Short Introduction to Finnish Mythology

Tiina Laine

Illustration of the view of the world according to Finnish mythology by Tiina Laine


As a child my grandmother used to warn us about the well on grandparents’ yard. She told us not to lift the well cover, or we might be caught by Kinkanokka. This well-dweller was just one of the many haltija, a being that Finnish people believed the world to be full of. They were also called väki, a term that in modern times has the meaning of ‘people’, ‘crowd’ or ‘folk’, but which used to also contain the meaning of a ‘power’ or ‘energy’ emitted by the living and non-living nature. When Finnish witches called upon metsänväki in their chants, they were not only calling for help from the creatures living in the forest but the energy of the forest itself.

The old Finnish beliefs and practices were passed on through an oral tradition of songs and poems. These used a poetic metre called kalevalamitta and were usually repeated three (the number of man/male) or nine times (three times three) when used for chants, healing and prayer. The songs and practices were different between the eastern and western Finnish people and in Northern-Finland the culture and beliefs were also influenced by the Sami and the Scandinavians, an example being the belief in trolls.

As Christianity spread further up north the old traditions started to disappear or they were demonised in to practices of paganism. Ever since the 17th century the old sacrificial places were destroyed, like the seita (stone altar) of the Sami or the pitämyspuu (altar tree) of the Finnish. In the worst cases whole forests were cut down. The old traditions started to disappear quicker in Western-Finland but in the east they were still practiced well into the modern times, especially among the Karelians. In some places the new Christian belief was integrated into the old tradition, for example, by replacing the haltija with the saints in songs.

The first researchers of the old Finnish tradition were Swedish and German and their researches were also published in these languages. One of the first studies written in Finnish was a list of Tavastian and Karelian gods written by Mikael Agricola in 1551, which has the judgemental tone of the Christian clergy. In 1835 Elias Lönnrot published Vanha Kalevala, a book which was replaced in 1849 by Uusi Kalevala, a book now known as Finland’s national epic Kalevala. Though Lönnrot used the old Finno-Karelian poems as his reference while writing, he was als heavily influenced by the epics and mythologies of other cultures, which is the most clear in the creation myth described in Kalevala.

Researching the original Finnish beliefs and traditions is difficult, since there are hardly no other sources besides the poems. Though there are publishings of these poems and the world they describe, they are mostly written either in Finnish or Swedish. As such, it is difficult for a person unfamiliar with there languages to delve into the Finnish tradition.

In this article I have strived to give an outline of the Finnish worldview in the old times. I wrote this mainly to those who have not studied this topic before. Though I give a short example of how the old Finnish viewed the world, the main focus is the belief in different haltija. In my opinion this is something that should be understood first, since the worship of haltija and the dead has been so strongly present in the lifes of the Finnish even after the introduction of Christianity. Tidiness, courtesy, all in all good manners and diligence were seen as things that kept the haltija pleased and benevolent. These values have been strongly etched into Finnish culture and can be seen even today, for example in the Finnish work ethic.

The world

One of the original creation myths of the Finnish is thought to be the so-called “diver myth”, which is shared among most North-Eurasian cultures and North-American indigenous people. The outline is usually that the world is covered in water under which the creator god orders their assistant (waterfowl or a god in shape of one) to gather clay to create land. In most stories the assistant gets greedy and tries to steal some of the clay, only to end up spitting it out as it starts to swell in their mouth, thus creating the uneven landscapes such as islands and mountains. Influenced by the southern cultures Finnish and some Sami myths also incorporated the “egg myth”, according which the world was created from egg shards. This version also appears in Kalevala, in which an Aythya-bird lays an egg on the knee of the goddess Ilmatar.

The original Finnish tradition saw the world divided in three; ylinen (above the sky), alinen (beneath the earth) and keskinen (beneath the sky, above the earth). Besides the diver myth the Finnish and other Finno-Ugric people believed to world to have been created through “sky forging”. The sky was seen as an overturned iron cauldron or lid, in the centre of which was a nail or peg, the North Star, around which the rest of the sky circled. In most Finno-Ugric languages the name of the North Star means ‘nail star or ‘peg star’ and even the old Finnish the star was called naulatähti (‘nail star’) instead of pohjantähti (‘north star’). The sky itself is still sometimes called taivaankansi (‘sky lid’) or kirjokansi (‘speckled lid’). In most stories the blacksmith of the sky goes unnamed, but the White Sea Karelian poems call them Ilmarinen. In some Finnish beliefs, most likely through influence of other cultures, the centre of the world is seen as (world) pillar, tree or mountain, atop which the North Star situated.

