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A legend of a lake born of a marriage between a brother and sister

A family historical point of view

A popular Estonian legend, known above all in southern Estonia and the West-Estonian islands is analysed. The legend tells about a brother and sister from a higher stratum of society, who are intent on getting married to one another. Despite a special permission obtained from the Pope, at the big moment the house of the ceremony, with all the wedding guests, disappears under the ground and a lake appears instead. The only one to survive is a brother of the couple’s mother. Most of the 20th-century records refer the legend to Lake Valgjärv of Koorküla.

According to several historical documents, the legend had been recorded in the Livonian Chronicle written by monk (later canon) Siegbert of Riga in 1489.  According to that (probably perished) book the described events took place in about 1300.

In the article the meaning of the legend is interpreted in the context of Estonian family history studies, with an emphasis on the fact that there are as many as seventy three versions of the legend telling about the wedding of a brother and sister, but only one similar story about a father and daughter. As a strong tabooing as well as folklorization of brother-sister incest is characteristic of the folklore of matrilineal societies with a strong female position it is considered likely that the Estonian territory was also inhabited by a matrilineal community, where women’s status was relatively high. This argument is supported by facts from archaeology and legal history.

The analysis leads to the suggestion that the legend reflects a conflict of two cultures in the 13th-century Livonia. The folk tale presents the country people’s view of an event, possibly a cousin marriage among German settlers. Most likely, the local community, whose social order still bore relicts of collectivity and matrilineality had a radically different idea about endo- and exogamy than the German-speaking arrivals from a more individualizing society.