Finland, MN

Trees In Ancient Finland: Birch

Niina Pekantytär

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Birches are the most common deciduous trees in Finland and birch species that exist there are silver birch, downy birch and in Lapland grow dwarf birches. Birches can live up to 300 years and the highest birch can grow to be 40 meters high. Birches have been important trees for many people and several Finno-Ugric, Baltic and Slavic tribes have worshipped them. The Russian word for birch берёза (berjoza) means protection.

In Komi and Udmurt (кызьпу) languages name of the birch is connected to burnt clearing. Burnt clearing meant burning forests in order to create farmland. Occasionally too much of the forest was burned and birches were planted into these empty fields. Birch has symbolized purity, goodness, summer and warmth. The Finnish word for birch koivu is a proto Finno-Ugric word. For the Moravians, birch was the tree of life. The sap that was moving inside the tree symbolized the continuance of life and rebirth. The leaves represented ancestors and the starry sky.

In Finland birch has been an important material for building and carving objects such as wheels, dishes, cups, skis, firewood, sleighs, and handles for axes and hammers. Birchbark was multipurpose material that was used as much as we use plastic today. It was used for making backpacks, shoes, dishes, tinders and ancient Finno-Ugric people even used it as early writing paper. ​​

In Finland and in Russia birch twigs were used as wands to cast protection spells over the cattle. It was believed that cows who were protected with these ”wands” would provide milk that was as good as birch sap. A similar custom was practised in some countries in Southern Europe as well. Birch branches were connected to the arrival of summer and back in the day's homes were decorated with birch branches for mothers day and the summer solstice festival. During the summer bundles made of birch twigs were prepared for the sauna for the whole coming year. Each branch that was used in the bundle had different meanings and symbols. The Birch branch in the bundle represented goodness and good health. One of the old Finnish names for March was Mahlakuu meaning the sap month. Some people drank birch sap for refreshment after the long winter. Owners of the best sap trees might even name them. If one cut down a sap tree they could get fines or give two equal birch trees away. The sap was brewed into beer and into lemonade. It was enjoyed during dinner and also as medicine to heal bladder problems, scurvy and to heal the pain in the limbs. Clothes soaked in hot water boiled from young birch leaves were used to heal the rash and ache. Tar from birch has been used to heal toothache and burns.

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Austin Park

Birch is connected to many deities such as Germanic goddess Berchta, who was the protector of mothers and children, Venus, goddess of love and sex of the ancient Romans, Brigid, Irish goddess of fire and forgery, Thor, the Norse god of thunder. In Finnish mythology, birch is connected to luonnottaret, the nature goddesses.

Birch sap magic:
Girls washed their faces with the first sap of the spring so they would not burn themselves in the summer. They always had to taste the sap first in order for the magic to work.

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

Finland, MN
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