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  • Finns, Snow and Magic December 23, 2013

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    The earliest eyewitness account of the Laplanders (the Sami) to leak into European writing comes in Alfred’s translation of Orosius (late ninth century). It depends on the testimony of one Othere (aka Ohthere), a Viking who had travelled along the freezing coast of Norway and who had encountered the peoples of the White Sea. Note that ‘Finns’ (Finnar in Norse) is the typical Scandinavian denomination at this date for the Sub-Arctic peoples and should not be confused with the Soviet-smashing Finns of Mannerheim and Helsinki.

    All the land to his right during his whole voyage, was uncultivated and without inhabitants, except a few fishermen, fowlers, and hunters, all of whom were Finlanders; and he had nothing but the wide sea on his left all the way. The Biarmians, indeed, had well cultivated their land; though Othere and his crew durst not enter upon it; but the land of the Torne-Finnas was all waste, and it was only occasionally inhabited by hunters, and fishermen, and fowlers. The Biarmians told him many stories, both about their own land and about the other countries around them; but Othere knew not how much truth there was in them, because he had not an opportunity of seeing with his own eyes. It seemed, however, to him, that the Finlanders and Biarmians spoke nearly the same language. The principal object of his voyage, indeed, was already gained; which was, to increase the discovery of the land, and on account of the horse-whales, because they have very beautiful bone in their teeth, some of which they brought to the king, and their hides are good for ship-ropes. This sort of whale is much less than the other kinds, it is not longer commonly than seven ells: but in his own country (Othere says) is the best whale-hunting; there the whales are eight and forty ells long, and the largest fifty; of these, he said, he once killed (six in company) sixty in two days. He was a very rich man in the possession of those animals, in which their principal wealth consists, namely, such as are naturally wild. He had then, when he came to seek King Alfred, six hundred deer, all tamed by himself, and not purchased. They call them rein-deer. Of these six were stall-reins, or decoy deer, which are very valuable amongst the Finlanders, because they catch the wild deer with them.

    From this land of cold and wonder came magic. At least that is what the Vikings and their descendants decided to believe. For them the Finns/Laplanders/Sami were gifted in the elemental arts and were able to move the sea, earth and particularly the heavens. Here is a much later, probably thirteenth-century text. As a very vague point of speculation is it possible that the thread with knots and the ship-ropes noted by Othere’s amaneusis were, in fact, linked: probably not but worth a try…

    Winlandia is a country along the mountains of Norway on the east, extending on the shore of the ocean; it is not very fertile except in grass and forest; the people are barbarously savage and ugly, and practise magical arts, therefore they offer for sale and sell wind to those who sail along their coasts, or who are becalmed among them. They make balls of thread and tie various knots on them, and tell them to untie three or more knots of the ball, according to the strength of wind that is desired. By making magic with these [the knots] through their heathen practices, they set the demons in motion, and raise a greater or less wind, according as they loosen more or fewer knots in the thread, and sometimes they bring about such a wind that the unfortunate ones who place reliance on such things perish by a righteous judgment.

    This text offers a few problems. Winlandia could be Finland but it could also be Vinland the Good, the mythical Viking paradise somewhere to the south of Newfoundland. If this were the case, and attribution would be an uphill struggle, then the ‘savage and ugly’ people would be Amerindians. The Finnar were sometimes confused in Viking minds with other Sub-Antarctic peoples: and there are some interesting references from Orkney…)  The name Win could even have produced the legend about winds or perhaps the legend about the winds gave the name? What is certain is that the connections between magic and the Finns/Lapplanders predated this late medieval geographical text. There are reference to the Finnar in some of the sagas: again and again making the link with magic (and skiing!) – saga heroes went among the Finns to learn spells. In medieval Norway it was illegal to believe in witches or Finns, an intriguing coupling: can you imagine a modern government outlawing belief in the Welsh, say. Finns were nicknamed Trolls or Dwarfs or Elves, underlining their sorceror potential.  Then there is the much discussed possibility that Laplander shamanism had leaked into Norse belief: seidr, a Norse visionary practice involving chanting sounds suspiciously shamanic and Sami (another post another day).

    Why was this association made and kept? Very probably two reasons: other reasons, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com As Christianity drove Norse magic out or at least down into the family cellar then the Sami retained a certain power and natural purity that the Vikings had lost. Then, second, it is always the case that magic is stronger on the other side of the fence: it is the ‘other’ who has a direct telephone line to the gods, our neighbours not ourselves. Memories of insane debates about the efficacy of halluninogenic drugs… There are also allegations that Santa Claus is a hallucinogenic-stuffed Sami shaman ‘flying’ through the air with his totem reindeers: but let’s leave that for 2014.

