For the ancient Finns, everything in nature had its own invisible soul which was somehow connected to the natural phenomenon perceived by the senses. Trees, water, stones, fire, animals and plants were all controlled by guardian spirits, or ‘haltijat’ in Finnish. This was also true of some places or beings in the human domain; such as home, fireplace, cattle, and barn. They were each considered to have their own guardian spirits. Even non-concrete things like death and sleep had their own spiritual forces. Also, each human being was accompanied by a guardian spirit that helped the person to reach his goals and protected him against physical dangers and hostile spiritual forces. The word ‘haltija’ is of Germanic origin and is interpreted to mean ‘mother’ or ‘father’. In Eastern Finland nature spirits had names like ‘Mother’, ‘Father’, ‘Old Man’ and ‘Old Woman'.
These guardian spirits protected their own domains and drove away intruders and any beings with evil intentions. If a person treated the spirits with respect he could gain their protection, but bad or thoughtless behavior would result in revenge. Respected house ‘haltija’ protected the house and warned the family of any approaching dangers. If insulted, however, the spirit could burn down the house or cause other damage. Spirits were generally considered to be invisible but sometimes they appeared to people, albeit mostly in dreams. This belief in guardian spirits made people aware of the spiritual order of things. It was well understood that humans could not for instance, rule the forest, but instead they had to treat it as an equal partner. The ancient Finns lived in constant interaction with both the visible and invisible forces of nature. In order to secure luck and success in life one had to maintain a balance with the spirits.
The scholar Unto Salo argues that Ilmarinen was a hammer-using sky god and the god of thunder who evolved into a ruler of winds, the forger of the sky-dome and a smith-hero. This means that Ukko, the Finnish god of thunder, storm, rain, and snow, is no separate god but in fact the same sky god as Ilmarinen. The name ‘Ukko’ means ‘Old Man’. In ancient times it was an honored title given by the community to older men who had gained wisdom, life experience, and a position of respect in the community. At the same time Ukko was a euphemism which was used in order to avoid saying the real name of the thunder god. The Sami people famously refused to recite the name of the god during thunder storms until as recently as the 19th century.
The Finnish bishop Mikael Agricola mentions the mysterious “Rauni” in his 1551 list of ancient Finnish gods. Agricola’s Rauni seems to be connected to Ukko. Since Rauni is not mentioned anywhere else in the folklore, the character has understandably caused lively debate among scholars over the years. The most common interpretation has been that Rauni is an ancient Finnish goddess and Ukko’s wife. This is highly problematic, not only because there are no other mentions of this word outside of Agricola’s account, but because Rauni is not even a Finnish word; the original meaning of the name has been traced to Germanic roots. One theory that has gained ground is that Rauni comes from the Germanic word ‘raudna’ meaning the rowan tree. This would make ‘rauni’ an epithet of Ukko instead of an independent god. So “Rauni Ukko” mentioned by Agricola probably means ‘Rowan Tree Ukko'.
As to whether this theory is credible, the answer is probably yes. Rowan was a sacred tree for the ancient Finns. Each house had its own rowan tree on the yard; small loops and sticks made out of rowan twigs were used to protect houses, cattle, hunter’s traps, and other items. Many mythologies associate rowan with thunderstorms, the sky god, and divine powers. In Lithuania for example, it was believed that the god of thunder does not strike a rowan tree when he is destroying evil spirits lurking on earth. There is no direct evidence linking thunder and rowan trees in Finnish tradition, but in Finland it was also believed that the sky god uses lightning strikes to destroy evil spirits hiding on earth.
Lightning and rain during thunderstorms was perceived as a sacred marriage, or ‘hieros gamos’, and which resulted in a new harvest. The union of gods fertilized the earth. In Finnish folklore there are several extant sayings and beliefs which associate thunder with sexuality. For instance, in Western Finland it was said that forest fires were caused by a nude maiden rising up from a spring and seducing the lightning to strike. Unto Salo argues that this maiden was the spirit of water. Moreover, that the sacred marriage that brought fertility to the fields was the union of these two divine beings.
The brightly shining sun and the mysterious moon play their parts in mythologies the whole world over. In Finnish mythology, the sun seems to be associated with the cycle of the year and shamanistic imagery, while the moon is associated with luck, fate and natural cycles. It is perhaps a little surprising then, how much of a role the moon plays in folk religion in comparison to that of the sun.
Uno Harva and other Finnish scholars have assumed that the ancient Finns, like numerous other nations, practiced sun worship. When we take into account the importance of the sun as a bearer of light and life and the further symbolism connected to these things, it would not be unreasonable to say that this is probably true. Unfortunately, however, information on ancient Finnish sun-worship is very scarce. Päivätär or Päivä, the sun god, is more of a mythological figure than a god to be approached in prayer. Only a few prayers to the sun have been collected, all originating in Eastern Karelia, and therefore possibly the result of Slavic influence.
