Animal Symbolism and Superstitions of Ancient Finland
The world view of the people that lived in ancient Finland in pre-written times was animistic. They believed that everything in nature had it´s 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 it´s 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. Role of the animals was important and they often appear in Finnish folk songs and folk magic.
In Finnish ancient pagan world view, väki is a common concept. Väki is the power and energy that flows through in 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.
Snakes were widely worshipped all across ancient Finland and Baltic countries. First literal mentions of keeping pet snakes come from the 16th century. Snakes were fed with cow´s or sheep´s milk and they were considered to be protectors of houses and buildings. Harming snakes was a serious crime. Snakes were sacred animals of the earth goddess Akka. Spring Equinox was known as Matopäivä in ancient Finland, ”day of the snakes”. During Spring Equinox Akka woke up from her winter sleep and snakes woke up from hibernation. They rose from the soil and danced in her honour. During this day it was forbidden for people to do any kind of housework that would implicate to snakes.
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.
Bears were the most worshipped animals in ancient Finland. In some areas, bears were even considered as gods. In Eastern Finland, there was a belief that bear was the sacred ancestor of the clan so the eating bear meat was forbidden. In western Finland bear hunting was common and bear meat was considered as a real treat. There is lots of archaeological evidence of bear cult and bear worship found from Finland. The bear was considered to be both a mythical ancestor and manifestation of the forest. Huntress goddess Mielikki and her husband forest god Tapio both had the ability to shapeshift themselves into bears.
When a child dropped their first teeth that teeth were put into the oven and left as a sacrifice for the spider. It was believed that the spider would bring a new teeth rautahammas ”iron teeth” for the child. Passed away relatives could appear in the form of a spider.
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 fishes 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.
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 a 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´s could shapeshift themselves into animals and take forms of a white cat. In some occasions, white cats were believed to be spirits of passed away relatives.
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 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.
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 souls of passed away children.
When a person took their last breath it was believed that their soul would fly away as a butterfly.
Forest rabbits are very common animals in Finland. During winter time their fur changes its colour to white to blends into the snow. In folklore, the rabbit symbolizes intuition, learning, and cleverness. They were common magicians´ familiars.
If you enjoy reading my content, consider subscribing to my feed. Also, if you are not a Medium member and you would like to gain unlimited access to the platform, consider using my referral link right here to sign up. It’s $5 a month and you get unlimited access to my articles and many others like mine. Thanks