Setomaa om ilolinõ! Setomaa is wonderful!

For Setos, their land and culture are the most beautiful ones in the world. The fields of Setomaa are not the most fertile ones and due to big families there has also been little land but, next to all this, people have been hard-working and managed to live in happiness and always accompany their everyday routines with singing. In the course of time, a lot has changed in the life arrangement of Setos but some elements characteristic of Seto culture have survived until today.

Let’s look at the distinctive and viable Setomaa more closely.

According to cardinal points, Setomaa is located in the South-East corner of Estonia adjacent to Võro habitat, Latvia, Russia, and Lake Pihkva. Today, Setomaa belongs to the administrative territory of Võru and Põlva County and the Russian Petseri District. Setomaa and Võromaa are geographically alongside. People themselves consider the natural border as follows: starting from Lake Pihkva along Mädajõgi and River Piusa up to Vastseliina and Meeksi. The historical Setomaa and Võromaa are marked with signboards, which makes it is easy to travel and recognise where one has reached.

Setos have always been surrounded by many nations and that has left some traces and effects on their culture. In order to survive in this colourful conjuncture, the Setos have learned to take into consideration other cultures but, at the same time, have hold on to their own. Setomaa with its culture is like a buffer area between Eastern and Western nations. This situation is also described by the Seto anthem: it is difficult to create a home on the edge of two worlds (Kül’ oll rassõ koto tetä’ katõ ilma veere pääl). Ancient findings bear witness of how closely the native Baltic-Finnic tribes were communicating with Latgals as well as Slavs. During the tsarist era, Setomaa was part of the Pihkva Province, and the people of Võromaa belonged under the Livonian Province. Today, a bigger part of the Seto settlement remains behind the Estonian-Russian borderline.


There is a Seto saying: one can eat bad bread but it is difficult to live a bad life (halva leevä õks ar’ süüt, a halva ello om rassõ ellä’). The life arrangement of the region has been affected by the hectic history of Setomaa.

In ancient times, this area was not a periphery, but important land- and waterways ran through here from Riga and Tartu to Pihkva. For hundreds of years, Setomaa has been in the middle of border conflicts. The question of the ownership of lands along the border and the foundation of centres that changed the power geography caused disputes in Medieval Livonia – the Vastseliina Castle was founded in mid-14th century, the Petseri Monastery in the first half of the 16th century.

Seto villages have suffered from all the greatest wars: the Livonian War (1558-1582), the Polish-Swedish wars (end of the 16th century – midsection of the 17th century), the Russian-Swedish War (1656-1661), the Great Northern War (1700-1721) – from war to war, wrestling with the Russian force (Lätsi-ks sõda sõdimahe, Vinne vägi väärdlemähe).

War roads were also trade roads that brought strange people, habits as well as items to the country – some of these were adopted, some not. Maybe due to their colourful and difficult history, Setos are careful and distrustful at first when meeting a stranger. Admission needs to be earned – anyone can not be trusted (Õkaütte tohi-i’ usku’).

Bondage and manor saxes have never existed in Setomaa, most of the land belonged to the monastery. Setos did live poorly but were free.


The most noticeable features of Setos are their garments and singing. Garments with silver and a big brooch are, indeed, unique and distinctive. The contrast of black, white and red dominates on traditional Seto garments. Red in its different tones and, in the early days, also white carry an important symbolic value. White can be interpreted through nature: first light, linen white, silver white, moonlight (aovalgõ, linavalgõ, hõpõvalgõ, kuuvalgõ). White symbolises being healthy and untouched by evil. Setos learned different handicraft skills quite early, due to which Seto women could perfectly knit fine textile items with extremely demanding techniques. Similarly, men were great at mannish tasks.

Women’s garments: patterned shirt, sleeveless fine woollen dress, belt, doily, head belt, silver jewellery, and fine woollen overdress (kir´olõnõ hamõh, sukman, vüü, linik, päävüü, hõpõkraam ja räbik). Men wore a knitted shirt (hamõh) with little red figures. The belts of women and men were mostly made in different techniques but the main colour was always red. Boots were put on only in ceremonial occasions. An old story tells how brothers had to share a pair of boots. When riding in the horse carriage, both of them put a leg with a boot over the edge of the carriage as if both of them had their own boots. People were mostly barefoot or wore wicker (viiso’) and leather footgear (tsuvva’).

