Humans first settled in Estonia around 11,000 years ago when the ice from the last glacier melted. As time progressed, and the area became covered with forests, people started creating semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer communities (Mesolithic period) which eventually transformed into hill fort settlements (Bronze age). These were useful as the Estonians eventually evolved into Vikings, and they did their fair share of sacking and getting sacked, but then Christianity arrived.
In 1193, Pope Celestine III called for a crusade against the pagans in Northern Europe (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) where Saint Meinhard of Segeberg was already actively and peacefully working to change the locals religion. Peaceful methods are slow and both Meinhard and Rome were impatient. They sent more troops, and many battles later the Christian Duchy of Estonia was established. Only one tiny forest community held out, and only temporarily. They kept the ancient ways and knew the Snakish words, but Christianty was the future and they were doomed to fade away. Leemet, The Man Who Spoke Snakish is the last member, and he relates their sad and beautiful story, which is also the story of a fading ancient world forced to make way for progress.
Humans Once Spoke Snakish
“Life is like that; all things come to an end. There are some trees where owls have nested for hundreds of years, and yet at some point they leave it empty, don’t return there.”
Originally humans were the brothers of snakes. Snakes are the highest order of being, capable of communicating and commanding all animals. They taught their language, Snakish, to humans, and for many thousands of years humans and snakes lived in harmony in the forest.
The greatest snake is the Great Frog of the North. It’s big as a forest, and it can fly. In ancient times it would fight alongside Estonians, and devour the enemies who came to their shore in boats. It’s asleep now though, and it will never wake up again. Ten thousand men need to gather and speak Snakish to wake the frog, and these just don’t exist.
Snakish is an amazing language. Using this language the people of the forest are able to domesticate wolves and use them for riding and milking. They never lack for meat, and they are able to command and communicate with the dim-witted lustful bears. It isn’t all powerful though. It won’t work on insects and animals unable to hear the words, and it won’t work on the humans in the Christian village next to the forest. Clearly, they are no better than insects (they eat bread, ugh).
This book is the coming of age story of Leemet, the last of the forest people. When he was a child, the forest was full of people, but slowly it emptied out as all his friends moved to the village. Only his immediate family, and a select few remain. They are either too old or too fanatic to change their ways.
Leemet’s world is fading. He will make new friends, find family, lose family, find love, lose love, meet and even interact with the stupid villagers. However, the old way of life is still doomed to go away, and nothing Leemet says or does is going to change that.
A Coming of Age Story
“Adders never interfered in other beings’ affairs, as long as it didn’t affect them directly. In their view, everyone has the right to live their lives just as foolishly as they like.”
If there is one genre I love more than anything else it is coming of age stories. The slow progression of child to teenager to adult in a constantly changing world is a beautiful thing to behold. The Man Who Spoke Snakish is no different in this regard.
This story is narrated by an elderly Leemet talking from the far future. He tells us of his boyish escapades in the forest with his friends Partel, Hiia, and an intelligent adder prince (later revealed to be a princess). These escapades include visits to the village where the young Leemet is initially fascinated by the tools and clothes worn by the villagers. His mother had once lived in the village, but she left after a bear ate his father. Life in the village was too stifling. It takes all of his uncle Vootele’s powers of persuasion, and the villagers lack of snakish to convince him that medieval peasants are really that stupid.
The Estonian villagers are indeed a very stupid bunch, both objectively and subjectively. They blindly follow whatever fashion is currently coming out of Rome, and view German knights as superior beings. Examples include torturing a dying cow in order to heal her (bloodletting), a desire to be castrated in order to improve one’s singing voice, the belief that Leemet is a werewolf, and of course a complete inability to speak Snakish. Older Leemet barely tolerates them, although he has no objection to bedding Magdalena, the beautiful daughter of the village elder.
Leemet is not a paragon of virtue. He’s a boy, and later a man, growing up in a primitive pagan society. Becoming a man means learning to enjoy killing, and he enjoys it a lot. And as a man secure in his own beliefs, he is completely uncaring of how the rest of the world perceives him.
No one is perfect here. The Christian World (progress) is willfully blind to Snakish, and the only thing of value Leemet will take from Christians is wine. He, and those who stay in the forest have no interest in learning anything new, and this is one of the reasons they are doomed to fade away.
I saw this in the too many preventable deaths in the story that occur on both sides. A girl dies of adder poison? Snakish would have persuaded the adder to extract his venom. A forest person chokes on a piece of meat? A basic knowledge of first aid could have saved him. Admittedly, I have no idea if medieval villagers knew first aid, but it will eventually become common knowledge in the changed world. Meanwhile though death was common and plentiful throughout the story.
This book is very graphic when it comes to violence. There is no lack of killing in this book. Skulls are made into cups, bones are harvested for crafts, blood spurts, and innards are very indecently displayed. These are very much part of the pagan world, and it’s not going down without a fight. It’s a pointless fight, but the handful of forest people still put one up before they are casually trampled by an indifferent Christian world.
Snakish has Faded Away, The Book Has Not
The Man Who Spoke Snakish was a national bestseller in Estonia, and the book definitely earned its reputation. For me this book falls into the category of really good, but not great because the exposition is a little too wearying, and because towards the end the story starts getting repetitive. There are only so many ways in which the forest world can fade away. Still it was a very beautiful and sad story, and it gave me a wonderful 14 hours.
I listened to the book. It was the first time I ever listened to a book on audible and it was a very different and enjoyable experience. It took me much longer to finish than a normal read, which meant that the enjoyment lasted longer. Also it significantly enhanced my car rides, and I now look forward to household chores because I get to enjoy books while working.
The Omer today is Kingship in foundation. I very much noticed this as the forest kingdom faded away to be replaced by Christendom.The foundations of the forest had been weakening for so long that it could no longer sustain itself, and its people left. The Christian kingdom on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any principles that make sense – to pagan Leemet. It’s been spreading all over the world like a virus. However, just because you don’t understand something, or only talk to its dumbest representatives doesn’t mean that no wisdom is to be found. That lack of interest in learning anything new was part of why the old world was doomed to disappear. The world changes and we need to learn how to change with it.
About The Author
Andrus Kivirähk is an Estonian journalist, playwright and novelist. His writing style can be called self-mocking and sarcastic with dark humour. His best known work “Rehepapp ehk November”, a.k.a. “Rehepapp”, has been translated to Finnish and Norwegian. “Mees, kes teadis ussisõnu”, a bestseller in Estonia, so popular that a board-game was based on it, has been translated to English as “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”. These books, as well as his other historical-themed works such as “Ivan Orava mälestused” and “Kalevipoeg” resonated strongly with contemporary Estonian society.
Kivirähk is also the author of the children’s book “Leiutajateküla Lotte” and its sequels, and wrote the screenplay for the cartoon based on it.
Andrus Kivirähk works as a journalist, and is married with 3 children.