Finnish Religions

views updated


FINNISH RELIGIONS . The scope of what is covered by the phrase Finnish religion(s) varies according to the different meanings of Finn, Finnish, and Finland geographically, linguistically, and historically.

Finland is, with Iceland, the world's most northerly country. Its location on the Gulf Stream allows for the economic diversity that supports its population, which has been quite small throughout history and totaled around 5.2 million in 2004.

Despite the fact that Finland is less Arctic than parallel territories in Russia, Canada, and the United States, being only partly under permafrost, the north is crucial in the religions of the Sami (ca. 8,000 in Finland) and Finns, the two indigenous peoples of Northern Europe. The Latin word fenni, first found in Tacitus's Germania (98 ce), comes from Germanic speakers who defined their northern and eastern neighbors as Finns. Tacitus describes barbarian people somewhere in the northeastern Baltic region, living "in unparalleled squalor and poverty." As the nomadic fenni lifestyle differed from that of the Germanic peoples, who lived a more settled existence, the term Finn might have referred to the way of life these people followed. Thus, the word fenni may have encompassed the ancestors of both Finnish and Sami speakers, who shared a common "Lapp" nomadic way of life. Old Norse sagas and chronicles by Saxo Grammaticus and Adam von Bremen make a distinction between two types of Finns, those who were settled down and the nomads known as Scridfinni.

The word Finn (Finnish, suomalainen ) means citizen of Finland, an independent country since 1917. Despite joining the European Union in 1995, increased international activity, and a trend toward multiculturalism, Finland today is more monocultural than a century ago; the 2004 census reveals a population that is over 90 percent Finnish (suomi), around 6 percent Swedish, and 0.5 percent Russian. Finland has older immigrant populations, such as Rom, Tatar Moslems, and Jews, and since the 1990s approximately 100,000 immigrants speaking more than 100 languages have arrived.

Recent development have brought new diversity to the religious life of Finland, which now has a population of around 20,000 Muslims, but the general picture has remained as monotonous as in other Nordic countries, with Evangelical Lutheranism serving as the state church and "ethnoreligion." Loyalty to the established church is characteristic of Finnish civil religion; the five main revivalist movements have remained within the Lutheran Church. Despite a certain loosening of the situation following the freedom of religion law of 2002, the position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, to which around 85 percent of Finns belong, is strong. The position of the Orthodox Church of Finland, which is an independent national church with four bishops, is stronger than its 1.2 percent membership would suggest, due to Finland's long history of Karelian roots.

Historically, the concept of Finland is newer and less complicated than that of the Finn. From the Middle Ages, Finland (proper) was one of the three to seven provinces of the Kingdom of Sweden. It became a state in 1809 when, as a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, it was granted autonomy, with Helsinki as the new capital. This autonomy favored nation-building ambitions that had been impossible during Finland's long history of Swedish control. The resultant nineteenth-century nation-building process was fed by Finland's notion of the uniqueness of its history, by the celebration of the epics in the Kalevala, and by nationalist identification with the Finnish (suomi) language.

A new Finnish self-esteem expressed by the historian Yrjö Koskinen (18301903) was based on the notion of language as the property shared by Finnish-related peoples in Russia; Finland, Koskinen wrote, stepped "into the light of history quite late because of the country's extremely peripheral location beside the sea of the Russian peoples." Identification with national roots was strengthened by research. Matthias Alexander Castrén's fieldwork among the Finno-Ugric peoples during the 1840s became the cornerstone of Finno-Ugristics. At the same time, a scientific study of the paradigmatic forms of Finnish religion was initiated.

Castrén's fieldwork stressed Finnish nationalism over Finno-Ugric identity. Castrén returned from his second expedition in 1849, after Lönnrot published his longer version of the Kalevala, the (New) Kalevala, which became recognized as the only proper version of the Finnish epic. It soon replaced the (Old) Kalevala of 1835, which in 1841 had been translated into Swedish by Castrén. The influence of Romanticism and a surge of nationalism inspired by the French Revolution of 1848 led to a completely new interpretation of the Kalevala.

The Old Kalevala had been compiled by Lönnrot as a compendium of Finnish myths and was intended to replace and expand upon the Mythologia Fennica (1789) of Christfried Ganander. The New Kalevala was declared to be the sacred history of the Finns, in a foreshadowing of the later Finnicized National Romanticism. A new historical interpretation of the Kalevala projected on to it a linear conception of time tied to the development of Christianity. In this rereading, Kalevala' s history began with biblical creation and ended with the voluntary death of its hero, Väinämöinen, after he had been humiliated by the son of Marjatta, the Virgin Marythe son being none other than Jesus Christ, who now replaced the old hero. Thus, the pre-Christian Finnish worldview was displaced by the faith of the new era. In spite of the consequent linear structure of the epic, the shamanic, cyclic worldview of the rune singers, with its circulation of life and death, is found in the single runes of the Kalevala and in the oral poetry that inspired it.

In the new conceptualization of the Kalevala, the frightening land of Pohjola, the Northern Land, became the Underworld. In the preface of the New Kalevala by Lönnrot, its plot was explained as the war between "us," the Finns and the Karelians, and "them" in the North, the Lapps in Pohjola. This war of two related peoples filled the social need for a narrative of the heroic Finnish past, following the model of the Viking Age war epic. The war culminated in the robbery of the Sampo from Pohjola, from out of the hands of the evil Lapps. The singing competition of two shamans, Väinämöinen and Joukahainen, was reinterpreted as the battle between "our" noita who, of course, was mightier than that of the Lapps. The theory was even advanced that the Sami (Lapps) had no epic poetry, and that Anders Fjellner's narrative The Son of the Sun's Courting Journey to the Land of the Giants (1849) was inauthentic. Research in the 1990s has shown that this theory is false; there is indeed a Sami style of epic shamanic juoiggat.

