Finnish Paganism

Finnish Paganism

Finnish paganism was the indigenous pagan religion in present-day Finland and Karelia prior to Christianization. Finnish paganism shows many similarities with the neighboring cultures which practiced Germanic, Norse and Baltic paganism. However, it has some distinct differences due to the Finno-Ugric and Balto-Finnic culture of the region. Finnish paganism was the product of a syncretism between contrasting periods in time. It incorporated aspects of stone-age Europe, as well as the later Indo-European beliefsFact|date=February 2007.

Religion and tradition have long been a combination of Christianity and older paganism: both the Christian Trinity and Finnish deities as well as tutelaries were subject to worship. The pagan religion did not merely address the supernatural, but was directed at ordinary and daily matters as well. It was not a clearly demarcated area of life like the Christian religion that replaced it. Often it is difficult to draw a line between pagan and otherwise mythical beliefs. A small local house tutelary, an ancient mythical hero, an ancestral spirit, and an essential god could be appealed to or worshipped alike.

Finnish neopaganism is a modern attempt to revive this religion.

Gods and spirits

Several deities, tutelaries, and spirits were part of Finnish paganism. Each deity was worshipped differently, based on chronological and spatial context. For example, Ukko, the Greater God — who later transcended into the Overgod — was known probably everywhere in Finland. A corresponding figure is known amongst other Scandinavian, Sami and Baltic religions. An apparently significant, but nowadays only poorly known spirit is Jumi, whose name is related to "Jumala", the Finnish word for God.

Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen, who are better known as mythical heroes, have also been objects of worship. Ilmarinen is probably related to the deity Inmar. Other important deities included nature spirits who controlled various environments and elements. The greatest of these were also called "kings". The king of water was often called Ahti, and the king of the forest was Tapio. Additionally there were plenty of other water and forest tutelaries. Successful hunt of game, bouts of good weather, and luck in fishing were often asked of the spirits through prayer and sacrifice. Emuus, the ancestral mothers of various animal species, helped in hunting.

Tutelaries of property

:"main article: Haltija"Communities like villages and counties had their own local tutelaries, haltijas, who were worshipped in sacred groves, holy stones and holy trees. Everybody in the community was entitled to take part in worship rituals.

The haltija was usually a spirit-like creature that could take many forms, like human or animal. Haltijas could be either male or female.

Families, buildings, land property and agricultural areas all had their own haltijas. Their task was to protect and give wealth and fertility. The "maan haltija", literally "tutelary of land" (or tonttu) was the protector and caregiver of a certain house, its yard, its plantation and its domestic animals. Some houses had a female maan haltija so that cows were taken good care of. Some houses had a male maan haltija, so horses maintained good health. Some houses had a couple of haltijas, to make both horses and cows thrive.

Maan haltija and other haltijas of the household needed sacrifices, like food or silver flakes, to keep happy and helpful. Unsatisfied haltijas could cause great harm. The place to make sacrifices for haltijas of the household was usually a holy tree or a holy stone close to the house in its yard.

Normally people could see a maan haltija or its apparition only occasionally. Seeing the apparition of haltija meant usually that an accident or misfortune was coming. If the apparition of haltija had bad clothes or if he/she looked angry, then that meant that people had offended them, and that they would cause an accident or misfortune. In that case, people believed that they should compensate immediately by sacrificing at a holy place nearby, to reduce the degree of misfortune. If the apparition had good clothes and looked happy, then they were there just to warn the people about the accident.

Sometimes haltijas of certain families and farms acted against other families and their farms, usually neighbours. Haltijas could steal the wealth of another farm, or make their animals or ground infertile. It was believed that they could move stones which marked the border between properties to make their own property bigger. Sometimes haltijas of different families fought against each other. Then noise could be heard, the earth trembled and the water of small ponds surged.

It was thought that many local haltijas were originally sacred spirits of ancestors. In some cases a haltija was the first inhabitant of house. Sometimes while making a new house a local spirit of nature could be "employed" to work as a maan haltija.

Personal haltijas of people

Every individual usually had their own personal protective haltija, in some cases more than one. Haltijas came to a human when they had their name or first teeth. Before that, a baby was very vulnerable to supernatural threats like the evil eye. In the worst cases, a baby was changed to a changeling by an evil spirit,maahinen.

Personal protecting haltijas were known as luonto, or literally "nature". People with strong luonto had great abilities in both natural and supernatural circumstances. People with poor luonto had weak abilities. The success of a person depended very much on how strong their luonto was. Luonto was thought of as a part of a person's soul.

