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Finnish Mythology


Introduction To Finnish Mythology

By Molly Kalafut

Finnish mythology dates its animistic and shamanistic beliefs of nature spirits to 3,000+ years ago. The objects of nature (sky, sun, moon and stars) are all considered distinct entities and deities. The earliest written accounts are from Bishop Mikael Agricola (1551), Gabriel Mexenius (1733), Daniel Juslenius (1745), Zacharias Topelius (1822), and then later Elias Lönnrot (1849) in the Kalevala.

Finnish mythology is from the close geographic region as the Norse pantheon (Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark) yet is distinctly different. Where the Norse mythology influences are Germanic and Indo-European, the Finnish mythology stems from eastern Finno-Ugric languages. Interestingly, the Finnish legends go back so far they don't even mention Swedes, Germans or Russians which is one of the reasons the poems are thought to be at least 3,000 years old. They may have originated during the time before the Finnish people separated from the Hungarians.

From Runo 9, The Healing Of Väinämöinen
"I myself know iron's birth,
I can say the start of steel:
Air's the first one of the mothers,
Water, oldest of the brothers,
Iron, youngest of the brothers,
Fire, the brother in the middle."

The land of Finland and its climate are reflected in the poetry and folklore of the myths. Finland is a places of mountains and marshes with lakes, rivers, seas and islands that often figure in the stories. The climate is cold and winter lasts a minimum of seven months. It is not surprising that their more prominent god controls snow, ice and hail. Due to the long winters here is more focus in the myths on hunting, fish and herds of cattle rather than agriculture or fields, especially compared to other religions. The mythical beings focus on nature and not the realms of human emotion; there is no specific attention paid to wisdom, justice or law and even love is given to the realm of a forest demon.

From Runo 2, The Sowing of the Kalevala:
"All the wilderness was quickened,
Everywhere the woods were greening,
Trees were leafing, grass was growing,
Birds were singing, thrushes warbling -
Over all a cuckoo calling."

Finnish mythology is both lyrical and charming. It dwells on the beauty of nature, the love of parents for their children, the enjoyment of life, love, beer & vapor baths. Magic is an important part of the legends. Songs and incantations perform great and powerful works. Nearly everything has life; including people, animals and normally-inanimate objects which can make it difficult to differentiate between actual deities and magical human heroes. Evil, disease, injuries and beasts can be combated by chants, songs and incantations citing their origin. According to John Martin Crawford, "The thought underlying this idea evidently is that all evil could be obviated had we but the knowledge of whence and how it came."

From Runo 2, The Sowing of the Kalevala:
"Rouse, O Earth, from your sleeping,
God's own meadow, wake from dreaming!
Make the stalks grow tall and taller,
And the stems grow high and higher!
Let a thousand seedlings rise,
Each one with a hundred branches
From my ploughing and my planting
And the trouble I have taken."

Interestingly, the numbers six and seven seem to occur with regularity. The eggs that helped create the earth and heavens consisted of 6 golden eggs and one iron egg. Later, Väinämöinen helped sow with six kernals of barley and seven grain seeds. Joukhainen claimed to be "sixth of seven, Of the seven heroes then". Joukhainen's mother bade her daughter to find her store of six golden girdles and seven blue dresses. Ilmarinen asks a honey bring to bring him honey from the blossom of six flowers and seven haytips.

Finnish Language

As a language, Finnish is a Baltic-Finnic language of the Fenno-Ugric group that belongs to the Uralian family of languages. It is closer to Estonian, Hungarian and Turkish languages than the Germanic languages of Scandinavia. The Finnish alphabet has only 19 letters (though b, c, d, f and g are rare). English has some sounds that Finnish does not (b, g, f, sh) which are usually replaced in Finnish with other letters (p, k, v, hv, s or h).

