Ancient Finland

The Finno-Ugric tribes that spread into the hinterlands of Northern Europe are some of the first people to migrate into Europe.

The Ancient World of the Finnish People

Finno-Ugric Carved Wooden Figure, 12th to 13th Century

In the year of 98 AD, the famous Roman historian Tacitus wrote the most detailed early description of Fenni, a people of the north. This was probably the first reference to the Finns in recorded history. According to Tacitus, the poor and savage Fenni lived somewhere in the north-eastern Baltic region. This northern region Tacitus mentioned, was at that time already inhabited by peoples of various origin. Although Tacitus my have been referring to the Sami people, it is quite possible that even at this early date the ancestral Finns were already entering this area. The Finns are believed to be a northern branch of the ancient Finno-Ugric tribes that left central Asia during the period of great migrations. Perhaps it was in this period that the Mongol invasions split the Finns from their southern Hungarian brothers, and they managed to adapt to the extremes of their northern climate. Some scholars believe that Finns may have also assimilated with the local Sami populations creating their unique Nordic culture that thrives in one of the most northerly climates in Europe.

History of Finnish Settlement

An early woodcut depiction of Finnish warriors

The Fenni are first mentioned by Cornelius Tacitus in Germania in 97 A.D. Their location is uncertain, due to the vagueness of Tacitus’ account:”they (Venedi) overrun in their predatory excursions all the woody and mountainous tracts between the Peucini and the Fenni”. The Greco-Roman geographer Ptolemy, who produced his Geographia in ca. 150 AD, mentions a people called the Phinnoi, generally believed to be synonymous with the Fenni. He locates them in two different areas: a northern group in northern Scandia (Scandinavia), then believed to be an island; and a southern group, apparently dwelling to the East of the upper Vistula river (SE Poland). It is unclear whether the two groups were related, despite their identical name. Who were the Fenni? And when was the first human settlement established in Finland? Today many researchers believe that the Fenni can be identified with the Sami people. This old hunting culture of the north has left little trace on the archaeological record. In addition to Finland, Sami also lived and live in Norway, northern Sweden, and on Kola Peninsula. The long process, which finally led to permanent settlement of Finland, began over 10 000 years ago, when the last Ice Age came to an end. Small groups of people followed large prey animals as they migrated into Finland. The pioneers of settlement in southern Finland came from many directions, mainly from the south across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia, and from the southeast, from central Russia.

The next ancient mention of the Fenni/Finni is in the Getica of 6th-century chronicler Jordanes. In his description of the island of Scandza (Scandinavia), he mentions three groups with names similar to Ptolemy’s Phinnoi, the Screrefennae, Finnaithae and mitissimi Finni (“softest Finns”). The Screrefennae are believed to mean the “skiing Finns” and are generally identified with Ptolemy’s northern Phinnoi and today’s Sami, as there is evidence of Sami skis from 2000 BC onwards. The Finnaithae have been identified with the Finnveden of central Sweden. It is unclear who the Finni mitissimi were.

Finno-Ugric Ceramic vessels

Finno-Ugric Ceramic vessels

Tacitus was unsure whether to classify the Fenni as Germanic or Sarmatian. The vagueness of his account has left the identification of the Fenni open to a variety of theories. It has been suggested that the Romans may have used Fenni as a generic name, to denote the various non-Germanic (i.e. Balto-Slavic and Finno-Ugric) tribes of NE Europe. Against this argument is the fact that Tacitus distinguishes the Fenni from other probably non-Germanic peoples of the region, such as the Aestii and the Venedi. It has also been suggested that Tacitus’ Fenni could be the ancestors of the modern Finnish people. Juha Pentikäinen writes that Tacitus may well have been describing the Lapps or the proto Finns when referring to the Fenni, noting some archeologists have identified these people as indigenous to Scandinavia.

Another theory is that Tacitus’ Fenni and Ptolemy’s northern Phinnoi were the same people and constituted the original Sami (Lapp) people of northern Fennoscandia, making Tacitus’ description the first historical record of them. But while this may seem a plausible identification for the Phinnoi of north Scandinavia, it is dubious for Tacitus’ Fenni. Tacitus’ Fenni (and Ptolemy’s southern Phinnoi) were clearly based in continental Europe, not in the Scandinavian peninsula, and were thus outside the modern range of the Sami.[citation needed] Against this, there is some archaeological evidence that the Sami range may have been wider in antiquity.

