TUONELA July 2023, Jokioinen, Finland

TUONELA , which means “the abode,” is the mythical place of sojourn for the deceased in the religious traditions among Finns, Karelians, Ingrians and speakers of many other Finnish-related languages. The word concerns a sacred place in the otherworld, and is often used as a synonym of the words for the netherworld (Manala, maanalainen : “underworld”) or for the mythical kingdom of the extreme north (Pohjola: “Northern Land”). In oral epics, laments, and lullabies it refers to “the home of the Tuoni,” where Tuoni refers to the ruler of the world of the dead. The term tuonilmainen refers to “the other air,” which is another term for the otherworld. A parallel Mansi word, tammaa (the otherworld) refers to the final destination of the journey of the breathing spirit (lil) of the deceased one in the northernmost edge of the universe. The spirit flies to tammaa across the Arctic Ocean in the shape of a migrating goose. In addition to its meaning as the mythical geographical destination of the spiritual voyage of a soul, tuonela also refers to the filled grave of an individual dead person, as well as the entire village graveyard.

This long term project (2023-) will see me investigate into my Karelian origin (grandmother side), as I reacquaint with the Finnish land and the activities of burning, building, and natural decomposition/transformation processes next to chemigraphy.

Karelian, Ingrian, and Veps cemeteries at the Finnish-Russian border provide a good example of the long-lasting encounter between traditional folk belief and the deep influence of Russian Orthodox Christianity.

Small log huts were erected above the graves, with a window set at one end, towards the direction of home, to let in light, and also to enable the dead to look out and guard the life and behavior of relatives at home for the benefit of family fortune and social control. A hole is made at another end through which the löyly (breathing soul) can leave the grave to visit its former home or to make its final journey to the home of the Tuoni in the shape of a bird.

Similar huts have been found in the cemeteries of other Finno-Ugric peoples (e.g., the Mordvins, Komi, and Mansi) in Russia. The custom of erecting huts in cemeteries was borrowed from the Russians, who erected similar house-shaped, pitched-roof structures over their graves. (These structures were forbidden by the tsarist government in the nineteenth century.) The cutting of trees and the breaking of twigs was forbidden in such places.

Scholars of Finnish folk beliefs, epics, and rituals (Martti Haavio, Uno [Holmberg-]Harva, Lauri Honko, Aili Nenola-Kallio, Juha Pentikäinen, and Anna-Leena Siikala) have emphasized the importance of death as the essential element of Finnish culture. Within that culture the extended family unit extended beyond those members still living on this earth and those who have died and passed on to the “other air”: the realm of Tuoni. The deceased ones had strong power to enforce the values and norms of the society, and could punish the living for violating taboos. The dead were believed to have the same needs as the living —clothing, food, and work tools, so it was the duty of the living to provide these necessities. Of special importance was the provision of Tuoni footwear, in which the dead were dressed with woolen socks. Women who died unmarried were given the kerchiefs that married women wore, so that they could marry in the otherworld. Care for the dead continued beyond the funeral, for they continued to share in the family’s proceeds. On personal and annual commemoration days, plenty of food was taken to the graves. It was believed that the dead ones came to the graves in the form of birds, and ate the food that was left there as a sacrifice.

The topography of Tuonela varies in Finnish folklore and mythology. Beliefs and practices which are clearly based on neighboring cultures and missionary religions have also been adapted to Finnish-Karelian cosmography, and are elaborated in funeral laments, for example. According to these beliefs, the realm of the dead may be situated in heaven or at the northern end of the world, separated from the world of the living by a deep precipice. At the base of the precipice flows the black river of Tuonela, unilluminated by the sun or moon. The river contains a whirling, wild cataract and a stream of fire in which spears, swords, and needles stand upright and the dead can be seen swimming in bloody clothes. The crossing of the river was associated with great danger. The dead could wade through it, or they could cross a bridge made of thin thread. More frequently, the dead were transported across the river in a boat steered by the daughter of Tuoni. If a person heard a ringing in his or her ears, it meant that relatives in Tuonela were calling for the boat.

Fingernails and locks of hair were especially significant in the Karelian and Ingrian beliefs about Tuonela. The nails of the deceased were clipped on Saturday night, cut in two, and slipped into the neck-hole of the deceased person’s shirt. The clippings were thought to help the dead ascend Tuonela mountain, which was smooth as an eggshell. However, the nails had to be cut in pieces; otherwise, the Evil One would make a boat from the whole nails and use it to ferry the deceased to Hell. The picturesque nature of these beliefs about Tuonela stems partly from Baltic-Slavic, Byzantine, and Old Egyptian traditions, and partly from medieval Christian visionary literature and hagiography. In Finnish epics, these traditions have been merged with the older tradition of shamanic visions and journeys to the Land of the Dead. Lemminkäinen, who appears in folklore as both a god and a shaman is an example of how traditional shamanic epics have been combined to include elements of Egyptian Osiris mythology.

Photo credit: Fenia Kotsopoulou / Irina Baldini