Finland, MN

Trees in Ancient Finland: Spruce

Niina Pekantytär

Approximately a quarter of Finnish woods are spruce forests. The tallest spruce can be found from the national part of Vesijako and it is 45 meters tall. The Finnish word for spruce, kuusi is a proto-Finno- Ugric word. Pines in Finnish folklore are connected to the sun and day, whereas spruces are connected to the moon and night. Perhaps the name has something to do with the Finnish word for the moon, kuu.

Young spruce can only grow in the shadow of the older spruces and it binds the sunlight better than any other tree. In Finnish folklore, spruce is the tree of shadows and cool shade. Spruce was used to making musical instruments like kantele (Finnish traditional harp) and bells for the cows to wear. Travellers and hunters would sleep under the spruce in their journeys.

Spruces that had unusual shapes were considered to be sacred trees of Tapio, the god of forest and hunt. A spruce tree that grew wide was called Tapion kämmen, Tapio´s paw and the huntsman had to eat the first gain from the paw and leave some rabbit flesh and a goblet of vodka as a sacrifice for the god. 

Before the Christmas tree tradition spread to Scandinavia from Germany in the 16th century, there was a custom to decorate homes with green branches during Winter Solstice. The custom of decorating homes with evergreen branches is believed to have symbolized the circle of life and nature´s awakening.

Spruce is seen as a masculine tree. It is connected to wisdom, old age and the elements of fire, earth and air. Roots go deep into the ground and the top reaches the sky. 

It is connected to several forest deities Tapio (Finland) Porewit (Slavic) Baldur (Norse). In Finnish folklore, spruce is connected to the land of the death, Alinen but it was also seen as a protective tree. When a family built a hose the spirit tree in the yard, might as well have been a protective spruce tree. It was also believed that it kept ghosts and evil spirits away. 

In Finland, we had a tradition called Karsikkopuu (pruning tree). This was a tree that had been pruned/marked in order to commemorate the dead. The most common pruning tree was spruce. When a person was buried people believed that their soul was still able to roam freely and spirit could crab the tree branches and pull themselves up from the grave. All the lower branches were cut away from the pruning tree so the spirit of the deceased would not leave their grave. Marking on the tree was usually a cross that was either carved or painted. As time went on markings were turned into wooden boards where the time of death was written. The tradition started slowly vanish at the end of the 19th century. Another custom was to spread spruce branches to the cemetery roads so that the spirits would not follow the living.

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

Finland, MN

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