The uncertainties have led some scholars to conclude that Tacitus’ Fenni is a meaningless label, impossible to ascribe to any particular region or ethnic group. But Tacitus appears to relate the Fenni geographically to the Peucini and the Venedi, albeit imprecisely, stating that the latter habitually raided the “forests and mountains” between the other two. He also gives a relatively detailed description of the Fenni’s lifestyle.

The earliest stage of occupation is called the Stone Age (c. 8000-1300BC). During that time tools, weapons and ornaments were made of stone or other organic materials like bone and wood. The population lived by hunting and fishing and the animals most important to them were the elk, the seal and the beaver. At the very end of the Stone Age agriculture and cattle breeding made their first appearance in Finland.

Between East and West Finland has always been a meeting place for eastern and western cultural influences and this position strengthened during the Bronze Age (c.1300-500BC). New incomers from Scandinavia reached the southwest coast of Finland and they also brought a new religion and burial customs with them. This new bronze culture from the west buried their dead people under the great stone cairns, which were built on high rocks close to the sea. The Finnish name for these cairns is Hiidenkiuas and nowadays these magnificent cairn burials still remind us of the Bronze Age.

The Elk Head found in Hirvenpaa

The Elk Head found in Hirvenpaa

However, the Stone Age way of life did not chance dramatically during the Bronze Age, and most of the population still lived by hunting and fishing. The significance of bronze implements in everyday life was quite marginal. They were mainly rare status symbols. The art of casting bronze was known especially in eastern parts of the country, but many implements were imported to Finland ready-made. Finland during the Iron Age

It was the adoption of iron manufacture, that marked the beginning of a new era in Finnish pre- history. During the Iron Age, agriculture and cattle breeding became more important and the human settlement in southern Finland became more concentrated. Individual small farms evolved into clusters and many historically known Medieval villages had their origins in the Iron Age. The waterways were still important traffic routes at this time, but an old overland Ox Road (Härkätie) from Turku to Hämeenlinna probably also dates back to this period.

The excavations of burial sites have revealed much information about the Iron Age, because costumes, jewelery and weapons were often buried with dead people. Men’s weaponry was largely imported, but the skills of Finnish smiths developed, and high-quality weapons were also produced at home. The excavation of burial sites has also enabled the reconstruction of several women’s costumes. Copies of Iron Age women’s jewelery are very popular today as well.

Recent archeological research findings prove that there has been continuous settlement in Finland since the mesolithic Suomusjärvi culture, i.e. for about 9,000 years. It is nowadays commonly agreed by linguistic researchers that a Finno-Ugric or Uralic language had spread to Finland by the time of the neolithic comb pottery period at the latest (c. 4 200-2 200 BC). During the Iron Age (c. 500 BC-400 AD) five different areas of settlement emerged, cultural elements of which can still be discerned in modern Finnish society. The most important area was the coastal region from Porvoo to Vaasa. This area, called Finland Proper, witnessed numerous cultural innovations that gave Finland her own individual character. This was the nucleus area of the Proto-Finnic language, of folk poetry in Kalevala meter, of agricultural methods, and so on. It was from these new areas of settlement that the peasant way of life spread north and east and integrated the nomadic hunting and fishing communities. Numerous layers of folklore reflect the interaction of cultural phenomena from three ecological regions: the Arctic, the Woodland and the Steppe.

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Finland's location in Eurasia

An ancient Finnish Reki, or Sled

The position of Finland as the most northerly meeting point for eastern and western European cultural influences was already established by the Bronze Age, when the Scandinavians reached the southwest coast of Finland. The hunting and fishing economy continued in the central regions, this having been the predominant way of life of the early Finno-Ugrians. Contrary to former hypotheses, the Finno-Ugric peoples probably never had a common home in the region of the Volga. They inhabited far wider areas, from the Urals to the Baltic. A nomadic way of life was a necessity imposed by their economy.

