torstai 24. joulukuuta 2015

Finnish Mythology: Elves

Hello blogging world!

It's December and elves are all around us. 
I am working on children book about elves so I've been doing lot's elf research.
There is lot's of folklore and elf fairy tales in Finland, Sweden and Denmark.
Unfortunately in Finland there isn't that much written knowledge about elves. Most of the elf folklore are from pre-Christian times and Finnish written language was born in 16th Century and country was going trough religious reformation by the Lutheran church and church fathers did not approve local folklore and peoples beliefs for multiple nature spirits.

Finnish word for elf is tonttu and the word's etymology comes from the word tontti that means the living area or place of a building. Finnish mythology is filled with different kinds of nature spirits. They are called haltija. Haltija is another name for an elf. Haltija can be any kind of spirit. Tonttu is a character that is always connected to a certain area.

In Sweden and Denmark tonttu's are known as tomte and nisse.

(c) Niina Niskanen

There is many kinds of elves. Guarding of the home is house-elf, kotitonttu. Guardian of the sauna is saunatonttu. Guardian spirit of the stable is tallitonttu. You might even find church elf from the church, kirkkotonttu. In Turku's castle there lives famous linnatonttu, castle-elf. Boat-elf, laivatonttu lives in a boat. There is also forest elves, metsätonttu's living in the forests. Most well-known elves are joulutonttu's, Christmas elves.

Nordic elves remind old men and women by their appearance. Usually elves are about the same size as five year old children. Male elves have white or gray long beards. Female elves have friendly faces and gray-ish hair.
Tonttu's are strongly connected to our ancestors. According to belief person who build the house also became the house-elf  and the protector of the area and building. Just like first person who ever entered to the sauna became saunatonttu.

"Aurigonlasku saunan ikkunasta"
(c) Niina Niskanen

One of the main tasks of saunatonttu was to watch that people behaved well in the sauna. There is expressions in Finland that tell people to behave very respectfully in a sauna since it is just as holy place as the church. Tonttu's were respected as ancestor and guardian spirit. Going to sauna is still big part of Finnish celebrations through the year and in the old times during every big festivals they also warmed and prepared sauna for the elves and spirits.

Guardian spirit of the house and home was respected as bringer of good luck. Tonttu might also get mad for the family and even set house on fire or make cows milk sour if people weren't behaving well. If this happened family tried apologize the elf by leaving good food for them or clean clothes (clothes have different' meanings for Nordic elves than elves in the world of Harry Potter).

Finnish elves usually have similar ears than humans and not pointy ears like celtic elves.
In Denmark and Sweden there are two kinds of elf tribes. There is Nisse and Tomte elves that usually more masculine and then there is Pixie-like elf tribe (Älven). That are more feminine and look more like elves from the Lord of the Rings. Nisse and Tomte are more closely connected to human world and älven are more connected to wild nature.

Stable elf, tallitonttu got along very well with animals. Tallitonttu was also thanked and praised when animals were feeling well. People rarely saw tonttu, because tonttu could turn itself invincible.
Because of their long age and magical powers tonttu's can easily be irritated by modern day people and many tonttu prefers to live in an old building and doesn't enjoy modern cities.

In Finland and other Nordic countries you can find many people with strong elf-beliefs
pretty much same way there is strong belief to fairies in the UK, America, Australia and New Zealand.

"Elf lantern"
(c) Niina Niskanen

Most common elf belief these days is the idea of elves living in the arctic circle and working for Father Christmas making toys and Christmas gifts for children.

I've never really liked the idea of Father Christmas / Santa Claus. Character launched by Coca-cola and represents this culture of consumption that modern day Christmas seems to be most of the time.
I'm more found of stories about elves in folklore and also folklore stories and legends about all the characters that modern day idea of Santa is based (God Odin in Nordic mythology, myths about St.Nicholas from Asia Minor, Finnish Kekri Santa and Krampus from Germany).
On the other had modern day consumption culture and franchising Santa and the elves have partially helped old stories to survive 'till today.

