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Luck, sauna, and those magical Finnish rakes

Some of the most iconic stereotypes of Finland and the Finns trace ancient roots.

Mies istuu lauteilla löylykauha kädessään.
Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle
Yle News

In November 2018, while surveying damage from wildfires in California, US President Donald Trump sang the praises of Finnish forestry management.

"You look at other countries where they do things differently, and it’s a whole different story. I was with the president of Finland and he said, 'we have a forest nation'. They spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and they don’t have any problems," Trump told reporters.

While the office of President Sauli Niinistö issued a clear-cut denial that raking did not enter his discussions with Trump not long before the incident, social media response was swift and mocking.

Instantly, an entire pseudo-myth of Finns and their rakes was created and the hashtag #rakefinlandgreatagain had a moment of global internet glory.

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Laugh if you will, but raking does actually have a place in genuine Finnish myth and fable.

An ancient tale of the creation of the world in the national epic, the Kalevala, contains a passage about water sprites, in the form of young maidens, raking the forest floor to make room for the first sacred oak tree to grow. The god-like smith Ilmarinen forged a magic rake for the mother of the tragic hero Lemminkäinen she used to dredge her son's body from the river of the underworld before raising him from the dead.

Is this not evidence of the cultural significance of raking in the land of the Finns?

No. Despite these ancient tales, raking the forest really is not a national pastime.

But, there certainly are folk memories, some surprising vestiges of the past, embedded in the Finnish cultural matrix that still have an unconscious influence on the present.

Luck and golden silence

The list of adjectives often used to describe the stereotypical Finn includes terms like "shy", "quiet", "reserved", "reticent" or "introverted".

For a taste of this, observe a group of Finns waiting at a bus stop. They will queue up, keeping a good metre or more (often much more) distance from the next in line. Get on a Helsinki bus at rush hour and observe how people make a real, but usually futile effort to avoid sitting next to a stranger. If by chance eye contact is made, it's furtive. It was not by chance that the German playwright Bertolt Brecht once famously said the Finns were the only people in the world who are "silent in two languages".

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Image: Viivi Sihvonen / Yle

While the image of the taciturn Finns is a cliché, there is a proverb which roughly translates as "Talk is silver, silence is golden", a thought well embedded in the national psyche. Small talk is such an arcane art that there are people who actually take classes in an attempt to master it before taking a professional posting abroad.

The flip side of this stereotypical coin is that many outsiders see the Finns as honest and straightforward, a people who tend to say what they mean and mean what they say.

There are social historians who chalk it up to "luck".

To see where this is coming from, one has to understand first of all that the word for luck and for happiness is the same - onni.

In the worldview that reigned here during pagan times, and for a long after the Finns gained a veneer of Christianity, the concept of luck play a crucial role in daily life. It was luck that determined the outcome of a hunt or a fishing expedition. It was luck that made your crops grow. It was luck that made your cow give milk, kept you and your family healthy and fed.

A crucial part of this concept was that there only a limited, finite amount of luck in the world.

"If you managed to get some of the luck, it meant someone else didn't have luck because there was only so much to go around. So it was very important to protect your own luck and your own resources to make sure somebody else didn't take them away from you," explains Tuukka Karlsson, a folklorist and researcher at Helsinki University's Department of Philosophy, History and Art Studies.

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karhu suolla
The bear was a sacred animal to the ancient Finns and speaking its name aloud could bring bad luck. For this reason Finnish still has dozens of words and euphemisms to refer to bears without actually saying the word “karhu”. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

"Let's say you were going fishing. You needed luck and your luck was vulnerable, so you had to be quiet about it, and sneak onto the lake. If you met your neighbour on the way, it could spoil your luck. Still nowadays you shouldn't say 'good luck' to a fisherman."

There was even a whole class of powerful witches and wizards called "kade" who were out to steal luck from the unwary. The word has survived and is used colloquially to mean "envy".

"I think you can see this nowadays. There's a proverb in Finnish, 'Kell' onni on, se onnen kätkeköön', meaning that one who has happiness or luck should hide it. It is dangerous to boast. So, if you win the lottery, don't show it. Maybe you can buy a new car, but don't tell anyone where the money came from. I think this has very deep roots," says Karlsson.

It's been argued that this is still reflected in the cautious social engagement of many Finns, especially with strangers.

