Guide: H1 Pagans

or Chapter III of A Guide to Finland, titled “Pagans and bears and olden gods, oh my! Finland from the dawn of time to the 12th century”

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Finns — a mixed bag of bloods east and west, with a common language — have lived in Finland for a long time, probably since the latest ice age ended some ten thousand years ago.

Finns were content living in the woods, around their ten thousand lakes, growing wheat, distilling teeth-dissolving alcohol, getting drunk on it (or getting seriously skewed by snorting powdered fly agaric, but that’s another tale entirely) and singing about their pagan gods, for a long, long time.

Drinking, one should add, is still very popular in Finland. There really isn’t much else to do during the winters, since singing about pagan gods is somehow unfashionable nowadays. (Except for heavy metal bands.)

Ah well, back to the history. The pagan history of Finland — the worship of the old gods, like Ukko the greatest of gods, the god of thunder, ylijumala or high-god (think Yahweh plus Thor), and his consort Akka — coincidentally, these names mean, in modern Finnish, something like “old chap” and “old crone”. Oh, so mighty are fallen the proud gods of yesterday!

Then there was Tapio, the slightly less great god, the god of forests and hunts, and Mielikki the slightly less malevolent than the previous divinities goddess of flowers and fowls.

There were guardian spirits and ghosts and doppelgängers; spirits for trees and forests, streams and stones; there were sacred groves and leering totem poles; there were feasts on bear-flesh, and the skulls of the said beasts nailed high on trees to appease the spirit of the great bear, the holiest of animals.

There were shamans who, after a generous helping of various alcoholic, medicinal and holy substances, flopped around and screamed, and then told long, ramblings lays of Tuonela, the dark land of Tuoni, the lord of death, beyond a cold river where hungry iron pikes swim, where the dead sleep, like, dreaming.

If the shaman was too zonked on mushrooms and booze, there would always be others willing to abuse a stringed instrument and sing a tale or two, too: how everything was made from the egg of a bird, broken because the fool of a fowl had laid it on the knee of a woman resting in a great lake. (Questioning the origin of the said fowl and lady wasn’t apparently common; since there was no CG in those days, everyone had a well-developed knack for the suspension of disbelief.)

And of course there was Väinämöinen, the arch-shaman, the great singer and knower and ladies’ man, with piercing eyes, a wrinkled brow and a ridiculously immense white beard, the hero who foiled the screeching iron birds of malevolent neighbours and sang at rude youngsters until the fetid swamp waters gobbled them up, who caused despair by hitting on girls a fraction of his age, who built traditional string instruments (kantele) from the jawbones of giant fishes, who bargained with sleeping giants for wisdom, and who — oh, the tragedy — had just left, and wasn’t expected to come back any time soon.

To put it shorter, all the good, half-drunken religiosity that existed before anyone had heard of penances and crucifixions: lots of permanently half-drunken and half-spooked savages, singing and drinking and being merry.

Thus ages passed in Finland, long uncounted and changeless years, and similar half-poetic expressions, until neighbors came a-knocking.

For — you see — Finns were, even in the beginning, cursed with the most obnoxious neighbors possible: Swedes and other Vikings in the west, and Russians in the east. Now, neither are bad people, but in the dawn of history both were loot-hungry barbarians-turned-civilized, and thus permitted to savage other barbarians just as much as they wished, oh my.

And, for Finland, the “dawn of history” comes a bit later than in other lands. Imagine the 12th century, the fag end of the Middle Ages, in the dark and cold of Northern Europe. In the west, a kingdom called Sweden has come into being, as the last Vikings hung up their horned helmets and began calling their neighbors earls and dukes. In the east, there were great churning proto-Russian kingdoms.

And in between there was a woody no-man’s-land called Finland, because, obviously, uncivilized barbarians don’t count.

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One Response to “Guide: H1 Pagans”

  1. Tal Says:

    Kiuas!! \m/ There is of course also Amorphis, who basically made their career singing about that arch-shaman Väinämöinen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QumiuG-NgQ

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