The pagan Finnish belief about the soul of a human was different from that of most other cultures across the world, in that they believed the human soul to be composed of three different parts: henki, luonto and itse. Each of the three were autonomous beings on their own.
Henki (translated as “life”, “breath” or “spirit”, sometimes also referred to as “löyly”) was a person’s life force, which presented itself as breathing, the beating of one’s heart and the warmth of their body. Henki was received prior to birth and it left at the moment of death. The word “hengetön” (lit. “one without henki”) can be used as a synonym for dead in the Finnish language even now.
Luonto (translated as “nature”) was a guardian spirit or protector. Luonto has also been referred to as the haltija of a person. A strong willed, artistic or otherwise talented person was believed to have a strong haltija who granted them good luck and skills to complete their tasks well. A weak luonto could be strengthened by various spells and rituals. Luonto could leave a person’s body without the person dying, but its lengthened absence would cause problems, such as alcoholism and other addictions. Unlike henki, luonto was not received prior to birth but instead either at the time of getting the first teeth or being given a name. A newborn child was thus considered to be particularly vulnerable.
Itse was a spirit received at the time of birth or a few days after. It was believed to define one’s personality and receiving itse made one a person. In modern day Finnish the word “itse” means “self”, but in old days itse was different from one’s self, “minuus”. Like luonto, itse could leave one’s body without the person dying but long absence would cause illnesses and misery. Depressions, for instance, was seen as a result of having lost one’s itse. If a person was diagnosed to be “itsetön” or “luonnoton” (without one’s itse or without one’s luonto), a shaman or a sage could try locating the missing part of the soul and bring it back. Although itse and luonto were usually lost after a traumatising event, it was possible to purposefully separate one’s itse from their body. This was requiered if a missing part of the soul needed to be found. Itse could also leave the body to appear as an “etiäinen” (a sort of false arrival apparition). At the time of a person’s death their itse joined the other deceased of the family or, in some cases, stayed amongst the living as a ghost.
In some traditions, it was a habit to pause at a half-way point while transporting the dead body, from the dwelling to the graveyard. Here, a karsikko-marking was made on a big pine tree. The marking was for people to remember the person; and in the event that the spirit were to awaken and try to make its way back home from the graveyard, it would see its own karsikko-marking, then realize that it is dead and instead try to find the path to the spirit realm. A forest with karsikko-marked trees was a kind of supernatural barrier between dwellings of the living and the burial grounds.
After a person died there was a transitional period of thirty to forty days while their soul searched Tuonela, the land of dead, and tried to find their place there. During this period, the soul could visit its living relatives either as a ghost or in the form of an animal.
The soul visited relatives especially if it was unhappy. To please an unhappy soul, one would show respect by not speaking ill of the deceased or by having a sacrifice in the spirit’s name.
After this transitional period, the soul moved permanently in to Tuonela. However, the soul could still come back if it were unhappy, or if it were asked to return by its relatives who needed help.
Some souls were not able to settle down or were not welcomed in Tuonela, and they continued haunting, i.e. bastard children who were killed and buried outside a cemetery usually ended up as permanent haunters of some place, typically screaming in terror, until someone digs up their bodies, blesses them, and buries them in a graveyard.
People were afraid of ghosts, but spirits of ancestors could also help his/her living relatives, and they were asked to help. A shaman could be sent to Tuonela to ask for knowledge of spirits or even to take a spirit to the world of living as luonto. A Spirit of the dead had to be honoured by giving him/her sacrifices. Places where sacrifices were given to ancestors were called Hiisi ( = sacred forest, also a kind of open air temple, often included the Offering-stone, uhrikivi, collective monument for the dead of the family). Christianity held hiisi to be evil creatures and places. The old sacred places were often desecrated by being used as the building sites for the churches of the new religion, and the old sacred trees were hacked down.
Main article: Tuonela
The Finns believed in a place of afterlife called Tuonela, or sometimes Manala. In most traditions it was situated underground or at the bottom of a lake, though sometimes it was said to exist on the other side of a dark river. Tuonela was ruled over by the god Tuoni, and his wife, the goddess Tuonetar.
