View Full Version : Finnish Folklore

Friday, September 23rd, 2005, 11:14 AM
Written for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs by Juhani U. Lehtonen Professor of Ethnology, University of Helsinki, May 1993

Looked at from the heart of continental Europe, Finland is rather remote. Despite this, the Finns have been in touch with the Baltic area and European culture for thousands of years. Influences have usually come from the west, but some have come from the east, too. Many aspects of our cultural heritage have been better preserved in the outlying parts of Finland than in their areas of origin. The wealth of Finnish folk poetry is a good example of this.

National awareness was kindled in Finland in the last century. The 'building blocks' of the Finnish national identity were sought from many sources, with folklore being one of the foremost. In those days, folk poetry was still a living tradition in the areas along Finland's eastern border; old people would chant runo poems about the birth of fire and the world . Finns may have been singing those very verses even before the birth of Christ. The Viking Age introduced heroic figures such as Väinämöinen and Ilmarinen into the Finnish epic tradition.

In a spirit of nationalist fervour, people began to collect the old oral traditions, which were then compiled in the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, published in 1835.

It is now a full hundred years since the last of the Finnish runo singers died, but the tradition lives on in more modern folk songs, proverbs, riddles and stories, many of them representatives of an international tradition. Nursery rhymes for babies, for instance, may follow the Swedish pattern of "pata-cake" or the Russian pattern of "the magpie making porridge".

Yet folklore is more than old poetry. It is a combination of all the phenomena in life which are transferred from one generation to the next. During the last century, it was generally felt, all in the spirit of National Romanticism, that rural life had most accurately preserved folk traditions dating back to ancient times. Although this was only partly true, it was supported by the fact that Finland, which up to the late 19th century had been almost completely agrarian, was now shaken by what were probably the most decisive changes in its history. As a result, preserving the oral tradition was no longer enough; people turned their attention to other old and disappearing things as well, to everything from wedding customs to tools, and from costumes to buildings.

The Finnish building tradition has grown out of the use of softwood. All rural buildings and most town buildings, too, were made of logs. Thus the prevailing colour of the Finnish village until the last century was the grey of weathered logs. The villages, which usually lay in the middle of fields surrounded by forest, were small, often mere hamlets of a few farms. The farms in question consisted of groups of small log houses huddled together, since the main building, livestock shelters, outbuildings and saunas were all built separately. In sparsely populated areas such as eastern Finland, a 'village' might consist of one solitary farm on the top of a hill, commanding a spectacular view of vast forests and lakes.

Then, about a hundred years ago, as the rural population began to prosper from timber sales, they set about extending the old two room farmhouses. Extensions were added to the length of the building, or a second floor might be built. It became the fashion to paint the buildings with red ochre, in imitation of the more prestigious brick buildings. Red houses are still integral to the 'ideal Finnish landscape'.

The village, however small, was always the scene of social interaction and local customs. Since fields and cattle were the source of the people's livelihood, merely complemented by what forest and lake could provide, the rhythm of life was shaped by farm work. Spring sowing, watching crops grow and harvesting occupied the lives of farmers from spring to autumn. The harvest had to be sufficient to keep both people and animals alive through the long, dark winter of the North. Annual festivities and weddings provided pleasant breaks in the seasons' work, and they were duly celebrated by the entire village with music and home brew. Ordinary Sundays, too, broke the daily routine, as everyone gathered at the church. As the countryside was so sparsely populated, people had to travel long distances to get to church. In summer, the people in the Finnish lakelands would row to church in long rowing boats that could carry dozens of people. On the way back, there would be a wild boat race.

The church green was a bright spectacle, with all the parishioners dressed in their Sunday best, catching up on the latest news before the service began. From the 18th century onwards, women wore bright striped skirts and red or blue jackets. Men wore waistcoats with red stripes and yellow chamois trousers This traditional dress fell into disuse in the 19th century, but it lives on in the Finnish national costume, which is still worn, particularly at festivities in the summer.

The old rural traditions have also attained a new lease of life in textiles and festive foods not to mention souvenirs.

The question of what is distinctive and particularly Finnish about our folklore has often been raised. There are many possible answers, such as the unique treasures of folk poetry, the five string kantele, the smoke sauna, the brown malted porridge mämmi eaten at Easter, birchbark shoes and rucksacks. Such specialities helped create the national identity, and are still considered romantic or even exotic by Finns today. Yet the truly unique character of our heritage is not apparent from isolated phenomena or curiosities, but is to be found in the way the old, local traditions have found their place among a constant stream of international innovations.

Source (http://virtual.finland.fi/)