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Finnish Paganism
by Anssi Alhonen
© 2008 by Anssi Alhonen

As the years passed Wainamoinen [sic]
Recognized his waning powers,
Empty-handed, heavy-hearted,
Sang his farewell song to Northland,
To the people of Wainola;
Sang himself a boat of copper,
Beautiful his bark of magic;
At the helm sat the magician,
Sat the ancient wisdom-singer.
Westward, westward, sailed the hero
O'er the blue-back of the waters,
Singing as he left Wainola,
This his plaintive song and echo:
"Suns may rise and set in Suomi,
Rise and set for generations,
When the North will learn my teachings,
Will recall my wisdom-sayings,
Hungry for the true religion.
Then will Suomi need my coming,
Watch for me at dawn of morning,
That I may bring back the Sampo,
Bring anew the harp of joyance,
Bring again the golden moonlight,
Bring again the silver sunshine,
Peace and plenty to the Northland."

Kalevala / Rune 50 (John Martin Crawford translation)

The main goal of this article is to provide informational overview on the basics of Finnish paganism to the English-speaking people. I'd also like to share a few thoughts concerning the modern revival of our ancestral traditions that is starting to take place in Finland. But first I will give a short introduction to my home country and also my own definition of paganism.

Finland is a small independent European nation of little over five million inhabitants. Geographically it includes the relatively large, sub-arctic forested region between Russia and the Baltic Sea. I won't elaborate here on the subject of geography or Finnish culture because this article is purely focused on the subject of Finnish paganism. However, paganism and Finnish culture do have a lot in common. Perhaps you have heard of our famous composer Jean Sibelius, who was himself very interested in the old mythology and frequently used pagan themes in his works. Kullervo, a choral symphony by Sibelius, is for example based on the life of an antihero whose tragic story is told in the ancient poems.

Sauna, the exotic bathing chamber, is another thing that is substantial part of the Finnish culture and also part of paganism. Traditional folklore is filled with pagan beliefs and customs concerning the sauna. Anyone who has studied European pagan traditions has probably heard about our national epic, Kalevala. It is a collection of mythic folk poems tied together for one cohesive narrative by the philologist Elias Lönnrot in the 1800s. Although Kalevala is a great inspiration for many modern Finnish pagans, it should also be noted that many of the old poems were heavily edited by Lönnrot who also occasionally changed the chronology of the events and added new characters while removing others. Kalevala was written to inspire the national awakening in Finland that ultimately led to declaration of independence from Russia in 1917. So - Kalevala is not meant to be a spiritual work and it is not a sort of "holy book" for the pagans.

What about the definition of paganism? It seems that everyone has got their own idea what that word means depending whether they are Christians, Satanists, Wiccans, etc. My definition of pagan is rather different from the definitions made by other "pagans", and it is not shared by many in these modern times. The original Latin meaning of Paganus is heavily debated, but I don't really care, whether pagan was a label given to us by Christians. Christian, too, was originally a derogatory word given to them by their opponents and they still take pride in that name.

I think that each nation has got their own gods, their own traditions and the best way for everybody to find meaning and holiness in their lives is to cherish and follow their ancestral traditions. I'm not saying that person can't move into another place and another culture and adopt the customs and honor the gods of the new place. This happened all the time when people were pagans, and they married to another tribe or traveled abroad. But, the difference was that religions (spiritual customs) were tied to a place and to a nation. There were no universal religions and the land were people lived was understood in mythological and spiritual terms. Tribal land was considered sacred and it held the buried bones of the people's ancestors dating back to ancient times. The land, customs, ancestors and religion were the same thing, a way of living. This is the holistic understanding of life I am really trying to learn myself and make it a reality once again by reviving the traditions of my ancestors in this post-Christian age. That is my definition of being a pagan.

I present here mostly factual information, but of course this piece is influenced by the way I personally understand the traditions of my ancestors. I have tried to be brief and for the sake of brevity I had to leave lot of things unmentioned. Huge part of the information is gleaned from the Finnish-language edition of Wikipedia, as it has got literally hundreds of excellent articles on Finnish mythology and paganism.