Beneath the sty was an island or island surrounded by the sea. Far up north the sea rushed into the black Tuonela river, which the dead had to cross in order to get to Tuonela (also known as Manala, Pohjola, Pimentola), the land of the dead. In the “world mountain” tradition the dead had to cross the world mountain itself, which would become steeper the more sins the person had committed during their life. In this belief we can already see the Christian influence. In Tuonela was the “ever village” or “cold village” in which the dead lived the same way they had on earth. Though Tuonela was “up north” it was also seen to situate vertically “underground” (Manala = maan alla ‘beneath earth’, Pohjola = pohjalla ‘at the bottom’). Even the underground waters were believed to have flown from or to Tuonela. This can be seen in the old Finnish riddle; “Tuonelassa tuoppi tehty, täällä vantehet valetut?” (‘In Tuonela the pint/drink is made, in here the rims were cast?’). The answer to this is the well.

On the opposite side of Tuonela far in south-south-west was Lintukoto (‘home of birds’, also known as Lintukotola). Just like Tuonela was seen to have situated both “up north” and “beneath” Lintukoto was also “down south” and “above”. To this eversummer island the birds were believed to have migrated every autumn by following the Milkyway (linnunrata ‘bird way’). The island was inhabited by the dwarf-like people who were called lintukotolainen, kerikansa or ääreläinen. The latter term came from the fact that they lived on the edge of the world (äärellä ‘on the edge’, ‘beside’) where the sky curved towards the sea. Since the ääreläinen lived so close to the sky, they could influence its events and even walk on the other side of the “sky lid”. According to the North Ingrian Finns the ääreläis women would lift their spinning wheels on the sky every night. As the Finnish worldview widened and travel became more common, Lintukoto became a common way to refer to the tropical countries.

Haltija and maahinen

The old Finnish belief system didn’t have “gods” but the would was shared alongside humans by beings who extended more power over it. These beings were called haltija (hallita ‘to control’, ‘to rule over’) and as their name implied, they controlled some aspect of the world such as some forest area or an animal. Since humans were dependant on their benevolence in order to hunt, fish and grow food, the haltija needed to be kept in good mood through rituals and sacrifices, the most favoured of which were the milk and blood. The haltija could also be called upon for help and advice. The haltija can be divided into those inside the domain of humans and to those outside this domain (forests, lakes etc.). Those living within the human domain had their appointed living and sacrificial quarters, while those living in the “wild” were seen as more mobile. The haltija were also associated with the dead, especially the ancient, already forgotten ancestors of humans.

Besides the haltija humans also shared their domain with beings called the maahinen. Like their name suggests, they lived underground (maa ‘earth’, ‘ground’, ‘land’) and they especially liked to live under the doorstep of the external door. Though they were closely related to the haltija, the maahinen didn’t have as much power over the world and its inhabitants. They valued routines and tidiness and expected the same from humans, who needed to act courteously towards the maahinen, since once angered they could cause accidents and diseases that usually manifested as different skin ailments. The maahinen were also the so called vanha väki (‘old folk’, ‘old people’) who had existed long before humans. As such, they had the right to the land and its usage. Getting the maahinen to give their permission for new houses used to be an important ritual.

Though the maahinen usually appeared as small humans they also had the ability to shapeshift into different animals, plants and objects. In Finland Proper the most common appearance for the maahinen was believed to be the grass snake (Natrix natrix). Since the grass snakes could often be found inside cowsheds where they hunted rodents they were believed to have taken care of and protect the cattle. Killing a grass snake lead to the cattle’s death. Many households had their own “home snakes” who were fed with cow milk and carried inside people’s sleeves and pockets. Many snakes even got to eat at the same table as the people.

In Savo and Karelia frogs were tended to instead of snakes but all around Finland the maahinen could take many different animal forms. The most common ones were different insect larvae, lizards, weasels, cats and some rodents. Basically, any “wild” animal that took human domain as their living space might’ve been a maahinen or even a haltija in disguise, meaning that it needed to be treated with respect. The most common animal affiliated with both the maahinen and the haltija was the ant, especially Formica rufa. Anthills, which were also called forest castles, were used as sacrificial altars to which people offered milk, food, silver, brass and even blood.

