Water Spirits in Finnish Mythology

Niina Pekantytär

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Fear of water

Finland is a country of thousand lakes and there are lots of stories told about water spirits. These stories vary in different areas. Our ancestors in all parts of the world had valid reasons to fear water. Things like scuba diving and marine research equipment weren´t developed until the 21st century and even today there are many things we don´t know about the depths of the oceans.

In the Finnish language is there is an expression vesi vanhin voitehista, water is the oldest medicine. From very early on the healing properties of water have been acknowledged. Water can also be destructive. Storms and floods can cause lots of damage. Finnish water spirits have this dual aspect. They are not entirely bad or good. They are similar to humans.

Vedenemä The Mermaid

​Finland being a very forestry country, it is no surprise that mermaid stories and legends are not very common. Mermaids in Finnish folklore are known as merenneito (maiden of the sea) vedenneito (maiden of water) and vedenemä (mother of water). Stories about the mermaids can be mostly found from the coast of southern and western Finland.

Vedenemä was described to be an erotic character who had big breasts, long green hair and green skin. In Finnish folklore, mermaids did not have tails. They wore dresses made of seafoam. The image of a mermaid with a tail arrived in Finland as late as at the end of the 19th century together with the first children´s book illustrations (especially Hans Christian Andersen´s Little Mermaid).

All over the world mermaids are believed to seduce sailors. Finnish mermaids were no exception. With their beautiful songs and their good looks, they could cause shipwrecks but if they that the sailor was particularly good looking they might spare their life. According to the sailor's mermaids like to sit on rocks combing their long green hair.

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Utuneito

​In Finnish folklore, there was a group of ethereal water spirits. Utuneito means the mist maiden. Mist maidens were fairy-like beings who were completely made from the morning mist and water steam. During the morning twilight mist maidens gathered above lakes and ponds to sing and dance. They were graceful creatures and their songs were hauntingly beautiful.

Vedenneito means a water maiden. Vedenneito was a humanized water spirit who lived in lakes and ponds and they were the personifications of the water. If the waters would dry out from the lake or the stream vedenneito would vanish and if all the waters would flow into a river Vedenneito would flow into the river as well. Sometimes vedenneito was believed to be a spirit of a young woman who had drowned herself. Another story from Finnish mythology tells that all water spirits were sons and daughters of Finnish sea goddess Vellamo and the sea god Ahti.

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Vetehinen

​Mermaids are more common characters in the folklore of western Finland. Vetehinen belongs to the storytelling tradition of eastern Finland. It was a male water spirit, whose skin was either green, grey or blue and it looked like an old man. It had a beard made of moss and seaweed and trousers weaved from seaweed. According to some legends, Vetehinen was a man who had drowned themself.

Vetehinen is similar to the Russian water demon, Vodjanov. In Slavic stories, Vodjanov is always a malevolent spirit who is eager to drown innocent swimmers. In Finland, Vetehinen is not all bad character. In some stories, Vetehinen can favour some fishermen and tell them where all the best fishing places are. They live in the bottoms of lakes and ponds.

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Theodore Kittelsen 1904

Näkki

​Näkki is the most well-known water spirit in Finnish mythology. You can find a similar character from Sweden where it is called Näck, Nokken in Norway, The Neck in Britain and Nixen in Germany.
In Finnish folklore, Näkki was a terrible evil water demon. It lived in the deepest end of lakes, ponds and whirlpools and sometimes it lurked children under the docks. According to some description Näkki was completely made of seaweed and therefore it could never be killed in the water. In Sweden, Näck was most often described to be a handsome man. A talented violinist who seduced young women with his music. There were also stories told in Finland where näkki appeared as a young man or a woman but most often in Finnish folklore Näkki was a shapeless demon.

Back in the old day's adults told children not to go swimming too deep otherwise Näkki would catch them. Fear was real because people did not know what dangers waters hold inside them. In the past when a drowned person was pulled from the water their body was filled with black dots. These were believed to be fingerprints of näkki and proofs that näkki had killed the person.

In both the Finnish and Swedish languages, there are words derived from Näkki. The old Finnish word for seashell is näkinkenkä which literally means näkki´s shoe and the Swedish word for waterlily is näckrose näck´s rose. There was a spell that people could say before they went swimming which would keep näkki away. Magical words were Näkki maalle minä veteen, älä tule ottamaan (näkki to the land, me into the water, do not dare to take me) and when person rise up from the water they would say minä maalle, näkki veteen (me to the land, näkki back into the water).

Finnish Waterspirits video essay

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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