The profound changes in the interpretation of the Kalevala are related to Romantic nationalist ambitions, which got the upper hand in Lönnrot's work. Lönnrot himself played an active role in the process of transforming the Kalevala into a nationalist symbol. For the new Finnish political establishment, the Kalevala became the symbol of a Finnish national religion, expressed in paintings, music, solemn national holidays, and so on.

The discipline of folklore was established under the sway of this nationalistic spirit, and did not achieve true academic acceptance until the 1960s. Uno Harva (formerly Holmberg), Martti Haavio, and Lauri Honko are the three Finnish scholars who did the most to establish comparative religion as a serious field of study in Finnish universities. Harva and Haavio both had broad expertise on Finnish folk belief and traditional oral genres. As Honko wrote in Haavio's 1973 obituary: "Folkloristics and comparative religion were always intertwined in Martti Haavio's scholarly work" (Temenos 9, p. 148). Harva, Haavio, Honko, and others emphasize the power of words in Finnish religion, at first recognized by Domenico Comparetti, an Italian scholar of the Kalevala. The general perspective of the Finnish phenomenology of religion school is regionally Finnishor Finno-Ugric. Broad phenomenological comparisons over space and time are made between Finnish words and Finno-Ugric myths; at the same time, parallels are drawn with elements of other religious systems, placing Finnish myths into the framework of global religious traditions.

Finnish cosmology includes elements typical of the symbolic structures shared by northern cultures in general. The region inhabited by humans was regarded as an island surrounded by a stream. Above earth stood the mighty vault of the heavens, the celestial sphere around the Polar Star as its cosmic column, surrounded by Orion, the Great Bear, and Perseus. The cosmic mountain is located in the center of the universe, and is its pillar. The cosmos was divided into three zones: the upper world, the human middle world, and the underworld. This tripartite structure of the universe is one of the oldest north Eurasian folk beliefs. The role of the shaman is to act as a mediator between the three levels of the universe. The kingdom of the dead (Finnish, Tuonela ) is sometimes thought of as being in the Northern (Pohjola) village, with its iron gate and powerful female figures, such as Louhi, mistress of Pohjola. Another conception is that of the nether world, with its underworld inhabitants (manalaise), or vainajat, the spirits of the ancestors.

Source Materials

The first evidence concerning Finnish religions is archaeological, such as the graves indicating ancestor worship and the approximately one hundred pictograph fields dating from between 4500 and 500 bce. A new interpretation of these pictographs is provided by Juha Pentikäinen and Timo Miettinen in their Pyhän merkkejä kivessä (2002); the joint study of an archaeologist and a scholar of religion, this book deciphers the hidden messages painted or carved on rocks, and analyzes them in relation to shamanic systems of thought and oral poetry.

Mythologia Fennica, published in 1785 by Christfried Ganander, Vicar of Rantsila (17411790), was the pioneering study of comparative mythology in Finland. It consisted of a dictionary of Finnish and Lapp sacred and historical vocabulary, accompanied by oral poetry transcriptions and mythology texts. Typically enough, it was concerned with the mythology of both the Finns and the Lapps.

Fragments of Lappish Mythology, published by Lars Levi Laestadius (18001861), is a reconstruction of folk beliefs. An important distinction is made between the religious and cultural knowledge of the average person (today defined as collective tradition) and the esoteric secret wisdom of the experts, called noaidis ("shamans") in Sami. Laestadius strongly criticizes the nature mythology of Carl Axel Gottlund, a contemporary scholar who did his fieldwork among the Forest Finns throughout Scandinavia.

See Also

Castrén, Matthias Alexander; Donner, Kai; Finno-Ugric Religions; Haavio, Martti; Harva, Uno; Honko, Lauri; Laestadius, Lars Levi; Reguly, Antal; Shamanism; Tuonela.


Alho, Olli, et al., eds. Finland: A Cultural Encyclopedia. Finnish Literature Society editions no. 684. Helsinki, 1987.

Haavio, Martti. Väinämöinen, Eternal Sage. Translated by Helen Goldthwait-Väänänen. Helsinki, 1952.

Haavio, Martti. Essais folkloriques. Edited by Lauri Honko. Studia Fennica no. 8. Helsinki, 1959.

Haavio, Martti. Suomalainen mytologia. Porvoo, Finland, 1967.

Haavio, Martti. Mitologia fi'nska. Preface by Jerzy Litwiniuk. Warsaw, 1979.

Kuusi, Matti, Keith Bosley, and Michael Branch, eds. Finnish Folk Poetry: Epic: An Anthology in Finnish and English. Helsinki, 1977.

Laestadius, L. L. Fragments of Lappish Mythology. Edited by Juha Pentikäinen. Beaverton, Ontario, 2002.

Oinas, Felix J. Studies in Finnic Folklore: Homage to the Kalevala. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran toimituksia no. 387. Mänttä, Finland, 1985.

Pentikäinen, Juha. Oral Repertoire and World View: An Anthropological Study of Marina Takalo's Life History. Folklore Fellows' Communications no. 219. Helsinki, 1987.

Pentikäinen, Juha. Kalevala Mythology. Translated and edited by Ritva Poom. Folklore Studies in Translation series. Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989.

Pentikäinen, Juha. "Northern Ethnography: On the Foundations of a New Paradigm." In Styles and Positions, edited by Heikki Pesonen, et al. Comparative Religion no. 8. Helsinki, 2002.

Vilkuna, Asko. Das Verhalten der Finnen in "heiligen" (pyhä) Situationen. Folklore Fellows' Communications no. 164. Helsinki, 1956.

Juha PentikÄinen (2005)