Ukko, the Finnish God of Thunder: Separating Pagan Roots from Christian Accretions - Part One

By Salo, Unto | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Ukko, the Finnish God of Thunder: Separating Pagan Roots from Christian Accretions - Part One


Salo, Unto, Mankind Quarterly


This is the first portion of Unto Salo's comprehensive study of the primeval Finnish god of thunder, fire and lightning which because of its length appears in The Mankind Quarterly in two consecutive parts. It seeks to trace the mythic history of Ukko from it earliest identifiable origins, investigating its relationship to the Indo-European God of Thunder, until its eventual extinction under the influence of Christianity. He achieves this through an interdisciplinary synthesis that seeks to integrate evidence from linguistic, archaeological and literary records.

Key Words: Finnish mythology; Lapps; Saami; Ilmari/Ukko; Thor; Zeus; Thunderbird; Thundergod; Neolithic; Bronze Age; Iron Age; lightning; thunderbolts; iron-forging.

The Mythology of the Ancient Finns and its Sources

The mythology of the ancient Finns has survived until recent times in folk traditions: beliefs, sayings, customs, ancient epic poems, and incantations. In other words, in material that has been written down very late, mainly since the 170Os. Descriptions and notes are from the period, when Christianity had already strongly influenced pagan traditions by initially changing and eventually destroying them. Can one hope to reconstruct the pure form of the Pre-Christian world of these deities? We must, at the very least, take into account the changes that have occurred in the sources.

The oldest written description of the ancient Finnish mythology dates back to the year 1551. The Renaissanceeducated bishop, Mikael Agricola, describes in his foreword to the Psalter of David the pantheon of the Häme and Karelian Finns, clearly modeled on the pantheons of the ancient Greeks and Romans with their twelve main deities. Agricola's description is, however, rather short. It is further constrained by its meter and rhyme, and is thus understandably both limited and inaccurate, too. It is nonetheless irreplaceable for the historical study of the ancient religion.

The incompleteness of Agricola's description is seen in the fact that he only described the gods of the Häme and Karelian peoples and did not even mention the beliefs of the Finns of Finland Proper (in southwestern Finland) and Ostrobothnia. This may, however, be due to an assumption that the gods of the Harne people represented the western Finns' gods, and that the gods of the Karelians represented the eastern Finnish pantheon. We can, therefore, consider his descriptions as generalizations that do not depict regional variation within these two major areas of Finland although more recent sources reveal that such variation existed. It is also worth noting that Agricola does not mention the God of Thunder of the Häme Finns and the southwestern Finns at all, although an abundance of folk traditions of this god were to some extent already recorded during the 1600s and 1700s. An additional inaccuracy is that Agricola has classified certain spirits as gods so as to include in the Olympus of the Häme and Karelian people the same number of gods as the pantheons of the Greeks and Romans of antiquity.

Iron Age Society and its Gods

Folk traditions and Agricola's writings demonstrate that the ancient Finns did not have a hierarchically-organized family of gods like that of the Greeks and Romans of Antiquity. Iron Age society did not require a hierarchically-organized pantheon because it was to a large extent an unstratified society. However, those who had become wealthy through the fur trade and by collecting taxes in Lapland possessed magnificent weapons and abundant jewelry. There were, therefore, some tendencies toward social stratification, which were noticeable throughout the entire Iron Age starting during the Older Roman Iron Age (AD 50-200). This stratification was expressed mainly in burial goods and constructions, very rarely in monumental and exceptional grave structures, as with certain graves in Laitila (in Finland Proper), Tyrvää (Vammala in Satakunta), Laihia (in southern Ostrobothnia) dating back to the Younger Roman Iron Age (AD 200-400), and certain graves of the Migration Period (AD 400-600) in southern Ostrobothnia. …

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