In Nordic countries habit to leave food (often plate of porridge) for elves is still alive and well especially among children. This custom is thousands years old in Finland and other Nordic countries.

I have once seen an elf. Some years ago I lived in the country side (literally behind god(des)(s) back).
There wasn't lot's of people and it' was long way to the nearest city. It was early autumn night and I was walking home and I passed this old wooden bridge. I saw a small man there. He had beard that was same color as the grass, red hat and blue suit. I stared at him for few minutes and he stared back at me with big curious eyes then he disappeared.

I know many people who have experiences with elves. My Danish friend often speaks about the elf who makes noise in her house. Another friend of mine lives in the heart of Helsinki. Tonttu there  enjoys city life and has decided to stay to the old apartment building where my friend's family lives. 

Happy Holidays to all my readers
There might be an elf in your house as well!

sunnuntai 13. joulukuuta 2015

Fairy tale origins: Little Mermaid

Hello blogging world

Last month I took part on fascinating on-line course about Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales.
I was very inspired by the course and started fairy tale origin series to my YouTube channel and now will do separate blog posts about them as well.

First fairy tale origin I'm going to write about is little Mermaid.

Some years ago I was visiting Copenhagen. I only spent two days there and didn't have much time to get familiar with city sights but Little Mermaid Statue was a must.
Indeed it is a beautiful statue and very well represents mermaid in the Andersen's story.

Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen. Sculpted by Edvard Eriksen.

First touch I had with little Mermaid was probably with the Disney animation and I believe majority of people now days are more familiar with Disney's Ariel than the original fairy tale.

(c) Disney

I think I was 15 when I read the Andersen's fairy tale.
Here is link to the English version if someone wishes to read it:

If you've been planning to read it better to read it before you continue reading my blog post. Spoilers ahead!  You can also find it pretty much every library.

Quote from the fairy tale
"She was a strange child. Quiet and thoughtful"

Character of little Mermaid is very different in the original fairy tale than Ariel in the Disney version. Ariel is bubbly and cheerful. Andersen's mermaid is quiet, thoughtful and also bit melancholic character. Story is sad one.

Little Mermaid is 12 or 13 in the beginning of the fairy tale. She lives in the underwater Kingdom with her father the king,  her grandmother (queen mother) and her mermaid sisters. Every year on their birthdays each mermaid sister gets permission to go to the surface and take a look at the human world. Every time when they come back they tell the wonderful things they saw and little mermaid is mesmerized by their stories. She starts dreaming about living among humans in the human world.

Her grandmother also tells her stories about humans and also that humans unlike mermaids have an immortal soul. Mermaids can live up to 300 years but when they die they can only become sea foam and there fore can't live forever like humans with their immortal souls.

Finally her 15th birthday arrives. First thing little mermaid sees is a massive ships, fireworks, sailors dancing on the deck of the ship and the most handsome prince. Little Mermaids finds herself caught in a storm. She sees that ship is about to drown and saves the handsome prince.

Prince gets to see glimpse of her face and hear her beautiful singing voice before the little  mermaid disappears back to the depths of the ocean.

This event makes little Mermaid even more obsessive about living among humans. She has collection of human items, little garden where red flowers grow and they are shaped like the sun. She also has real-like looking statue of the prince.

At some point little Mermaid realizes that to fulfill her dream to live among humans she must go to meet the sea witch. Sea witch makes a bargain with her. Mermaid gives her her voice and she gets pair of legs but walking with those legs is painful. Every step is like walking on needles.

Mermaid finds her way to kingdom and to the court. Prince becomes very found of her but only as a friend. Soon prince is getting married with princess from another kingdom. This makes little Mermaid extremely sad but she silently accepts that prince doesn't love her enough to marry her. Little Mermaid comes to the tragic decision to end her life. Neither she is part of the sea world anymore but not part of  the human world either.

