In the far southeastern corner of Estonia, there is a small kingdom known as Setomaa, the land of the Setos. This ethnic and linguistic minority has been home in the area for centuries, but their royal tradition is much more recent.
The origins of Seto Kingdom Day
The Seto Kingdom was created in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Estonia’s re-independence in 1991. The new border between Estonia and Russia divided Setomaa in two. Many Setos chose to move over to Estonia as, like Seto, Estonian is a Finno-Ugric language. Today there are about 15,000 Setos in Estonia and another 300 in Russia. Taking a cue from the Forest Finns in Norway, who declare an autonomous republic during their annual cultural days, the Setos decided to celebrate a Seto Kingdom Day every August.
The creation of the Seto Kingdom is based on the 1927 Seto epic Peko. Peko, the god of fertility, was depicted as a human and king of the Setos. He now slumbers in a cave under the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery over the border in Russia.
Every year during Seto Kingdom Day, a new king or queen is chosen by the people, and the regent is said to receive instructions from Peko in dreams. In reality, the position is more ceremonial than magical. Local scholars, activists, politicians, and entrepreneurs have held the position, serving as cultural ambassadors for the Seto people.
A celebration steeped in tradition
The Seto ülemsootska is not your typical hereditary monarch. Despite using the title of king or queen, the selection is much more democratic. The candidates stand up, and the voters line up behind their preferred candidate. The one with the longest line wins.
This festive day provides a chance to see and experience several other unique Seto traditions. You can hear leelo (polyphonic folk singing, a 2009 addition to UNESCO’s list of intangible culture), try sõir (fresh pressed curd cheese), drink home-brewed beer, and see the colorful traditional dress, which has inspired many contemporary Estonian designers. For one day only, you are also required to obtain a visa to the Kingdom (an entrance fee), and you can even pay for your food and drink with special Seto money!
Seto Kingdom Day ends with a military parade — likely the strangest military parade you’ll ever see! — complete with funny costumes, pitchforks, spades, weaponry made from old barrels, and such.
The annual Seto Kingdom Day is typically held the first weekend in August. Villages in Setomaa take turns hosting this important holiday, so check out the location before making the journey.
Where to learn more
If you can’t make it to Kingdom Day, there are other places to learn about Seto people and culture. You can visit the Värska Farm Museum to learn about life in Seto villages over 100 years ago. The Seto Studio and Gallery in Obinitsa has an exhibition of folk art where you can also arrange to take a workshop. The Obinitsa Museum also has a collection of historical and cultural items from the surrounding villages.