Animism and concept of väki

:"main article: Haltija, see also:Kami"

Finnish paganism was largely animistic. Besides the great spirits and gods there existed many smaller spirits.

Different elements and environments had their own haltijas. Haltijas were gouped in types or races called "väki". For example, the väki of water lived in the water, in the forest lived the väki of forest and in the graveyard lived the väki of death. Väki referred to the spiritual force of the physical nature.

Elements like water, ground and forest were believed to be full of their väki, so there were spirits everywhere. Väkis guarded their environments and could attach to people who came to their areas. Sometimes väkis caused illnesses when they attached to their victims. For example, if someone got sick while swimming, the sickness was believed to have been caused by a väki of water that had attached to them. Väkis could become angry if people acted in a disrespectful manner in their area. For example, cursing close to water made the väki of water angry. When angry, väkis could cause diseases more often. Some väkis were always angry, like the väki of fire, explaining why every time you touch fire it hurts you, no matter how respectful you are around it.

There was believed to be a cosmic balance of sorts. Certain väkis belonged to certain environments and if they were misplaced, problems occurred. For example most väkis were misplaced if they attached to a human being, and they made the human being ill because they were in the wrong place. Illnesses were removed by sending väkis back to their right places. Shamans who cured diseases were returning the cosmic balance.

According to the concept of väki being divided in two (into power and folk of haltijas) the ancient Finns believed that the world was totally animistic in that no force of nature or intelligent life existed without väkis or haltijas. In other words, nothing happened in the universe without it being caused by a group of spirits. Even a person's soul consisted of many spirits.

Holy animals

The bear is a prominent worshiped animal in Finnish Paganism (see Bear worship). The Finns before Christian influences believed the bear to have come from the sky and have the ability to reincarnate. A celebration called "karhunpeijaiset" (literally "celebration of bear") was arranged to honor the bear, which was then sacrificed for a banquet. The belief of the bear ceremony and sacrifice was to convince the bear's soul that they were greatly respected by the people. The people presiding over the ceremony tried to make the bears soul happy so that the bear would want to reincarnate back into forest. The sacrifice was meant to continue the bears existence in the woods. Bear meat was eaten and the bones were buried. However the skull, which was believed to contain the bear's soul, was placed high on a venerated old pinetree. This tree, "kallohonka", was probably a symbol of a world tree and placing a bear skull meant sending the bear's soul back to sky, from where it had originated. From the sky, the bear would come back and reincarnate to walk the earth.

From ancient drawings, petroglyphs, we also derive that the elk was a very important animal. It appears much more than bears do, and it is theorised that the bear was such a holy animal that it was forbidden to depict it. Also bears name was almost forbidden to say, so many euphemisms were developed. The most usual Finnish word for bear in modern language, "karhu", is just one of the many euphemisms, and it actually means rough fur. Amongst the many names of bear "otso" is probably the original "real" name. This is suggested by the wide spread of word otso and related words amongst many of the Finno-Ugric languages. Euphemisms for bear are local.

Many water birds were holy for Finns and other Finnic peoples. They were often depicted on petroglyphs. It was believed that if you killed a water bird, you died soon after. The holiest water bird was the swan. With its long neck, it could look to all the levels of the world, including "Tuonela", the land of the dead. Birds are found often in Finnic mythology. For example, there are many stories about a bird creating the world. In many traditions it was believed that the world was created by the egg of a bird. In other traditions it was believed that the world was created on mud that bird took in its beak while diving.

In Karelia it was believed that a bird brings the soul to a newborn baby, and that the same bird takes the soul with it when person dies. This soul-carrying bird was called "sielulintu", "soul-bird". In some traditions people carried artifacts depicting their sielulintu. Sielulintu was believed to guard their souls while they slept. After the person died, the artifact-bird was inserted to sit on the cross at the person's grave. Such crosses with soul birds still exist in graveyards in Karelia. This is one example how Christian and Pagan beliefs still existed side by side hundreds of years after the Chistianization of the Finnish and Karelian people.

Many souls

It is thought that the ancient Finns believed that the soul was composed of many different parts that were quite autonomous spirit beings.

