Itinerant kings and ludent kings

Traces of history in older Estonian song games

This article introduces the concept of itinerant kingship, which is a relatively universal phenomenon in pre-modern societies where several relatively large territorial units were united under one political power, however, without extensive bureaucracy. Therefore this power was forced to regularly visit the subordinate territories in order to collect taxes, exercise judicial power and maintain political subordination. The political power under question did not necessarily have to be a king nor even a sovereign, it could be anyone exercising power over distant enough territories that needed the personal presence of the ruler to control them. Examples of such a system include polyude in Kievan Rus and gästning in Early Medieval Sweden, but a similar system might have been in use in Late Iron Age (11–13th century) Estonia as well.

Kuningamäng („The King Game”) is a song game belonging to the oldest strata of Estonian song games. The game starts with an introductory song where the players address the King as follows: ‘Oh, dear King, why didn’t you come last    year, when the rivers were full of beer and the springs were streaming vodka? Now you’re coming at a bad time, now you take our clothes, now you rob our necklaces…’ Subsequently, the King takes pledges from all the players which are later returned for completing a task given by the King (e.g. a girl has to kiss a boy).

Since the situation in the game shares some fundamental characteristics with the practice of itinerant kingship, which cannot be explained as mere coincidence, it can be argued that the game is somehow modelled on the practice of itinerant kingship. Thus it is suggested that it might have originally been part of a ritual used by the local community to welcome the itinerant king, which was later transformed into a game due to the disappearance of the original performance context, and preserved as folklore up to the 19th and 20th centuries.