Finnish Magic: A Nation of wizards, a World of Spirits
Author: Robert Nelson
Paperback, 171 pages
Publisher: Llewellyn Publications
Publication date: 1999
I admit I wasn't exactly jumping with great expectations when I heard about this book coming up in 1999. Llewellyn, publishing something about Finnish magic, written by somebody who might have some Finnish roots, but... this might be "interesting", I thought to myself. When I heard to first comments on it, I knew this book wasn't goint to be anywhere high up on my "to get" list. Now that I've finally read it, even with my nonexistent expectations I have to say this book managed to be even less than what I waited it to be.
The first chapter of the book attempts to give an insight on the Finnish people and our origins, quickly moving into Finns in America. However, what is given is a rather odd account especially at times. Had Mr. Nelson actually used up-to-date scholarly works on Finnish history and the history of Finnish immigration into America, he would have probably done much better. Now, he's relying on a book about the history of log cabins in America, a genealogy book and the nearest thing in the bibliography relating to Finnish origins is something called "Finlandia The Racial Composition, The Language and Brief History of the Finnish People" by S.C. Olin from the year 1957, which you just can't call up-to-date, nor the latest word on the subject.
The author relies very heavily on the Kalevala as a source on Finnish Paganism and magic. There are two translations of Kalevala listed in his bibliography, but beside a book called "Of Finnish Ways", there are absolutely no other sources on this subject mentioned. This tells me that either Mr. Nelson hasn't really bothered to actually study the subject he's writing about, or just hasn't bothered to search for the admittedly not easiest to find books and publications about Finnish Paganism that do exist. Given the fact that Robert Nelson has been academically trained (his Ph.D.) and should know something about the importance of sources and not only that but also the quality and relevance of the sources used, I'm highly tempted to say that he just wanted to get a book out and to heck with giving proper, researched out information.
The misspellings of Finnish words the book is riddled with begin with this chapter. The use of umlauts is shaky at best, some words having those pesky little dots on some a's and o's in the correct places, some words where they should be lack them. All in all, it could be compared to a book about Celts telling that "Druds" had "ouks" as their sacred trees, or the Hellenic Pagans worship a goddess called "Athuna". The fact that Finnish is a language spoken by a very small number of people doesn't make an excuse for this many spelling errors, most of which would have been easily corrected by *any* native speaker. In this day and age of the Internet, finding somebody skilled enough to proofread the book's Finnish language texts would have been very easy.
I'll address some of the problems I encountered while reading this book briefly, as to pick them apart one by one would take much more space than what would fit in a normal book review and much more time the book reserves.
In his reliance upon the Kalevala, Nelson is able to give only very little information on the different Finnish deities and spirits and haltija (which could be sometimes referred to as "faeries") of the land and all its inhabitants. What little is given, is a scratch on the surface with no actual depth or usefulness. He tries to patch his lack of knowledge on Finnish deities by telling several pages worth of the Norse ones. While there are Swedish speaking Finns living, as they have long been, on the western shores of Finland and having more contacts with the Swedes, the Norse deities nor the Norse way were not that generally celebrated in Finland as Nelson would like to have you believe. He draws far-fetching parallels between the traditions of the Swedes and the Finns, for example in names, but doesn't seem to take into consideration the fact that Finland was for centuries under Swedish rule and thus got influences from the Swedish language (in for example the names of the days) which was the official language of the ruling classes and of record keeping.
Nelson mentions Santa Claus (in Finnish "joulupukki", literally "yule billy-goat" or "yule-buck") and tells about his origins being the story of Saint Nicholas but noting that "for some reason we have depicted Santa as a Finnish magus" (p. 22), flying through the air with his reindeer and wonders if the red and white clothing of Santa is a remiscent of the colours of the Fly Agaric mushroom. What he fails to tell is that the Finnish "Santa" has most probable origins in the earlier figure of "Kekripukki", Kekri being the old end-of-summer/new-year celebration. With Christianisation getting more of a hold, some of the celebrations of Kekri moved to Christmas and some to New Year, the pukki-character being one of the former. The traditional costume of the Finnish "pukki" is a lambs fur coat turned inside out (this is what I remember from my childhood, for example and it's still the costume used in many families for their Santa) and sometimes sported horns and a mask made of bark. This jolly character wasn't that much interested in children, but with his sexual nature - being a billy-goat - more in the somewhat older members of the family. He could also give you a spanking with the twigs he was carrying, if you had been naughty. The red and white costume of Santa so familiar today, is often attributed to ad-campaign of the Coca Cola company. Santa flying with reindeer isn't of Finnish origins either.
The author mentions the bear cult and sacred trees and groves (fencing them is something that isn't generally mentioned in Finnish sources, although it is mentioned in The Golden Bough), but does not tell about bear skull pines, pines or spruces with a flat (elk-eaten) top called "Tapio's table" used as altars and the sacred family trees playing integral part of old Finnish beliefs are passes with a short passage: "In former days, many Finnish families had a lucky family tree." and then continues to instruct cutting a ladder into a tree to create a sacred tree for ritual work. (p. 88) Not only was the family tree much more than a "lucky tree", cutting a ladder into one would be considered quite disrespectful. Nelson mentions "sejda" (seita), sacred stones in Lapland, but doesn't mention sacrificial cup-stones found throughout Finland at all.
