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2014 | 58 | 7-34

Article title

Jumala jalgi ajamas


Title variants

Tracing Back the Word Jumal (‘God’)

Languages of publication



The paper discusses the origins of the Estonian word jumal (‘God’). First, it summarises the versions proposed by previous treatises, and thereafter the linguistic material of Estonian runo songs is analysed in order to detect variations in its usage, pointing to the possible pre-Christian meaning of the word. The body of the paper consists of presenting and discussing the alternative stems that the word jumal could be derived from. Among them are some appellatives (jumm/juma ‘log’; jumi/jume ‘colour of the face’) as well as proper names of the mythological creatures of the neighbouring countries (Finnish Jumi and Latvian Jumis) and the name of the Indo-European divine twin (Yemo).The linguistic and geographical distribution of the term as well as the background information obtained from archaeology suggest that the latter version fits the best. In the following a somewhat more extended summary of the abovementioned sections of the paper is presented. The previous treatises agree that the term jumal is of genuine origin. It is considered to be a derivative term consisting of the stem jumV (the last vocal varying between (a/e/i) and of a suffix (-l-). They disagree on its proposed original meaning (‘cover’, ‘face’, ‘sound of thunder’, ‘good’, ‘essence’, ‘shivering’, ‘dead body’) and on what the function of the suffix has been. There are also different opinions on whether the supposed supreme being has been of “heavenly” kind or it could have been located elsewhere. The analysis of the context in which the term jumal was used in the runo songs revealed that besides the usages in the Christianity-related contexts (co-located with Jeesuke (‘Jesus’) and Mari (‘Mary’)) there were other uses where it omitted such a company. Among them were the stereotypical phrases and addresses for help and the pantheistic nature-related usages (in connection with wind, trees and light). There were also some references to the genuine Baltic-Finnic mythological heritage (the God-Smith, the ‘golden trace of god’, etc.) and some usages that could be cultural influences from the neighbours. Tracing back the dialectal stem jumm/juma (‘log’) reveals its cognate in ancient Russian ‘connected rafts; catamaran’. The wood-related origin of the word jumal is considered semantically motivated (the wooden statues of gods being the link between the ideological content and the material), but the stem as the actual origin of jumal is questionable because of its presence not only in the Baltic-Finnic languages but also in Mordvinic and Mari. The stem jumi/jume (‘colour of the face’) appeared to be used in different meanings mainly in the archaic runo songs, indicating ‘vital force’ and ‘mental force’. These meanings fit perfectly with the Estonians’ animistic worldview in general and their obsession with the vital force noticed by the earlier authors. Also, the usage of the term reveals that metonymy (paleness stands for physical/mental weakness) and metaphors (e.g. vital/mental force is liquid, vital/mental force is a person) have been at work. Derivation of the notion of jumal from such a concept seems highly probable. However, the abstract meanings are only locally distributed in a part of southern Estonia while the word jumal(a) is known in the Baltic-Finnic languages and its cognates also in Mari and Mordvinic. In the Finnish heritage there was a mythological creature called Jumi. He appeared as double-faceted: causing of sudden diseases was attributed to him, and at the same time he was the fertility deity, worshipped in a special type of play-weddings. Jumi has been referred to as the Finno-Ugric pantheistic “spirit of the world” having a cognate at least in Mari (Jumo). Derivation of the appellative jumal from such a proper name seems highly probable. In Latvian there is a word jumi-s (f. juma-, n jume-) (‘double fruit’), and its supposed derivative jumala (‘fat female’). Historically, there has been a fertility deity called Jumis in the Baltic pantheon. Derivation of the appellative jumal (‘god’) from the borrowed proper name of the fertility deity also seems probable. In addition, there is a possibility that the whole word jumala has been borrowed. Again, the linguistic and geographic distribution of the term makes this particular version of borrowing somewhat questionable. The Latvian Jumis is etymologically connected to the Indo-European divine twin Yemo, which has cognates in the creation myths of several Indo-European cultures and his role has been to symbolise the connection of living people to the dead ancestors. The original meaning of the stem is believed to be ‘to bind together’. Purely linguistic evidence leaves it uncertain whether this could be the actual origin of the term jumal, but the word has been borrowed to the Finno-Ugric languages at least once (the Sami juomek ‘twin’). The linguistic distribution (cognates in Mari and Mordvinic) suggests that the stem Jum must have been coined or borrowed during the prehistoric period 1900–900 BC. At that time bronze spread from the East to the West, and together with it the fortified settlements similar to the Indo-Iranian ones. The herding and cultivating economy produced more food than hunting and gathering, thus giving an advantage to the tribes who had changed their economy. The archaeological evidence (types of graves) in Estonia reveals a collectivist mentality and a cult of ancestors. Therefore, within the whole economic, cultural and ideological package, borrowing of the name of the deity of dead ancestors YemoJum seems highly probable. There are several other religion-related Indo-Iranian loanwords in Estonian (taevas ‘heaven’ <*‘god’, peied ‘wake’, mana- ‘spell; underworld’, marrask (of skin) ‘dead’). The original ancestor-related meaning of the name/stem jum, however, has been reinterpreted according to the evolving needs of the Finno-Ugric speaking societies: it could refer to the pantheistic “spirit of the world”, the fertility deity, the life force, the ultimate helper, the creator, the heavenly supreme being, etc.



  • Institute of the Estonian Language, Roosikrantsi 6, 10119 Tallinn, Estonia


Document Type

Publication order reference


YADDA identifier

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