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Home > Books & Reviews > Pagan > Finnish Magic Search

Book Review:
Finnish Magic:
A Nation of Wizards, A World of Spirits

Author: Robert Nelson
Trade Paperback, 192 pages
Publisher: Llewellyn
Publication date: February 1999
ISBN: 1567184898
Price & More Info: Click Here


I admit I wasn't exactly jumping with high expectations when I heard about this book in 1999. "Llewellyn, publishing something about Finnish magic, written by somebody who might have some Finnish roots, but... this might be 'interesting,'" I thought to myself. When I heard some early comments on it, I knew this book wasn't going to be anywhere high up on my "to get" list. Now that I've finally read it, even with my nonexistent expectations I have to say this book managed to be even less than what I wanted it to be.

The first chapter of the book attempts to give insight on the Finnish people and our origins, quickly moving into Finns in America. However, what is given is a rather odd account, especially at times. Had Mr. Nelson actually used up-to-date scholarly works on Finnish history and the history of Finnish immigration into America, he would have probably done much better. Instead, he's relying on a book about the history of log cabins in America and a genealogy book. The nearest thing in the bibliography relating to Finnish origins is something called "Finlandia The Racial Composition, The Language and Brief History of the Finnish People" by S.C. Olin from the year 1957, which you just can't call the up-to-date, latest word on the subject.

The author relies very heavily on the Kalevala as a source on Finnish Paganism and magic. There are two translations of Kalevala listed in his bibliography. However, aside from a book called "Of Finnish Ways," there are absolutely no other sources on this subject mentioned. This tells me that either Mr. Nelson hasn't really bothered to actually study the subject he's writing about or just hasn't bothered to search for the (admittedly not easiest to find) books and publications about Finnish Paganism that do exist. Given the fact that Robert Nelson has been academically trained (with a Ph.D.) and should know something about the importance of sources (and the quality and relevance of the sources used), I'm highly tempted to say that he just wanted to get a book out and to heck with providing properly researched information.

From this very first chapter, this book is riddled with misspellings of Finnish words. The use of umlauts is shaky at best. Some words having those pesky little dots on some a's and o's in the correct places, while other words have them where they should lack them. All in all, it could be compared to a book about Celts telling that "Druds" had "ouks" as their sacred trees, or the Hellenic Pagans worship a goddess called "Athuna". The fact that Finnish is a language spoken by a very small number of people isn't an excuse for this many spelling errors, most of which could have been easily corrected by any native speaker. In the age of the Internet, finding somebody skilled enough to proofread the book's Finnish language texts would have been very easy.

I'll address a few of the problems I encountered while reading this book briefly as picking them apart one by one would take much more space than a normal book review -- and much more time than the book deserves.

Because of his reliance upon the Kalevala, Nelson is able to give very little information on the different Finnish deities, spirits, haltija (which could be sometimes referred to as "faeries") of the land, and all its inhabitants. What little is given, is a scratch on the surface with no actual depth or usefulness. He tries to patch his lack of knowledge on Finnish deities by providing several pages on the Norse deities. There are Swedish speaking Finns living, as they have long been, on the western shores of Finland. Despite these contacts with the Swedes, neither the Norse deities nor the Norse way were as generally celebrated in Finland as Nelson would like to have you believe. He draws far-fetched parallels between the traditions of the Swedes and the Finns, for example in names, but doesn't seem to take into account the fact that Finland was for centuries under Swedish rule and thus got heavy influences from the Swedish language (in for example the names of the days) which was the official language of the ruling classes and of record keeping.

Nelson mentions Santa Claus (in Finnish "joulupukki", literally "yule billy-goat" or "yule-buck") and tells about his origins being the story of Saint Nicholas but notes that "for some reason we have depicted Santa as a Finnish magus" (p. 22), flying through the air with his reindeer and wonders if the red and white clothing of Santa is a remiscent of the colors of the Fly Agaric mushroom. What he fails to mention is that the Finnish "Santa" has more probable origins in the earlier figure of "Kekripukki", Kekri being the old end-of-summer/new-year celebration. As Christianity gained more of a hold, some of the celebrations of Kekri moved to Christmas and some to New Year, the pukki-character being one of the former. The traditional costume of the Finnish "pukki" is a lamb's fur coat turned inside out (this is what I remember from my childhood, for example and it's still the costume used in many families for their Santa) and sometimes sported horns and a mask made of bark. This jolly character wasn't that much interested in children, but with his sexual nature -- being a billy-goat -- more in the somewhat older members of the family. He could also give you a spanking with the twigs he was carrying, if you had been naughty. The red and white costume of Santa so familiar today, is often attributed to ad-campaign of the Coca Cola company. Santa flying with reindeer isn't of Finnish origins either.

The author mentions the bear cult and sacred trees and groves (fencing them is something that isn't generally mentioned in Finnish sources, although it is mentioned in The Golden Bough). However, he does not tell about bear skull pines, pines or spruces with a flat (elk-eaten) top called "Tapio's table" used as altars. The sacred family trees playing an integral part of old Finnish beliefs are passed over with a short passage: "In former days, many Finnish families had a lucky family tree." He then provides instructions on cutting a ladder into a tree to create a sacred tree for ritual work. (p. 88) Not only was the family tree much more than a "lucky tree", cutting a ladder into one would be considered quite disrespectful. Nelson mentions "sejda" (seita), sacred stones in Lapland, but doesn't mention sacrificial cup-stones found throughout Finland at all.