She drowns herself and becomes daughter of the air and after 300 years as a blowing wind she finally gains her immortal soul.

Ending of the fairy tale is very dramatic at least compared to the Disney animation. Then again I don't think Disney animations would accept leading character committing suicide.

Little Mermaid is said  to depict Andersen's own life. He became famous through his fairy tales and he lived 'till old age. Women who he felt connections with didn't respond to his feelings and Andersen was very lonely man. He was also very devoted Christian and in many of his fairy tales one can find Christian moral teachings and some stories have similarities with biblical tales.

In Andersen's fairy tale the underwater world represents wild, free, pagan world. Mermaids live happy and balanced life, singing and dancing. Little Mermaid wishes to be part of the human world. Human world in the fairy tale is opposite to the underwater world. It is Christian / patriarchal world. Little Mermaid lives in a constant conflict between pagan and Christian beliefs.

Language is very vivid and Andersen depicts his characters with depth. Story is beautifully written. There is melancholic beauty and sensitivity in the fairy tale that reader in all age groups can relate to. 

As a character little Mermaid is very pure, bit naive, she is kind and forgiving. If she would be a human I think she would make a great nun. She is leaded by some higher powers.

As a creature mermaid is literally only part human. She has human torso and human conscience. She is also part fish, part animal, that makes her also wild and unattainable.
So fairy tale is not just about inner spiritual conflict but also the physical differences.
It's not easy to learn how to walk if you haven't ever walked before. Part where mermaid walks painfully on land is very realistic when you think about it.

If I would be in a similar situation I would try to make my way of living in the both worlds and enjoy my life best way I could but little Mermaid only wants to live in the human world. In away maybe she is ashamed of her mermaid heritage just like in the Victorian Europe of 19th century people had to hide their backgrounds if it was even slightly different from the social acceptable norms of those  patriarchal times. 

Andersen was very interested from European folklore. In the 19th century when story was written mermaids were seen as erotic creatures and characters that represented female powers, chaos and evil. Victorian Europe and Denmark of the 19th century were extremely patriarchal societies and women were seen as lower level citizens towards to men. 

When Little Mermaid was published it became very famous book and it also made a big cultural difference the way people started to see mermaids. They weren't anymore just evil erotic sirens. Mermaid could be lovable creature and very human-like. That is one of the reasons I like the story of Andersen's Little Mermaid. Not just the beauty and the philosophy there is but also the cultural impact it has made to the history of mermaids.

lauantai 12. joulukuuta 2015

Whale Art

Hello Blogging world!

It's an artistic update for a change!
I've been painting a lot lately but mostly school projects.
Studying illustrating in the UK is bit like studying to be prime Ballerina in Russia
...well maybe not that strict but teachers thrive you to be more ambitious with your art.
Finns can be quite wussy what it comes to ambition.

This autumn theme was animals and doors.
I've been painting lot's of tigers, parrots and whales.

There is something really fascinating about whales.
They are extremely important animals for eco-system.
I wish they would ban the whale hunting in Japan. It's just sick to use mashed whale teeth as potential drugs. This is one twisted world where we are living.. no only the people are twisted.

Anyways.. here is amazing orca

Watercolor and ink
(c) Niina Niskanen


Original is available in my Etsy-shop

"Moby's forest"
(c) Niina Niskanen
Acrylic on canvas

You might guessed title for this one came from Moby Dick. I actually borrowed Melville's book from library and plan to read it on Winter Break. I've heard some good reviews on it. Will see if I like it. 
At least I like whale symbolism

Submitted to Paint Party Friday
I'm off to on-line art tour now

Thanks for stopping by

tiistai 8. joulukuuta 2015

Bear worship in ancient Finland and Siberia

"Bear Shaman"
(c) Niina Niskanen

Bears had extremely important role in daily lives of ancient Finns in pre-christian world.
Bear was one of the first animal gods worshiped.

There is different types of myths how bear came to the earth.
Some of these myths are heavily influenced by Christianity and the older ones are with more pagan origins.

