boats, boats and cutters. Ship­building was especially well-developed on Saaremaa, Vorms, Hitheyumaa and Riino Islands. In this part of the Baltic Sea sail-ship building existed especially long, up to the mid-twentieth century.

Large numbers of superstitions and beliefs were associated with fishing. The “people of the sea” regarded the under-water world as the “death kingdom”, where the “fish queen”, the pike, ruled, so a pike jaw or tooth were used as very strong talismans in protective magic. Fishermen’s behavior was regulated by strict rules that went down from father to son. Thus, for instance, custom banned the use of curses during fishing seasons. Before going to sea it was mandatory to wash in a bath-house and put on a clean shirt; casting a seine into the water, one was supposed to ask, “Give us, Anti, some perches, and Pekka, give some small fry.” The Saints Anti (Andrew) and Pekka (Peter), whose name day is observed by believers on 29 June /12 July, are held in folk culture to be patron saints of fishermen.

The maritime fishing and hunting occupation required the men to have courage and mutual assistance, therefore hunting and fishing artels, in which mutual responsibility was pivotal, were usually formed on the basis of family or neighbourly relations. It was hardly coincidental that Estonian fisher artels, which consisted of several dozen members, were in the olden days called “seine families”. The artel was headed by its skipper, the most experienced and respected fisherman. The traditional occupations, such as maritime hunting, fishing, ship-building, seafaring and trade (not infrequently in the form of smuggling), which determined the entire life style of the “people of the sea”, were reflected in old popular customs, beliefs, epic legends and folk songs.Mother, rock me in my cradle,

You won't lull me when I'm big.

The Sea Mum’ll then rock me

In my little oak gig.

(Letts’ folk song)

Children were taught to work at an early age. Initially they would lend the adults a hand with carrying and processing fish; at age 7 boys would gradually begin fishing on their own, while 14-year-olds would already go out to sea as members of fishing artels. In the late nineteenth century in some localities on the Baltic coast vocational schools were founded for fishermen’s children, where they were taught seafaring and ship-building skills.

The main weapon for maritime hunting practiced by the Estonians, Swedes, Finns and Saami was the harpoon. When hunting seals, the harpoon was thrown from a long boat to hit an animal about 20 meters away, whereupon it was dragged with a line and tied to the stern without pulling it out of the water. In winter time, when the animals were hit on ice, the hunters used a special type of spear, with teeth designed to pierce the thick skin of the animal. In the course of time firearms superseded the old fishing gear.

The life of marine hunters, like that of fishermen, was full of various superstitious beliefs and taboos. The hunters avoided uttering the names of the animals hunted, resorting to allegory if need be. Thus the seal was referred to in their speech as “hairy fish”. Much importance was attached to "prophetic” dreams: dreams of sheep on the eve of the expedition held promise of rich bags. When hunters walked to the shore, they steered clear of childless women because that was a bad omen, and conversely, encountering a single woman who had children was thought to be a sign of good luck ana gain.

Seal hunting on ice was done with the help of a special enclosure, behind which hunters wearing white camouflage clothing would hide before they approached the animal stealthily until they were at a shot or a throw. In the 1896 edition of the Picturesque Finland album the following description of the Finnish seal hunters of the Vaza Skerries was given:

''To the indigenous population seal hunting is as much of a sport as a commercial activity. These people, hardened by their struggle with the elements, are not vulnerable to piercingly cold winds from the sea and prepared to march fearlessly on and face any danger... They pull a big one-mast boat over the ice, while carrying small boats filled with food stuffs, guns, firewood, etc. on sledges. If they move with the wind, they raise a sail after reaching the open sea, and manoeuver between blocks of ice, looking for a suitable hunt place''.


Estonian fisherman. Photograph. 1980s
Estonian fisherman. Photograph. 1980s
Boy's clothes for everyday wear. Swedes. Lifland Province, Runo Island
Boy's clothes for everyday wear. Swedes. Lifland Province, Runo Island