The maahinen weren’t always the easiest neighbours. Often they were believed to switch children with changelings. In the world of the maahinen children were kept in high regard and seen as status symbols while the old people were seen as mere burden. Because of this the maahis parents would often charm their old father or mother to look like a human child and switch them with the original. The maahinen would get a child to boost their status while their parent would get to enjoy the attention and care of humans. However, the changelings were weak, sickly and otherwise difficult to take care of so parents dried to protect their children through different methods, like carving protective charms into the cradles or placing iron or silver near the child. As Christianity spread wider different Christian symbols and objects also became protective charms.

Outside the house the maahinen could cause metsänpeitto (‘covered by the forest’, also known as maanpeitto ‘covered by the earth’) in which a human or animal would get lost in their world. The world of the maahinen was underground where everything was the opposite of the human world; right was lef, up was down. This made it hard for one to find their way back home. There were different methods to save oneself from metsänpeitto, like turning all clothes inside out and walking backwards. One also needed to avoid drinking or eating in the world of the maahinen.

Those on the outside could call for the person or animal taken by the maahinen through different chants or rituals, the most common of which was the “tying”. Usually this meant tying or otherwise caging an ant or other animal affiliated with the maahinen. The idea was that since the maahinen had taken something belonging to the humans, the humans took something belonging to the maahinen. Sometimes if a cow was taken people would capture the “cow of the ant”, the Aphid. If the lost person or animal was found, the captured animal needed to be set free. The tied animal could only be kept captive three days at most, during which time it shouldn’t die. If the missing person or animal did not return within the time limit, it meant that the maahinen were not responsible for the disappearance and their own should be returned.

Illustration of the domesticated snake by Tiina Laine

Haltija in charge of living beings

Both humans and animals had their own haltija. For humans this was called varjohaltija (also known as varjo ‘shadow’, onni ‘luck/happiness’, lykky, säästi, luonto ‘nature’, luntio) which was a shadowy clone of the person. They were born when the mother could feel the baby kick in her belly for the first time, when the baby was three days old or when the child got their first tooth. This haltija protected their human from misfortune and illness and brought good luck in their life. Varjohaltija was strongly connected to a person’s physical and mental health and different ways of life could either strengthen or weaken them.

Varjohaltija could appear to their human to warn them of oncoming disaster but it could also appear to other people to notify of their human’s arrival. When people heard footsteps or doors being opened (nowadays even a car driving to the yard) though no one seemed to come, it was thought that someone’s varjohaltija was walking ahead of them. In Northern-Finland this phenomenon is called enne (‘premonition’) and is thought to be a sign that visitors will come in near future.

Some people could have kova (‘hard’) haltija, a haltija that was considerably stronger than normal. These types of people usually became witches or healers. A person could call upon their own haltija for help by chanting the words of haltijan nosto or luonnon nosto , which usually began with “Nouse luontoni lovesta, haon alta haltijani”.

Losing the varjohaltija led to a person becoming ill, usually mentally like depression. When a person is asleep the haltija might sometimes wander too far from their human, but a person’s haltija could also be stolen. This was usually done by the maahinen, other haltija or by the spirit’s of the dead. If a person got scared or startled in a place that had big concentration of haltija or väki, their varjohaltija could temporarily separate from their human. This made it easy for other beings to capture a person’s varjohaltija in order to strengthen their own might. A sickness caused by this kind of a “startle” was called kohtaus (‘seizure, fit, attack, episode’) and sometimes it could be so violent that it could be seen in a person’s body an uneveness of muscles and limbs. For a healer it was important to know in what kind of place person had been startled at so that they could deduce what kind of beings had been responsible. Children were especially sensitive to “startling” causing them to become ill without their haltija’s protection.

A lost varjohaltija could be summoned back through different rituals, but one could also ask help from other haltija who had more power than the thief. Hierarchyally vedenväki (haltija of water) were the strongest, since water was never created simply having been in existance forever (the saying “vesi vanhin voitehista” ‘water is the oldest of balsams’). This was followed by vuoren- or kallionväki (haltija of mountains or rocks) who were in an eternal war against the vedenväki, as can be seen in the white waters and rapids. Metsänväki (haltija of the forest) had more power than maanväki (haltija of the earth) and the maahinen. At the very bottom of the hierarchy were kalmanväki (haltija or spirits of the dead).