In the historical era Finland remained a crossroads for two cultures. Christianity came to Finland from two directions from the 11th century onwards. One was Karelia, which had in the Viking era been under the influence of the Byzantine-Russian Church of Novgorod. In many periods of history the province of Karelia proved significant as a cultural bridge between East and West, and also between North and South. The position of Karelia between conflicting groups was not easy in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, when Russia and Sweden were repeatedly at war. The people of Karelia were split by political, economic and religious disagreement and pushed the borders of the traditional Karelian way of life further to the east. The Greek Orthodox tradition, which had its roots in Byzantine culture, gradually became adopted as the religion of the Karelians. A sort of symbiosis developed that was quite the opposite of the western form of Christianity.

Three crusades were made to the southwestern part of Finland, in 1155, 1238 and 1293. Over the centuries a syncretistic religiousness emerged. Present day life in both eastern and western Finland displays clear relics of a pre-Christian religion. In the Orthodox region it was still known as late as about 1900 for the head of the household to execute the traditional rites immediately after the Orthodox priest had blessed a new home; the purpose of the rites was to make the guardian spirits favorably disposed towards the new inhabitants

Laplanders in front of their Hut in a 19th century lithograph

Laplanders in front of their Hut in a 19th century lithograph

Finnish rock paintings represent the philosophy of Stone and Iron Age man and his life as a hunter. The drawings on vertical rock faces reflect his world view, in which elks play a central role. Close on 70 % of the motifs in a total of 33 prehistoric rock paintings discovered in 1978 show elks and human figures. Comparison with corresponding material from north Eurasian hunting cultures indicates that the Finnish rock paintings are manifestations of animal ceremonies and the shamanistic tradition associated with them. This embraced the idea of souls in contact with one another. According to this both humans and animals had guardian spirits. These spirits were contacted in ceremonies before and after hunting. The shaman, on behalf of the community, conducted a ceremony during which he fell into a trance and became his own guardian spirit, his alter ego, then seeking the guardian spirit of the game in question. Every species of animal had its own guardian spirit, which had to be consulted by the shaman in order to ensure success in hunting. The purpose of the ceremony after the hunt was to guarantee a sufficient supply of a particular game species in the future too, by returning a game animal to the keeper of its species.

The points at which game was most easily accessible can be concluded from the location of the rock paintings, along the waterways. The paintings referred to sacred places at which it was possible to contact the keeper of a game species and to request success in the hunting of this species. Similar to these are e.g. the sacred places of the Lapps with their sacred idols. The rock paintings with elks depict the guardian spirit and the keeper of the elk. Pictures might be painted before the hunt, to guarantee success, or afterward, to guarantee future luck in hunting. The anthropomorphic figures could represent a shaman, a person capable of contacting the spirits. Other pictures, different living creatures and abstract symbols represent the shaman’s animal helpers.

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Kalevala and Ancient Finnish Mythology

A scene from the Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland

Ancient Mythology and Christian Faith Old Finnish mythology survived as oral tradition well into 19th century. Although the oral poetry goes back to the prehistoric times, it was first compiled by Elias Lönnrot in 1835, when Kalevala, the national epic of Finland, was published. Lönnrot collected the songs of unlettered folk singers and joined them into a long narrative poem, centered around cultural heroes and great magicians like Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Louhi.

The Kalevala begins with the story of Creation, which explains how the world was once created from broken eggshells. Part of the traditions inherited from Kalevala poems are from the Iron Age. These poems have preserved information about old beliefs, legends and myths. The descriptions of magic in the Kalevala have survived from an ancient time, when shamanism was an important part of Finnish tribal life.

Finland was one of the last pagan areas in Europe and Christian influences from both east and west reached the country over a thousand years ago. Orthodox Christianity from Novgorod began to spread in Karelia and in the eastern parts of the country, and Western Finland was under the influence of Roman Catholic Church. In the historical era Finland remained a crossroads for these two cultures. The efforts of the Roman Catholic Church were stronger, and by the beginning of the 14th century most of Finland were under the western form of Christianity and Swedish rule. However, the old pre-Christian beliefs continued their living in everyday life for a long time. Even in the 19th century the old gods were still worshiped in some places.

