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Myths and Legends in Tallinn

Tallinn, first mentioned in the historical books of the Arabic geographer Al-Idrisi in 1154, has had many centuries of active life with everything that goes with it. If the ancient city walls could talk, they would, without a doubt, tell us stories better than any adventure book. They have seen it all: virgins buried alive, criminal priests, brave and mystical men doing heroic deeds. Here you can find some of the myths and legends that have reached my eyes and ears.

The most important legend is the story about Old Thomas. Since the year 1530, there is a wind vane on the top of the City Hall tower with the shape of a old man with a hat, who holds a spear in his hand. The legends tells that in medieval Tallinn, every year an archery contest was held to see who could shoot a wooden parrot off the top of a high pole. This, although, was a game held only for the rich and aristocratic people. The legends says that no one could shoot down the parrot, until a young boy called Thomas gave it a shot. He hit the target with remarkable precision. For that, he got in trouble, for he was from a poor family. But, instead of getting tied up to the Post of Shame, he was made an apprentice guard, because he had such remarkable skills. Thomas eventually became an expert soldier and a great guard loved by many. When he died, the city made a metal statue and put it on top of the City Hall, so Thomas could still look after Tallinn until the end of times. The citizens of Tallinn still believe that as long as Old Thomas is up there, looking after them, nothing too bad can happen to the city.

The most well-known myth is probably the myth of the Old Man of Ülemiste Lake. An old man, called Ülemiste Vanake (the old man of Ülemiste lake) is said to be sitting on the outskirts of Tallinn, near the lake and watching Tallinn growing. Once every year he rises from the lake, comes to Tallinn and knocks on the city gates, asking if the city of Tallinn is finished. The guards were given strict orders to always respond with a „No!”. Then, the Old Man of Ülemiste would turn around and go back to the lake, mumbling angrily all the way. The belief was, that is someone ever told the old man that the city is finished, he would call up the waters of the Ülemiste lake and send them all down to Tallinn, flooding the city entirely. Therefore, if some old man ever happens to ask you, if the city of Tallinn is finished yet, you are to say „No” to him.

A well-known legend, both in Estonia and Denmark, tells us that the Danish flag, the Dannebrog dropped from teh sky to what’s now called the Danish King’s Garden. According to the story, Denmark’s King Valdemar’s forces were losing their battle with the Estonians in 1219, when suddenly the skies opened and a red flag with a white cross floated down. The Danes believed it to be a holy sign, and after being motivated like that, the Danes won the battle and conquered Tallinn.

Legend about the tallest church in Tallinn (and until some point, the tallest church in medieval Europe) – The St. Olav’s Church. Legend tells that the nobles of Tallinn decided to build the tallest church in the world, in hopes of luring more merchants to the city. But where to find a master builder capable of carrying out such a task, while not asking too much money for the job? Suddenly, a complete stranger appeared out of nowhere and promised to build the church, but the payment he asked was more than the city could pay. The man was willing to forego payment, on just one condition – the city people had to guess his name.

The stranger worked fast and talked to no one. The church was nearly finished and the city fathers grew more anxious by the day. Finally, they sent a spy to sniff out the stranger’s name. The spy found the builder’s home, where a woman was singing a lullaby to a child: “Sleep, my baby, sleep, Olev will come home soon, with gold enough to buy the moon.” The next day, they called out to the builder, who was attaching a cross on the top of the steeple, “Olev, Olev, the cross is crooked!” Upon hearing his name, Olev lost his balance and fell all the way down. Legend tells of a frog and a snake that crawled out of Olev’s mouth as he lay there on the ground. Building the enormous structure had required the help of dark powers. Yet the builder’s name was given to the church, named after St. Olav.

Before Tallinn was named Tallinn, it was called Reval (or Rewel, Rewal, Revel etc). The legends say that the Danish king Valdemar II was hunting for deer in what was to be the Upper city of Tallinn, when he spotted a beautiful stag, perfect for him. The king was said to have liked the animal so much, he gave orders to capture him alive. Unfortunately, the stag ran away and fell from a high limestone bank and broke his neck. In German, reh-fall means „fall of a deer” and so the name became Reval. Why in the legends they say Danish king hunted the deer, and then the name drives from the German language, i honestly do not know.

The most interesting house in Old Tallinn is located at Rataskaevu street. In one of the houses on that street, a legend tells that the devil himself held his wedding there. The owner of that house had wasted away his wealth and saw no future for himself, for he was in great debts. One night he became so desperate that he decided to take his life. At the fatal moment a stranger entered the room asking the broke landlords permission to celebrate a wedding on the top floor of his house. In reward he promised the man all the riches. But he also gave a warning: no one would eavesdrop on the feast, otherwise it would cost the eavesdropper his life and the money. The landlord agreed. At the appointed night the guests started arriving at the door – you could hear them, but not see. Lights were lit up on the top floor window. Beautiful amd stunning music sounded and the whole house shook as if under the weight of great number of dancers. When the clock struck one, everything suddenly went quiet. The landlord was then expecting a fortune. Suddenly, his butler fell sick and before death, he revealed he had been eavesdropping on the devil’s wedding. Now, the room is said to be walled up and the window facing the street is painted on the wall.

These were just a few I picked out, because they are the most well-known legends. But most probably you could hear a legend about every house, watch tower and street in Tallinn. Every little part of Tallinn has at least a short story to tell. All you need to do, is be in the right place at a right time and listen to what the city has to tell you.

About Ella Käi