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Fox, Horse and the Bear: Animal Spirits in Finnish Mythology

Updated on February 27, 2018
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Folklorist and a story teller who loves to explore myths from all corners of the world.

Birth of the horse

In Finnish folklore first horse was called Iku-Tihku. Trolls created Iku-Tihku in their underground forge. Like many other Eurasian people Finno-Ugrian tribes believed that there was three levels in the world and all those levels were connected to each other through the world tree. These levels were called: Ylinen, Keskinen and Alinen. Ylinen the upper world was the place where highest of the spirits and most respected gods lived (in some cases it was also believed to be the state where the re-birth process started). Keskinen the middle world was the natural world (our physical world) where humans and animals lived together with all deities that ruled the elements. Alinen the underworld was place where the spirits of the death lived. Alinen however was not like the Christian hell. It was a place where spirits waited their turn to be reborn again.

Iku-Tihku was creature of Alinen. It was completely made of fire and ice. Iku-Tihku was also a shaman and it could travel between these three worlds (which also represent the three levels of consciousness) but it only could visit Keskinen, the middle world during the winter because it would melt in any other season. Trolls used Iku-Tihku as their model when they created all other horses but they were made of stone, steel and iron so that they could live in Keskinen all year around if they wished to.

From Hiisi is the horse´s origin, from the mountain- the splendid foal´s in a room with a door of fire, in a smithy with an iron ridge, it´s head was made of stone, it´s hoofs of rock, it´s legs were formed from iron, it´s back was made of steel (Source: magic songs of the Finns)

Tahvatar the horse goddess

In Finnish mythology each animal and plant species have their own emuu. Emuu is old Finnish and means mother. Emuu was a mythical creature. The first specimen of particular specie. Emuu´s exists in myths of Finns, Saami´s and Latvians. In Finland many of the Emuu´s were believed to be half-human half-animals and often they were represented as female goddesses. Emuu of horses was a goddess called Tahvatar. There isn´t many myths left about Tahvatar. It is believed that she was very similar to Gallo-Roman goddess Epona. Tahvatar was a shape sifter and could transform herself into a horse. In Finland there was a custom to say Tahvatar´s blessings for horses before they were let to the fields during the spring.

Fox the cunning forest spirit

In Finnish folk tales fox is described to be cunning, smart and careful. These attributes fit into real life foxes as well. In ancient Finland foxes were hunted because of their precious fur. Foxes have highly developed sense of smell all and fox traps were kept extremely clean. People used to scrub them with pine cones to get rid of the human scent. Foxes were (and are) very smart animals and people had difficulties catching them. It was believed that the person who managed to catch foxes had strong shamanistic powers.

According to folklore fox´s emuu in Finnish mythology is Käreitär goddess of the flame or goddess called Lukutar. Her name is derived from word lukka meaning sand bench which are common places for fox's dens.

Fox and the northern lights

In northern Finland and in Lapland there is legend told about Tulikettu the fire fox. Tulikettu was a magical giant fox who lived in the snowy hills in far north. It was every hunters dream to catch the fire fox for it was believed that the hunter who would catch it would be wealthy man for the rest of their life. Tulikettu was little bit like the Phoenix bird. There could only be one Tulikettu at a time. No one could never catch the fire fox who because it was as fast as the wind. There is a story told in northern Finland and Lapland about the birth of the northern lights. When fire fox runs fast in the snowy hills it´s fur touches the snow and creates magical sparkles to the skies. Still today Finnish word for northern lights is revontulet which literally means the fox´s fires. This story is based on reality because in dry freezing cold air fur becomes electric and can create tiny sparkles.