There are obviously many layers in Finnish paganism, since it has been constantly evolving ever since the Stone Age, always carrying with it the remnants of earlier beliefs. This evolution continued up to the point of conversion to Christianity that took place in Finland some time between 1000 - 1300 AD depending to some amount on what geographical area is examined. In this article I write about the Viking Age version paganism, as it was the last form of indigenous spirituality that prospered before paganism was suppressed by a foreign faith. I will first provide some historical background about Finnish paganism. After that I will present detailed information about historical pagan world view and customs. At the end of this article I share a few thoughts about the modern revival of Finnish paganism. Finally, at the very bottom I have put up a short list of links to freely available English-language articles related to Finnish paganism.

Historical Background
Literary sources about Finnish paganism are relatively young and scarce. Oldest surviving literary work mentioning Finnish pagan gods is the foreword written by famous clergyman Mikael Agricola to his Finnish translation of the biblical Psalms that was published in 1551. In the foreword Agricola lists the names of some Finnish gods and condemns folk for worshipping them. Although information about old paganism has been collected only after long period of Christianity, people still held many pagan beliefs and practices even centuries after conversion, especially in the Karelian areas. Some of these beliefs and practices survived well into the 21st century. During his trips to record Karelian folklore in the early 20th century it was common for Elias Lönnrot to meet people who believed that the god Väinämöinen was present at the creating the world, and that he was participating in the phenomena seen in nature. Stories about Jesus, Väinämöinen, Christian God and the pagan god Ukko were happily mixed in the rural area, giving birth to a syncretistic religion that was still very much alive in the later part of 20th century.

Like the spiritual beliefs of other groups, the religion of Finnish people and their view of the world changed dramatically through time. The beliefs of Stone Age people are thought to be shamanistic. After agriculture replaced the old hunter-gatherer way of living, new concepts of time and fertility were adopted. Arriving along with new cultural influences, there were probably new gods too. After people started settling more permanently to one place, haltijat, elf-like guardian spirits of places, grew in importance. During Christian times these mighty spiritual guardians of prosperous communities diminished into the concept of small house-elves or tonttu, who were lurking around in the corners of the household.

As the Indo-European cultural influences reached Finland they also brought with them a new masculine god associated with thunder called Ukko (old man). As Ukko became Ylijumala (over-god) of heaven he replaced the old sky-god Ilmarinen who was from then on remembered as the mythical smith controlling the winds and as the primeval forger of the sky-dome. At the time of the Viking Age Finnish paganism resembled closely the ancient religion of the Scandinavian people who, for example, also had male god associated with thunder, Þórr (Thor).

After the conversion, paganism started slowly vanishing from Finland as Christianity tightened its grip of the people. In some cases, the pagan Ukko was merely replaced with the concept of Heavenly Father and the smaller gods were associated with Christian saints. So, in a sense, paganism continued to live in the guise of Catholicism, since the customs themselves didn't change, they were merely given a new name and a new superficial meaning. In many locations, the new saints were even worshipped with the same way in the same place as the old pagan gods. In Karelia stones used in pagan sacrifices were named after saints. The protestant reformation sweeping over Finland in the 1500s destroyed many pagan elements that had been pivotal to syncretistic Catholicism. Witch hunts furthered this development. Fortunately, Eastern Orthodoxy in Karelia didn't suffer from these developments and the priests were generally more tolerant towards old customs, such as home altars for deceased relatives, and that was the main reason why many pagan customs and beliefs survived in Karelia up until to the time of Soviet Union.

Even today, many traces of the old Finnish paganism can be seen and heard in the Finnish language, place names, customs, methods of traditional healing and in national holidays. One of the biggest annual holidays in Finland is Juhannus which is celebrated around the summer solstice. The official Christian version claims that Juhannus is the "celebration of John the aptist's birthday". This was of course the new meaning given to pagan midsummer celebration, Ukon juhla (Ukko's feast) and pagan traditions such as burning bonfires, raising may poles, and even folk magic are still widely practiced around the time of summer solstice. Not even many Christians seriously argue that Juhannus is a real Christian holiday.

