Subscribe Menu

Estonian Culture Links: Burning the Night Away on Muinastulede öö


Previously, we talked about the celebration of museums taking place on August 29th, for Muuseumiöö. But just as much as the night is a time that makes us curious about what lurks in our museums, the primal pursuit of glowing fire prompts Muinastulede öö (the Night of Ancient Bonfires) all around the Baltic Sea.

In the late 8th century CE, fires were lit along the Baltic coast to indicate the best way to travel and reach a port or beach to land. Seafaring people depended on these lights for safe navigation and direction, for their livelihoods. Fires could serve as warnings and communication signals when enemy boats were in the vicinity.
Photo: video still from the Muinastuled öö YouTube channel.

Previously, we talked about the celebration of museums taking place on August 29th, for Muuseumiöö. But just as much as the night is a time that makes us curious about what lurks in our museums, the primal pursuit of glowing fire prompts Muinastulede öö (the Night of Ancient Bonfires) all around the Baltic Sea.

In the late 8th century CE, fires were lit along the Baltic coast to indicate the best way to travel and reach a port or beach to land. Seafaring people depended on these lights for safe navigation and direction, for their livelihoods. Fires could serve as warnings and communication signals when enemy boats were in the vicinity.

12 centuries later, in 1992, Finnish surveyor Kristian Lindroos and his Estonian friend Toivo Saue agreed to light fires in their respective towns of Kemiö and Tahkuna (on the island of Hiiumaa). Locals on Hiiumaa were told to light their own fires, too. At the same time, it's also thought that Finnish cultural activist Birgitta Bröckl was the creator of the new bonfire tradition.

121 kilometres apart, who knows how well a coastal bonfire could be seen from across the water, but especially when Estonia had regained its independence, fire was a sign of camaraderie between neighbouring countries.

Every year since then, at 9:30 PM local time, on the last Saturday of August, fires have been lit in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Russia, and Sweden. Looking at this year's map, there are fires being held in the United States, too. At muinastuled.ee, you can see which bonfires are private, publicly accessible, or ticketed events. The site allows you to enter the details of your own bonfire, if you're lõkke enough to have one!

Jaanipäev takes most of the spotlight for bonfires, as it's based around the longest day of the year. However, when the end of August has quite a bit of its focus placed on the imminent return to school and the hustle and bustle of work life, it's refreshing to give ourselves time to relax. There's no need to rush by the water's edge, where civilizations and tribes have been drawn for millennia. Water and the horizon are psychological magnets, reminding us that there is something beyond. We aren't alone.

Even without coastlines and the sea nearby, Muinastulede öö can be an acknowledgment of the eventual end of summer, just as we noticed its beginning in June. It circulates, just like the mythical fööniks (“phoenix”) is engulfed in flame and regenerates over time.

Those who take part in the night also share an interest in keeping fire areas clean and free of garbage and pollution. Be careful not to burn anything other than wood, and stay away from areas where fire is prohibited, or places that would disturb wildlife. When the fire is at its end, clean up the area and make sure the wood is completely burnt, so that it doesn't cause a brushfire.

Look out for the Muinastulede öö Tulelaul (“fire song”), which comes with lyrics and a recording, so you can sing along on the night.

Written by Vincent Teetsov