Where was "broad-forehead" born, was "honey-paws" produced? There was "broad-forehead" born, was "honey-paws" produced, close to the moon, beside the sun, on the shoulders of Charles Wain. From there was he let down to earth, to the honeyed woods´ interior, to a verdant thicket edge, into a liver colored cleft. Mielikki the forest maid, rocked him, swayed him to and fro in a cradle of gold, in silver straps, under a fir with branching crown, under a bushy pine (Source: the magic songs of the Finns)

Bear the cosmic god

In ancient Finland there was one animal who was worshiped more than any other and that animal was the bear. In Finland there are lots of archaeological finds made which tell us about the existence of ancient bear cult. In the area around Ural mountains there are lots of myths about the great bear god. Birth myth of the bear from Siberiean Ostjak tribe was also well-known in ancient Finland. Bear lived in the star sky in the constellation of the big bear and the small bear with his father god Num Torum. Bear looked down to the earth and soon longed to live among people. His father agreed and send him down to the earth in a golden cradle. Bear´s life in the earth was filled with sin. This made Num Torum ashamed and he allowed humans to kill his son. Myth which tells that bear has cosmic origins is common all around Eurasian areas. Among Vogul tribe in Siberia there is a similar myth but bear is a female not a male. In northern Eurasia among several different clans there was belief that people were descendants from an union between a human goddess and the cosmic bear god. In the earliest Saami mythology moon goddess Háhtežan was married to the cosmic bear and her sister Njávežan the sun goddess was married to the cosmic moose. These were two the most respected and feared animals in northern hunter-collector cultures.

Mielikki the bear goddess

Finnish word karhu the bear is derived from the word karhea which means rough fur. Because bear was such respected god the name of the bear was a tabu. It was forbidden to say the name aloud. It was believed that that would jinx the bear an it would harm the person for not being respectful. This is why in Finnish language there are over 1000 nicknames for bear alone. It was believed that bear was also a shaman and it could hear people´s thoughts. Fact that bear was worshiped as a god in Finland has in fact been beneficial for bears in modern Finland. Compared the several other European countries bears are not hunted that great numbers and there are app. 1500-2000 bears living in Finland´s forests still today.

In Finnish mythology Mielikki the forest god is often connected to bears. After bear was landed from the skies in the golden cradle Mielikki adopted the bear and nurtured him with honey and apples. She gave bear it´s mission to be the most loved, respected and feared animal of the forest. Mielikki and her husband forest god Tapio could also shape sift themselves as bears. In many ways Mielikki as a goddess is similar to bears. She represents two aspects of womanhood; the independent hunter goddess who protects her home the forest (very much like a mother bear who protects her cubs) and on the other hand she is the nurturing mother goddess who represents the healing aspects of forest and nature. Mielikki is also an interesting goddess in that sense that each winter she went to winter sleep...just like a bear. Summer and autumn were sacred time for Mielikki spring and winter were times when Tapio rules the forest.

Bear figure found  from archaeological site of Kierikki, Finland Estimated time period: 5100 bc
Bear figure found from archaeological site of Kierikki, Finland Estimated time period: 5100 bc

Bears and humans

In Finnish mythology Emuu of the bear was Hongatar goddess of the trees. Some sources also mention that Ilmarinen the blacksmith god was the bear´s father. Several Finno-Ugrian tribes worshiped bear as their sacred ancestor. In Finland bear hunting was a sacred ritual that took place in the spring time right before bear would wake up from it´s winter sleep. Winter sleep by itself was believed to be a proof of bear´s magical powers. People did not understand why bears went to winter sleep. Winter was seen as the time of dying nature so when bears woke up each spring for ancient people this was a sign that bear was a powerful god who would always reborn again. In eastern Finland bear was considered to be the ancestor of the clan it was forbidden to eat bear meat. Then in some other parts of Finland bear meat was a great treat and source of nutrition. Being the ancestor of humans bear´s life was performed in a ritualistic play during the bear hunt festival. Poems were told how the bear was landed from it´s cosmic home to the earth and how it would marry the cosmic mother (often a newly wed couple played the part) and a funeral was hold where bear was buried like a human. Skull was hanged into the top of the spirit tree so the bear would be closer to it´s original home. There are many reasons why people believed that they were descendants of bears. When bear stands on it´s back feet it´s about the same size as an average person. Also bear palms are similar to humans hands. It even has five fingers. Bears are strong and fast. These were qualities that hunters greatly admired.

Horses in Finnish Mythology

Foxes in Finnish Mythology

Bears in Finnish mythology


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