"People don't walk around today consciously believing that luck is limited and they need to protect it," points out Siria Kohonen, a Helsinki doctoral candidate with a special interest in folk medicine, spells and rituals. "But, the modest, even shy behaviour that went along with that idea developed into a set of cultural norms that are more or less still in place today."

Sauna as ritual

"The sauna is a special space that demands a certain solemnity, and serious state of mind," in the words of Tuukka Karlsson. "You don't go to sauna to party. You can speak about very important, serious things in the sauna. It has an aura of reverence."

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Saunavihta lauteilla
Image: Anna Sirén / Yle

It is hard to overstate the importance of the sauna in Finnish culture. The sheer number of saunas, estimated at over two million for a population of 5.5 million, gives some indication of how deeply embedded it is. Stripping bare and sweating is not just about practical routine, for most Finns it also reflects a state of mind.

The sauna has always been a place to bathe, cleanse and stay healthy. For centuries it was also a sacred space. Once upon a time, it was a place where people were born, the bodies of the dead were washed. It was a place of physical and spiritual healing. Fire was a gift from the gods and the sauna was like a temple.

In Finnish, the term for the cloud of heat and steam that engulfs you in the sauna when water is poured on the hot stones is löyly. The word has a broader meaning that is difficult to translate – it refers to the condition, the sense, the feeling of the sauna experience. Originally, it meant "spirit" or "life".

Löyly once encompassed questions of life and death, very basic concepts.

"Sauna is a place to bathe and get clean, yes, but it's also a place for purification," notes Siria Kohonen. "It is also somehow connected to celebrations of transition, washing away the past, starting the future cleansed."

"The sauna is physically stimulating. It is a sensory experience – dimly lit, hot. The most memorable rituals are usually associated with some kind of physical stimulation. People today may not think that they are engaging in ritual behaviour when they go to the sauna and their conversations change, but the physical conditions affect the social atmosphere."

Nature's children

If you spend much time around Finns, it probably won't take long until someone mentions "our special relationship with nature". It's a common claim and clearly a source of pride.

There is no arguing against the fact that there's plenty of nature to have a relationship with.

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Jyrävänkoski Oulangan kansallispuistossa.
Jyrävä Rapids in the River Kitkajoki. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Forests cover more of Finland than in any other European country. Three-quarters of the land area is forested and there are close to 200,000 lakes. Then there are the rugged coasts and the vast fell regions of Lapland.

Finnish law enshrines"everyman's right" meaning that anyone and everyone to roam, to gather mushrooms and berries, to wander even on privately-owned land.

The natural world has always been some kind of special presence.

According to Tuukka Karlsson, whose work focuses on the Kalevala-meter poetry, ancient lyrics pictured the forest as a place of beauty. The old poems speak of it being imbued with golden light and populated by trees of silver. People still talk about the forests as Finland's "green gold", seeing it to some extent as the as the source of economic and cultural wealth. On the other hand, the forest was untamed, outside of culture, supernatural, a dangerous place harbouring threats.

Today, even urban dwellers like Siria Kohonen hold fast to some of these thoughts, even though she says that they have changed, developed and altered quite a lot.

"Hundreds of years ago, it was special, but very different from what it is now. Unlike my ancestors, I have never lived off nature, never hunted, and I'm not very good at fishing. It hasn't been a part of my day to day life. In Helsinki, I've got three grocery stores before there's the first small patch of forest. I think that I have a special relationship with nature, but I also know that it is very different from the relationship my ancestors had. For me, it is a privilege to be in nature, to be by myself, to find inner calmness," she says.

While there is no doubt that the deep past has and does influence the way the Finns live their lives and view their world, how unique is it really?

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Kiireisiä ihmisiä ostoskeskuksessa.
Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

"A culture can never be isolated from its surroundings. That's the way it is. Cultures are never isolated from their neighbours. Eastern, Baltic, Scandinavian cultures have always influenced Finnish culture and there's always been a lot of interaction. Some things that we think of being so very, very Finnish may in fact have roots somewhere else," Siria Kohonen notes.

"Many mythic concepts still live in us, but maybe not in a conscious way. But, it is just as obvious that there is not one Finnish people, there are many different perspectives and identities within this 'one' people," Tuukka Karlsson adds.

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