In folk songs it is recounted that at the beginning of the world the celestial lights (Taivaanvalot) could not shine freely and that the world suffered periods of darkness and cold. The darkness was caused by a great oak that had grown so huge that it covered the sky with its branches. A mythic hero rose from the sea and cut down the oak, bringing light back to the world, causing flowers to bloom and the leaves of trees to turn green. Some scholars have interpreted the myth of the great oak as being a reflection of the cycle of the year; the tree is born on midsummer and grows until midwinter, when everything is shrouded in darkness. The tree is then cut and spring can return.
Ancient Finns believed that the outcome of one’s actions was directly related to the phase of the moon. By choosing the right time for some particular work one could have the best possible results. This knowledge of the effects of the moon on man’s work was highly uniform and still commonplace in Finland but a few generations ago. The moon, like any other natural phenomenon was thought to be a living, soulful, being. The moon had a birth and a death, a beginning and an end. Phases of the moon were interpreted from the sky and from using rune staves. The complete cycle of the moon was called the ‘Heavenly Moon’. One heavenly moon was the time between two new moons: approximately 29 days.
The cycle of the heavenly moon was divided into four periods, each about a week long. The time of the new moon was regarded as the birth-time for the moon. The first days following the birth were called the ‘early moon’. They were part of the upper moon (yläkuu) phase which extended over the first two periods. Each upper moon ended with the full moon, which started a lower moon (alakuu) phase, which extended over the remaining two periods. The last days before the birth of the new moon were called the ‘end moon’ or the ‘old moon’. The impact of the upper and lower moons can be summarized as follows, the upper moon grows, the lower moon destroys. The days of the upper moon were fresh, full, and of vitalizing strength. Every aspect of life in which growth was desirable was carried out during the upper moon, e.g., planting crops, getting married, counting money. Conversely, during the lower moon was the time for dealing with that which people wanted to destroy, stop growing or dry out.
Kuutar, the god of the moon, seems to be connected with human fate. In Balto-Finnic legends a heavenly maiden, the moon’s daughter, sits on the upper branches of the world tree and weaves people’s fates together. Each fate is represented by a silver thread of life. The fates are weaved together in the skies to create the complete picture of the life of the world. When the maiden accidentally snaps a thread, she begins to cry, and her tears fall down as three rivers which form three hills with three birches growing on top of each of them. At the top of each birch a cuckoo sings as a sign of fate to the person whose life thread has been snapped.
Water, like all the other natural elements, was thought to have its own spiritual force called ‘väki’. Väki was controlled, or symbolized, by the guardian water spirit which was believed to have been the first person to drown in that place. Fishermen naturally had a reciprocal relationship with this spirit. The fisherman gave offerings to the water spirit and in return was given good fishing luck. After each catch, the guardian water spirit was thanked through the offering of either money, silver, or more commonly, the first fish from the catch.
In the spring, when the lakes and rivers were freed from the ice, the first catch was a major event, and the guardian water spirit was given offerings. Sometimes the spirit appeared in the fishermen’s evening fire and future fishing luck was divined by the outward appearance of that spirit. One might anger the spirit by breaking certain taboos associated with fishing. One of these taboos is very characteristic of Finnish tradition, the need to keep different väki apart. For instance, one could not go fishing on a hunting trip because this brought the forest väki and the water väki into close contact, which “ruined” the lake.
Kaarle Krohn argued that the Finnish tradition shows no certain signs of fire-worship. As far as I know, Finnish people did not sacrifice to the fire directly. If, however, we take fire-worship to mean that the fire is considered to be a sacred, living, being, and has a central role in religious rituals, the Finns were certainly fire-worshipers. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, fire has a divine origin in Finnish mythology. Secondly, the burning and kindling of sacred fires has been a major component in many yearly feasts. Lastly, the fire was also believed to have the power of purification and to ward off evil spirits.
The story of how fire came into the world states that fire first came to existence in the heavens when Ilmarinen struck the first lightning over the primeval sea. As previously mentioned, fire played a major role in the various feasts during the spring and early summer. Great bonfires were set in remote places and people gathered around them to sing, dance, and to welcome the spring. The sacred bonfires, which were kindled according to strict ritualistic rules, and by using ancient methods no longer used in everyday life, were thought to secure good harvest and cattle luck.
The main reason for setting the fires was to protect people and animals against evil spiritual forces. Sacred fire was regarded as a primeval power, of which all the hostile spirits were afraid. Especially powerful was a fire mixed with tar (called “the sweat of Väinämöinen”) and juniper. Matti Varonen claims that during the pre-Christian times, sacred fires had a dual role: to attract friendly spirits, such as nature spirits and the spirits of the ancestors, and to ward off evil spirits. When the old beliefs started to fade away, the idea of attracting good spirits was forgotten, and only the idea of driving away evil forces remained.
The land was divided into two domains: that of human land (e.g., fields, arable land and the yard), and that of natural land (e.g., forests, swamps, lakes, rivers). All these areas had their own väki and their guardian spirits. Fields and yards were guarded by male and female spirits called different names such as the ‘King Of The Land’, ‘Black Man’ and ‘Black Woman’, etc. These land spirits secured the luck in the fields and in the yard. Every time beer was brewed or something was baked, the spirits had their offerings before anyone else could eat the food or drink the beer. The land spirits also blessed the cattle with good luck. These spirits could be angered if the offerings were neglected or the people of the house did not live up to the moral standards valued by the spirits.