In his chapter on trance work and ritual Nelson gives basic instructions for what he views or portrays as Finnish trance working methods. Parts of this chapter can be called disrespectful of the old ways, parts can be labeled dangerous. He makes getting into a trance and travelling to the netherworld sound like something fun and easy. Just trance and go! In reality, the first journey to the underworld was definitely not considered a piece of cake, but something potentially quite dangerous. A student Shaman is said to have gone below (with his/her teacher), been killed and dismembered, and then put back together there and s/he would come back a changed person, a Shaman now able to help others. Even an experienced Shaman would often have a helping hand, for example, the drummer, who could call him back from the journey if need be. Not everything you meet in the other worlds are nice, not everybody/thing presenting itself as a "guide" is trustworthy!

This information on Shamanism leaves a lot to be desired. The author seems to be well aware of his shortcomings here and states: "The informed reader will notice that this sounds very similar to the ceremonies of the American Indians." (p. 99) Pardon my sarcastic tones, but this informed reader has indeed noticed this, and checking the bibliography, has noticed that the sources include Carlos Castaneda and a few books on general shamanistic techniques. What this informed reader notices is the total lack of scientific studies - or, for that matter, any books - on Finnish, Lappish, Fenno-Ugric or what's most easily available, Siberian Shamanism. The author continues: "And indeed it should. Shamanism whether practiced by the Navajo, the Korean, the Irkutsk, or the Finn is essentially the same. There may be variants in costume, structure of instruments, or other manifestations, but the basic structure and purpose is the same." (p. 99) No statement on the similarities between shamanistic goals and techniques does, in my opinion, justify the passing of general Neo-Shamanistic systems as "Finnish Shamanism". Especially when the things the author notes as being the only differences between different people and given in his text aren't that Finnish to begin with.

The chapter on Sauna gives rather odd information mixed with rather good information. Unfortunately, this chapter includes material that can be downright dangerous. He says: "After sitting in a very hot sauna for just a while, you may begin to feel light-headed or even giddy. This can be the first step to trance." (p. 115) Trancing in sauna? That is an invitation to getting dehydrated and passing out, dears. If you do get light-headed, it can be due to the sauna being badly ventilated and therefore you are getting oxygen deprived, or that you are suffering from dehydration. Whatever it is, get out, cool down slowly by taking a shower and drink something. Feeling light-headed and giddy but deciding to stay in sauna in wait for the trance, can lead to... not trancing, but passing out and burning yourself badly. The sauna is hot, after all. While sauna can be an excellent place to prepare for trance work or magic, it's not a place to go into a trance.

Another dangerous bit is instructions to always have a source of cold water to cool off with after sauna. Yes, getting directly out of sauna, jumping in a cold lake or other body of water or even rolling around in snow is part of old Finnish traditions. However, we also tend to know the dangers involved and that good (or at least relatively good) health is a must for such activities. Cooling off in cold water directly after sauna can be fatal to people with heart or blood pressure problems. If you are having health problems, cool down slowly in warm water. Don't blindly follow instructions in this book and risk your life. Oh, I should also mention that the drawing depicting a sauna is just plain silly and if constructed like that, would cause the whole place to merrily go down in flames.

In his account of sacred times, Nelson gives new and full moon among times of seasonal festivals, with no actual data to back this claim up. Some other festivals given as traditional had me raising my eyebrows with "Oh? What's this?" and parts of the explanations of what is/was going on in the festivals I did agree with had me smiling wryly.

The last major chapter in the book deals with symbols of magic. He reprints a couple of images of Lappish deities well known from other sources, gives hannunvaakuna (misspelled as "hannunvarkuna") and then goes forward stating: "Many of the commonly used symbols were borrowed from the Norse." (p. 143). He mentions Thor's hammer, but doesn't explain that the similar but not same symbol used here in Finland is not Thor's hammer, but Ukko's hammer. Similar, but not the same. He mentions the "sun wheel" (swastika), but doesn't mention the "sun cross" or the usage of the pentagram as a protective symbol. After giving some rather Icelandic looking talisman images, Nelson goes on and devotes several pages to runes. Having earlier -- and quite correctly -- stated that the Finnish tradition was an oral one, he now turns around and claims the runes have "widespread use among Finnic people" (p. 145). They might be found from areas populated by related peoples, but they weren't in use by the Finns.

Some of the parts in the book may be useful (for example "Learning from Nature"), but those parts are mostly given in such general terms you can find the same, similar or better information in other books. Not everything that could be useful is of Finnish Pagan origins!

All in all, Robert Nelson has taken a pinch of Finnish Paganism and magic, added a truck-load of other types of Shamanism (Native American and Neo-Shamanistic) and Norse, mixed in with his ideas and watered down the whole soup down to the point of being hardly useful. Then he's given this creation of his a label which says: "Finnish Magic", hoping that the old "give something a name and you'll know it" will work. Unfortunately, the end result isn't an eclectic but working system, but a simplified, watered down mixture spiced with Finnish ways. It's such a shame that a little-known but rich tradition didn't get a better representation than this.

I can't in good conscience recommend this book to anybody, except perhaps as an example of a badly researched, badly written book -- a "how not to" instead of a "how to" example. As I said earlier, not everything in this book is bad, but what is there needs to be taken not with a pinch, but a whole package, of salt. Instead of this book, I recommend reading the Kalevala, the Kanteletar (now available in English) and searching out scholarly works on Finnish history and traditions.

Special Note: The reviewer is a Pagan from Finland.

Reviewed by Faerie K.

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