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Oral Tradition

A 19th century Saami family, living much as the early Finns did

The basis of folk material on Finnish mythology and worldview is to be found in the old Finnish poems. Inspired by the epic the Kalevala, systematic collection was carried out in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1908 and 1948 material from the archives was collected in the 33 volumes of the Ancient Songs of the Finnish People. Other folk material, either published or in the archives of the Finnish Literature Society, consists of beliefs, legends, myths, all in prose form, and the poetic genres of incantations and laments. These genres of the oral tradition contain mythological motifs, from which it can be concluded that they extend back to the Proto-Finnic era. The epic poetry has thematic correspondences with many old myths of other peoples. Of greatest significance here is a cosmogonic myth in the song of the creation of the world, in which the hero, Väinämöinen , enters the primaeval waters and then creates the cosmos from the broken pieces of an eagle’s egg. Variants of this song contain many other cosmogonic motifs such as the forming of the primeval seabed and the freeing of the sun and the moon from the belly of a fish. The demigods and heroes of the oldest myths of origins of the Proto-Finnic people were theriomorphic. In later periods of cultural development they were replaced by anthropomorphic equivalents, the most important being Väinämöinen and llmarinen. Väinämöinen is described in folklore as the patron of marriage and as a shaman who achieved his goal by ritual techniques. In llmarinen two layers of tradition are combined: the older represents him as a deity, the younger as a cultural hero, a smith who forged the firmaments.

Incantations are another rich source of Finnish mythology. At healing ceremonies the disease is diagnosed by reverting to its origins, from which all present forms are derived. The origin of convulsions, for example, is an incantation that tells in the prologue of a mighty oak tree that stretched up to heaven, masked the sun and the moon and restricted the free movement of the clouds. A woodcutter is required and sought in heaven and earth. Finally a dwarf is found who fells the tree with a single blow, and the light of heaven shines again. This myth was used in healing ceremonies because of the results of the felling: convulsions spring from the splinters that fly about as the oak falls into the sea. The oak in the prologue to the incantation symbolizes the cosmic tree, the tree of life or the column through the center of the earth.

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Literature References and Mythological Studies

The first literary source of Finnish folk religion was by the Finnish Lutheran reformer, Mikael Agricola (1508- 1557), who in 1551 published a translation of the Psalms of David. Appended to the foreword to this book is a short list of the deities worshipped by the Finns in the regions of Häme and Karelia. The list contains eleven deities from Häme under the subheading of piru, the devil and twelve Karelian gods. The Home list appears in the light of subsequent tradition to be thoroughly heterogeneous it contains cultural heroes (Väinämöinen llmarinen), the guardian of the home ( Tonttu), wealth ( Kratti), the forest (Tapio), and water (Ahti). Also included are spirits belonging to the realm of etiological tales, e.g. the ghost of a slain child (Liekkiö). There are two spirits of nature, those of the forest (Hiisi) and of water (Weden emä). The other ten deities belong to the Karelian calendar, i.e. they are actualised in the domain of a given occupational group in given situations, such as at the beginning or end of a given period of time. The deities that belonged to the pre-Christian tradition were the supreme god Ukko, his wife Rauni, and above all Kekri, whose feast was celebrated at the end of the agricultural and cattle breeding year. The seven other names on the list are of Byzantine origin, but free from their Christian connotations. They were saints of the Christian church year that had lost their original character to such an extent that Agricola took them for heathen deities.

Agricola’s list of deities was not only the most important but for two hundred years also the only literary basis for Finnish folk religion . Following Agricola it was 1766 before any new material came to light, when Henrik Gabriel Porthan, professor of rhetoric at the University of Turku, published the first volume of his work De poesi Fennica. The influence of Porthan is also recognizable in the dissertation by Kristian Lencqvist entitled De superstitions veterum Fennorum theoretics et practica of 1762, and in Kristfrid Ganander’s Mythologia Fennica of 1789. In his dictionary Ganander lists all Finnish and Lapp mythological names and concepts in alphabetical order. This work also has explanations, so it replaced Agricola’s list as the basic source of pre-Christian Finnish belief and became the most important work before the publication of the Kalevala, the masterpiece by Elias Lönnrot, in 1835.

The Kalevala can be considered from three angles. To begin with it is a portrayal of Finnish mythology through the epic poems collected by Elias Lönnrot; secondly, it represents the mythological dream of the Finnish people, and finally it is, in the compilation of Elias Lönnrot, a statement of the worldview of the Finnish people.

