Paganism and Heathenry in the Republic of Finland

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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.”