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Folk belief


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Traditionally in the Middle Ages, it was believed that the world was made up of a round flat disc, the earth, above which were the heavens supported in the middle by a pole. The canopy of the heavens rotated around a pole star, or nail at the top of the pole. According to ancient poetry, there was a great river at the end of the world, beyond which lay the land of the dead. This was reached by a boat, but on the river were the Death rapids. On the southern rim of the heavens, to which the birds flew in the direction of the Milky Way, was the land of dwarfs – the lilliputian people. This tradition has also been found among the arctic people.


The diver myth was found over a wide area of Europe and North America and persisted for a long time among the Othodox population of Karelia. It tells of a bird that dived into the primeval sea and carried earth to the surface. Another recent myth among the Baltic Finns, has its roots in the early Iron Age and tells how the earth was made from an egg. Among the most common motifs, also from Scandinavian mythology, were a great fire, a great frost and coldness, the last great war, plague and famine. The Flood appears only in certain local histories.

Death and relations with the dead were among the local concepts of folk belief. One of the oldest was that of kalma, which among different Finno-Ugrian people meant death, the body or grave. The vital force of man and animal, henki, was associated mainly with breathing but also with other signs of life. When breathing ceased, the spirit fled, sometimes in the form of a little animal, butterfly, or a bird. In addition to his henki spirit, man also had a haamu or hamr (Swedish) or free spirit outside the body – his alter ego, his self or shadow. Closely connected with a person’s spirit, was his invisible guardian spirit or keeper.

Death occurred when a harmful force, kalma, took possession of the body and breathing ceased. The living had to defend themselves against this force by observing certain taboos and carrying out protective magic spells, but mainly the body had to be buried as soon as possible. Later the Christian concept of good and evil dead was reflected in sayings, folk songs and Christmas games, which are alien to folk belief.

One of the oldest beliefs was that after death man continued his existence as in life. It was necessary to equip the body on burial. The dead resided in the churchyard – in the pre-Christian era on the farm or the village cemetery. The links between the dead and the old home and family were not severed suddenly. They merely grew weaker with time. It was important for the dead to continue to receive their share of the farm’s yield. Because of the sacrifices and memorial ceremonies conducted there, the graveyard became a cult place. With the breakthrough of the Christian faith the cult places vanished or were turned into Christian cemeteries or the sites for churches.

The belief in Hades, a kingdom of the dead on the northern edge of the world, appeared in both poetry and in laments. Sacrificial gifts were made at the burial and the burial feast during which an animal was slaughtered. Offerings were also made at the end of the crop year and during memorial feasts for individuals and for all the family dead. If the living handled their relationships with their dead ancestors in a way that satisfied them, no problems arose. But if the dead became discontented, they might decide to call at their old homes as ghosts. The transition period 30-40 days after death was the greatest because the dead had not finally taken up residence in the kingdom of the dead. The ghosts might appear in either human or animal form. Dead people who could not find their place were people who had been murdered or committed suicide, bastards, or babies buried in the forest.

The belief in spirits is a central element in folk belief. Spirits were spiritual beings tied to a certain place and fell into two categories: the spirits of cultural places and the spirits of nature (earth, water and forest). The spirits of cultural places were common in the western Finnish tradition. The first occupier of a place usually became its spirit. The spirit of the house known as tonttu (tomte, Swedish) was the founder of the house, the first builder, the first lighter of a fire in the house, or the first person to die there. Making offerings to the spirits was common in the western tradition, but the people in the east resorted to magic. Only in southwest Finland was the spirit guarding the home given food. The spirits were also helpers; they helped amass the family fortunes and watched over the master and mistress.

Some of the nature spirits are international, like the human-like gnones living beneath the earth. There is an older system of spirits in Finnish tradition, connected with a particular place in nature from whom permission had to be sought to frequent the place. The spirit of the forest appeared as the forest mother or forest father and was identified with the forest itself. They ruled over the forest and its animals. Hunters had to observe certain rules and make special gifts.

The offerings to the spirits were taken to various points in the countryside or the farm outhouses, to trees and rocks. There were sacred trees in all parts of the country – firs, pines and birches – and were right beside the house. There are more than 100 place names in Finland whose meanings meant sacred. In other words they were regarded as taboo – they had strength. The sacred groves of Häme are mentioned in a Papal bull of 1229.

There were also festivals involving sacrifices, especially at the end of the crop year and grazing season in autumn. A sheep was slaughtered and sacrificed to the dead and the spirits in order to ensure a favorable year to come. In Karelia annual feasts were held when an ox was slaughtered near the village chapel on the Sunday following St. Elias’ day. One festival with roots in hunting culture was held at which bear’s meat was eaten along with ale and spirits. After the feast the bear’s bones were taken back to the forest and the skull was hung from a tree.

People could take measures to guarantee a good outcome such as: before going hunting or starting a job it was advisable to consult the omens in order to know the best time to hunt or begin work at various jobs. They had to observe certain taboos in word and deed in order to avoid unfavorable results. They had to make sure, by gifts and offerings, of the support of the ancestors and spirits. Among the traditional methods were the circling in a clockwise direction, magic throws of an axe, magic cries, whistles, lighting a fire, passing through a narrow place, magic signs, and folk medicine. They used parts of the human body, such as blood, sweat, hair, nails, parts of animals and plants which were thought to have magic power, water, soil and stone.

People and their health were watched over by a guardian spirit. Babies were vulnerable because it was believed they did not have a guardian spirit until they got their first tooth. Evil might attack a human in various ways, by biting, blowing, an infection from a dead body, water, fire, or by offending the spirit of a certain place and arousing its anger.

The healer in the pre-Christian era was a seer. While in a trance, the seer would try to discover the origins of diseases. He relied on his knowledge of the magic power of chants. Teachings of the Christian church had a strong influence. Magic rites were interpreted as contact with the devil and an offense against the First Commandment. Numerous witch trials were held in Finland in the mid- and late 17th centuries. Folk healers have operated until the present century. Finland has only had district physicians since the middle decades of the 18th century, and municipal doctors since the 1880s. People therefore had to seek help from the parsonage which usually had medicine available, or from healers. Common forms of treatment from healers were massage, cupping and blood letting. Folk healers knew how to stop bleeding, to set bones, to treat fractures and to administer medicines. There are still some healers today.

Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo

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