Tuonela was a dark and lifeless place, where the dead were in a state of eternal sleep. Shamans were sometimes able to reach the spirits of their dead ancestors by traveling to Tuonela in a state of trance created by rituals. He had to make his way over the Tuonela river by tricking the ferryman. While in Tuonela, the shaman had to be careful not to get caught: the living were not welcome there. Shamans who were caught could end up decaying in the stomach of a giant pikefish with no hope of returning to normal life. If the shaman died during the trance ritual, it was believed that he had been caught by the guards at Tuonela.
An illustration of the hero Väinämöinen from Finnish mythology.
Main article, see Finnish mythology
The pagan Finns had many myths about their gods and their great heroes. Because they lived in a non-literate society, the stories were taught orally as folklore, and they were not written down. Finnish mythology survived Christianisation by being told as myths. Many of these myths were later written down in the 19th century as the Kalevala, which was created to be a national epic of Finland by Elias Lönnrot.
The bear was a sacred animal to the Finnish pagans.
Because of the very nature of life in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Finland, the Finns relied heavily on hunting for survival. As such the animals that they hunted became vital to their survival, and they were treated with respect.
The bear was considered sacred. The pagan Finns believed that it came from the sky and had the ability to reincarnate. A celebration known as Karhunpeijaiset (literally “celebration of the bear”) was practised whenever a bear was killed and eaten. The ceremony was designed to convince the bear’s soul to reincarnate back into the forest. After the flesh was eaten, the bones were buried, and the skull placed on a venerated pine tree known as kallohonka.
Before going hunting, the Finns would pray to the Emuus, or ancestral mothers of various animal species, for help.
From ancient drawings, petroglyphs, it is clear that the elk was a very important animal. It appears much more than bears do, and it is theorised that the bear was such a holy animal that it was forbidden to depict it. Also, the bear’s name was almost forbidden to say, so many euphemisms were developed. The most usual Finnish word for bear in modern language, karhu, is just one of the many euphemisms, and it means “rough fur.” Among the many names of bear otso is probably the original “real” name, as suggested by the wide spread of the word otso and related words amongst many of the Uralic languages. Many euphemisms for bear are local.
Many water birds were holy for Finns and other Finnic peoples. They were often depicted on petroglyphs. It was believed that if you killed a water bird, you died soon after. The holiest water bird was the swan. With its long neck, it could look to all the levels of the world, including Tuonela, the land of the dead. Birds are found often in Finnic mythology. For example, there are many stories about a bird creating the world. In many traditions it was believed that the world was created by the egg of a bird. In other traditions it was believed that the world was created on mud that bird took in its beak while diving.
In Karelia it was believed that a bird brings the soul to a newborn baby, and that the same bird takes the soul with it when person dies. This soul-carrying bird was called sielulintu, “soul-bird”. In some traditions people carried artifacts depicting their sielulintu. Sielulintu was believed to guard their souls while they slept. After the person died, the artifact-bird was inserted to sit on the cross at the person’s grave. Such crosses with soul birds still exist in graveyards in Karelia. This is one example how Christian and Pagan beliefs still existed side by side hundreds of years after the Christianization of the Finnish and Karelian people.
Swan and egg, based on petroglyphs of Karelia
It is believed by some scholars that shamanism played a big part in Finnish paganism, as it did (and still does) in the Siberian paganism to the east of Finland. A Shaman is a wise and respected person in the community, believed to have a special relationship with the spirit world. Shamans go into a trance to commune with spirits and ancestors or to take a journey into the spirit realm. In trances shamans may ask their ancestors or various nature spirits for guidance. They believe that nature has the answers to all questions.
Among the Finns’ western neighbours, the Norse of Scandinavia, it was a common belief that the Finns were wizards. In the Norse sagas, inclusion of a Finnish element almost always signifies a supernatural aspect to the story. However, “Finn” in some Norse sagas could also mean the Sami and not the Finns. Finns were also called Kvens.
According to tales, foreign seafarers bought ropes tied in knots from Finns. By opening the knot a bit, a seaman could raise a wind to make his ship go faster. However, opening it too fast would raise a storm. Finnish wizards were known and feared by neighbouring peoples around the Baltic Sea.