The Finnish Tradition: An Introduction

March 9, 2014


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The Finnish Tradition: An Introduction

The Finnish Tradition: An Introduction
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Author:Anssi Alhonen
Date:August 5, 2014
Table of Contents

  1. World View
  2. The Cosmic Gods
  3. Haltija: ‘The Invisible Nature’
    • Ukko-Ilmarinen: the Ruler of Wind, Rain, and Thunder
    • Heavenly Bodies: the Sun and the Moon
    • Water Spirits
    • Fire Spirits
    • Land Spirits
    • Forest Spirits
    • Spirits of the House and Farm
    • Field Spirits 
  4. Emuu and Animal Beliefs
    • Beer, the Heavenly King of the Forest
  5. Sacred Places
    • Groves, Sacrificial Stones and Springs
    • Karsikko: the Tree of the Dead
    • Sacred Trees of the Forest and the Yard
  6. Luck and Rites
  7. Tietäjä: Healer, Seer and Sage
  8. Human Souls
  9. Ancestors
  10. Cycle of the Year


For every nation land is a sacred thing; for it is living on a land that gives birth to a characteristic and unique way of perceiving the world. The ancient Finns lived in a world in which the survival and continuation of life was dependent on the conditions of nature. Maintaining balance between man and nature was crucial as it was the basis on which people’s livelihoods, lifestyle, religious beliefs, and even language and morals, were developed[1].

The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the indigenous Finnish spiritual tradition. For the sake of brevity it is not possible to include all of the possible customs and beliefs. Traditions have varied substantially through time, from the Shamanism of the Stone Age, to the religious practices of later agrarian communities. There have also been additional geographical differences, for example, Western Finland was historically affected by influences from countries to the West and the South, while Eastern Finland, although retaining many archaic traditions, was influenced by the Russians and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It is not my wish to sketch a time line for the evolution of religious beliefs in Finland, nor is it my wish to present the geographical differences in great detail. This paper shall instead focus on the religious beliefs and customs of the Finnish folk religion as documented during the 18th and 19th centuries. Strictly speaking, this is not a paper on reconstructed paganism. Literary sources of pre-Christian Finnish paganism are scarce or nearly nonexistent. Therefore, in my opinion, it is probably impossible to reconstruct any kind of meaningful version of Finnish paganism by using sources outside of  those originating from the syncretist folk religion. In other words, when trying to understand traditional Finnish spirituality our main sources are the traditional songs, spells and stories which were collected by Finnish scholars in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

When studying the beliefs of my Finnish ancestors I am often surprised to see how many of the old traditions continued to be practiced even after conversion to Christianity. Christian saints were equated with the old spirits and most holidays from Christian folk tradition carried their share of customs and beliefs from pre-Christian times. The oldest medieval churches in Finland were actually built on top of old sacrificial sites[2]. The perplexing result of this being that the common folk continued to worship the original spirit of the place, but inside the new church. Court records from the 17th century indicate that people were convicted of blasphemy because they had made ‘illegal’ sacrifices inside these churches.

The ancient tradition of making communal sacrifices at these sacred sites seems to have transformed into the custom of giving donations to church officials. The donations of items such as elk antlers and bear hides were used in church decorations in a similar manner as they were probably used at sacred sites during pagan times. The old practices persisted in the guise of novel social and theological ideas, for example, in some villages it was customary to honor the bear killed during the bear feast (a tradition that perhaps dates back to the Stone Age) by playing the church bells. Another example of this, much to the dismay of church officials, was the participation of village priests at their local feasts in honor of the thunder god Ukko during the 17th century[3].

In rural areas, Christian and Pagan influences were liberally mixed, giving birth to a syncretic religion that was still very much alive in the latter part of the 19th Century, at least in the remote parts of Karelia. It is for this reason that even though literary sources for Finnish paganism are very scarce, one could argue that the ethnic religion of the Finns never truly died out but continued to live and take on new forms; even during the thousand years of official Christianity.

This presentation of indigenous Finnish religious beliefs and practices will focus on four key factors:

1. Belief in spirits that reside in nature (including those of animals).
2. The concept of ancestor spirits living in the afterlife, instead of heaven or hell.
3. The survival of Balto-Finnic myths and spells as a living oral tradition.
4. A way of life closely connected to nature based almost entirely on self-sufficient agriculture or hunting and fishing.

I have concluded that the aforementioned factors, which can be viewed independently of Christian theology and liturgy, can be considered the defining features of traditional Finnish folk religion. It is my contention that the Finnish folk faith offers a unique and holistic world view which can be understood for the most part without reference to Christian theological concepts. My main sources of information for this are the Finnish Folklore Archive and, of course, the works of leading Finnish scholars in this field.