Animals In Finnish Folklore

Niina Pekantytär

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Elementals

The world view of the people that lived in ancient Finland in pre-written times was animistic. They believed that everything in nature had its own soul and spirit. Animals were part of nature and they all had their own soul and spirit living inside them as well. Agriculture arrived at what is now known as Finland about 7000 years ago but even after its arrival fishing and hunting remained an important part of the culture. One of the most common elements in old Finnish folk belief was the connection to elements; earth, fire, air, and water. Especially elements of water and the earth were essential because they were closest to humans. Invisible spirits, animals, and plants were divided to represent different elements. The role of the animals was important and they often appear in Finnish folk songs and folk magic.

Väki

​In the Finnish ancient pagan world view, väki is a common concept. Väki is the power and energy that flows through every living being. Each element had its own väki. Men and women had their own väki. Forest had its own väki. Fire, iron and the dead all possessed väki. Väki of the animals was especially strong because their väki was always connected to their living environment.

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Bear

​Bears were the most worshipped animals in ancient Finland. In some areas, bears were even considered gods. In Eastern Finland, there was a belief that the bear was the sacred ancestor of the clan so eating bear meat was forbidden. In western Finland bear hunting was common and bear meat was considered a real treat. There is lots of archaeological evidence of bear cult and bear worship found in Finland. The bear was considered to be both a mythical ancestor and a manifestation of the forest. Huntress goddess Mielikki and her husband forest god Tapio both had the ability to shapeshift themselves into bears.

Spider

​When a child dropped their first teeth those teeth were put into the oven and left as a sacrifice for the spider. It was believed that the spider would bring new teeth rautahammas ”iron teeth” for the child. Passed away relatives could appear in the form of a spider.

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Wild Deer

​Deers were connected to the power of the forest. A person who had eaten deer´s brains would see constant nightmares of dark creatures of the forest.

Frog

​In the oldest layer of Finnish folklore, frogs were believed to be ancient water spirits. Väki of water was considered to be extremely powerful therefore frogs and fish were often used in spells. In the Middle Ages frogs (and lizards) were demonized by the Catholic church and there was lots of superstitions and suspicions connected to them. Folk poems of the time describe frogs as spirits of children that were given birth in secret and we're left to marches to die by their mothers.

Cat

​In Finnish folklore, cats were protector spirits of buildings and cats were often kept as pets because they killed rodents. Witch hunts arrived in Finland and Sweden rather late compared to the rest of Europe and in Finland cats never had a reputation of being witch´s pets so there never was massive cat burnings in Finland like there was in many other parts of Europe. In Finnish mythology, the cat was created in the sauna by tonttu (elf). It was believed that tonttu could shapeshift themselves into animals and take the form of a white cat. On some occasions, white cats were believed to be spirits of passed away relatives.

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Horse

​Horses had an important role in the agrarian society. The first horse was called Iku-Tihku and it was made by the trolls inside a mountain. Iku-Tihku was made of fire and ice and it was a shamanic traveller. Ancient Finnish tribes believed that the world was made of different levels. Ylinen was the upper world where the highest of the spirits lived. Keskinen the Middle world where animals, humans and elemental deities lived and Alinen the underworld, place of the dead. Iku-Tihku could only visit the Middle world during the wintertime because it would melt away in the summer. Trolls used Iku-Tihku as the prototype when they made other horses but they were all made of iron.

Little Birds

​Most often little birds were seen as good omens. If there was lots of little bird in the yard in the winter that would mean good crop for the next summer. Little birds were believed to be the souls of passed away children.

Butterfly

​When a person took their last breath it was believed that their soul would fly away as a butterfly.

Rabbit

​Forest rabbits are very common animals in Finland. During winter time their fur changes its colour to white to blend into the snow. In folklore, the rabbit symbolizes intuition, learning, and cleverness. They were common magicians´ familiars.

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

Finland, MN
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