Overview of Finnish Paganism

1. Introduction

Like other pagan religions, Finnish paganism in its historical form was not a separate part of life like universal religions such as Christianity, but a whole way of living. Paganism was a collection of customs and beliefs concerning both supernatural and everyday things.

Ancient Finnish pagan world view recognized many gods, guardian spirits (elves) and other spiritual entities. Different deities were recognized and worshipped in different locations and communities. Also, as time went on, the recognition gained by some gods grow, while the importance of others diminished. For this simple reason, it would be absurd to try to create Christian-like dogma for Finnish paganism. There is no doubt that even the pre-Christian pagans themselves would find it extremely illogical.

2. Gods, Guardian Spirits and Other Spiritual Entitites

There were still some gods who were recognized and worshipped among all communities and tribes. Ukko Ylijumala was almost certainly one of those gods. Ukko was the god of weather and thunder. Ukko also protected his people in war and drove rabbits to the hunters traps. He was generally regarded as the most powerful deity, although there is much speculation that in peoples minds he was later influenced by the concept of the Christian God, making him a nearly omnipotent figure that he certainly wasn't in the pagan times. He is thought to be originally Baltic god and related to the Lithuanian Perkunas (Finnish: Perkele, meaning the Christian devil is extremely popular curse word).

Lightning bolts were thought to be signs of Ukko's anger and his attempts to destroy evil spirits. He was armed with Ukonvasara, Ukko's hammer. Similar to Scandinavian Þórr's Mjöllnir. According to folk poems Ukko moved in the skies and held courts (käräjät) with other gods. Viper snakes with a lightning-like pattern on their backs were sacred to Ukko. Ukko's wife was Rauni, a goddess associated with rowan trees and motherhood. Each household usually had a rowan in their yard, for it was thought that lightning never stroke near a rowan.

The primeval gods present at creation of the world are told to have been Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, Joukahainen and possibly Lemminkäinen. They are often mentioned to be brothers. Väinämöinen is rather complicated character, who existed before the world was even created. In the beginning Ilman impi (Maiden of the Air) wandered in the empty nothingness, when she was suddenly impregnated with foams of the primeval sea by Iku-Turilas or Kave. After a very long time she gave birth to Väinämöinen, who already had the wisdom and the form of an old sage. While Väinämöinen floated in the primeval ocean, a goldeneye laid an egg on his knee. When he moved his leg, the eggs fell and broke, thus creating the world.

Väinämöinen was also the first human being, god of seers (tietäjä), father of poetry and music. He is also associated with shapeshifting, water, boats, sailing and navigating while traveling through waterways. In the ancient poems Väinämöinen often travels to Tuonela (the realm of the dead) to retrieve hidden information from the dead. He is a master healer and defeats all diseases, which come from the cold and dark Pohjola. Väinämöinen also travels among humans as a sage, just like Scandinavian Óðinn (Odin). Orion constellation was called Väinämöinen's scythe.

Ilmarinen is ancient god who participated in the creation of the world by forging the sky, the Sun, the Moon, the Aurora Borealis, dusk and dawn. He also invented iron and fire. Ilmarinen is associated with winds. Later his role was diminished, as he was replaced by the new sky god, Ukko. Joukahainen is the most troublesome character in the creation stories. He is visualized as an arrogant young man who crashes his sledge with Väinämöinen. The two gods went on to have a singing duel in which the old sage defeats the young cub by singing him into a swamp. Some scholars have suggested that Joukahainen might represent some sort of primeval chaos defeated by the order represented by Väinämöinen.

