A few months ago, I decided I won't be writing in English about untranslated Finnish books, but this is the first exception. It might be of interest tA few months ago, I decided I won't be writing in English about untranslated Finnish books, but this is the first exception. It might be of interest to several people in my friends list, and I think telling a little about the untranslated literary history of my country benefits all sides (I get an opportunity to write from a different perspective to a specific audience), so here goes.
Myytillisiä tarinoita ('Mythical Tales') is a collection of Finnish folktales that contain supernatural elements, and to my knowledge also the most extensive collection. Simonsuuri was one of the most well-known experts of Finnish folklore (another being Antti Aarne, who developed the Aarne-Thompson classification system), and also compiled a type list of Finnish folktales, which is considered his magnum opus. Myytillisiä tarinoita, on the other hand, is aimed more towards mainstream audience and is organized by supernatural categories, and is based on a collection of types that contains 80 000 stories, 15 main categories, and 150 topics. There are 900 stories altogether in the book. A lot of repetition occurs, because some of the stories have been told in different areas of Finland, the form and basic idea varying only slightly. A great source for both writers who plan on using supernatural aspects in their works, but also for those who are interested in Finnish culture in general (although it's a shame there's no translation).
The oldest story, about a child of a giant grabbing a horse and a farmer and using them as her toy, is from Mythologia Fennica (1789), but most are oral tradition from the 19th and early 20th century. As seen in the stories about giants fleeing from approaching Christianity (represented as churches starting to dot the landscape), also referred to as the son's and daughters of Kaleva, the world of Finnish mythology and The Kalevala (1837) are firmly present.
These tales hail from a world where they were believed to be true (apart from one story, where a hissing sound is explained to be a bowl of rising dough, not a ghost), and always from the countryside. Even today, Finland's population is scattered very sparsely, so it's no surprise I saw a documentary once about a sullen middle-aged man who kept bears as his companions. They followed his commands when they went for a walk and enjoyed giving him hugs. There are vast areas of forests, lakes, and fields (and in these areas it's completely possible that a moose or a bear can surprise those who are relaxing at their summer cottage, an essential thing for many Finns), so at a time when technological advances weren't so common yet, it's easy to believe how the mysteries of the wilderness might have inspired these stories, but the stories reveal certain things about the societies of that time as well.
Nobility and obedience are revered, so those who desecrate the dead, or who selfishly don't offer food and a place to stay for a wanderer, are punished. When the dead ask favors, those who are brave to do the task (all of course always are) don't ask any reward. Usually they just want to know their time of death, and soon they'll discover they won't be able to escape their fate, just like in a Greek tragedy. Needless to say, murder and specifically infanticide are frowned upon. In the latter, only women are involved and they're severely punished, usually in the form of an apparition that acts as a kind of torturing conscience. In one of these cases, a maid is justly scared of giving birth, and because of that she refuses to get married. On her deathbead at a later age his would-be sons appear as ghosts and she dies feeling agonizing guilt. No mercy for old maids, eh?
Two of my favorite story variants were included (they're also the most common and well-known, so I'd have been surprised if they hadn't been here):
1) The urban legend of giving a ride to a dead person (you know, the one where a hitchhiker or something similar sits quietly on the back seat, then disappears, and is revealed to have died sometime before) exists here as a person who wants to get into a sleigh, and is then revealed, for example, to be the dead fiancée who wanted to keep his promise he had made to his bride (can also be considered a variation of Lenore).
2) Kirkkoväki ('the church people') are living dead who (usually during Christmas night) rise from their graves and participate in a church service led by a dead priest. They're not malicious, but the living are advised to leave them alone.
Most of the stories are from Southwest Finland (where I live), and they spread to Finland from central Europe via Sweden, and mixed with Finno-Ugric folklore (most influences, like changes in food culture and fashion, spread through Sweden). For that reason, there are phenomena that are recognizable in many cultures, like ghost ships and poltergeists.
On the other hand, a few things were completely new to me and which I found particularly interesting. If you went to sauna too late on a Saturday night, there was a chance you'd end up being skinned by the Devil (and not by the charming dark stranger from the Lucifer TV show, but by something more primeval and mysterious). In 99 percent of the stories, the events are recounted without any gruesome details, but in these sauna stories there's a lot of horror material with the skin hanging in the sauna and everything (for that reason I've put this in the horror shelf, because although not all the supernatural phenomena here feel scary, a lot of the stories have a creepy nightmarish quality to them). Likewise in the very Tales from the Crypt-esque story about a young woman who promises to wait her fiancée from the war, but marries another man, and the fiancée appears in the middle of the wedding festivities with his skinless skull full of maggots and snakes.
Sometimes the dead were falsely thought to be such, which reminded me of the Victorian fears of premature burial. No bells on Finnish graves, though, because the people managed to wake before being buried. During the Russian occupation (the timme of 'isoviha' in Finnish, 'great hate'), some villages decided to protect their church bells by sinking them into a lake. As far as I can remember, churches were considered as the centers of the communities, but I don't know why the bells in particular were so important.
The stories aren't devoid of humour, though. On a Good Friday night, two women sit on a roof with a hymn book, and they are warned not to speak no matter what happens. Well, then a shitting pig walks along the road, and a woman walks behind it and eats the shit with a spoon. A brave gravedigger decides to melt a frozen body by sticking it into an oven. Not surprisingly, it turns brown, and then suddenly it has moved from a place it has stood and the annoyed gravedigger sinks it into a lake and is prosecuted. If you anger a household gnome, it might take a dump in your porridge. If the socks of a corpse (corpses used to be stored in a shed before the burial) are full of holes in the morning, it's been dancing with the other dead during the night. A story of two maids culminates in the other's severed head rolling around the execution site and grabbing the skirt of the other maid, revealing the true identity of a child killer and shouting as it goes: "Oh my, poor Laara, what did you do to me!". A dead fiancée is so mad at his bride for grieving him, that he returns and threatens to twist her neck if she doesn't stop crying. Rude. A whole book has been written about old obscene Finnish poems, but here only one story hints at that direction: a wanderer hangs out at a wedding uninvited, and when a young lady refuses to come dancing with him, a cuckoo starts to call from under her skirt, no matter how hard she tries to push her thighs together.
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