    8 Jan 2014: Leif writes ‘Your ‘Finns, Snow and Magic’ post raises some questions. You write: ‘In medieval Norway it was illegal to believe in witches or Finns, an intriguing coupling: can you imagine a modern government outlawing belief in the Welsh, say.’ If you refer to the same law Nansen mentions (on page 374): ‘the crime of going to the Finns, or to Finmark, to have one’s fortune told.’ If your source and Nansen’s refer to the same law, one might assume Nansen’s version the more accurate.  The quote in your post starting ‘Winlandia is a country along… ‘ is clearly about Sami magic the Sami are strongly associated with wind-selling. The Skrælings of Vinland are not associated with wind-selling. (At least insofar as I have read.)  So why place Sami in Winlandia? (What follows is entirely my speculation.) In Europe the location of Greenland was confused. You’ll find a map that shows Greenland twice, once in north Norway and once north of Norway. The Old Norse did not distinguish between the Inuit of Greenland, and the natives of the New World- both were Skrælings. Therefore it’s entirely possible that Finns and Skælings could be confused. PS In Norwegian, ‘gand’ is a word for magic that is exclusively associated with the Sami. ‘gand-finn’ is a Sami sorcerer. Otherwise, the word for sorcerer is ‘trollman’- a wonderful word, in my opinion.’ Thanks Leif!! There follows an extract from Nansen sent in by Leif.

    This is from Nantzen (374) Lastly we have Adam of Bremen’s description of the Finns, which contains nothing new of note. He mentions “Finnédi” or “Finvedi” between Sweden and Norway (near Vermeland) and “Skridfinns” in northern Scandinavia. Besides these he speaks of a small people who come down at intervals, once a year or every three years, from the mountains, and who are probably the Mountain Lapps with their reindeer. He mentions also a people skilled in magic on the shores of the northern ocean [Finmark], and skin-clad men in the forests of the north, who may be Fishing Lapps or Forest Lapps.  It may be quoted as a strong piece of evidence that a people called Finns must have lived in old times in south Norway, that the oldest Christian laws, of about 1150, for the most southern jurisdictions, the Borgathing and Eidsivathing, visit with the severest penalty of the law the crime of going to the Finns, or to Finmark, to have one’s fortune told [cf. A. M. Hansen, 1907, p. 79]. It may seem improbable that here (e.g., as far south as Bohuslen) this should have referred to Finns (Lapps) in the north, in what is now called Finmark; and we should be rather inclined to believe it to refer to the Finns (and Finnédi) mentioned by Jordanes and Adam of Bremen nearer at hand, in the forest tracts between Norway and Sweden, where we still have a Finnskog, which, however, is generally connected with the later immigration of Kvæns or Finns from Finland (the so-called wood-devils; compare also Finmarken between Lier and Modum). But it might be thought that these Christian laws were compiled more or less from laws enacted for northern Norway, and thus provisions of this kind, which were only adapted for that part of the country, were included. And it must be borne in mind that the northern Finns (Lapps) in particular had an ancient reputation for proficiency in magic and soothsaying, and, further, that Finmark in those times was often regarded as extending much farther south than now, as far as Jemteland and Herjedalen. (410) Of great interest is Peder Claussön Friis’s description of the Lapps, which is derived from the Helgelander, Judge Jon Simonssön (ob. 1575). He draws a distinction between “Sea Finns,” who live on the fjords, and “Lappe-Finns” or “Mountain Finns,” “who roam about the great mountains,” “and both sorts are also called ‘Gann-Finns’ on account of the magic they use, which they call ‘Gan.’” “The Finns [i.e., Lapps] are a thin and skinny folk, and yet much stronger than other men, as can be proved by their bows, which a Norse Man cannot draw half so far as the Finns can. They are very black and brown on their bodies, and are hasty and evil-tempered folk, as though they had the nature of bears.”

    8 Jan 2014: BG writes ‘The association of Finns with weather magic is mentioned by Richard Henry Dana in ‘Two Years Before the Mast’. (Chapter 6) The ship’s cook is worried that the carpenter is a Finn. Dana reassures him that the man is German, then: ‘I asked him the reason for this, and found that he was fully possessed with the notion that Fins are wizards, and especially have power over winds and storms. I tried to reason with him about it, but he had the best of all arguments, from experience, at hand, and was not to be moved. He had been in a vessel at the Sandwich Islands, in which the sailmaker was a Fin ,and could do anything he was of a mind to. This sailmaker kept a junk bottle in his berth, which was always just half full of rum, though he got drunk upon it nearly every day. He had seen him sit for hours together, talking to this bottle, which he stood up before him on the table. The same man cut his throat in his berth, and everybody said he was possessed. He had heard of ships, too, beating up the gulf of Finland against a headwind, and having a ship heave in sight astern, overhaul and pass them, with as fair a wind as could blow, and all studding sails out, and find she was from Finland. “Oh ho!” said he; “I’ve seen too much of them men to want to see em ‘board a ship. If they can’t have their own way, they’ll play the d—l with you. As I still doubted, he said he would leave it to John, who was the oldest seaman on board, and would know, if anybody did. John, to be sure, was the oldest, and at the same time the most ignorant, man in the ship, but I consented to have him called. The cook stated the matter to him, and John, as I anticipated, sided with the cook, and said that he himself had been in a ship where they had a head wind for a fortnight, and the captain found out at last that one of the men, whom he had had some hard words with a short time before, was a Fin and immediately told him if he didn’t stop the head wind he would shut him down in the forepeak. The Fin would not give in, and the captain shut him down in the forepeak and would not give him anything to eat. The Fin held out for a day and a half, when he could not stand it any longer, and did something or other which brought the wind round again, and they let him up. “There,” said the cook. “What do you think o’ dat?” I told him I had no doubt it was true, and that it would be odd if the wind had not changed in fifteen days, Fin or no Fin. “Oh,” says he, “go ‘way! You think, ’cause you been to college, you know better than anybody. You know better than them ‘as seen it with their own eyes. You wait till you’ve been to sea as long as I have, and you’ll know.”’ Thanks BG!

