Finnish folklore and the creation of Milky Way

Finns are often said to be “connected to nature”. I don’t think we are especially well rooted to nature, but maybe history and traditions have left some sort of mark on us. You see, trees and forests played a huge part in Finnish folk culture.

Sanni Seppo and Ritva Kovalainen explored the role of trees and forest in Finnish folk culture in their book Tree People (1997). Here I write about a few traditions they cover in the book.

A distant border

Sharon Blackie, a writer who has explored myths, enchantment and landscape, stresses the value of folklore saying: “It is stories that provide ways to test our hypotheses about the nature of the world, that attach us to place, to the land, to the earth. To each other, and to nonhuman others.” She also says “We have our own guiding stories, and they are deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes.”

The roots of Finns relationship with forest extend back to a mythical era. In Finnish the word forest (metsä) used to mean distant edge or border. Bit different from English, where the word forest, derived from a Latin word foris, is thought to mean out-of-doors or unenclosed open land.

The border of forest marked the kingdom of forest spirits and gods. The old Finnish nature religion was polytheistic and animistic and the forests were considered to be alive. The god of the forests was Tapio, who in Finnish national epic, Kalevala, is described as: “House-keeper of Tapio’s farmstead, housewife of Tapio’s farmstead, grey-bearded old man of the forest, golden king of the forest!”

Great Oak, World Tree, Tree of Life

Forest played a part in the creation of the wold as well.

In Finnish Folklore, in the beginning of the world, the Great Oak grew in the middle of the earth. It grew huge and blocked the sunlight and stopped clouds from moving, so it had to be cut down. When the Great Oak fell, it sprang to the sky creating Milky Way and releasing magical powers: the branches and leaves brought luck, happiness and love to people, but the splinters from the Great Oak were used to make the very first weapons.

This idea of a tree connecting us to the gods and bringing both fortune and misfortune is also present in the Sacrificial Tree tradition.

Sacrificial trees

A few hundred years ago, nearly every house used to have a sacrificial tree or a house-tree which was planted by the (first) master of the house. Those trees formed links to the deceased and the destiny of the family was interwind with them. 

If a branch fell off from the tree, death was near, if the tree fell, the family was facing a disaster. Newborn babies were taken to the tree to get the blessing from the ancestors, food was left on the foot of the tree, and the bath water was poured underneath the tree to keep spirits happy. 

The destruction of holy groves and holy trees started in 1229 when Rome gave the permission to Finnish Church to attack pagan traditions. When Sanni Seppo and Ritva Kovalainen wrote the Tree People, there were only some dozen sacrificial trees left standing in Finland.

The above text was part of one of my presentations for my master’s program some years back. It is timely now, because Sanni Seppo and Ritva Kovalainen finished their tree trilogy and the photo exhibition of the last part is currently open to the public in Helsinki.

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