Historic sacred natural sites

The greatest threat to the sacred sites is forgetting they exist


A sacred natural site is an internationally used term which, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), means areas of land or water having special spiritual significance to peoples and communities [1].


Based on the above, sacred natural sites in Estonia are defined as things or areas without significant human impact and characterised by folk tradition, which is associated with sacrifice, worship, healing, or religious and ritual activity [2].


Autor: Tiivits
MAARDU SACRED GROVE. Maardu black alder sacred grove in 2012 before felling. By: Tarvo Tiivits


All across the world, people have always attributed a sacred meaning to various natural objects in the landscape (mountains, rivers/lakes/springs, caves, rocks, groves/forests, single trees, etc.) and most of them are excluded from everyday land use and economic activities for that reason. Worship of sacred trees and sacred groves (hiis in Estonian) has been a widespread phenomenon, which, in addition to Finno-Ugric peoples, is also characteristic of others, like the Baltic peoples, Germanic peoples, etc.


Historic sacred natural sites are part of cultural heritage and play an important role in the creation of (religious) identity as well as in cultural history more broadly. In addition to spiritual, material, and natural value, they also provide historical, archaeological, religious, as well as folklore-related, ethnological value.


About 490 of the preserved sacred sites are under heritage conservation and 90 sacred sites are under nature conservation as individual protected objects. However, many sacred natural sites are uncharted and information about them is not always available to authorities and landowners planning land use changes. Therefore, an inventory of sacred natural sites is underway across Estonia, as a result of which more than half of Estonian parishes have been inventoried as of the end of 2020 [2]. The National Heritage Board has an expert council on sacred natural sites [3], which can be approached with various issues concerning sacred sites.


Threats to sacred natural sites:

  1. incomplete information on sacred natural sites for authorities and landowners planning land use changes;
  2. if information is available, the failure to take into account the recommendations of the local people, followers of the Estonian native faith, and the expert council on sacred natural sites for the preservation and protection of sacred natural sites (including cross trees);
  3. forgetting sacred sites – the archived oral lore on sacred sites is often too imprecise to locate a place in the landscape on that basis alone. Therefore, the continuity of local memory and the help of local people in the accurate mapping of the sites are important. Also, there are many sacred sites on which the oral lore is lacking and it is therefore important to gather additional oral information.

More specific activities during which sacred sites are destroyed:

  1. major landscape changes: construction of roads, quarries, construction of residential areas, etc.;
  2. forest management, during which sacred trees or the natural habitat of a place may be destroyed;
  3. land improvement, during which sacred rocks may be moved and sacrificial springs may be drained.


If you notice a potential threat to a sacred natural site, report it:


Pikne Kama, advisor of sacred natural sites of the National Heritage Board, contact: +37253657848,  pikne.kama@muinsuskaitseamet.ee

Marju Kõivupuu, Chairman of the Expert Council of Historic Sacred Natural Sites, contact: +3725098658, kpuu@tlu.ee



Last modified: 30.11.2021




[1] https://www.maavald.ee/failid/IUCN_SNS_Estonia.pdf 

[2] https://www.muinsuskaitseamet.ee/et/ajaloolised-ja-looduslikud-puhapaigad

[3] https://www.muinsuskaitseamet.ee/et/noukogud