Johannes Gutslaff (? – 1657) was a prelate of German origin, a scholar of the Estonian language, a Bible translator and collector of folklore.
Johannes Gutslaff came from Daber county in Pomerania (now Dobra, Łobez county, Poland). He attended schools in Daber and Stettin, from 1632 the University of Greifswald and from 1634 the University of Leipzig. In 1639 he came to Estonia and entered the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu, where he also intensively studied the South Estonian language. From 1641 to 1656 he was pastor of Urvaste, where he produced all his writing. In 1656, because of the war between Russia and Sweden, he fled with his family to Tallinn, where he died of the plague the following year.
Gutslaff’s writing and translating work proceeded in the relative isolation of Urvaste away from other scholars of the Estonian language in Estonia and Livonia. He compiled the first grammar of South Estonian, Observationes grammaticae circa linguam esthonicam (Tartu, 1648), which contained a vocabulary of 1700 words. This was the second Estonian grammar, after Heinrich Stahl’s volume on North Estonian. In his grammar and his Bible translation, Gutslaff did not follow Stahl’s grammar, the authority at the time, but created his own comparatively creative system, much closer to the spoken language than Stahl’s.
Gutslaff set as his aim to translate the whole Bible into Estonian (more specifically South Estonian) single-handedly, and to do it from the original languages. How far he got with the translation of the Old Testament is not exactly known. What is preserved today is the manuscript in translation as far as the First Book of Kings (which comprises about a third of the Old Testament). From indirect evidence, the translation extended as far as the Book of Jeremiah. As recently as 2006 a translation of the New Testament into South Estonian was discovered, the author of which, according to preliminary linguistic and translation analysis, was Gutslaff. The first translation of the complete Bible (into North Estonian) only appeared in 1739, the result of the work of a large group of translators under Anton Thor Helle.
The book Kurtzer Bericht vnd Vnterricht Von der Falsch-heilig genandten Bäche in Lieffland Wöhhanda ('Short Report and Lesson on the Võhandu River, Wrongly Regarded as Holy in Livonia', 1644) was written by Gutslaff, based on his observations as pastor of Urvaste. Despite the title, this book contains over 400 pages of information on the contemporary history of South Estonia, and particularly on folk customs. Kurtzer Bericht thoroughly describes the beliefs of Estonians associated with the Võhandu river. Contemporary Estonians regarded the Võhandu river as the abode of the Thunder-god, and according to Gutslaff, sacrificed animals and even children to it. Gutslaff describes how peasants burned down a water-mill which their landlord allowed to be built by the river. Kurtzer Bericht contains the Estonian text of a "Thunder prayer", heard from the peasant Vihtla Jürgen of Erastvere, known as the "thunder-priest", which was recited at the sacrifice of a bull, and which is the oldest transcription of a thunder prayer in the Estonian area. On the basis of Vihtla Jürgen’s prayer, the Estonian composer Veljo Tormis created the work Pikse litaania ('Thunder Litany') for male choir and large drum (1974), with text adapted by Ain Kaalep. Kurtzer Bericht is likewise a valuable document about contemporary weather conditions in southern Estonia.
Gutslaff was one of the first to write occasional poetry in Estonian. In 1652 there appeared three elegies on the occasion of the burial of the wife and daughter of the lord of Vaabina manor, Johann Eberhard von Bellinghausen – on in German, one in Latin and one in Estonian.
Several of Gutslaff’s successors are of significance in Estonian cultural history: his son Eberhard Gutsleff (1652-1724) was the main translator of the New Testament into North Estonian (1715): one of Eberhard’s sons, Heinrich Gutsleff (1680-1747) edited his father’s translation of the New Testament for its third printing (1729) and was the chief assistant in Anton Thor Helle’s group of translators of the first Bible in Estonian (1739). Eberhard’s second son Eberhard junior (1691 or 1700-1749) was the editor and co-author of Anton Thor Helle’s Estonian grammar, Kurzgefaßte Anweisung zur Ehstnischen Sprache (1732).
S. V. (Translated by C. M.)
Books in Estonian
Observationes grammaticae circa linguam esthonicam = Grammatilisi vaatlusi eesti keelest. Tõlkinud ja väljaande koostanud Marju Lepajõe; toimetanud Jaak Peebo. Tartu Ülikooli eesti keele õppetooli toimetised, nr 10, 1998, 340 lk.
About Johannes Gutslaff
Marju Lepajõe, Pastorid ja kirjakultuur: kristliku humanismi variatsioonidest Eesti- ja Liivimaal XVII sajandi esimesel poolel. Doktoritöö. Tartu: Tartu Ülikooli Kirjastus, 2018, 329 lk.
Johannes Gutslaffi piiblitõlge 1647–1657. Koostanud Maeve Leivo, Ahti Lohk, Kristiina Ross, Kai Tafenau, kaaspanustanud Lea Kõiv. Tallinn: Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2013, 499 lk.
Lea Kõiv, Johannes Gutslaff ja tema "Lühike teade ja õpetus". Magistritöö. Tartu: Tartu Ülikool, 2005, 139 l. [Kättesaadav: http://hdl.handle.net/10062/902.]