Ahto Kaasik. Historical natural sanctuaries – values on the borderland between nature and culture


Historical natural sanctuaries – groves, offering stones, and holy springs, etc. – are distinctive features of the native Estonian culture, based on nature religion. Natural sanctuaries preserve the values of the present and the past. They are essential objects from the perspectives of historical memory, place-related oral tradition, popular religion, and landscape archaeology. Holy natural places are also valuable because they enrich local life environments, contribute to granting religious freedom, preserving national mental cultural heritage, and regional vitality.

Traditions related to natural sanctuaries were generally kept alive in Estonia until the 19th century. Natural sanctuaries are used even today as sites for praying, gift-giving, healing, and other rituals in certain regions and places. On the other hand, most natural sanctuaries are presently in a poor state, which sharply contradicts their high value.

So far, there is no comprehensive and up-to-date survey that covers data about holy natural places. No survey has been conducted to identify the location and situation of the majority of natural sanctuaries. Only about one fifth of about 2500 Estonian holy natural places are under heritage protection. Natural sanctuaries are not considered in the context of local and regional planning due to lack or poor accessibility of data. in addition, protection of natural sanctuaries is hindered by insufficient legal and protective regulations and inadequate financial support from the state. The present system of state protection allows a lanowner to use sanctuaries for economic purposes. Protectors of natural and cultural values and religious freedom have protested against the practice, and it has led to several court cases.

The shortages and difficulties are the result of long-term failure to address the problems. Many sanctuaries will disappear in the forthcoming years due to unsatisfactory protective regulations or insufficient education. To preserve natural places, urgent salvage activities are needed.

Identification of a natural sanctuary may be compared to a criminal investigation in respect to the large number of possible sources, the fragmentary character and lack of data, and their seemingly contradictory nature, the need to inquire people and fix and analyse data accurately . Despite, it is apparent that even all the necessary investigation activities are not enough to identify a number of sanctuaries on the landscape. The big changes of the last century in the landscape and settlement pattern of Estonia and weakening ties between generations had a negative impact on the natural sanctuaries and respective place-related oral tradition.

Both favourable conditions and historical sanctuaries themselves are needed for the preservation and expression of mental cultural heritage related to holy natural places. Therefore, the protection regulations of the sanctuaries must grant peace, intactness, and prevent economic activities in the sanctuaries.

It is possible to protect natural sanctuaries as cultural heritage, if they are no longer treated merely as archaeological monuments, which was a common practice in the Soviet time. The concept of natural sanctuaries should be included in the Estonian Heritage Conservation Act. it is necessary to introduce implementation acts and methodical instructions to protect holy natural places, define their limits, and organize their protection.

A panel of experts of holy natural places should be set up at the Estonian Heritage Conservation Advisory Panel to guarantee the needed competence and social coherence. Surely it is also necessary to establish the post of senior inspector of holy natural places at the National Heritage Board of Estonia.

The situation of holy sites can be improved within the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment first and foremost by guaranteeing a sufficient level of environmental impact assessment.

Considering the framework of the Constitution of Estonia and international treaties, it is unavoidable to grant state protection for holy natural places. The state of Estonia must guarantee the registration, study, and preservation of the sites and the respective mental cultural heritage; the state should improve their situation and preserve the sites for the future generations.

The Estonian House of Native Religions initiated a proposal for a public development plan of Estonian holy natural places for the years 2008–2012 to improve the situation and prevent the destruction of many natural sanctuaries. The launching and success of the plan and the status of Estonian natural sanctuaries depend first and foremost on political will because necessary theoretical preparations have been made and appropriately trained labour is available.

Ahto Kaasik