Paganism and Heathenry in the Republic of Finland

Heather Greene —  April 15, 2015 — 24 Comments

In the northern regions of Europe, there is a growing Pagan and Heathen community in the Republic of Finland. With a population of 5.4 million, the Nordic country rests between Sweden, Russia, Norway and the Gulfs of Bosthia and Finland. Its capital, Helsinki, is the second-most northern national capital in the world, with Reykjavik being first.

Tampere region, from Western Finland [Photo Credit: Jarno Oivakumpu]

Tampere region, from Western Finland [Photo Credit: Jarno Oivakumpu]

Throughout that territory people, a growing number of Finns are discovering and connecting with new religions and spiritual paths. According to Lehto (The Grove), a Finnish nature-religions organization, there are “a few thousand Neo-Pagans” in the country. To help better understand this movement and religious traditions in Finland, we spoke with four people, who share their impressions and observations on this unique and growing culture.

The majority of Finnish Pagans and Heathens live in the southern portions of the country, concentrated in the major urban areas such as Helsinki, Tampere and Turku. However, there are some practitioners in the middle regions. Essi Mäkelä, president of Pakanaverkko (The Pagan Network), said “Pagans are quite spread out but southern Finland has the most active of them probably … although there has been growing activity in eastern and middle Finland too (Lappeenranta, Jyväsklyä and Kuopio)”

Mäkelä lives in Helsinki and is a “scholar in the study of religions.” She identifies as Discordian; however, she also said that she did study Wicca and “will sometimes use those rituals.” While Wicca appears to be the dominant practice, it is closely followed by various forms of eclectic Paganism. Jarno Oivakumpu, chairman of Lehto, explained, “I believe many Pagans don’t necessarily link themselves to any specific practice. In Finnish culture, religion/spirituality is a personal thing, and considered pretty individual.” That is certainly the case for Oiakumpu, who identifies as a pantheist/animist with interests in various spiritual practices. He said, “Spirituality is part of my everyday life” and doesn’t align himself with one religion.

Along with Wicca and the more eclectic forms of Paganism, there are small numbers of Druids, Asatruar, and more. Mäkelä added that Finland also has a strong and vocal movement of Discordianism as well as Satanism. She quickly explained the latter, saying that this is not “Satan Worship” and is accepted as a religious philosophy based on individualism.

In addition, Mäkelä and several others noted that there is a growing movement seeking to revive traditional Finnish Paganism, and this religion may actually be the most popular now. Tuula Muukka, editor of quarterly magazine Vox Paganorum, practices a form of Finnish Paganism or Suomenusko. She said, “I originally read about Wicca, but then ran into other Finns who had found the old tradition, and the rest was history. I’ve been on this path for about eight years.” She belongs to a Karhun kansa community, or “The Bear Folk.” There are other similar groups dedicated to such practice, such as Taivaannaula (The Nail in the Sky), although they do not identify as “neo-Pagan.”

In 2013, Karhun Kansa was granted official recognition as a religion by the Finnish government. Oivakumpu explained that this act made Karhun Kansa the first “neopagan religious community in Finland.” He said that, while the country has had “religious freedom since 1923,” religions must be officially recognized in order to earn special government protections.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the national church of Finland. According to 2012 statistics, 76.4 percent of the population belongs to the Lutheran Church. Another 1.1 percent belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, or similar Orthodox sects; 1.4 percent claimed “other” and 21.0 percent did not respond.

Mäkelä explained, “Finnish law is closely connected with the Church law … We are going toward better equality, but religion is still taught at schools.” She added that the practice of non-registered religions is permissible; however, those religions or groups are not protected by the “Violations Against Religious Peace and the Education Law.” For example, the police will treat the desecration of a Pagan religious site differently than that of Lutheran church.

Tampere region, from Western Finland [Photo Credit: Jarno Oivakumpu]

Tampere region, from Western Finland [Photo Credit: Jarno Oivakumpu]

But as she noted, things may be changing. Karhun kansa has received its official recognition, and as noted by Lehto’s Information Officer Katariina Krabbe, “The Parliament recently approved a new law which forbids religious education and practices in public day care.” She added, “The overall atmosphere has become much more tolerant toward Pagan religions than about 10-15 years ago.”

Despite these small strides, the ever-presence of the Lutheran Church can disrupt some aspects of Pagan practice. Krabbe said, “Regarding [mental] health services, people … who admit to having contacts with the spirits of nature, can still have a false diagnosis because their religion can be interpreted as psychotic delusions.”