Besides their varjohaltija a person could obtain ottoluonto (‘taken’ haltija) not only from living beings (for example, obtaining bear’s strength by drinking its blood) but also from the non-living nature. Power of mountains could be obtained by drinking moisture gathered on the surface of rocks. Power of the rapids could be obtained by drinking the foam of white water. Naturally, this also required one to make the proper chants. Even the power of the death could be obtained by embracing a corpse. A powerful witch could have as many as nine different haltija.

Animals had a haltija called emuu (also known as emu, emä ‘animal mother’, emo). As their name suggests they were the ancestral mothers of different species who walked alongside their children as shadows to protect them. They could also appear in different forms either as males or females. In Ingria the emuu of wolves once appeared in a local tavern as a wolf-headed man. For hunters good relationship with different emuu was important, since it determined the success of hunt. The emuu could keep their children far from hunters’ traps, cause their weapons to malfunction and even directly protect their child from the bullets.

There was also a creature that a person (usually woman) could summon as their servant in order to increase their wealth. This creature was called para or paara and it was usually used to advance one’s milk economy. Para appeared in a form of a cat, frog or a bird but it could also be made from different materials, like from a stolen spindle with a ball of yarn as a head and linen as stomach. The heart was made from a stolen Holy Bread, which also brought the para to life. There are many different methods for creating a para all around Finland, but one common factor was that the materials had to be stolen.

During the night the para would sneak into the neighbouring cowsheds to suck milk from the cows. The para would then churn the milk into butter in its stomach and then defecate it into its mistress’s butter container. Sometimes the para was so full of milk that it was forced to vomit and defecate while it was returning home. Para’s stomach could even rupture. This excrement was called paranpaska (‘para shit’) or paranoksennus (‘para vomit’) and it was actually a slime mould belonging to the Aethalium family. The butter that the para created was usually much whiter than normal and it would even bleed blood when cut with certain metals or if one were to make the mark of a cross on it. The bleeding was because the para sucked the cow’s blood along its milk.

Since para’s sucking could cause a cow to completely lose its ability to produce milk, para was not a welcome guest. The para was connected to its mistress and hurting or killing it was also the fate of its creator/summoner. By beating either para or its milk people tried to get its mistress to come forth.

Besides the milk and butter para there were also grain and money para. In Western-Finland there was a money para called piritus or piritys. It was in a shape of a beetle, bee, larva or some other insect, closed in a box and would bring its master money, The master had to feed the piritys every day with their spit or blood. According to the stories from Pieksämäki, a piritys would appear in a place where people were hung. Thus execution sites were perfect for catching piritys.

Illustration of the domesticated ant by Tiina Laine

Haltija in charge of the domain of humans

Humans’ domain was being taken care of by kodinhaltija (haltija of home, also known as maanhaltija, haltija of earth). Sometimes they were seen as the same beings as the maahinen, to whom the necessary sacrifices were made under the house. However, kodinhaltija was more connected to the family itself rather than to the place where they lived, which can be seen in the “promise of eternal sacrifice” given to the kodinhaltija. This meant that the sacrifices had to be annual and continued through generations. Kodinhaltija was also taken with the family when they moved by taking earth or ashes from the old house and moving them to the new one.

The appearance of the kodinhaltija could tell about the future of the family. A happy haltija wearing fine clothes was a sign of riches, while one dressed in rags told of poverty. Haltja’s gender could also tell what kind of fortune would befall the family. In White Sea Karelia a female haltija meant healthy and productive cattle, while a male haltija brought good luck for hunting and taking care of horses. If a family happened to have both of them, it meant for a well balanced household. However, it was commonly believed that a haltija would take upon the person’s image who was the first one to make fire in the new house, place the foundation stone or who was the first one to die in the house. In case of the latter, the haltija was also referred to as kotikummitus (‘home ghost’).