The "personality" of a person was one of the beings that composed the human soul. It was the closest thing to the "soul" of Christianity and modern thinking. Sometimes this being was called "itse". (Today "itse" has a different meaning as the noun for "self" in the Finnish language.) However, more often "itse" was believed to be a shadow-soul, parallel to one's self, but a different being. This means that usually "me" and "self" were understood as different beings. Itse could be seen as etiäinen, a Finnish doppelgänger.

The soul could leave the human and leave the body alive. Epilepsy, unconsciousness and paralysis were understood as cases where soul left the human. The soul could come back and the person would be healed, but it could also leave permanently, leaving the individual in a serious condition. If the soul was lost, a shaman could try to locate the soul in the spirit world and bring it back. Perhaps it was believed that the soul could also leave the body for a purpose, such as if the shaman needed to travel the spirit world.

Henki, that could be translated to life, breath or spirit, was the power of life of a human being, like "stamina". Presence of henki in a body caused breath, blood circulation and body warmth. Without henki a person was dead. Human could live without a personal soul but not without henki.


Christianity did not extinguish all the old ideas about the death for hundreds of years. Old ideas remained in the side of Christian ones in Karelia even to beginning of 20th century.

In some traditions, it was a habit to pause at a half-way point while transporting the dead body from the dwelling to the graveyard. Here a marking, karsikko, was made on a big pine tree. The marking was for people to remember the person. It was also believed that the person's ghost could try to return to its home from the graveyard, but when it saw its own karsikko-marking, the ghost would realise that (s)he is dead and gave up, and perhaps understand to go to land of dead where dead people belong. A forest with karsikko-marked trees was a kind of supernatural barrier between dwellings of living and a graveyard.

After a person died there was a transitional period from 30 to 40 days long while his/her soul searched Tuonela, the land of dead and his/her place there. At this time, the soul could visit its living relatives either as ghost or in the form of an animal. The soul visited relatives especially if he/she was unhappy. One way to make the soul happy was to sacrifice and not speak bad about him/her. After the transitional period, the soul moved permanently in to Tuonela. However, the soul could still come back if she/he were unhappy, or if he/she were asked to return by his/her relatives who needed help. Some souls were not able to settle down or were not welcomed in Tuonela, and they continued haunting. Bastard children who were killed and buried outside a cemetery usually ended up as permanent haunters of some place. They could scream in a terrible way until someone dug up their body, blessed it and buried it in a graveyard.

People were afraid of ghosts, but spirits of ancestors could also help his/her living relatives, and they were asked to help. A shaman could be sent to Tuonela to ask for knowledge of spirits or even to take a spirit to the world of living as luonto. A Spirit of the dead had to be honoured by giving him/her sacrifices. Places where sacrifices were given to ancestors were called Hiisi. Christianity made hiisi to mean evil creatures and places.

Spirits of dead were worshiped amongst the christian saints in Karelia.


:"Main article: Tuonela"The land of the dead in Finnish mythology is Tuonela or Manala. In most traditions tuonela existed underground or under the bottom of lake. It could also exist at the other side of a dark river. Tuonela was a dark and lifeless place, where the dead were in a state of eternal sleep. Shamans were sometimes able to reach the spirits of their dead ancestors by traveling to Tuonela in a state of trance created by rituals. He had to make his way over the Tuonela river by tricking the ferryman. While in Tuonela, the shaman had to be careful not to get caught. The living were not welcome in Tuonela. Shamans who were caught could end up decaying in the stomach of a giant pikefish with no hope of returning to normal life. If the shaman died during the trance ritual, it was believed that he got caught by the Tuonela guards.


The oldest layers of Finnish paganism are probably shamanistic. A Shaman is a wise and respected person, believed to have a special relationship with the spirit world. Shamans go into a trance to commune with spirits and ancestors or to take a journey into the spirit realm. In trances shamans may ask their ancestors or various nature spirits for guidance. They believe that nature has the answers to all questions.

According to tales, foreign seafarers bought from Finns ropes tied in knots. By opening the knot a bit, a seaman could raise a wind to make his ship go faster. However, opening it too fast would raise a storm. Finnish wizards were known and feared by neighbouring peoples around the Baltic Sea.

The Finns' Norse neighbors traditionally considered Finns to all be wizards to some extent, versed in dealing with spirits. In the Norse sagas, inclusion of a Finnish element almost always signifies a supernatural aspect to the story. However "Finn" in some Norse sagas could also mean Lapps and not the Finns. Finns were also called Kvens.

See also

* Finnish mythology
* Finnic deities
* Jumala
* Finnish neopaganism

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