Women started to wear their “own clothes” or Seto garments (käve’ setoh) on a daily basis as late as in the 60s of the 20th century, and this is how they were also buried. The transition to Estonian clothes was quite hectic and today no-one wears Seto garments or setoh daily. Fortunately, the women who lived a century ago have knitted enough Seto garments which we can wear even today, whereas there is enough to give to museums as well.


“Laul lätt läbi Setomaa hõpõhelme helinäl” (singing echoes through Setomaa with the clatter of silver) – these words have been sung by a Seto singer Veera Pähnapuu. Silver jewellery and singing belong to the world of a Seto woman from birth to death. The big bot cone brooch has become a symbol that protects a woman from the age of getting married to the status of a grandmother. A girl receives her first silver necklace at birth and she is also buried with a small silver necklace (kaalakõrd). The greatest amount of jewellery is worn in the most ceremonial occasions, whereas the total weight of the jewellery can be up to 4-6 kilograms.

Singing or leelo has been the second language of communication for Setos. Expressing oneself through lyrics used to be self-explanatory but needs conscious learning and years of practicing today. In order to sing, one has to have good knowledge of the Seto language and master the singing system.

Seto singing (leelo), more precisely the Seto multiple-voice singing tradition, has been entered into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This means a world-class acknowledgement to Seto singing women as well as to the private co-operation of the community. The vitality of Seto singing is demonstrated by the skill to improvise – when the front conjurer of words (iistütlejä, sõnolinõ) is able to sing about the current situation on the spot. In the folk singing of other Baltic-Finnic nations, the choir is one-voiced, but the singing of Setos is double-voiced or even multiple-voiced. The upper high voice is called killõ and the low choir voice is called torrõ. A fluent singing woman is called the Mother of Songs.


Every nation has its own eating tradition. Even today, Setos respect foods with a pure taste. Seto cuisine is characterized by the fact that the flavour and texture of the fresh basic ingredients can always be appreciated in the dish. Traditional cookery in Setomaa has largely survived, kept alive in families and taught at trainings – workshops that teach the making of sõir, a fortified cheese, is a good example. Traditionally, Setos’ everyday meals included most of what we now buy from organic food shops. And the best Seto ingredients can produce only the best Seto cooking in all of its good old excellence – that is Seto gourmet or hüä süük (good food).

All over Setomaa, fish has been eaten dried, cooked (fish with broth) as well as fried. Roaches and breams drying under an eave of a farmhouse is a spring-to-spring sight. Similarly, boletuses have been dried and all sorts of other mushrooms have been salted. Actually, very few mushrooms have been considered eatable: boletuses (poroviga’), russulas (makõseene’), yellow milk caps (lambatati’), chanterelles (kikkaseene’).

Sõir, the cottage cheese was cooked for ceremonial occasions; pie (piirak) was baked on Saturdays after the sauna. The most peculiar dishes are, for example, a bowl with cottage cheese underneath and butter on top (võiukohopiim), salty cottage cheese and water (häräpiim), cold soup (suulliim), flummery (kiisla), and a mix of dunked peas or rice and sweet honey water (kutja) that is offered at funerals or more important holidays.

Both festive fare and consumption of alcoholic beverages are the stuff of ritual in Setomaa – tied to traditions, customs and events. Food preparation was the domain of women, but stronger drink – such as the home-made Seto vodka, hans’a – was a man’s job. It was always the male master of the house who would pour the home-brewed beer or home-distilled vodka in Setomaa. Never were cups of vodka placed on a banquet table, nor did pitchers of beer make the rounds unsupervised.


The time of going to village parties or kirmas in Setomaa starts from spring and lasts until autumn. In the earlier days, there was a kirmas in some village every weekend. This has always been one of the main places for women as well as girls to express themselves through singing. The lyrics have been listened to, their content has been memorised, and the dancing skill has also come through observation and imitation. When girls went to a kirmas, their mothers used to teach them – Saistku-ui tõisi sälätakah, olõ’ õks iloh edimäne. Näio illo ihtassõ, näio tandso tahetassõ (Do not stand behind others, be cheerful in front of others. A girl’s beauty is desired, a girl’s dance wanted). Kirmas has also been a place for gatherings where parents observed and made plans regarding their youngsters. Girls were married off very early; beauty, property as well as origin were considered important.