The Finnish cosmology contained in sources displays the symbolic structure characteristic of most northern folk cultures. The region inhabited was regarded as an island surrounded by a stream. The earth was round, and above it stood the mighty vault of the heavens. The circular stream surrounding the world was regarded as the border between the living and the dead. The idea that the dead must cross this stream in order to reach Tuonela, the kingdom of the dead, is not, however, of Finnish origin and is part of the mythical tradition of the eastern cultures. According to the belief of the northern peoples the dead cross this stream in the far north. There lies the village of Pohjola with its iron gate, on the other side of the terrible waterfall of Tuonela, which turns everything upside down. Tuonela is thus a reversal of the world of the living. Before the gates of Pohjola lies the intersection of heaven and earth. This intersection, opposite Pohjola on the south side, was the realm of the dwarf lintukotolainen (dweller in the land of birds) or taivaanääreläinen (dweller of the horizon). This was also regarded as the destination of migratory birds.

The cosmos was divided into three zones: the upper world, the middle world and the underworld. This tripartite structure is one of the oldest north Eurasian folk beliefs. The three cosmic planes were joined together by the cosmic tree, the cosmic column or the cosmic mountain located in the centre of the world. The top of the column was attached to the North Star, about which the heavens rotated. The Finns also likened the North Star to a hinge and spoke of the “heavenly hinge”, likewise the “north pin”, the “celestial keeper”, the “pole star” and the “heavenly pole”.

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Dead Ancestor Cult

The worship of dead ancestors was a fundamental part of Finnish folk religion. Its basic features were also evident in many other traditional acts, in the calendar rites, the Kekri festival celebrated on around November 1, and in the various rites of passage.

Uno Harva writes of the social role of ancestors in peasant agrarian society: “There are countless examples to prove that those who had passed on into the underworld played a particularly important role in the beliefs of the ancient Finns. The object of worship proper was not however, the dead person himself but all the dead of each individual family, whose descendants were entrusted with the sacred duty of continuing their work and fulfilling their wishes. This custom lay at the base of the ancient Finnish community. The dead were the guardians of morals, the judges of customs, and they maintained the order of society. In this respect not even the god of the upper regions could compete with them.”. The Finns conceived of the family as a unit, regardless of whether its members resided on earth or in the underworld. The vital point of burial customs was to afford the dead the rites of separation, transition and incorporation into the fellowship of the family dead, and furthermore reorganization of the remaining community.

The dead had a dual function in ancient Finnish society: they were cared for so that they would protect and watch over the prosperity of the family, but they also aroused fear, because it was accepted that they would punish anyone who neglected the rites or who did not conform with the customary norms. In former times the worship of the dead used to take place at sacrificial trees or stones. The first fruits and the first newborn cattle would be sacrificed to them as their share of the annual harvest. The sacrifice was in the nature of an obligatory offering. The family also organized the burial ceremonies and the periodic memorial festivals.

A Mari woman, form the ancestral Finno-Ugric lands in Asia

A Mari woman, form the ancestral Finno-Ugric lands in Asia

There were, however, major differences between the Lutheran and the Orthodox regions. In the Lutheran region the final departure of the dead took place at the burial on the third day after death. No memorial feasts were held.

In the Orthodox region of Karelia the old tradition of holding memorial ceremonies in the cemetery continued until the 19th century. Death was followed by a critical period, until the kuuznedäliset, the “sixweek festival”. Six weeks after the death of a pokoiniekka (a person not yet incorporated into the fellowship of the dead) the family would by night hold the “final wedding”, granting the deceased his or her new status among the nonliving members of the family. In addition there were two calendar memorial feasts. One was in spring, on the second Tuesday after Easter and was called ruadintsa. The other was called muistinsuovatta (Memorial Saturday) and took place in the autumn, on the Saturday before October 26. One special memorial feast was the piirut. This was arranged by the fami

One special group of ancestors in Finnish folk religion consisted of those who had no place at all in the community of the dead. These were called sijattomat sielut (restless souls). Their restlessness was caused by inadequate or missing rites in preparation for their journey to the land of the dead. It was believed that they haunted the house, for no fault of their own or because they were guilty.

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