The ancient Finnish conception of the world was a layered one. The world was thought to include a flat disc-like earth that was covered over by a huge sky-dome. The dome was called the ‘lid of the sky’ (Taivaankansi) and the night sky was known as the ‘bright lid' (Kirjokansi). At the center of the sky-dome where the sky-god resided, the giant world-pole, or ‘axis mundi’, supported the dome. This pole was connected to the Pole Star, ‘Taivaannaula’ (also known as the ‘nail-star’ or ‘sky-nail’), and this connection allowed the world pole to rotate around its axis. In certain cases, the central object that was believed to support the sky and all creation was considered to be a world tree (the ‘Great Oak’) or the world mountain. Today, respected scholars identify this ‘axis mundi’ with a mysterious object from Finnish mythology, the Sampo. It is for this reason that the main theme in Finnish mythology, the fight between the cosmic gods and the forces of Pohjola for the Sampo, can be interpreted as a symbol for the eternally rotating world and the struggle between life and death, order and chaos.
The roots of ancient Finnish cosmological concepts can be found in Proto-Uralic mythology; a mythology for which the scholar V.V. Napolskikh has proposed a fascinating reconstruction. According to Napolskikh the Proto-Uralic world view consisted of three different worlds or layers of reality, the upper, middle, and lower worlds.
The upper world is located in the skies and also to the south. The great birch tree (or in Finnish tradition, the giant oak) grows there. At the roots of the tree, a spring flows and marks the source of the world river. Near the tree and spring there is a warm lake, or ‘sea of life’, where water birds and human souls are renewed. In the Finnish folk religion this upper world became a warm and light world located in the south called Lintukoto (or ‘home of the birds’) and the sea of life became a body of warm water surrounding the Lintukoto. This upper world is ruled by an old woman, the ruler of all life, protectress of childbirth, motherhood and water birds. She is the sender of souls and the mother of the gods. In Finnish mythology a mysterious virgin by the name of Iro is said to have given birth to the three divine brothers at the beginning of times. In Finnish folk religion, the divine mother is the Virgin Mary (or ‘Maaria’ in Finnish) and she is remembered in songs and spells as a spiritual mother, healer, helper and protectress of motherhood.
Uralic belief states that migrating water birds are messengers of the gods that are traveling from the upper world. According to this belief these birds travel between worlds via the Milky Way, or Linnunrata (the ‘Birds’ Way’) in Finnish and in other Balto-Finnic languages. Birds such as black throated divers, geese and maybe swans were thought to carry human souls to the otherworld. The Milky Way was then seen as the heavenly version of the world river; flowing down from the upper world to the middle and lower worlds.
Beyond the middle world and to the north lies the lower world. There the world river flows into a freezing cold ocean called ‘Sarajas’ and it is in the middle of this ocean that we find the dark and cold ‘Pohjola’ (‘the Northern Place’). Sarajas was perhaps considered to be one and the same as the northern Arctic Ocean; an ocean into which many northern rivers flow and the Northern Lights were said to glow near the gates of Pohjola. For all intents and purposes, Pohjola is located both in the north and under the flat earth. According to certain folk songs, from Pohjola the world river runs into a wide bottomless abyss, and eventually into the land of the dead.
In the Finnish folk religion this land of the dead, called either Manala or Tuonela, is also located in the center of a cold ocean; giving the appearance that Pohjola and the underworld are one and the same thing. When the Finnish healer, or ‘tietäjä’, fell into a trance, his soul faring to the underworld to gain information from the souls of deceased legendary shamans was said to fall through a slit (Lovi). The word ‘Lovi’ is probably a synonym for Louhi, the matron of Pohjola. If this is the case both ‘Lovi’ or ‘Louhi’ would signify a hole in the ground which can be used as a pathway to the land of the dead, or as it may also be known, Pohjola.
In some folk songs the world mountain is said to rise up from Pohjola and reach all the way up to the sky-dome and the Pole Star. This world mountain is called ‘Stone Hill’ or ‘Pain Hill’ and in healing spells, pain that is exorcised from the patient, returns to this mountain. The mountain rising up from the land of the dead and up to the skies signifies a place in which all pain and suffering is gone and the world is as one. The world mountain motif is well-known from the cosmologies of several nations.
In the underworld everything is backwards when compared to the human world. Left is right, up is down and so forth. There the world river turns around and becomes ‘Tuonen Joki’, the river of the land of the dead. In this form the river flows from north to south and upwards again towards the upper world. In the heavens it returns to the spring at the roots of the birch tree. From there it flows down through the skies once more as a world river. This is the eternal cycle of life.