Lemminkäinen or Kaukomieli (Far-Looker) is visualized as a good looking young man. He is associated with fertility, love, fire and shamanistic magic as he could "sing the sand into pearls". During one of his trips to Tuonela, Lemminkäinen tries to shoot the Swan of Tuonela that swims in the dark waters of River of Tuonela. Since killing swans was a taboo for Finnish pagans, Lemminkäinen gets unlucky, falls into the dark current and is slashed to pieces by the Tuonen verinen poika (The Bloody Son of Tuonela). His mother searches for his son and uses a rake to pick up the pieces of his body from the river. She uses magic and salve from Ukko, brought by a bee, to resurrect Lemminkäinen back to life.

Other important gods were the major spirits that ruled natural places. These spirits were sometimes called "kings". For example, the king of the water was Ahti, from whom fishers asked for good luck in fishing. The king or god of the forest was called Tapio. With his wife, Mielikki, Tapio ruled the forest and all of its plants, animals and spiritual entities. Hunters made offerings and prayed for Tapio before the hunt. Animals and plants also had elder ancestral spirits that were called emuu. Their function was to look after the well-being of their "sons" and "daughters". For example the emuu of bears was called Hongotar and every time a bear was killed, people prayed and sacrificed to Hongotar, reassuring her that they didn't kill her son needlessly.

Different environments, places, beings and even humans had their own guardian spirits, called haltija. In natural places, the spirits were thought to form groups of spiritual power called väki. For example, in water there was the väki of water and in fire, the väki of fire. When something was thought to be spiritually powerful it was called väkevä (strong). The different väki guarded their own areas, and might get upset if proper respectful behavior was not practiced. For example when someone cursed near a lake the väki of the water might infect him with disease.

Pekko or Pellonpekko (Pekko of the fields) was the god who seed the plants and forests of the world. He was called to bring luck when the fields were cultivated. Pekko was regarded as being the god of agriculture and grain. He was especially closely associated to barley. Thus, he was also also the god of ale, the sacred drink of ancient Finns.

Communities had their own local haltija, who was collectively worshipped in holy places like sacred groves. Families, buildings, landed property and fields also had their own haltija or guardian spirit. The function of these entities was to protect, to bring prosperity and fertility. Sometimes guardian spirits might act against another house and steal their goods or move landmarks. Haltija warned people in the household for incoming disaster by appearing to them. In the yard or inside the house, there was usually some specific place that was used as an altar for offerings and sometimes as a place for the haltija to dwell in. Very often this place was a holy tree or rock (napakivi) that was located in the yard. To ensure to kindness and helpfulness of the guardian spirits, people gave them offerings. Angry haltija might cause accidents and be extremely dangerous.

It is speculated that in many cases, local guardian spirits were originally ancestral spirits. In some cases, the haltija was considered to be the spirit of the first inhabitant of the house. When building a new house people tried to attract haltija to the place by using special rituals and charms. A local nature spirit might become the guardian of the newly build house.

3. Souls

The ancient Finns believed that people had multiple souls or soul-entities. One of these was henki which could be translated as spirit, breath, soul, ghost, or life. Henki was the life-force which resided in the body of a human being, manifesting itself in breathing and warmth of the living body. The original word for henki was löyly which nowadays means the hot air in sauna. Losing one's löyly was fatal to the person.

Itse-soul was thought to be the actual "me" of the human being, the social concept of oneself and manifestation of individual's self-image. In modern Finnish itse is a pronoun for "myself". Itse was visualized as the shadow or a mirror image of a person. One could also lose one's itse, this catastrophe rendered the person itsetön (itse-less). An "itsetön" person was sickly, pale, depressed and unlucky. Soul-loss might also cause the person to become paralytic, epileptic or alcoholic. The ways to lose itse included oath-breaking and alcoholism. Sometimes the ghosts of already deceased loved ones might lure person's itse to come with them to Tuonela while person was still alive. It was the job of the local tietäjä or seer to return the person's soul.

