A curious Estonian folk song telling us both why the herring swims in the sea and why the sea is salty
It was the German music journalist Henning Bolte, who first told the herripedia of this strange and beautiful Estonian folk song known as Heeringas Elas Kuival Maal (The Herring Lived on Dry Land) or, as often as not, just Heeringas (The Herring). It’s a bit like one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories – How the Camel Got His Hump or The Crab Who Played With the Sea, which has the advantage of taking me right back to my childhood and my mum reading to me at bedtime.
Herring is popular in Estonia and the song is well-known. Maybe they’re all taught it in school. But the herring traditionally associated with the culture is the smaller Baltic herring, which has adapted (ironically in the context of the song) to the less salty, even brackish waters of the North East Baltic and the Gulf of Bothnia.
I had the outline of the story it told, but not the lyrics or the tune. In 2022, I found myself sitting down for a jazz conference dinner in Sofia with the great Estonian guitarist Jaak Sooäär. ‘There’s this Estonian folk song,’ I said, ‘about the herring…’
‘Oh, yes!’ he said and started to sing it.
‘Is it a traditional song?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but it’s not a really old one.’ The first mention of Estonia’s extraordinary singing traditions is in Saxo Grammaticus’ C12th Geste Danorum. The really old ones are referred to as runic songs and have a particular verse structure, nothing like that of The Herring Lived on Dry Land, which is probably from C19th. ‘I don’t know all the verses,’ Jaak apologised, ‘but if you give me your number and I’ll send them to you.’ And he sent a link to the lyrics in Estonian.
And so, with the help of Google Translate and a video of Estonian school children singing it to a shadow puppet performance of the story, here, maybe for the first time, is an English version that will go with the tune. See below for a link to the video of Estonian children – it’s a really catchy song! There’s also a link some videos on Jaak’s website which don’t feature the song at all, but which are all brilliant nevertheless.
The Herring Lived on Dry Land
Back in the time when time began
The herring lived upon dry land:
Just like the cat, the story goes,
It did not like to wet its toes.
A good ship called the Queen of Balts
Set sail, her hold all full of salt
And salt back then was not so cheap,
The price it fetched would make you weep!
So down in the hold a herring sat
A-catching mice and catching rats,
A herring that was o so sweet
And liked some salt upon his meat.
He chewed the salt out of the sack
And licked his lips and went right back
And he didn’t see as he licked his lips
The hole he’d chewed in the side of the ship.
The ship went down with her sacks of salt
And it was all that herring’s fault
And Neptune raged and shook his head,
‘O Herring! Now, you’ve made your bed!
‘The Queen of Balts, once bold and free,
Is at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
So for your crime, you’ll have to pay:
You’ll have to be wet, now, all your days!
‘And nets will come and you’ll be caught
And packed up tight in barrels of salt!’
And that’s the reason, since that time
The Seven Seas have been made of brine.
Heeringas (Original Estonian Lyrics)
See oli ennemuistsel aal
kui heeringas elas kuival maal.
Ta hoidis ennast eemal veest
ja teda peeti kassi eest.
Kord kaljas kahe mastiga
läks teele soolalastiga.
Sel ajal sool oli kallis kraam
ja sada p maksis aam.
Seal laeval oli heeringas,
kes hiiri, rotte hävitas.
See heeringas oli maiasmokk –
tal maitses väga soolavakk.
Ta näris soola hoolega
siis mõlema suupoolega.
Ei pannud seda tähele,
et näris augu laevasse.
Siis kaljas kahe mastiga
läks põhja soolalastiga.
Siis vana Neptun vihastas
ja ütles: “Kuule, heeringas,
et kaljasesse augu sõid
ja uue laeva põhja tõid,
see karistuseks pead sa
nüüd merevee sees elama.
Sind merest kinni püüetaks
ja tünni sisse soolataks!
Ja sellest ajast, tõsi see,
on merevesi soolane.
A note on The Queen of Balts
The first online translation of verse 2 seemed to suggest that the the ship involved was a two-masted ship called the Kalja and that where it sank in verse 6 was called Kalja’s Hole, which seemed a plausible name for somewhere on the seabed in those parts. In a moment of deluded inspiration, I decided to call the ship Queen of Balts so it could then give its name to the Baltic Sea. Subsequent double checking suggested that kalja might mean a two-masted sloop or schooner and that kaljasesse was the hole in its side.
At this point in the translation process, however, I had become fond of the Queen of Balts, not least because of the rhyme with salt. I was, throughout this however, aware of the fact that whilst the Balts did give their name to the Baltic, neither the Eastern Balts, who tend to be associated with Lithuania and Latvia, nor the Western Balts, who once lived in Prussia and Pomerania, seem to have ended up in Estonia where the language base is Finno-Ugric and where Finnic people appear to have arrived in the Early Bronze Age.
In that jazz conference dinner in Sofia, however, Jaak Sooäär had pointed to the difference between language and ethnicity: Estonians might mostly speak Estonian, but their ethnicity is probably even more complex than their language. I imagined a proto-Estonian Balt, an Early Bronze Age salt merchant, stranded among Finnics and nostalgically naming his two-masted schooner after the only woman he ever loved, a Pogesanian Balt. She wasn’t a Pogesanian queen, just the queen of his heart and maybe, after his herring-sabotaged salt business went south, he found his way back to her.
- BALTIC HERRING
- CALLER HERRIN’ (SONG)
- DIVINE PROVIDENCE
- EYVIND SKÁLDASPILLIR
- HARENG SAUR, LE
- HERRING BUSS (TUNE)
- HERRING’S HEAD
- HERRING LASSES
- LOCKMAN, JOHN
- MUIR, JIM (HERRING INTERVIEW, ACHILTIBUIE)
- NASHES LENTEN STUFFE
- NEUCRANTZ: ON HERRING (1654)
- PROPHETIC HERRINGS
- RED HERRING JOKE, THE
- SHOALS OF HERRING, THE
- WILLIAMS, WILLIAM CARLOS: FISH