The preferred resting places for the haltija were the centre fireplace and the attic. In Western-Finland the kodinhaltija had their own rooms where the sacrifices were placed and where people were not allowed to reside. Some haltija even had their own beds. A haltija without their own room would wander around restlessly, thus interrupting people’s sleep. Usually a kodinhaltija had their own sacred tree, pitämyspuu, on the yard, to which the sacrifices were brought. The type of the tree didn’t matter, though rowan trees were the most common. A pitämyspuu was found by spending one night at the site of the new house. In a dream the haltija would appear to inform the seeper, which tree they chose as their own. Cutting down or otherwise harming the tree was forbidden and even when the sacrificial practice itself was forgotten, most pitämyspuu are still preserved.

The duty of the kodinhaltija was to protect the family and the animals it owned from misfortune and illness, as well as to bring the family good fortune. They could also do concrete chores like clean, wash dishes or feed the animals. Many stories tell of the kodinhaltija appearing in front of lonely children in the form of their parent to calm the child down and to comfort them. The reason for this could be that lonely children were more prone to get scared and startled, thus losing their varjohaltija. Since kodinhaltija’s duty was to protect the family, new members such as in-laws had to be introduced to them as soon as possible, so that they would also enter the haltija’s protection.

One of the most well-known types of kodinhaltija was tonttu, which is also known in Sweden. Like the kodinhaltija, tonttu would also protect the people and animals, but they were more connected to the building itself than to the family owning it. Every building had its own kind of tonttu who took care of the building and the activities connected to it (home tonttu, drying barn tonttu, stable tonttu, sauna tonttu etc.). Unlike the kodinhaltija, the tonttu were able to move from an old building to the new one on their own.

The tonttu loved diligence, tidiness and routines and were happy to help a family who followed these ideals. A lazy or misbehaving family were quick to ire their tonttu who would show their displeasure by making a racket, moving objects and other kinds of “haunting”. If this wasn’t enough to get the family to change their ways, tonttu would physically appear in front of them as a small man or woman to tell about their discontent. In the worst case scenario, a tonttu could actually move away taking part of people’s protection and luck with them.

Sometimes the tonttu could appear in front of humans for other reasons than discontent. Most stories tell about the tonttu saving humans from different accidents, like waking up the family when there’s a fire. Sometimes they simply wanted to chat with humans. In Finland stories of the kodinhaltija and tonttu have been, and in places still are, so common that people don’t really question their existence.

Haltija in charge of the domain removed of humans

Outside the human domain lived haltija who were older and more powerful than others. They had different names in different parts of Finland, but commonly they are referred to by the environment they inhabited; vedenhaltija (water), vuorenhaltija (mountain), metsänhaltija (forest) and maanhaltija (earth), though the latter one means the kodinhaltija and maahinen, who lived inside the human domain (humans being the ones to shape earth). Often they were simply called väki.

These luonnonhaltija (luonto ‘nature’) were several and they were very mobile. Since one could never be sure where the haltija resided they didn’t have appointed sacrificial places or times. These sacrifices were done during fishing and hunting, usually by giving a portion of the catch to the haltija. The “altars” were anthills, Tapion pöytä (‘Tapio’s table’, a young spruce with a flat top), cup stones and other unusual natural formations. The haltija needed to be acknowledged and kept content, since they were the ones to protect humans walking inside their domain from accidents and predators. Loud noises, cursing and untidiness was forbidden. The luonnonhaltija could also be called upon for help in healing or to strengthen a person mentally and physically for upcoming challenges. Since they were one of the oldest and wisest beings, they could also be consulted for advice.

Since they represented the unpredictable nature, the luonnonhaltija could also be dangerous. Like the maahinen, the metsänhaltija could also cause metsänpeitto, though in their case people weren’t spirited away to another world, but simply charmed to walk in circles. The person was also invisible and mute to their searchers. Some metsänhaltija appeared by the hunters’ campfires as metsänneito (‘forest maiden’), who looked like beautiful long-haired women, but with their backsides being hard and rough like spruce bark. For that reason they never turned their backs when dealing with humans. An appearance by a metsänneito predicted good hunting, so they needed to be treated with respect. Sometimes these maidens could even seduce hunters. Christianity condemned the metsänneito and people started to take their appearance as a sign of danger. Getting involved with metsänneito also became a criminal offence.

If angered, the vedenhaltija could drown people, but some would periodically select humans as sacrifices to themselves. In many parts of Finland there are stories where at times there would be a call from the lake or sea, “Aika kuluu, vaan ei kuulu miestä!” (‘Time flies but the man doesn’t arrive!’). The person hearing this was selected as the next sacrifice and they would drown in the near future. Even if this person tried to protect themself by staying away from water, they would still be caught while washing their face or drinking water.