Each person also had their own guardian spirit or, sometimes, even several spirits. People gained their haltija called Luonto around the the time they had their first tooth, or when they were given their name. In modern Finnish Luonto has influenced to words: luonne (person's character) and luonto (nature, as in sense of the environment). Person with powerful Luonto also had a strong character. He or she was competent in both everyday and spiritual matters and generally successful in life.

Luonto was probably considered to be connected with the person's dead kin that resided in Tuonela. Sometimes Luonto was thought to be the mythical first ancestor of one's family line. Luonto followed person around protecting him and bringing luck. In Christian times Luonto was transformed to the Christian idea of guardian angel.

Sometimes Luonto might travel ahead of a person and give the people at his destination the false sensation that the person had already arrived. This was called etiäinen. It was assumed that people with strong character and charisma caused a lot of these experiences. So, etiäinen was generally regarded as a positive or neutral thing. On the other hand, the same thing in reverse, a sensation of a person's Luonto lurking around when the person had already gone on their way, was considered extremely bad thing. It usually meant that this person was about to die or face some serious accident and the soul was unwilling to follow him.

When Luonto was specially needed one might command it to raise from lovi (deep place, meaning Tuonela) using an incantation. When Luonto took control of a person he became passionate, fanatic and sometimes frenzied. If person committed extremely evil acts or suffered sudden trauma their Luonto might become frightened and leave the person leaving him luckless, sick and depressed.

Besides henki, itse and Luonto, person might also have other personal helpers who brought prosperity and luck to their masters. These helpers included entities like tonttu and para, a created little helper, perhaps of the sort of a homunculus. Tietäjä might have animal spirit helpers such as lievo (raven) and snakes whose physical counterparts the tietäjä kept as pets.

4. Death

Person's death was followed by a 30-40 day long transition period while itse-soul searched for a route to Tuonela and its place there. During this time, the soul might visit its loved ones in the form of a ghost or animal. This was especially the case, when the person was unhappy with his life on earth or the circumstances surrounding his death. After the transition period, the soul moved permanently to Tuonela. He might still return, if he was unpleased with something. Some of the dead never settled in Tuonela, but continued to haunt the living. This was usually the case, when person was murdered or he had committed suicide.

Dead relatives in Tuonela were honored with sacrifices. The places where the sacrifice rituals took place, were called hiisi. Although people were afraid of ghosts, the dead members of one's kin were respected, as the family was considered a unit including both the living and the dead members. The dead protected and helped their living relatives and they were often counseled for help. Tietäjä was sometimes sent to Tuonela to retrieve age-old information from the dead, or even sometimes to bring a dead person ack to life to work as his helper spirit.

5. TIETÄJÄ - Seer, Healer and Shaman

It is generally assumed that in Iron Age Finland people had established the practice of seers called tietäjä (knowledgeable person). Väinämöinen was considered the first tietäjä and the god of seers and healers. Each community had their own tietäjä who used his skills to help the community, for example by healing the sick. It is thought, that the role of a Finnish tietäjä was developed from the earlier practice of shamanism. However, tietäjä was not necessarily the same as shaman, because during the Iron Age, their everyday practice lacked several features essential to the shamanic traditions of Siberian tribes or Saami people. For example, a Finnish tietäjä normally used his sacred incantations for curing diseases, rather than spirit journeys to the underworld.

To to be successful the tietäjä had to know the mythic syntysanat (birth words) for different natural phenomena, animals, materials and other things. These words were ancient wisdom, probably retrieved from the spirit of some dead shaman in Tuonela ages ago. Syntysanat or synty was a mythological narrative on how a certain thing had born into existence. It also explained how the thing had changed to reach the point or form it was in now. When used as incantations, birth words gave tietäjä the ability to control many things and in this way to alter the surrounding reality.

