That Old Time Religion, in Finland

Over on Pharyngula, Finland comes up; and do I link to my scrawlings on the people leaving the Lutheran Church? No, I pen the below bit on ancient Finnish religion, since Valhalla, that boorish Norse thing, came up —

* * *

No, no Valhalla for Finns.

Though, being a Finn, I still don’t recall what the traditional afterlife was. Though no doubt it involved alcohol; wouldn’t be much of an afterlife otherwise. (Somewhere away from those Viking types, though. They, the barbarians, have no consideration for the fact that sometimes a man just has to brood gazing into the dark forest for a month or two. The inconsiderate sons-of-elderberries.)

Now let me think. There was Ukko, the chief god, and Akka his wife — through some quirk of language the words nowadays mean “Old Chap/Fart” and “Old Crone/Witch”. Then there were naturally gods and spirits for every nook and cranny, including sauna gnomes, who are the reason the stove screams when you throw water on it. (Not really.) There was Tapio, god of the forest, and his wife Mielikki; the former is nowadays a brand of vodka, and the second a goddess in D&D’s Forgotten Realms. Then there were doppelgängers and evil elvses and things that went “u hur hur fresh meat!” in the night, and bears were all gods, naturally, gods so holy it would have been a terrible thing to say their true name. What the true name was, I have no clue; this is the problem when you don’t say something in a pre-literate society.

Also, though the bear was holy and the king of all animals and the like, of course you were still allowed to hunt and eat it. You just made the feast into a funeral for it, and nailed its skull high up to a tree to look down at any who passed by. (“Hello! I bring news of the God Christ!” — “Is he edible too?”)

Oh, now I recall. The Finnish afterlife and underworld was Tuonela, also called Manala; it’s a dark and lifeless place where the dead sleep. Not waiting to wake up; they just sleep. And will probably gnaw your head off if you go gallivanting there like some fool Orpheus. (This gnawing is a guess based on Finnish nature, not a true real religious fact.) Also there were iron pikes (as in the fish) because what’s an otherworld without a monster or two; and it was a gloomy sunless underground place of hopeless silence and a few brooding faceless gods, though still marginally better than Helsinki during wintertime.

The Finnish creation myth is as universal as to need no elaboration beyond a few keywords: Chaos. Water. Duck. Knee. Egg. Omelet. World. After that, things proceeded as usually. (Those that want to know more, consult any of the several English translations of Kalevala. The Bosley translation from OUP is pretty nice.)

Then there was the main folk hero, Väinämöinen, a bearded old shaman bard slash ex-god, who yea did fashion harps (kantele) from the jawbones of pretty damn big fish, extorted wives from the sisters of foolhardy challengers, helped his friends wreck a wedding, battled an iron bird and befuddled a giant, and generally had a great time until oh he just left, but I think he’ll be back just as soon as you leave, okay? It’s kind of nice that the big folk hero is better known for being a heck of a long-bearded singer and knower and finder-out than for butchering a dragon or two.

Then again, there are no dragons in Finnish myths. Probably too cold up north for them. Or it’s them Vikings mumble mumble grumble the property values where’s my endless silence I’m just asking.

* * *

And in closing — the truth is weirder than anything I can come up with. I didn’t know this about Finnish bear-worship: apparently we believed bears had come from the sky, and did reincarnate.

Compared with Tuonela, that’s a better deal than what we Finns got, and it’s our own damn mythology.


Edit: As for the question, “Got any believers in this stuff?”, the answer’s the same as for druids and King Arthur for the Brits. Namely, a few, but they tend to be latter-day romantics.

One Response to “That Old Time Religion, in Finland”

  1. holly Says:

    sigh, this is brilliant!

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