More practically, sometimes finding a suitable outdoor ritual or festival site poses a problem. Muukka explained, “When we try to book an old school or other location for our camps, they are hard to find. Finland is [the] land of 1,000 lakes and we all like to take sauna baths and swim, if possible, but usually the best places are owned by the Lutheran Church, so we are not welcome. Or even if the place is owned by a city or some association, there may be a building or part of building in the area which has been consecrated for Lutheran use.”

Even with the difficulties, recent statistics support Krabbe’s belief that times are changing. In 1900, 98.1 percent of the population was Lutheran. That number has dropped significantly. Oivakumpu adds, “Finns are not very religious.” He said that “the mainstream mentality is atheistic” and “disregards spirituality as hocus-pocus.”

This points to the biggest problem facing Pagans and Heathens in the country. There is a total disregard for the practice of any these alternative religions. While Mäkelä considers this anonymity a plus in many ways, she did say that “the lack of knowledge and recognition from the state and Finnish society” are two of the biggest hurdles. Muukka agreed saying that they need to continue to “spread the right kind of information,” adding “I’d also like to [see] the separation of church and state, but that would require efforts from others as well.”

Krabbe said that another obstacle is the “lack of strong local Pagan communities, where you can live your every day life as Pagan among other Pagans.” She said that groups only gather for seasonal festivals, and that otherwise religious life is very private and cut-off from community.

To help bridge that gap, Finnish Pagans and Heathens are turning to online resources. Pakanaverkko, Lehto, Taivaannaula, Karhun kansa, the Pagan Federation-Finland, and other groups or practices, all maintain a digital presence. Some manage forums; some produce digital magazines; and others engage with social media. While the country does boast metaphysical shops, they are either dying, as in other countries, or turning to online sales. Krabbe said, “Facebook groups are the best way to gain information about local Pagan news and events.”

When asked to describe a unique aspect of practicing their religion in Finland, they all described two things: a natural connection with the land and the survival of folklore and tradition. Oivakumpu said, “Finland has a lot of clean nature with wide forests and large lakes. Also a seashore and arctic landscapes in the north. Experiencing nature is easy.” Muukka, who grew up in a small village, said, “I thank every birch tree if I take twigs from it to put in a vase at home, little things like that.” Krabbe said, “You cannot live in Finland without being influenced by the seasonal cycles of the year, so it would be very hard not to live attuned to it.”

In addition, those interviewed also mention the importance of the surviving Finnish folklore and traditions, even those people that do not practice Finnish Paganism as a religion. Krabbe noted, “We have the largest collection of folk poetry in the world in the Finnish Literature Society’s archive.” She also mentioned Finnish epic, the Kalevala.

Mäkelä was quick to note that many of these traditional works are not necessarily indicators of ancient practice, nor are they consistently used for religious purposes in modern day. However, she did not deny the influence of folk traditions on Finnish culture and modern religions. She said, “In Finland, it is easy to celebrate Yule and not have anything to do with Jesus.” She explained that many of these non-Christian practices are still present in the “how” of modern Finnish celebrations.

Due to be released in fall 2015, a new film, titled Ukonvaaja (The Hammer of Ukko), will explore traditional Finnish culture and religious practice. Recently, the filmmakers recently interviewed Muukka about the celebration of the fall harvest. The trailer is shown above.

In talking with the Finnish Pagans, Krabbe expressed something that is echoed in the film trailer. She said, “I think that most Finnish people have a pagan soul, even if they don’t realize it. It is a natural way of life here and we haven’t lost entirely our connection to nature or the way of life of our ancestors.”

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has Lady Liberty League and has formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Matt

    Interesting, but referring to Finland as “Nordic” is a bit misleading. Generally Nordic refers to the other Scandinavian countries, whose languages and peoples are northern Germanic. The Finnish people and language are unrelated to the Norse peoples around them.

    • Dantes

      Nope. Nordic very much means “FennoScandinavia” nowadays, which means both the Three Scandinavian Countries, Iceland, the Faroes as well as Finland (with Åland included) as well as Greenland. It is a socio-political reality which is best represented by the Nordic Council

      • Matt

        Hence My use of “a bit” and “generally ” and my citation of the historical reality rather than contemporary reality, but hey, thanks for the ire.

        • dantes

          My sorries. I guess my European and even moreso my Northern European perspective might not be shared by those living on the other side of the ocean.

          • Stagnant.

            Modern politics does not mean similar background culturally or linguistically. Finland is separate in all ways but a shared land mass, study history and stop thinking you are so smart.