Diseases were thought to be caused by malicious spiritual entities or hostile witches. Tietäjä defeated diseases by using a incantations. The sick were often treated in sauna. Tietäjä tried to return the sickness-entity back to where it had come from. For example, a disease caused by water spirits was ordered to leave the patient and return to water. There was also a mythic character called Kipu-tyttö (Pain-girl) who lived on kipumäki (pain-hill) and caused people pain. During healing tietäjä asked her to leave and to take the pains away from the patient to kipukivi (pain-rock) because "rock doesn't cry about its pains, boulder doesn't groan about its ailments". Skillful tietäjä could also stop blood flowing from open wound by ordering it to do so with the right words.

Finnish tietäjä-folk were widely respected and feared in the neighboring regions during the Viking Age - and even long after that. In the Norse sagas Finns always appear as powerful wizards and feared masters of the supernatural. According to later tales, foreign seafarers bought from Finns ropes tied in knots. By opening the knot a bit, a seaman could raise a wind to make his ship go faster. However, opening it too fast would raise a storm.

6. Sacred Animals

Finnish mythology holds several animals to be sacred. There are traces of a ancient bear cult and bear was certainly a highly respected animal and often even regarded to be elder kin to humans. Some folk poems state that the god Ilmarinen was the father of bear and that bear was born in the sky near the Big Dipper from were it was descended to the earth. When bear was killed there was a celebration to honor it called karhunpeijaiset. One function of the feast was to make sure that spirit of the bear would be born again in the woods and that it held no grudge about the killing. Elk was also considered to be sacred and it was connected to Väinämöinen who is told to have ride the mythical Sininen hirvi (Blue Elk).

Many water birds were also sacred to the ancient Finns. It was taboo to kill them, especially swans. In the Finnish mythology birds are prominent in the stories about the creation of the world. In some areas it was believed that sielulintu (soul-bird) brought the soul to the new-born child and took it away in death.

7. Cosmology

The cosmology of the ancient Finns was similar to that of the neighboring peoples. The earth was thought to be located on a flat disc. There is no direct evidence of this belief, but other better known facts of the Finnish cosmic world view leave no other choice. Ancient beliefs state that the earth was covered by the giant dome of sky. The dome was supported by the world pole that was attached to Polaris. The star was called taivaannaula (sky-nail) and it was thought to be working like a nail to cuff the world pole into the sky. The world pole was located far in the north and its roots were ingrained deep into the earth. There has been a lot of scholarly speculation that the Sampo, mythic mill grinding prosperity and wealth and playing essential part in many myths, might actually indicate the spinning world pole.

Often it was thought that there were several sky-domes piled up in layers. The world was probably separated into three levels: the upper world of the gods, the world of the living and the lower land of the dead called Tuonela. Some people believed that even Tuonela had several layers. Fixed stars were attached to the sky-dome. The Sun and the Moon located under the dome and raised and descended between the sky and earth.

Pohjola (place of the north) was located in the far north. It was thought to be dark and very cold place ruled by the Mistress of Pohjola, usually known as Louhi. Pohjola was home to many things including diseases, frost and misfortunes. The diseases were born when Loviatar, the blind daughter of Tuoni (the ruler of Tuonela) was impregnated by the wind. Louhi acted as a midwife while Loviatar gave birth to nine sons: Consumption, Colic, Gout, Rickets, Ulcer, Scab, Cancer, Plague and Envy. These diseases were then send to torment mankind. However, Väinämöinen fought against them and defeated these diseases with his healing skills and knowledge. According to folk poetry the realm of Pohjola is also home to many other weird inhabitants such as sons and daughters of Louhi, witches and esoteric monsters like Nuolennoutaja (Retriever of Arrow), Kielen kantaja (Carrier of Tongue) and Sydämen syöjä (Eater of Heart).

Lintukoto (Bird Home) was strange world located in south or south-west at the edge of the world where migratory birds spend winters. Lintukoto was also the home for small lintukotolaiset. The Milky Way is called in Finnish Linnunrata (Pathway of the Birds) as it was considered the route that birds followed to Lintukoto and back. These days lintukoto is used in Finnish as a negation to imply that some place is no longer the safe, innocent and happy place it used to be, for example: "Finland is no longer a lintukoto".

