The Upper Kainuu Story Atlas

Separated by straits and short rivers full of rapids, branching lakes joined by countless little waterways follow one another, surrounded by uneven hills. Wildland villages lie beyond dark wildwoods and networks of dozens of leagues of footpaths. There are many grassy meadows in natural state. The rest of the region is filled with edgeless, wet and vast swamps.

The folk poetry skill of the men and women living deep in the wildwood stems from the wilderness. Everything is under their control.

The soul of the people is fully adapted to the environment. Days may come and go. There is no hurry; life must simply be passed through somehow. There lies the wisdom and skill of life.

Wildwood inhabitants

The house spirit will get the soul of the person who lit the first fire in a house. There is also a spirit in huts where a fire has been burning for three nights. The spirit supervises life and will appear at important turning points: before fires, births and deaths. If the spirit is offended, it may turn bad. In Kaartila in Hyrynsalmi, a spirit would not let people rest alone. At night, it snored and slapped the table with its palm.

Shamans protect villagers by white or black magic. Their magic pouches may contain a dead person’s eye, finger or hair, red thread, teeth and skulls of bears and snakes, graveyard soil and wood burned by lightning. Some wizards are also able to heal. There are other healers in the village as well: makers of shingles bandages, bloodstoppers, masseuses, bloodletters and herbal healers.

Ollis are small, black and big-headed shaman’s helpers. This is a rare sighting of small folk, for they do not often show themselves. In Pyhäntä in Ristijärvi, the old man of Eskola built a cattle bridge a hundred meters long across the swamp one midsummer’s night. He went to the woods with seven axes and kept saying to himself: “All together, all together.” Even today, the bridge can be seen sunken into the swamp.

Water spirits look like fish, cows or horses, with large eyes and large ears. They warn about drowning. The spirit of Aittokoski in Suomussalmi once kept saying: “Time will come, but the man will not.” After that, two Russians drowned in the rapids.

Pearlfishers often see the location of the mussel in a dream. They wash their faces in the river where they’re going to spend the day. If they find a pearl, they can afford to buy a boat and a cow.

Gnomes live in hard to reach mounds of rocks and in crevices. They have toes in the back of one foot and in the front of the other. The Pahakangas giant’s church in Hakokylä in Hyrynsalmi is inhabited by gnomes.

Forest spirits may get angry and trap cattle under forest cover. The cattle is brought back through rites. One will wear a cow collar and quicksilver and make field glasses out of pinewood by digging two branches out of a piece of wood. When you look into the forest through them, you will see the cattle. The forest spirit itself may appear in the shape of a red, hornless and round cow.

Bear hunters are strongmen. Bear Kyröläinen eats bears’ innards, jumps, roars and kills bears like roaches on a spit. A bear can do nothing to Kyröläinen, but can charm an average mortal and make him weak. A horse’s gallop becomes so heavy that it will sink into the dry ground all the way up to its pasterns.

Maids and farm hands sell their skins from one Hallowmas to the next and frolic during römppäviikko in the late autumn. That is the time for relaxing after the labors of the past year, dancing around in reindeer shoes with a fiddle squeaking in the corner.

The mill brownie is the first grinder who aids a lonely miller. If the miller dozes off, the last grains are being ground and the mill will soon be running empty, the brownie will wake him up: “The mill is running empty.” There is a famous brownie living in the Komulanköngäs mill in Syväjoki in Hyrynsalmi.

Tar burners believe that if a snake swims across a river with a roll of burning bark in its mouth and takes it to a tar pit, the tar will burn overnight. Tar shippers brave the terrible might of the powers of nature in the rapids. The angry spirits of rapids demand heavy sacrifices. A tar contract is a bond, and freeing yourself from it will often take your entire life.

Ugly spirits carry children, and may feed them snot and horse manure. In the house of Keträ in Kiannankylä in Suomussalmi, an ugly spirit carried a child. The spirit was a large man with big hands, long nails and one eye in the middle of the forehead like a horse. Sometimes an ugly spirit appears in the form of fog.

All a lumberjack needs is a log under his head for a pillow and a sheath belt for a cover. The logging cabin is crudely built. Once there was so much forest that it eclipsed the sun. Now they are all owned by the Kajaani company and have been chopped down. Many have sold their forests and lands. One of the lumberjacks might have become a vagabond. There is a strange restlessness in them.

Russian travelling salesmen carry furs, fish, hemp, sweets, silk and poetry. Ananias Omenainen and Snappy Yrjö sell knick-knacks, buttons and awls. They are outlaws. If you kill a Russian travelling salesman, no one will come after you. A naturally-formed path has led through Kainuu from the Gulf of Botnia to Vienan Kem.

Midwives release children into this world. When labor begins, an oil lamp will be lit on the windowsill. The granny of Selkäniemi will then know that it’s time to row across the lake to aid in childbirth. There are dozens of children living in the cabins.

Apparitions are restless dead. They light fires on the edges of fields in the heat of summer, toss objects from the stove and poke and pinch at sleeping people. They are restless, because they have not been buried. If a nightmare comes to trouble you, it is the work of a dead person.

A devil or restless dead may sometimes appear as a long, stretching figure. Devils peek from the treetops and watch from the height of the beams above. Sometimes a devil will appear in the form of an ugly dog.

Fairies, phantoms and haunts are evil church folk. They are one-eyed wretches, battered and crippled; some are missing an arm, others a leg. Fairies have been seen around the church of Ristijärvi. When you pick graveyard soil into your magic pouch, fairies will come with it. They are used for evil deeds.

The lords and masters are in a class of their own. Regional doctors fight against heart disease, heartburn and worms. Pharmacists sell devil’s shit and black drops for rheumatism. Modest foresters walk around in frieze suits and eat bark bread. Vicars collect tithes.

Witches are villagers with evil eyes. They cut up sheep’s wool and pieces of bull’s leather. It is believed that they can turn themselves into a pitchfork standing in the corner of a cowshed. If you cut off its handle, a woman from your own village may break her back. One must constantly seek protection from the envious.

Paras collect riches for their witch mistresses and appear in the form of an ugly bird or frog. A para’s head is like a ball of yarn. A para is created by churning naked by a streamless pond chanting: “y a streamless pond chanting: "Come to me, para, grow up, para, to bear milk and butter. No ears to hear, no eyes to see. I'll give you half my body and half my soul.”

Burn-beaters light up their fires when the weather is calm and spread the fire to the clearance with burning twigs. In the old days, forests belonged to no one. They were common property.

Paupers and beggars eat stinging gruel. Life is miserable. They lie in heaps of straw in the corner of the sauna; no clothes, no nothing. The time of the imperial revolution was bad. No food came from Russia and everyone was hungry.

The Russian bloodhounds spread terror in Kainuu between the 16th and 18th centuries. People fled into hidden saunas and planted oats seeds on the snow. Greater Wrath left a deep fear.

Criminals, such as Tiina the Poisoner with her fox poison, make sure that the people of Kytömäki won’t live too long. She was the greatest criminal known in the district of Kainuu. Evil Paavo from Auho in Puolanka from the 18th century is also remembered well. He speared, robbed and dumped into the swamp eight of his contemporaries.

(Sources: SKS KRA, SKNA, the Oulu regional archive, Myllyniemi Satumaarit: field work interviews 2003-2013.)