In his chapter on trance work and ritual Nelson gives basic instructions for what he views or portrays as Finnish trance working methods. Parts of this chapter can be called disrespectful for the old ways, parts can be labelled dangerous. He makes getting into a trance and travelling to the netherworld sound like something fun and easy. Just trance and go! The first journey to the underworld was definitely not considered a piece of cake, but something potentially quite dangerous. A learning Shaman is said to have gone below (with his/her teacher), killed and dismembered and then put back together there and s/he would come back a changed person, a Shaman now able to help others. Even an experienced Shaman would often have a helping hand, for example the drummer, who could call him back from the journey if need be. Not everything you meet in the other words are nice, not everybody/thing presenting as a "guide" is trustworthy!
Information on Shamanism leaves a lot to wish for. The author seems to be well aware of his shortcomings and states: "The informed reader will notice that this sounds very similar to the ceremonies of the American Indians." (p. 99) Pardon my sarcastic tones, but the informed reader will indeed notice this and checking the bibliography, has noticed that the sources include Carlos Castaneda and a few books on general shamanistic techniques. What the informed reader notices is the total lack of scientific studies - or, for that matter, any books - on Finnish, Lappish, Fenno-Ugric or what's most easily available, Siberian Shamanism. The author continues: "And indeed it should. Shamanism whether practiced by the Navajo, the Korean, the Irkutsk, or the Finn is essentially the same. There may be variants in costume, structure of instruments, or other manifestations, but the basic structure and purpose is the same." (p. 99) No talks of similarities between shamanistic goals and techniques does, in my opinion, justify the passing of general Neo-Shamanistic systems as "Finnish Shamanism". Especially when the things the author notes as being the only differences between different people and given in his text aren't that Finnish to begin with.
The chapter on Sauna gives rather odd information mixed with rather good one. Unfortunately, this chapter includes parts that can be downright dangerous. He says: "After sitting in a very hot sauna for just a while, you may begin to feel light-headed or even giddy. This can be the first step to trance." (p. 115) Trancing in sauna? That is an invitation to getting dehydrated and passing out, dears. If you do get light-headed, it can be due to the sauna being badly ventilated and you're getting oxygen deprived, or that you are suffering from dehydration. Whatever it is, get out, cool down slowly by taking a shower and drink something. Feeling light-headed and giddy but deciding to stay in sauna in wait for the trance, gan lead to... not trancing, but passing out and burning yourself badly. The sauna *is* hot, after all. While sauna can be an excellent place to prepare for trance work or magic, it's not a place to go into trance in.
Another dangerous bit is instructions to always have a source of cold water to cool after with after sauna. Yes, getting directly out of sauna, jumping in a cold lake or other body of water or even rolling around in snow is part of old Finnish traditions. However, we also tend to know the dangers involved and that good or at least relatively good health are a must for such activities. Cooling off in cold water directly after sauna can be fatal to people with heart or blood pressure problems. If you are having health-problems, cool down slowly in warm water. Don't blindly follow instructions in this book and risk your life. Oh, I should also mention that the drawing depicting a sauna is just plain silly and if constructed like that, would cause the whole place to merrily go down in flames.
In his account of sacred times, Nelson gives new and full moon among times of seasonal festivals, with no actual data to back this claim up. Some other festivals given as traditional had me raising my eyebrows with "Oh? What's this?" and parts of the explanations of what is/was going on in the festivals I did agree with had me smiling wryly.
The last major chapter in the book deals with symbols of magic. He reprints a couple of images of Lappish deities well know from other sources, gives hannunvaakuna (misspelled as "hannunvarkuna") and then goes forward stating: "Many of the commonly used symbols were borrowed from the Norse." (p. 143). He mentions Thor's hammer, but doesn't tell that the similar but not same symbol used here is not directly Thor's hammer, but Ukko's hammer. Similar, not same. He mentions "sun wheel" (swastika), but doesn't mention "sun cross" or the usage of the pentagram as a protective symbol. After giving some rather Icelandic looking talisman images, Nelson goes on and devotes several pages for runes. Having earlier quite correctly told that the Finnish tradition was an oral one, he now turns around and claims the runes having "widespread use among Finnic people" (p. 145). They might be found from areas populated by relative people, but they weren't in use by the Finns.
Some of the parts in the book may be useful (for example "Learning from Nature", but those parts are mostly given in such general terms you can find the same, similar or better information in other books. Not everything that could be useful are of Finnish Paganism origins
All in all, Robert Nelson has taken a pinch of Finnish Paganism and magic, added a truck-load of other type of Shamanism (Native American and Neo-Shamanistic) and Norse, mixed in with his ideas and watered the whole soup up to the point of being hardly useful and given this creation of his a label which says: "Finnish Magic", hoping that the old "give something a name and you'll know it" will work. Unfortunately, the end result isn't an eclectic but working system, but simplified, watered down mixture spiced with Finnish way. It's such a shame that a little-know but rich tradition didn't get a better representation than this.
I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anybody, except perhaps as an example of a badly research, badly written book - a "how not to" instead of "how to" example. As I earlier said, not *everything* in this book is bad, but what is there needs to be taken not with a pinch, but a whole package of salt. I rather recommend reading the Kalevala, the Kanteletar (out now in English as well) and searching out scholarly works on Finnish history and traditions.
Originally published in English by The Cauldron.