Ritva Kovalainen and Sanni Seppo
A description of Finnish myths associated with trees and forests.
'Tree People' provides a comprehensive picture of the traditional beliefs of our ancestors concerning trees and forests and of the remnants of this tradition that Finns still carry within them. 'Tree People' describes what trees can offer people besides game animals and utility articles or raw material for industry.
The roots of our relationship to the forest extend far back into a mythical era when our woods were still inhabited by spirits of many kinds. At that time the religious centres of communities were sacred groves, where people gathered to maintain contact with the great gods of nature. People revered the forest gods by sharing a part of their catch with the woods at Tapio's Table. In the yard of almost every house or farm was a sacrificial tree to which people's destinies were tied. Through the tree, contact was maintained with the deceased and the guardian spirits. Offerings were made to it, and it was asked for help in curing illnesses.
With the arrival of Christianity, the systematic destruction of sacred groves began. It is said that the priests' most important tool was the axe. But sacrificial trees are still standing, and there are still a few of the bear's skull pines which were an essential element of the bear myths and bear-killing rites. And there still exist quite a number of 'karsikkos', trees bearing crosses and initials and intended to ward off the restlessly wandering souls of the dead.
Contents of 'Tree People' by chapter
1. The World Tree myth -- In the midst of Paradise He planted the Tree of Life
The legend of the World Tree is a myth that occurs in many different versions in various cultures. It describes a time long ago when gods and humans lived together, and the breaking of this link.
2. The sacred grove -- Neither gold nor marble; merely trembling trees under a naked sky
Sacred groves -- 'hiisis' -- were the communal cult sites of local communities. On the orders of the Church, they were destroyed during the 13th-19th centuries. The word 'hiisi' later came to mean 'devil', 'hell'. Place names beginning with the element 'hiisi' often point to old cultic sites.
3. The forest is a boundary
The Finnish word 'metsä' -- forest -- originally meant a place far away: an edge or boundary. It was the shimmering, dark rim of the forest beyond the familiar domestic sphere, a strange realm extending endlessly in all directions, with its own laws and its forces that did not bend to the human will. Crossing the boundary was an event that required preparatory rituals. The various kinds of spirits were instruments of communication between humans and the forest.
4. The bear, the sky and the pine
In the myths of the Finns and related peoples, the bear is the king of the forest and the ancestral father. A slain bear had to be helped back to its celestial home by putting the skull in a pine tree dedicated to the bear. Place names with an initial element such as 'Otso-', 'Ohen-', 'Kouko-' or 'Karhu-' point to the sites of bear rituals.
5. The karsikko
The making of a 'karsikko' -- the carving of a cross on a tree -- was a method of ensuring that the departed did not return from the Beyond. The tradition dates from the Christian era and is still practised in a few places.
6. Good-luck tree, custom tree, sacred tree, yard-tree
In the yard of almost every house there used to be a sacrificial tree. It formed a link with past generations, and the family's destiny was also intertwined with it. The Church's orders to destroy sacred groves also extended to sacred yard-trees; but despite this, offerings were still made to trees in this century, and some of these trees are still standing in Finland -- and especially in Estonia.
7. My soul is the thick forest
Finnish prose and poetry stresses the value of unspoiled forests as a reservoir of spiritual energy. The forest reflects feelings of fear and security. It is seen as bringing out people's deepest, largely unconscious wishes. Intensive forestry has diminished the forest's protective characteristics. It has been blamed for the destruction of a lost paradise.
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