The most dangerous vedenhaltija was Näkki, who is also known in Sweden. It preyed upon swimmers, which was why when people went to swim they would take a stone from the shore, throw it into water and yell “Näkki maalle, minä veteen!” (‘Näkki to the land, I to the water!’). After finishing swimming this ritual was reversed while yelling “Näkki veteen, minä maalle!” (‘Näkki to the water, I to the land!’). Iron was also believed to ward off Näkki, which was why people would tie iron flints to horses’ tails when they were taken for a swim. Näkki could also shapeshift into humans, animals or objects, whatever would make people to approach it, and it could even walk on land as far as the spring flood waters would rise.

Sometimes the haltija could need help from humans, usually from blacksmiths or other craftsmen. Haltija or their servant would lead the human to their domain to perform their task, like to the bottom of the lake to forge iron or inside the mountain to milk cows. As a reward people would getting different charmed objects, like a white shirt that always stays clean. However, they were also forbidden to ever tell others where they had gotten their reward, otherwise the object would turn back into the substance it was made of. In most stories, people disregard this warning and so the shirt gotten from a vedenhaltija turns back into seafoam.

Death and afterlife

For humans, animals and plants what makes them alive is henki (‘spirit, breath, life’, also known as itse ‘self’, elo, vaimas) which is the spiritual or life energy. It flows through everything, usually in blood and it makes the heart beat and veins thrum. Sometimes henki can be so active that it causes muscle tics (elohiiri ‘life mouse’). By drinking animal or human’s warm blood one can transfer their life energy into themself. This can also be obtained by eating organs where life energy was believed to mostly congregate, like the heart and liver.

When a human or animal died, their henki left their body in the form of a warm vapor (höyry, löyly). For this reason the door, window or a hatch needed to be opened so that the person could move on and not start haunting the house. A person’s henki could return among the living if a newborn child in the family was named after them. It was a custom to name children after the dead relatives and ancestors. A living family member or relative’s should not be given to a child, since a henki already inhabiting a body could not settle into a new one, thus causing the child to die.

When a person was dead they traveled up north to Tuonela, either having to cross the world mountain or the Tuonela river. In the latter case, more common belief, the person had to stand on the shore of the river and call for Tuonenneito (‘maiden of Tuoni’), the daughter of Death, to bring a boat or ferry for crossing. Sometimes the dead had to call so loud that their voice traveled all the way back to the land of the living, where it could be heard as tinnitus in the relatives’ ears. Once she arrived, Tuonenneito would ask a series of questions from the dead to make sure the reason for their crossing was death and nothing else. Once across the river, there was no way back.

Tuonela has been described as “ever village” or “cold village” where life was the same as among the living, except there was no concepts of hot or cold and no pain or sadness. It was ruled over by Tuoni, Death, who has been described as a man and as a woman, sometimes as a couple. Most descriptions of Tuonela come from old Finnish lullabies, where it was imagined as a paradise where the child would feel safe and happy under the care of Tuonenväki. When child mortality was still high these songs were sung in order to comfort a dying child and their parents. Later Christian influence made Tuonela more akin to Hell which was ruled over by a female pagan deity Louhi, the Mother of Nine Diseases.

From Tuonela people would periodically visit the world of the living as kalmanväki. Most often they made these trips when they were on their way to welcome a new member among their mist, a dying relative or friend. Sometimes kalmanväki could even escort the body into its grave, which could cause problems as the cart carrying the body would suddenly get heavy or the horse would get spooked. In that case the driver or someone else needed to ask the kalmanväki to move so that the procession could continue. In Northern-Finland the kalmanväki would sometimes take the form of a spider or the emuu of spiders, which was why spiders should never be killed. Killing a spider would bring misfortune, in the worst case cause a family member’s death.

Once a year the kalmanväki would also visit their relatives for kekri, the harvest celebration that was held between Mikkelinpäivä (29.9, a day dedicated to Archangel Michael) and All Hallow’s Eve, depending on when the family was able to finish their harvest. Kalmanväki had their own feast table and even a turn in the sauna. This was made in order to thank ancestors for their hard work and to bring good harvest for the next year. In Savo people would dress as kekritär (also known as köyritär, kekrihönttönen) and go from door to door asking to be served food and drink. If they were not satisfied with the feast, they threatened to break the house’s central fireplace.

