Calls and Responses


Calls and Responses was held back in the last edition due to it being the Iberian Special. For those of you who can’t remember Andy Letcher’s Call from March this year I have reprinted it in front of James Merryweather’s response. Further Calls for the next edition should be submitted to me at by 1st November at the latest.

Call: I found the following quote in the Wikipedia entry on ‘Tharapita’, the Estonian thunder god. It lacks a citation, so I’m wondering if any members can shed light on its provenance and whether there is any truth to the claim?

According to several medieval chronicles, Estonians did not work on Thursdays (days of Thor) and Thursday nights were called “evenings of Tooru”. Some sources say Estonians used to gather in holy woods (Hiis) on Thursday evenings, where a bagpipe player sat on a stone and played while people danced and sang until the dawn.

Andy Letcher

Response: Wikipedia, Revolvy and Findwords websites all have the same passage, quoted by Andy Letcher in his Call mentioning a medieval Estonian bagpipe player. The Google book Finnic Paganism also contains the same passage. The author attribution ‘Wikipedians’ strongly suggests that even if this book is the original source of the passage, we’re probably heading up a blind alley.

The only original discussion I can find is in a paper entitled Taarapita – The Great God of the Oeselians by Urmas Sutrop (an Estonian biologist and linguist, 1956-present) - However, the two bagpipe judgements he provides come from separate sources – Grimm and von Parrot – possibly contradict one another, so we still can’t be certain that Tharapita and Torupill might be cognate. Quoting from Sutrop: “Contemporary research perceives Taarapita as an owl god, whose name was reportedly Tarapila (Tharapila). The recent extensive handbook on deities, for example, includes a short article in the section of zoomorphic and ornithomorphic gods entitled Tarapila: An Estonian owl god (Leach 1992: 267). The author and editors of the handbook should not be blamed for this absurdity, since the interpretation dates back to the first half of the last century. I would like to quote a passage from the supplement to Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic mythology (Grimm 1965: III, 35):

The Finnic ‘Tharapita’ should be Tharapila (Klemm 3, 121). Castrén (215) thinks – pila is bild [‘picture, figure’], but Renvall says Tharapilla = horned owl, Estonian torropil [‘bagpipe’], (verhandl. 2, 92). Juslen has pöllö bubo [‘owl’] (284), and tarhapöllö bubo [‘owl’] (373).

“Etymologically, this rendition is utterly ungrounded. [etymological discussion about owls omitted] Parrot argued that Tharapilla is a great bird (1828: 312) and not a garden ape (Gruber), bagpipe (Arndt) or cry ‘Thor, help!” (Kelch) (Parrot 1828: 298 ff.).”

Thus, J. Grimm, 1965 (citing Finnish linguist Gustaf Renvall, 1781-1841, no ref.) says Tharapita = torropil = bagpipe, while J.L. von Parrot, 1828 (citing historian Johann Gottfried Arndt, 1713, Halle-1767, Riga, no ref.) doesn’t argue that it is, which might simply mean he didn’t even consider the possibility. What are we going to do now?

Do we know if there ever was a bagpipe in medieval Estonia and if it was called Torupill or Torropil at that time? In the pages of Chanter years ago, apart from upsetting at least one Scotsman by questioning the tuning of the GHB’s top ‘A’, I also offended Welsh, Cornish and other regional bagpipe enthusiasts by arguing several times against the wishful presumption that, in early texts, ‘pipe(s)’ or ‘piper(s)’ necessarily referred to bagpipe(s) or bagpiper(s). They really wanted to discover early bagpipes in their local texts and, in my opinion, jumped to unsubstantiated conclusions extrapolated to presume entire bagpipe heritages. There, I’ve done it again, causing offence by proposing an uncomfortable opinion – sorry, guys. I wish that, back then, I’d had this nugget of Carl Sagan wisdom to quote: “The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may not be consonant with what we want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”

We find so many references to ‘pipes’ and ‘pipers’ that clearly indicated shawm/shawm players or flute/flute payers (or even, in German literature, posaune/saggbut/trombone players) that unless we have some conclusive evidence of ‘bag-’ it is academically hazardous to assume *bag*pipes.

Good news. We don’t need to repeat this error here. In the references to Tharapita so far found, in any of its spellings and origins, there isn’t a trace of ‘pipe’ or ‘piper’, just the word ‘bagpipe’ in a single potentially dubious, much copied passage written in Wikipedian English whose modern non-specialist author could easily have slipped the word in without having checked its geographical or historical validity. The only other Tharapita ‘bagpipe’ is in an Estonian academic discussion, which I’d tend trust more, but not attempt any conclusions.

If the etymology of Tharapita-Torupill matters – and hence bagpipe history – let’s keep asking questions. There is a substantial reference list at the end of Urmas Sutrop’s paper, so plenty to follow up if anybody has the inclination. A command of Estonian, Finnish and German might help or even ask the guy who seems to know best:

James Merryweather

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