Alfie Howard, September 2022
I am writing this blog post from a cosy apartment in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia. I should clarify that, in the context of Estonia, ‘second largest’ does not necessarily mean ‘large’: Tartu has a population of around 90,000, similar to the Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. The land of Estonia has at various times been controlled by foreign monarchs, Crusaders, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The country was independent between the two world wars and has been so again since it peacefully seceded from the USSR in 1991.
Estonia also has a rich and proud history of folklore. The Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu houses the extensive national Folklore Archives, and the Department of Folklore at Tartu University even has its own library. My normal walk from the apartment to the university takes me past an impressive statue of Estonian folklorist Jakob Hurt, while the city’s memorial to those who died in the War of Independence (1918–1920) depicts Kalevipoeg, the eponymous folk hero of Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s national epic.
Folklorist Jakob Hurt in Tartu, slightly rain drenched. Statue by J. Sonas and R. Tomingas, 1994.
Another – perhaps more bizarre – statue is Tauno Kangro’s 2013 sculpture of Põhja konn, in an area of woodland on the outskirts of Viimsi. ‘Põhja konn’ (pronounced sort of like ‘puh-ya con’) has variously been translated as ‘The Nordic Dragon’, ‘The Dragon of the North’, ‘The Frog of the North’, and ‘The Northern Frog’. In one of Kretuzwald’s collections, he is described as a monster with the body of ‘an enormous ox’, frog’s legs and ‘a chain-long tail of a snake’, his body ‘armoured with scales [...] stronger than stone or iron’ (p. 206). He travels around in giant leaps, devouring people and animals and desolating huge swathes of land, until he is finally defeated through a combination of bravery, magic, deceit and the ability to understand the language of the birds.
Põhja konn also features in Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk’s bestselling 2007 novel Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu, translated into English as The Man Who Spoke Snakish. In this story, set during the Crusades, Põhja konn is an ally of the Estonians, having helped them to fight against the Christian invaders in the past. When the novel begins, however, Põhja konn has gone to sleep and can only be woken by ten thousand men calling him using ‘snake-words’ (p. 7). Since the number of humans who know snake-words has fallen to single figures, this appears to be a somewhat forlorn hope.
Põhjakonn, Viimsi, statue by Tauno Kangro, 2013.
In both stories, Põhja konn is related to extinction. Kreutzwald writes that the monster ‘might have devoured every living creature in the world had he not been stopped’ (p. 206). For Kivirähk, on the other hand, the frog has the power to save the traditional Estonian culture and way of life from violent absorption into the world of Christian Europe. In one story, the frog represents the threat of extinction; in the other, he is its mythical antidote.
An information board beside the statue tells a third version of the story. In this tale, after Põhja konn is defeated, he goes into hiding deep underground, promising to serve the brave Estonian youth who has vanquished him if his help is ever needed. However, summoning the frog requires knowledge of either the snake or bird languages. After many years, these have both been forgotten, and an unnamed ‘malicious enemy’ arrives, threatening the ‘land and freedom’ of the Estonians. Fortunately, the inhabitants of one remote village have remembered the ancient languages, and they successfully awaken Põhja konn, who scares away the invaders.
Põhjakonn trepp, steps leading down to the statue.
One of the great things (or frustrating things, depending on your perspective) about folk tales is that they tend to defy single, straightforward interpretations – not least because they themselves don’t exist in single, straightforward forms. Is Põhja konn a monster? Does he represent a disease? A natural disaster? Or is he a protector? An embodiment of Indigenous Pagan knowledge in the face of medieval Christianisation? Or is the story about more recent history? Does the frog represent national resistance to Soviet occupation? Or an ecological opposition to global neoliberalism?
The answer, I would argue, is all of these things – and more. As with a novel, each reader or listener will have their own interpretations of a folk tale. And, unlike (most) novels, even the story itself doesn’t exist in a single canonical version. There are as many tales as there are tellers, and there are at least as many meanings as there are listeners.
Põhjakonn pylons, view from near the top of the steps.
‘The Dragon of the North’, in The Yellow Fairy Tale Book, ed. by Andrew Lang [online] <https://www.gutenberg.org/files/640/640-h/640-h.htm> [accessed 17 September 2022]
Tauno Kangro, Artist Biography <https://taunokangro.com/en/artist-2/> [accessed 17 September 2022]
Tauno Kangro, Põhjakonn, 2013, Viimsi
Andrus Kivirähk, The Man Who Spoke Snakish, trans. by Christopher Moseley (London: Grove, 2017)
Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald, ‘The Northern Frog’, in Old Estonian Fairy Tales, trans. by A. Jõgi and others (Tallinn: Perioodika, 1985), pp. 206–18
Põhja-Harju Koostöökogu [North Harju Partnership], ‘The Fairytale of the Nordic Dragon’, Muinasjutt Põhja Konnast, public information board in multiple languages, Viimsi
J. Sonas and R. Tomingas, Monument to Jakob Hurt, 1994, Tartu