Some people had the ability to see kalmanväki. These people were referred to as näkijä (‘seer’) and the skill was usually hereditary, but could also be obtained either on purpose or by accident by being in contact with kalmanväki. Sometimes the kalmanväki themselves would punish a person by granting them the gift of seeing. By looking through different holes or cracks one could also momentarily be able to see kalmanväki. If näkijä happened to come upon kalmanväki on their way to welcome new member, they should move aside and give room for the dead. People lacking the ability could walk in peace, but even they could detect the presence of kalmanväki from the smell of death or from their whispering “pois sokiain tieltä, pois sokiain tieltä” (‘out of the way of the blind’) or “sokijalle sijaa, sokijalle sijaa” (‘make way for the bling’).

People tended to avoid being too much in contact with the kalmanväki since from all the väki it was the most susceptible to stick (as an energy) on humans, animals and things. Once there was enough kalmanväki the dead would think that the person or thing was one of them and would try to bring them with them to Tuonela. Kalmanväki was often used in different curses, like taking soil from a cemetary and putting it in a place where the hated person often walked. In due time kalmanväki would stick to this person and cause them to die from an illness or accident.

As the Lutheran belief spread throughout Finland people were introduced to the concept of Judgement Day and the thought that people waited inside their graves for the Rapture. Since the dead no longer traveled to Tuonela and were thus stuck in the world of the living, people started to think that the dead didn’t necessarily always realise that they were dead. Kalmanväki changed into kirkonväki (kirkko ‘church’) which was far more susceptible to wandering among the living. For this reason it became a tradition to stop on the way to the cemetery to carve the dead person’s initials and day of death or burial on a tree, stone or board called karsikko. When the person would eventually rise from their grave and start the journey home, they would see the karsikko on their way and realise they were dead. This would make the person return to their grave. This was one way to prevent possible hauntings. The kirkonväki were also known for having their own sermons in the church during night.

Since the kirkonväki was prone to wandering and the graves were targeted by grave robbers, there needed to be someone to make sure that this harmful väki did not spread around or was used for sinister purposes. In many ways, kirkonhaltija (haltija of the church) was much like the kodinhaltija, as they too needed to borrow the form of a human, in this case the first person’s to be buried in the cemetery or under the church (when it was still common practice). The gender or age of this person didn’t matter, though in Keuruu it was believed that kirkonhaltija taking on the form of a child was more powerful. Kirkonhaltija was called by the name of the person whose image they took, but as time went by this name was usually forgotten.

The duty of the kirkonhaltija was to make sure that the kirkonväki stayed inside the churchyard or cemetery and to protect the graves from robbers and vandalism. Like all the other haltija it could also be called upon for help and advice, though people usually avoided dealing with this haltija because of the power they represented. Conversing with the kirkonhaltija had its own rules, which needed to be followed or one could raise the anger of a horde of dead. Kirkonhaltija’s borrowed form could also cause problems. In Alatornio there was s kirkonhaltija who could only speak Swedish, since the first person to be buried in the cemetery was a Swede. In Halsua the first buried had been a child who had never learned to speak, so the kirkonhaltija was also unable to communicate vocally.

Other creatures protecting the graves were the menninkäinen and keiju (‘fairy, fay’, also known as keijukainen) who were spirits of those who died a long time ago. Unlike the kirkonhaltija they were much more childish and mischievous and often had fun by scaring people walking near the cemeteries or even by picking them up and carrying them around.

Finnish “gods”

Since there were hundreds of haltija and they were all individuals, there weren’t really any common names besides the ones describing a haltija’s type. Sometimes a family could give their kodinhaltija or tonttu a name, or people might refer to one well known veden- or metsänhaltija by name, like Kinkanokka in my grandparents’ well. However, in some cases people have resorted to the help of one specific haltija so often that the haltija has actually become well known throughout a wide area, even becoming more powerful, so much so that they have been seen as the ruler of the other haltija, almost a deity. In Agricola’s list of gods there were four haltija that were specifically connected to all the forests and waters; the Tavastian Tapio and Ahti and the Karelian Hiisi and Veden emä.

