The article focuses on the traditional behaviour of native Estonians towards their natural sacred places. The source material is mainly texts written between 1870 and 1970 that are stored in the folklore archives. The term ‘sacred place’ is used in the present paper to refer to natural places (e.g. hills, forests, and lakes) and to natural or man-made objects (e.g. trees, stones, fences, and ruins) that are considered sacred in folk material or that are associated with sacred behaviour (e.g. praying and sacrificing). The article deals with sacred places where the central object is a tree, bush, or grove.
Traditionally, human influence on sacred places has been restricted. Many interfering activities are forbidden completely (e.g. cutting trees and breaking twigs). it is not allowed to pick up fallen twigs in some places while it is acceptable in other places, but they have to be burnt on the spot. Domestic animals are not allowed to enter a sacred place, and therefore that kind of place is often surrounded by a fence. Ploughing and digging are forbidden, too. No agricultural activities are allowed in sacred places generally. The sacredness of the place extends also to the ground. if the f lora has been destroyed for some reason, the place is still considered sacred, and it is not allowed to undertake any agricultural activities there.
In conclusion, Estonian sacred groves were at their time of use not affected by economical activity, and their appearance was formed passively – by not shaping or re-shaping them. Sacred groves are rather similar to virgin forests, except for some minimum human inf luence. When protecting sacred places it should be considered that it is the self-organizing process and not the present status of sites that should be protected.