In far north, at the root of the world pole, there was a gigantic whirlpool called the Kurimuksen kurkku. The whirling of Kurimus might have caused the world pole to spin with the sky-dome. This was also the Tuonen koski (Tuonela rapid), one of the many pathways to the underworld.

Tuonela, (or Manala) was located under the earth. It might have been the mirror image of the world of the living. The entrance to this world could be found in bottomless swamps, eddies, caves and other places. Some people believed that each person had a double, a Doppelgänger of sort, living in Tuonela to whom one's fate was firmly connected.

Finnish pagans had several myths concerning the origin of the world. The most commonly held belief was that the world was born from a waterfowl's egg. Another common way to explain how everything came into existence was the earth-diver myth about arctic loon fetching earth from the bottom of the primeval ocean. Some stories also tell how the smith hero Ilmarinen forged the sky-dome.

Folk poems also mention several phenomena relating to the end of the world as we know it. These include dancing stars, heating of the Moon and the Sun moving to the north. There are also eschatological stories about a great catastrophe, great frost, burning of the world, disease and hunger.

8. The Cycle of Year and Festivals

For the ancient Finnish people the cycle of the year was divided into phases related to agriculture, fishing, hunting and other work. These phases had their own festivals. Two of the most important holidays were midsummer and midwinter, which divided the year into two parts. Harvest feast called kekri was the original midwinter celebration, but in Christian times it diminished in importance and many of its characteristics transfered to joulu (Christmas). Kekri, which meant the last day of the year, was originally celebrated at early November.

At midsummer the Sun reached the highest point of its course and seemed to stall there for a while. This week-long period was called pesäpäivät (nest days), for it was thought that the Sun was resting in its nest. Pesäpäivät was considered to be eerie and magical time since the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead was then at its most thinnest. The same thing happened during midwinter, as the Sun was at the another extreme point of its yearly course. The time from midwinter to midsummer was considered "raising" time, and from midsummer to midwinter time was thought to "decline".

Vakkajuhlat (basket celebration) was a sacrificial celebration which the whole county attended. They were held in sacred groves. Basketful of food was given as an offering to the gods and people drank sacred beer, brewed especially for the event. Vakkajuhlat might involve ritualistic kneeling in a circle and dancing. Households regarded the duty to host Vakkajuhlat as a great honor, and the guests never had to brought any food with them. Ukonvakat (Ukko's baskets) was held around 25th of May to honor Ukko. The purpose of this feast was to ensure good weather from the god for the sowing time. During the celebration people drank special toast to Ukko.

The world view of the Finnish pagans had concepts like the beginning of the world and development of world in time. Their concept of time was therefore not cyclical. Future ages were predicted, although it is perhaps interesting to note that Finno-Ugric languages have no future tense. When Christianity came to Finland the pagan heroes such as Väinämöinen were told to have gone away, but it was also predicted that they would some day return to help their people during dire times.

9. Holy Places

Pyhä, the Finnish word for holy and sacred, originally meant something inside a closed enclosure reserved for special use, such as arable land. The inside of a household or yard might have also included special sense of holiness that was contrasted with the dangers of outside world. Sacred groves (hiisi) sometimes included fenced area into which no human being was allowed to enter. Instead, people threw their sacrifices over the fence. Person, who offended against the holiness of the place, gained the wrath of the spirits and the dead. Hiisi was originally the place where communities and families buried their dead, and later prayed and made offerings for them. After Christianity came, the meaning of the word hiisi changed, as it started to mean demons or rugged and scary places.

Offerings were left on specific stones called uhrikivi (sacrifice stone). These stones were regarded as altars or abodes for guardian spirits and lesser gods. Later the stones were used as altars for Christian saints. Often there was pit carved to the stone where the offering was placed. Rain water collected from the pit was considered to be powerful in healing. In folk poems, pains and problems were sometimes commanded to the pit with a incantation. Some scholars have suggested that pit was made when person died so his soul could enter Tuonela through it. Thus, by placing offerings into the pit people were communicating with the spirit of the dead. Other places for sacrificial acts included holy trees (especially rowan) and oases.