Siberian ostjak tribe's  bear myth is also known in Finland. According to myth bear lived in the sky
in the constellation of the big bear and small bear. He lived with his father sky god Num Torum. His son the bear wanted to move to earth and live among people. His father agreed and so bear was landed to the earth from the skies. Bear lived sinful life in the earth. Father god got in rage and let people to kill his son.

Myth where bear's home is originally in the skies and he was landed to earth is common in all Eurasian area. Especially among those people who's ancestor's originally wondered from Siberia (such as Finns). Siberian Vogul tribe has a similar myth but their bear is a female not male.

Second myth tells that bear was born in Tapiola (old Finnish word for forest). Bears parents were sky god Ilmarinen and tree goddess Hongatar. Forest goddess Mielikki who took care of the bear once he was born. She also gave bear it's name and it's purpose. Creature that is both loved, feared and respected. Mielikki named bear KARHU (Finnish word for bear).

Karhu comes from the word karhea meaning rough fur. 
Bear was respected god so when people entered to the forest they weren't allowed to say the word bear/ speak god's name loud. It was believed to jinx bear to appear.
In Finnish language there is over 1000 nicknames for bear.

Omena, Omenainen, Metsän omena, hunajatassu, Tapion poika, Tapiolan poika, Metsän kuningas
(Apple, forest Apple, honeypaw, son of Tapio, son of Tapiola, king of the forest ect.)

Bear was a god figure and it was believed that as god in flesh bear could read your mind, bear was a witch, wise one, shaman and a holy creature.

Human shamans could meet bear spirits during their shamanistic journeys and get answers to their questions. 
"Moose head"
Museum of Huittinen
app. 5170 bce

"Bear figure"
Kierikki archeological research
app. 5100 bce

There is archeological researchses made in Finland and findings support interesting theory
that some time in ancient Finland there has been two clans living together, clan of the bear and clan of the moose. This theory is supported by statue findings made in Finland representing moose's heads and bear heads.

Idea of clans comes from mythology that some tribes have animal ancestors and people were
related to animals. 

When bear is standing it is about same size as human being and their paws are similar to human hand.
Bear is a strong animal, powerful and extremely fast.
People who were part of the bear clan without no doubt identified them selves to the bear 
and bear became their holy animal because of it's great qualities.
Same goes with moose and the moose clan.

Bear hunting was important ritual. There was two bear hunts in a year. 
Bear hunting was a spiritual process. Men had to live in celibacy for a while before hunting, 
wash themselves and wear white clothes. First hunt took place in the spring time. Hunters went to the bear's cave while it was still a sleep they sang to the bear to wake it up and killed it.

Bear funeral was big festival as well. It included drinking, dancing, prays for the bear spirit
 and bear plays
.Dead bear was burred in a ceremony that was very similar to human burial.  
People believed that spirit of the bear returns back to the skies to it's original home when it was buried properly.

Bear skulls were used to decorate altars or they were put to the top of pine tree to keep the
 bear spirit near. 

This position as a god in Finland's history has been very beneficial for bears in Finland.
They are not that much hunted in Finland what they are in many other countries in Europe and other parts of the world. Back in 2013 I was in volunteer work in Bear refuge in Croatia.
We had lot's of talk there about the bear situation in Europe. It was quite shocking. I think there was 5 bears in France, 2 in Switzerland, about 200 in Croatia and there is app. 1450 - 1590 bears in Finland (in 2015) it is difficult to give exact number since bears move between borders of Russia and Sweden. Still number is way larger compared to many other countries.

Roles between Finnish forest god Tapio, forest goddess Mielikki and bear god were often mixed because both Tapio and Mielikki could shape-sift themselves to bears. Tapio is also one name for a bear. (Tapio/ Tapiola old Finnish word for a forest). 

If you wish to know more about Tapio and Mielikki check out my

Photo (c) Ilkka Jaakola

Bears are still today essential part of Finland's forests and I hope they will always be that way.