Other important events were fairs where people could sell and buy everything necessary for life. One of the biggest fairs has always been the Petseri Fair. The Lindora Fair that takes place on the border of Võromaa and Setomaa has survived until the present day as a continuous tradition that increases popularity with each year and grows bigger in terms of the number of participants. A new place of fair is the onion and fish fair of Lüübnitsa.


Seto customs that are somehow different and maybe even incomprehensible to a stranger can make one wag his/her head as well as excite elation and interest. One of the most important turning points in a person’s life is the wedding (saaja’). Seto wedding is a great event for the whole family. The wedding lasts for three days during which the bride (mõrs´a) is taken from her home to her husband’s home. It can also be said that a wedding is celebrated twice in a woman’s lifetime: the first time is when getting married, the second time when being buried. These two events are ritually similar turning points in a person’s life – in the case of both of them there is a farewell ritual, a transition rite. The death of girlhood and a transition to become the member of the groom’s (kosilasõ) family. During the funeral ceremony, the physical death of the deceased is turned into a social event where the deceased is symbolically taken to a new condition, i.e. “to the other side”. Ritual lamenting (kuul´aikk, mõrs´aikk) is a means of expressing one’s emotions at farewell rituals, such as funerals and weddings.

Seto weddings are definitely singing weddings, lament-weddings. All the necessary rites are accompanied by singing; likewise, the happening is declared and confirmed in singing. When leaving home, the bride laments (mõrs´aikk) to her parents, says goodbye to her previous life and domicile, and she is handed over to the representatives of the groom’s family. During that transition time, the bride does not have a status, she has lost her former position but has not gained a new one, she is socially “dead” and particularly vulnerable to the impact of bad spirits. Therefore, the head and face of the bride are covered with a bride’s linen (mõrs´akaaliga). The central event of the wedding, changing the social condition of the woman which is a transitional ritual, takes place with changing the clothes and giving the girl the symbols representing the status of a married woman. Her hair is combed characteristically to a married woman and a married woman’s headgear doily (linik pandas liki otsa) is put on her head. With changing the clothes, the social status of the bride and groom will also change.

The organiser of the Seto wedding or the emcee is called truuska. Both families have their own truuska who has to be a fluent married man and able to make the best of every situation. The helpers of the bride in singing as well as other doings are, for example, four pairs of bridesmaids (podruski’). The different manner of perceiving the world and distinctive lifestyle made Setos stick to their own and they rarely married a person from another nation.

The funeral procedure has changed to some extent but the main scheme has remained the same. Filling the grave was followed by a memorial meal – the table of the soul. In the earlier days, a linen was put on the tee and people brought dishes there. Kutja, cooked peas with honey, and eggs formed the ritual dish. Driving home from the graveyard was done in a hurry and, if possible, along a secret side-road so that the Death would not know how to follow. A funeral table was waiting at home. The table was covered with the usual dishes of Setos: meat, fish and dairy dishes as well as ritual dishes kutja, eggs and oaten flummery (kiisla).


It is characteristic of the world picture of the Setos that older religious rites live together with the rites of Christianity – Setos do visit the church but, at the same time, consider and honour their own earth-gods. Setos are used to getting along with the nations, customs and beliefs that have surrounded them throughout times and, therefore, they know how to perceive the surrounding world and keep in touch with it. Children were christened right after being born and church was visited on more important holidays, but their grain god Peko was never forgotten.

Setos spend the Midsummer Day in the church and visit the Jaani Stone right next to the church – there, they hope to receive help for health problems and leave wool, money etc. there as oblation.

Throughout times, one of the most important days of gathering has been the St. Mary’s Day (maar´apäiv) in August – The Feast Day of the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God. On that day, even the people living further away tried to make it to the Setos’ Varvara Church – Varvara kerkohe.

1473 is deemed the year when the founding of the Petseri Monastery began. The declarers of Orthodoxy were the monks of the Petseri Holy Uspenski Monastery; the natives started to be christened after the foundation of the monastery and a dominant share of the Setos are christened to Apostolic Orthodoxy.

Small buildings with a cross or village chapels (tśässonad) can be seen around Setomaa. Inside the village chapel there are icons or pühase around which pühase-scarves are placed. Village chapels are usually built in the village by the habitants of the same village. In the chapel, a sermon is held on the patronage day related to the village chapel.

Natural holy places and signs, such as trees (e.g. lautsipetäi), stones (Miikse Jaanikivi, Pelsi Annõkivi), springs etc., are important to local people.