Originally the terms tapio and hiisi meant (sacred) ‘forest’, but in time they became individuals, the most powerful metsänhaltija who ruled over all the forests of the world. Both have been depicted in feminine and masculine forms, though nowadays Tapio is a common Finnish male name. Hiisi was also the emuu of wolves and bears, the most powerful animals, and got to suffer the most during Christianity’s reform as Hiisi was demonised into a devil-like being. Like Tapio, Ahti is also now a male name, but its old meaning was ‘sea’. Veden emä, on the other hand, was the emuu of all water life. In the western coast of Finland the haltija of winds and seafaring was Ilmarinen, who even had sacrificial boats dedicated to them in the old churches.

Alla around Finland there was one haltija who was seen above everyone else, so much so that he could be called the supreme god; Ukkonen (‘thunder’) or Ukko (‘old man’) who was also called Pitkänen (‘long/tall person’) and Äijä (‘old man’). He was a very versatile haltija who was called upon for many different tasks from healing to help in childbirth. In springtime people would take part in ukon vakka, a drinking party in honor of Ukko, the purpose of which was to pray for rain for the freshly sowed fields. However, these celebrations were outlawed in the 17th century. Interestingly, as Christianity became more widespread many of the Christian God’s traits started to be associated with Ukko, who became sort of a mix of the old and new faiths.

In many regions of Finland Ukko was depicted as an old man who drove his horse cart across the sky lid, the wheels or the horses’ hoofs striking lightning. In a chant from Impilahti Ukko is said to wear blue clothes and cape, while in Savo he’s been told to wear “fiery fur” (lighting). As his weapon Ukko uses an ancient stone-axe which was called many names; ukkosen vaaja (Western-Finland), ukkosen vavia (South Ostrobothnia), ukkosen nalkki (Finland Proper east, South-Western-Tavastia), ukon taltta (North Karelia, Russian border) and ukkosen/ukon naula (Tavastia, Uusimaa east). It has also been called ukon nuoli (arrow) and ukonkynsi (nail/claw). With his weapon Ukko hunted down creatures who were believed to cause misfortune and harm. During a thunderstorm these creatures would often take shelter inside trees, houses or even people’s clothes. To avoid being struck down by Ukko alongside his prey, people needed to stay indoors and place iron tools or weapons outside the house to keep these creatures away.


This article only scratches the surface of the old Finnish tradition and mythology. Because of time and other restrictions I have left out many interesting details and stories like the aarnihaltija (will-o-the-wisp), different emuu and many beliefs affiliated with child’s death. I also didn’t further introduce the Finnish witch and healer cultures, which were the ones to mostly utilise help from different haltija, or the Finnish sauna where rituals from birth to death were practiced. Hunting and fishing also had their own rituals and laws in order to keep the emuu content and provide humans with their children. There are even stories of humans marrying and producing children with the haltija.

I hope that this article has given some insight to the Finnish mythology and through it to the Finnish culture. As has come clear, the old folk valued courtesy, respect and good manners, things that have been drilled into my head both at home and school. Of course nowadays these things aren’t taught in order to keep the haltija happy, but to respect our environment and other beings living in it.


Ganander, Christfrid: “Mythologia Fennica”, 1741-1790, re-published by SKS, 1984

Harva, Uno: “Suomalaisten muinaisusko”, WSOY, 1948, re-published by SKS, 2018

Krohn, Julius: “Kertomuksia Suomen historiasta”, Salakirjat, 1877

Lehikoinen, Heikki: “Tuo hiisi hirviäsi – Metsästyksen kulttuurihistoria Suomessa”, Teos, 2007

Lehikoinen, Heikki: “Katkera manalan kannu – Kuoleman kulttuurihistoria Suomessa”, Teos, 2011

Mäkinen, Kirsti: “Kruunupäinen käärme ja muita Suomen kansan tarinoita”, Otava, 2012

Ojanen, Eero: “Suomen myyttiset eläimet”, Minerva, 2019

Pulkkinen, Risto: “Suomalainen kansanusko – Samaaneista saunatonttuihin”, Gaudeamus, 2014

Ranta, Elina & Ranta, Maija: “Haltijoitten mailla, maahisten majoissa – Maan, metsän, veden ja vuoren väki”, WSOY, 1996

Timonen, Eija & Kurkinen, Maileena: “Vedenhaltijat”, SKS, 1988

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