          • You all are being way too hard on dantes. I mean, I’m the first person to point out that Finland is quite different than the Scandinavian countries in many ways, but dantes is quite right in pointing out that in modern usage Finland is included in the ‘Nordic countries’. Finland is a part of the Nordic Council. If Finland considers itself a Nordic country, who are you to say otherwise? The English and Finnish Wikipedia pages on Finland both say Finland is a Nordic country in the first paragraph (English: the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country in Northern Europe Finnish: Suomi kuuluu Pohjoismaihin) The Swedish page on the Nordic Countries says: Norden är ett område i norra Europa, som består av länderna Danmark, Finland, Island, Norge och Sverige. This really isn’t a controversial topic.

          • Dantes

            Exactly ! Some might confuse Scandinavia and Norden but they really are two different (overlapping) concepts and realities.

      • filet minion

        If that the case, then you had better include the Russians, who the are descendents of Scandinavian tribe called the Rusk. In fact Moscow, started out as a Viking trading post.

        • Dantes

          The Russian question is complicated to say the least. Historians really have not agreed on an actual theory and the Normanists and Anti-Normanists are still not reconciled.

          However, the difference with the Scandinavian settlers of Russia is that they rather quickly severed/lost their ties to their original homeland and shed off their ethnicity after reaching Russia. Just as just about every Scandinavian settler group ever*.

          *Not counting those who settled in places where they were the majority/the only ones there (Iceland,Faroes,Greenland…)

    • Juqu

      The Nordic countries = Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden

      Scandinavian countries = Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

      More [url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsXMe8H6iyc]info[/url]

  • Dantes

    OMGs ! An article about Europe! High five times a million Heather, this article rocks !

    Otherwise, for someone who has lived in Finland (without being involved -much- in Paganism there) I would say that this article is quite correct in many points (especially the part about the atheistic society, it’s very much like that in most of Western Europe). I would however mention the slight typo: It’s Gulf of Bothnia and not Gulf of Bosthia.

    Let’s celebrate with awesome music shall we!? What about the best band in the world

    • Another minor quibble I’d make with the article is the statement that 1.1% of the population belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. Finland has its own autonomous Finnish Orthodox Church, which is different than the Greek Orthodox Church, i.e. the national church of Greece and the Greek diaspora. Both are part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Finnish Orthodox Church was a part of the Russian Orthodox Church until a few years after Finland gained independence from the Russian Empire in 1917.

      As an aside, it’s interesting to note that rural Finns under Orthodox Christianity preserved native Finnish religion to a remarkable degree. This was due the incompleteness of the conversion, along with a lack of churches and only a few itinerant priests to serve the rural population in places like Karelia. Consequently, these people made it all the way to the early 20th century still believing in, and making sacrifices to, various nature spirits/gods. It wouldn’t be unfair, in my opinion, to compare rural Finnish folk religion to other syncretistic indigenous/Christian religions such as Afro-Caribbean religions.

      Also, I thought everyone knew that the best band in the world is Värttinä!

      • Dantes

        Ho no, not Värttinä… Please. I am open minded about most types of Folk but those guys are really too danseband for me…

        Otherwise, you have a point about the orthodox church. The Orthodox church, just like the catholic one further down in Europe helped preserve certain traditions that were very much annihilated by protestant christianity.

        Regarding the syncretic comment, IMO it really does depend on how the individual words his prayers and rituals. If those name and are directed to the (christian) god a.k.a. yahweh I would not feel really comfortable calling it Paganism despite all the more traditional Pagan elements that might still be in place.

        • As far as my studies indicate, the focus in prayer, worship was most likely to be directed to saints (sometimes gods in the guise of saints, Elijah as the thunder god was popular in Eastern Christianity), nature spirits, or ancestors; there wasn’t much of a monotheistic focus in terms of religious activity.

          • Dantes

            Okay so I guess it’s like in Brittany with their thousands of “Saints”.

  • Lupa

    Oooh, that film looks really good. Beautiful shots in the trailer, and I’m loving the premise.

    • I’ve been excited to see it since I first saw that trailer maybe last year sometime. Hopefully the release will be available with English subtitles like that trailer is.

      • According to my source, the film will be released in both Finnish and English.

        • Glad to hear that! My Finnish is only such that I can understand an occasional word.

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I have had only a few interviews with Finish but that did include the People of the Bear. Having so much folklore is certainly a plus when trying to create a Finish tradition as close as possible to ancient thought, if still a bit different and changed to fit modern time. But the most important part is practicing the religion in the old land. As many Polytheists well tell you religion was local tied to often a particular land and particular ancestors and with local spirits as well.

    • Dantes

      Totally agree !

  • Damiana

    Krabbe’s perspective is biased. A natural way of life doesn’t meant that these Finnish agnostics and atheists have pagan souls.

    • Dantes

      That’s correct. But could you describe more in details what you mean by Pagan Souls ?

  • I appreciate the exposure we get to other, less publicised ethnicities’ indigenous spiritualities. Thank you!