The Setos’ beliefs and rules of behaviour based on tradition have been handed down from generation to generation which has assured the protection, stability and certainty of the culture. Setos have not contrasted Christianity and pre-Christian convictions but these have interwoven into a whole from which Setos obtain help and strength to this day.


The character and outlook of villages has been impacted by natural shapes and economic systems (farmlands were in the joint property of villages) and laws. The organisation of villages has also been closely related to customs, habits, beliefs as well as practical needs.
Looking at different villages, we can see that there are more nucleated villages in the Northern and Western part of Setomaa, and more row-type villages and linear villages in the Eastern part. Dispersed settlements started to spread with the Land Act of 1906.

In the building of a traditional Seto farmhouse, we can see two main types. In the case of the first type, farm buildings are placed into three rows, the dwelling house is in the centre and this is how two courtyards are formed (clean yard or moro and cattle yard or tahr). In the case of the second type, the buildings are in a circle and connected with fences, the gate is high and this is how a closed courtyard is formed. Dividing land into lots starting from 1920 changed the organisation of villages even more, and the dispersed settlement expanded.


The bigger part of Setomaa is left behind the Estonian-Russian borderline. In order to go there, an Estonian citizen needs to apply for a visa. The borderline has destroyed the movement, communication and life arrangement that once functioned normally. The Seto capital has always been Petseri. Formerly, people went there to sell as well as make necessary purchases, many also went to a school there. The relatives of the people who stayed in the villages on the Estonian side of the borderline have been buried to the area requiring a visa. Therefore, visiting their graves is currently quite difficult. The area behind Petseri is naturally very diverse and beautiful.

The Town of Petseri with its monastery and churches has been a major influencer and important place in the lives of the Setos. The town developed next to the monastery in the 16th century.

The monastery comprises seven churches, the oldest of which is the Falling Asleep of Mother of God (Uspenski) main church that was presumably dug into a brownstone cave by a priest named Joona. Even today, the only source of light when entering the Uspenski Church with the oldest brownstone shafts is a taper.

Outside the monastery, there is a so-called Seto church, Varavara Church, where mainly Setos go. Even today, sermons there are held by a vicar who knows Seto language.
Schools started to be founded in the bigger villages of Setomaa only from the mid-19th century onwards, whereas the teaching language in schools was Russian. Setos did not want to send their children there and the schools did not want to accept them, because they did not speak Russian language. Many of the older people do not speak Russian to this day.
It is possible to move even further back in time with the help of history sources when driving from Petseri towards Old-Irboska along Pihkva Road. The letopissid or chronicles of Old-Russia include accounts on how the Varangian duke Truvor became the ruler of Irboska in 862.

Alongside Irboska, there is a small Mõla Church. A small stream flows out from beneath that church and the water of that spring is thought to have miraculous power. There is a graveyard near the church where people gather in July for the Mõla Day according to an old tradition. On that day, people visit the church, spend time on graves, and eat to commemorate the souls of the deceased.


Setos have called themselves country folk. Seto is a name given to them by neighbours – no-one can say for sure what is the true meaning of that word.

The old Seto first names that date back to remote antiquity have not been recorded. Orthodox names, however, have remained in use and people have adapted the names according to their language system: Semjon – Semmo, Semmen, Dimitri – Miitra, Vassili – Vass´o, Ivan – Ivvan, Nikolai – Miko, Kool´a, Paavel – Paali, Irina – Ir´o, Tatjana – Tat´o, Jevdokia – Od´e, Darja – Taarka, Maria – Maar´a. Living on their land without moving much, the Setos did not need surnames. Between themselves, they called each other after the father, husband, village or other attribute (Miko Od´e, Hilana Taarka, Vasina Anne, Kool´a Petra). Setos got themselves nice-sounding surnames in the 1920s on the demand of the Estonian Government (Roosipuu, Palolill, Järvelill, Uiboaid, etc.).

Some Setos use Seto language (seto kiil) when talking to other Setos to this day, whereas that language is a bit different in almost every village. The language has many dotted letters. The glottal stop at the end of a word that marks plural and negation and the palatalisation of some phonemes (l, r, s, d) is particularly characteristic of Seto language. A stranger needs to get used to the local language in order to understand, but there are also some specific words the meaning of which must be learned to make sense of the talk. Older Setos speak Seto language on a daily basis.