The Modern Revival
Above I have presented a simplified outline of Finnish pagan beliefs and customs. I had to leave a lot of things unmentioned for the sake of brevity, but even from this short introduction, it should have become clear that Finland has a complex and very rich mythology and has had a unique pagan tradition. For that reason it never ceases to amaze me, how few and hard to come by Finnish pagans are these days. There may well be more Finnish people practicing Greco-Roman paganism then there are people following the path of their indigenous spirituality!

Luckily, things seem to be changing now. During the last few years there have been considerable increase in the visibility of the followers of Finnish neopaganism on the Internet. Nowadays we have an lively discussion forum for people interested in Finnish paganism and few organizations and informational sites are also in the process of being created. Perhaps the greatest challenge now is to get solitary practitioners together to strengthen their pagan identity and to exchange ideas so that Finnish paganism might grow and be able to resist the pressure coming from the realities of secular society and hostile religions.

Many Finnish people find it hard to fully embrace the faith of their ancestors. They claim that we just don't know enough about Finnish paganism to make it a living tradition. I disagree with this. We have information. What people are really saying is that there is no dogma, no universally accepted doctrine of Finnish paganism. Instead we have a collection of varying and sometimes conflicting beliefs and customs. In my opinion, this is what it should be, paganism is all about plurality, local traditions and personal beliefs, not holy books and heretics. Paganism is by its very nature organic, tolerant and undogmatic. And besides, both Lithuanian Romuva and Estonian Maausko have succeeded in creating a strong, living tradition from their ancestral traditions which happen to be somewhat closely related to ours.

There are certain modern things that alien to our indigenous world view, but that can creep into Finnish neopaganism and slowly destroy it from within. One of these things is racism and overly politicized nationalism. Another is the instinct of people, who have been brought up in society where Christian ideas and values are repeated every day, to consciously or unconsciously project these foreign concepts to paganism. Just by changing the name of one's God to Ukko, while living and thinking the same way as always doesn't really make one a pagan. Third alien thing to Finnish paganism is universalism and mental "new ageism". One can't take parts of our ancestors spiritual tradition and mix them up with different things from different traditions and expect that the end product would be meaningful, functional religion and world view. It is my firm belief that any tradition should be studied, lived and treated as a whole. Not as collection of pick-and-choose -ideas for people to take and mangle as parts of their own supposedly deep copy-paste -religions.

Yet another way to get paganism wrong is to overemphasize the nature-aspect. Finnish paganism wasn't primitive Earth-worship. In fact, the goddess Maaemoinen (Earth mother) appears only as a minor deity in the folk poems. There is a big misconception that paganism can be simplified and reduced to some kind of spiritualism based around mere biological nature. The reality of ancient pagan faiths, including Finnish paganism, doesn't support this simplistic and modern idea.

I would like to end this piece with a positive example. As I stated before, the pagans in Finland's southern neighbor, Estonia, have already managed to restore their indigenous religion into a strong, living tradition. Estonia might be claimed to be most pagan nation in Europe. A survey made in 2002 found out that 11% of the Estonian participants said that they personally regard their indigenous pagan religion as the spiritual path most closest to them. In 2003 the Estonian president even proposed that there should be a pagan shrine, hiisi, build in the center of their capital Tallinn!

So naturally, we, Finnish pagans should draw inspiration from the example of our beloved neighbors and try to learn from them as much as we can!

Taivaannaula (Currently Finnish-only)

The Ancient Religion of the Finns

Onni - The Concept of Luck in Finnish Traditional and Modern Folklore

Wikipedia - Finnish Paganism

Wikipedia - Finnish Mythology

The Ancient Finnish Myths home page

Sidebar Notes

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland - it consists of 22,795 verses, divided into fifty cantos or "chapters"

Finnish Paganism, like many forms of ethnic religion, has experienced a revival in recent years