    16 Feb 2014: Leif writes in with picturea and relevant extract comments.

    wind magic

    Pic source: ‘Witches have the power to darken the light of the moon, call up storms, uproot trees and plants and weaken cattle and beasts of burden.’ Olaus Magnus, Histora de gentibus septentrionalibus (History of the northern people) 1555. book 3, chapter 15 Kvideland, Reimund & Sehmsdorf, Henning K. (editors) Scandinavian folk belief and legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1988 43.1 The trial of Quive Baardsen p 191-2 On May 9, 1627, court was in session at Kassevog in the presence of bailiff Niels Knudsen and jury. The bailiff called on a Finn by the name of Quive Baardsen and asked him what he did the time he made sailing wind for Niels Jonsen in Rognsund two years before. Then the latter answered and confessed that on the eighth day before All Saints Day, during the said year, the aforesaid Niels came to him in Rognsund and asked that he make sailing wind for him to get to Kassevog, saying that he would pay him when he came back. He answered, yes, took off his right shoe, and washed his bare foot in the sea while the water was quiet and said: “Wind to land! Wind to land!” And then they got favorable sailing wind. And he asked them not to set too much sail before they passed Klubbenes; after that they could set as much sail as the boat would tolerate. Soon thereafter, the Saturday before All Saints Day, Trine, the wife of Oluf 0rensen, came to him and asked him to make sailing wind so that her husband, who was with Niels Jonsen, could come home soon. And she promised to give him a jug of beer for his trouble. He answered, yes, took a young pig, threw it into the sea, and said: “Wind to sea! Wind to sea!” But the pig squirmed too much in the sun, and the wind became too strong. Then he said to Trine: “God have mercy on them! I am afraid that they have taken off too early and that the wind is too strong. If they took off at the beginning of the storm, may God have mercy, or they will not return.” The aforementioned Niels Jonsen, Oluf 0rensen, and three of Jensen’s hired hands from Kasvog remained in that storm. Then the bailiff asked if he had made sailing wind other times. He answered: “Yes, I have often made wind for people, and a quarter of a year ago I made wind for a Hiemland ship lying before Kareken because they requested that I make wind for them. So I washed my foot, as I said before, and got a gentle southern wind.” Furthermore the bailiff asked whether he knew how to do sorcery. He answered that he had never taken anything for his runic spells. The bailiff asked him what the rune spells were. When one wants to cast rune spells, one takes a rune drum; it is made of pine root and covered with ox skin or buckskin. Then one uses a piece of wood as a handle under the drum, and hooves from every kind of animal in this country are hung around the drum. And nine lines are painted on the drum with alder bark, which is used to paint the seats of benches. The first line represents their god, the second the sun, and the third the moon, and then they mark all kinds of animals that can bring them luck or inflict harm on their enemies. And when two magicians want to test whose art is the strongest, they paint two ox reindeer on the drum, which butt each other with their horns. Whichever one turns out to be the strongest, his master is strongest and his art is best. And when they want to ask their apostle something, they take some small pieces of copper and hang them on the wings of a copper bird, which they place on the drum. Then they beat it with a horn hammer lined with beaver skin. The bird hops around on the drum and finally stops on one of the lines. Then his master knows immediately what the answer is. And to protect the master or whoever else may be in the hut from accident, they beat the drum with the hammer. He whose bird falls from the drum will not live long. Then he was asked how long ago he learned these things. He answered that when he was first introduced to such things he was only a little boy. He was also asked how often he had been involved in beating such a drum. He answered that once many magicians came together to beat the drum to see whose art was strongest. And he was also asked who taught him to make wind. He said: “A Finn, now dead, by the name of Laurits Qoern, before the time of the war.” At the following court session he was condemned to death by fire and stake.Editor’s commentary The Lapp Quive Baardsen was clearly a specialist in making sailing wind by magic. His services were sought by the community. From the trial transcript, it appears that when his practice resulted in the death of some of his clients, however, he was legally held responsible. Quive Baardsen describes how the Lapps used their rune drums to put themselves into trances in which to communicate with the spirit world. In the. eyes of the court, these practices must have seemed heretical; they were reason enough to condemn the accused to death. See Bente G. Alver, Heksetro og trolddom (1971), 116-19. The original protocol of the trial of Quive Baardsen is found in manuscript form in the Statsarkiv, Trondheim (Vardöhus Lens Justitsprotokol. Printed in Hulda Rutberg, Hexprocesser i norska Finnmarken (1918), 25-27. Reprinted in Alver, Heksetro og trolddom (1971),116-19.