When a person moved to a new house the first thing he had to do when stepping inside the house was to bow to each corner, greet the land spirits, and offer them bread and salt. Whenever a new person, such as a bride, or a temporary farmhand moved into a house, the person had to give sacrifices to the land spirits and greet them with certain words. The land spirits were also often greeted outside the yard when the earth was needed for use. One example of these were the offerings made to the land spirits before a deceased person was buried, in order to make sure the they approved the final resting place. In a similar vein, hunters used to ask permission from the land spirits before they laid down for the night on their hunting trips.
The ancient Finn lived his life surrounded by forests. The forest was a source of food and tools, a place to hide when the enemy attacked, and a sacred place for praying and sacrificing. Even today many Finns feel that their souls ‘rest’ when they have a chance to visit their beloved forests. The forest was of course thought to be full of väki, and ruled by the spirits of the forest.
The main symbol for the forest’s väki was the anthill, or as it was known, the ‘Castle of the Forest’; the nest served as a symbolic pathway between the humans and the spirits. It was believed that the spirit of the forest would visit the man who sacrificed silver, liquor, or blood from his finger into the nest and hunters could tell from the outward appearance of the spirit how he felt about the man’s plans. If the spirit appeared in plain clothes and looked rude, the bounty was not going to be good. If the spirit showed up in beautiful clothes and looked benign, it was a good sign. In order to thank the forest spirit for the bounty given, part of it was sacrificed into the anthill. Giving sacrifices to the forest spirits was not only an expression of goodwill between the hunter and the forest, but also an attempt to avoid the wrath of the spirits. Angered spirits could cause the hunter to get lost in the wilderness; the insulted spirits could also steal things from the hunter.
The forest spirit was personified as Tapio, who was imagined as the wealthy patriarch of his forest mansion. The forest animals were called Tapio’s cattle, the bear was Tapio’s oxen, the fox was Tapio’s dog, the rabbit was the lamb of Tapio, etc. Certain peculiar spruce trees (Picea abies f. tabulaeformis) were thought to be sacred for Tapio and offerings were left there. Tapio also had wife called Mielikki. It should be mentioned that often the hunters imagined the forest as a woman with two sides – either as the loving and benign Mielikki, or the cold and cruel Ajattara. Some hunting prayers had clearly sexual overtones as the hunters tried to seduce the forest with the right words to provide bounty for them.
Guardian spirits in Finnish tradition were not limited to natural places, they were also thought to be found in the buildings created by humans. While the best known of these guardian spirits is that of the home, other buildings such as the barn, mill, sauna and the cattle shed were also considered to have their own spirits. It was widely believed that the person who bought the land from the spirits in order to build there, was the first person to die there, or was the first to make fire there, became the guardian spirit of the place. It can be argued that the spirits residing in the human environment were originally nature spirits whose power was somehow relocated to buildings. The mill spirits, for instance, were originally thought to be water spirits.
In Western Finland the guardian spirit of the house helped the family and ensured that moral values were adhered to. While the guardian spirit could not prevent accidents from happening, it could warn people about them in advance. Grass snakes were thought to symbolize the guardian spirit and they were fed and left to roam freely around the yard and buildings. This snake tradition is almost definitely of pre-Christian origin. The ‘Haltija Snake’, as the snakes were called, was connected to the luck and fate of the house. If the snake was treated well, the house had success and luck. If it was treated badly or even killed, the house faced terrible times.
For the ancient Finns, sauna was a sacred place to cleanse the body and spirit. As with all the other places of importance, the sauna was also guarded by a guardian spirit (‘saunanhaltija’) whose job it was to ensure all the norms and customs regarding sauna were followed properly. Sauna was at least as much of a sacred place as the church, and it was thought that when one cleanses one’s body, mind and behavior must also be purified. Sauna was also the place where women gave birth and healers did their work. People were expected to act respectfully and calmly in the sauna. When people were finished, water was poured on the stones for the spirit to enjoy the warmth of the sauna in peace.
Each field and each crop was believed to have its own spirit. The arable land was sacred to the ancient Finns as the source of nutrition and life, and if the field spirits were remembered and treated with respect, good harvest luck ensued. There were several customs regarding sowing and harvesting, which were aimed at showing proper respect to the spirits. The haltija of the field was called Pellonpekko or just Pekko (Pekka, Pikka), was probably originally the Finnish spirit of barley, and thus the spirit of beer. Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains in Finland, and probably at some point in history, the name of the spirit of this particular crop came to refer to all of the field spirits.
Where there is barley, there is always beer. In Finland beer was enjoyed as a sacred drink at feasts such as the ‘Ukon vakat’. Sacred beer consecrated with spells and mythical songs was brewed for the yearly festivities. In certain celebrations, getting drunk was almost mandatory, but the folk songs strongly condemn any kind of misuse of alcohol that would lead to arguing, fighting, and violence. The role of beer at a feast was to bring joy, laughter, and singing. Even Väinämöinen is said to have sung after drinking beer, which makes Pekko, the spirit of beer, a Finnish god of singing.