One of the first things English-speakers notice about the Finnish names in mythology are all the vowels. Particularly notable is the ö which sounds like the French "eu" and must be followed by  an e or an i. Very few words start with two consonants, and each consonant is usually separated by 1 or 2 vowels. An example of this is the word "Väinämöinen"...notice each consonant (V, n, m, n) is followed by one or more vowels. Another reduction in the number of consonants is that doubled consonants ("pp, "kk") is often reduced to just one ("p", "k"). Another interesting note about Finnish vowels is called "vowel harmony"...if a non-compound word has "ä", "ö" or y", it usually does not have the vowels "a", "o" or "u". Examples: "Väinämöinen" and "Joukahainen". Also, many words end in either vowels, or the consonant "n".

Life & Creation

In Finnish mythology, birds are involved throughout the creation of the world to the beginning and end of each human life. The world springs from a bird's egg (duck or eagle) and in some versions the sky is said to be the upper cover of an egg. Birds are said to migrate between the edges of the earth ("Lintukoto" home of the birds) and the milky way ("Linnunrata" path of birds).

Death & Afterlife

The early Finns believed the spirits of the dead remain in the graves until their bodies decayed completely. They were admitted to the underworld called Manala or Tuonela. To reach Tuonela they had to travel over 9 seas and 1 deep and terrible river. The Tuonela is like a second world with the sun and moon, forests and animals. Even though there is not much attention paid to the afterlife, Finnish funeral customs included outfitting their dead with useful items. They were buried with such things as weapons, knives, bows & arrows, food, clothing, snow-shoes and sledges.

The Kalevala ("Land of Heroes")

The Kalevala is a collection of 22,795 lines of poetry divided into fifty poems of Finnish folklore put together in 1849 by Elias Lönnrot. The stories relate the struggles and contests between the Finns and Laplanders and the struggle of good versus evil. It is certainly a charming and beautiful read. The style of poetry is described by The Viking Answer Lady as "unrhymed, non-strophic trochaic tetrameter", though she points out for English speakers it is close to the style of Longfellow's "Hiawatha" poem. The Runos were repeated through oral history over thousands of years and were written down in Kalavela and other collections of Runos.

Runo 12
On the brink of shifting quicksands,
On the brim of bubbling fountain,
By a foaming fall of rapids,
In the chum of mighty waters.

The Kalevala narrates the quests and journeys of three main heroes; Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen and the struggle of the Finns (Suomilainen, Suomi) against the Laplanders. They are descendants from the divine Ilmatar and are capable of great magic.

bullet Väinämöinen is the singer "genii" (tutelary deity) who represents "will".
bullet Ilmarinen is the smith/forgeman who created the Sampo. He represents "intellect".
bullet Lemminkäinen is the reckless adventurer/wizard who represents emotion.
(As a warning, Lönnrot edited some of the poems so it is not the definitive resource for Finnish Mythology.)

The Pantheon

The deities are natural objects ruled by those called "genii", "regents" or "haltiat". They are immortal, and most have bodies and spirits like people...but some are insubstantial. The greatest and most powerful are those ruling the air, water, field and forest. The secondary genii are subservient to those greater deities, but each is supreme in their own sphere of power and influence. The deities have homes and families and children.

bullet Ukko: Sky/Sky-God. The highest god; ruled the sky, thunder, lightning, snow, etc.
bullet Pæivæ: Sun/Sun-God
bullet Kun: Moon/Moong-God
bullet Tæhti: Polar-Star
bullet Ottava: Great Bear
bullet Ahto: Water-God/"Wave Host"
bullet Taipo: Forest God
bullet Hiisi: Chief of the forest demons
bullet Lempo: Evil-Demon Love-Deity (!!)
bullet Uni: Sleep-God
bullet Untamo: Dream-God
bullet Luonnotars: Maidens of the Air
bullet Ahtolaiset: Water-people of seas, rivers, lakes, fountains
bullet Allotar: Wave Goddesses
bullet Maa-emæ/Maan-emo: Mother earth, mother of the earth

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Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut