The Karelian people, an ethnic group residing primarily in the border regions of Finland and Russia, possess a rich tapestry of beliefs, mythology, and rituals that form a significant part of their cultural heritage. This essay provides an introductory overview of these aspects, focusing particularly on the deities, their personalities, stories, and any unique beliefs specific to Karelian culture.

Karelian mythology, deeply intertwined with Finnish and other Finno-Ugric mythologies, draws from a wellspring of ancient traditions and beliefs. It is characterized by a pantheon of deities, each embodying various aspects of nature and human life. These myths were traditionally transmitted orally, often through runo songs – a form of narrative poetry.

Characteristics of Runo Songs

Runo songs are a fundamental aspect of Karelian and broader Finno-Ugric cultural heritage, particularly significant in their role in preserving and transmitting folklore, mythology, and historical narratives. These traditional songs represent a unique blend of poetry, music, and storytelling, deeply embedded in the cultural identity of the Karelian people.

Oral Tradition: Runo songs are primarily part of an oral tradition, passed down through generations. Before the advent of written records, these songs were the primary means of preserving the history, myths, and beliefs of the people.

Poetic Structure: The songs are characterized by their distinctive meter. The most common is the trochaic tetrameter, known in Finnish as "Kalevala meter". This structure lends a rhythmic and hypnotic quality to the songs, making them both memorable and captivating.

Thematic Content: Runo songs encompass a wide range of themes, from mythological tales and heroic epics to practical advice, love stories, laments, and nature descriptions. They reflect the values, struggles, and daily life of the Karelian people.

Shamanistic Elements: Some runo songs contain elements of shamanism, including invocations, spells, and charms. These songs were often used in rituals and had a significant role in connecting with the spiritual realm.

Performance: The performance of runo songs is an art in itself. Traditionally, they were sung by skilled bards, known as "runolaulajat" in Finnish, who were adept at not only reciting the verses but also improvising and adapting the songs to the context of the performance.

Melody and Instruments: While some runo songs are recited, many are sung with a simple, often repetitive melody. Instruments, particularly the kantele (a stringed instrument central to Finnish and Karelian folk music), may accompany the songs, enhancing their narrative and emotional impact.

Kantele from Center for World Music

Cultural and Historical Significance

Preservation of Mythology: Runo songs have been instrumental in preserving ancient Finno-Ugric mythology, most notably encapsulated in the Finnish national epic, the "Kalevala", which was compiled from these oral poems by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century.

Cultural Identity: For the Karelian people, runo songs are a vital link to their ancestral heritage. They offer a window into the past, revealing insights into the spiritual beliefs, social structures, and historical events of the Karelian and broader Finno-Ugric communities.

Influence on Literature and Arts: The structure and themes of runo songs have influenced Finnish and Karelian literature, music, and other art forms. Their impact is evident in the works of many Finnish and Karelian poets, composers, and artists who have drawn inspiration from these traditional songs.

Endangered Tradition: In modern times, the tradition of runo singing has diminished, with fewer practitioners of this art form. Efforts are being made to preserve this cultural heritage through recordings, teachings, and academic studies.

The "Kalevala"

The "Kalevala" is a monumental work of Finnish literature and one of the most significant cultural achievements in Finland's history. Compiled and edited by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, it is a comprehensive epic poem based on traditional Finnish and Karelian folklore, mythology, and runo songs.

Composition and Structure

Creation by Elias Lönnrot: Lönnrot, a physician, folklorist, and philologist, compiled the "Kalevala" over several years in the early 19th century. He collected traditional oral poetry and songs during numerous field trips to rural Finland and Karelia, where these traditions were still vibrant.

Two Editions: The "Kalevala" was first published in 1835 (known as the "Old Kalevala") and consisted of 32 cantos (or runs). Lönnrot later expanded and reworked the epic, publishing a second edition in 1849, which contained 50 cantos and is commonly referred to as the "New Kalevala."

Themes and Content

Mythological and Heroic Tales: The "Kalevala" narrates a series of interconnected mythological and heroic tales. Central to the epic are the stories of Väinämöinen, a wise old shaman and a central figure in Finnish mythology; Ilmarinen, the eternal blacksmith; and Lemminkäinen, a daring and adventurous hero.

Creation Myth: The opening cantos of the "Kalevala" recount a creation myth, describing the origins of the earth, sky, and sea, as well as the birth of Väinämöinen, who emerges from the cosmic waters.

The Sampo: A significant portion of the epic revolves around the magical artifact known as the Sampo, a symbol of prosperity and fortune. The making of the Sampo by Ilmarinen and the subsequent battles over its possession form a key narrative arc. The Sampo is eventually destroyed, bringing about the end of the epic. Wikipedia

Cultural and Literary Significance

National Epic: The "Kalevala" is considered the national epic of Finland. It played a crucial role in shaping Finnish national identity, especially during the period of rising nationalism in the 19th century and the movement towards independence from Russia.

Influence on Finnish Culture: The epic has had a profound influence on various aspects of Finnish culture, including literature, music, visual arts, and national identity. It inspired numerous works, including the compositions of Jean Sibelius, Finland's most renowned composer.

Linguistic Impact: The "Kalevala" was instrumental in the development of the Finnish language and its establishment as a literary language. Lönnrot's work contributed significantly to the standardization of Finnish and helped to elevate its status in a predominantly Swedish-speaking society.

International Recognition: Beyond Finland, the "Kalevala" has gained international recognition and has been translated into several languages. It has contributed to the world's literary heritage and has been compared to other great epics like Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey."

Karelian Deities and Their Qualities

  • Ukko: The chief deity in Karelian mythology. He is the god of the sky, weather, and the harvest. Portrayed as a powerful figure, Ukko wields a hammer or an axe, controlling thunderstorms and granting fertility to the land.

  • Äkräs: The deity of fertility and protector of plants, especially beans, peas, and other leguminous crops. Äkräs plays a vital role in ensuring the prosperity of crops, a critical aspect of agrarian Karelian life.

  • Tapio: A forest spirit or deity, Tapio rules over the woods and is crucial for hunters. He is often depicted as a majestic figure with a moss-covered beard, ensuring the balance of the forest and guiding the fortunes of those who hunt within it.

  • Ahti: The deity of the sea, lakes, and fishing, Ahti is often depicted as a merman or a figure closely associated with water. Fishermen revered Ahti, offering him sacrifices for a bountiful catch.

  • Louhi: A prominent figure in the Finnish epic 'Kalevala', which is also central to Karelian mythology. Louhi is the mistress of the Northland (Pohjola), often portrayed as a powerful witch with the ability to shape-shift and manipulate the weather.

Mythological Creatures and Heroes

Karelian mythology is also rich in its array of mythological creatures and heroes:

Mythological Heroes

  • Väinämöinen: A central figure in the 'Kalevala', Väinämöinen is a wise old sage and a powerful shaman. His adventures and exploits are a cornerstone of the mythological narrative. He is often depicted as a musician, playing the kantele, a stringed instrument. Wikipedia

  • Ilmarinen: A prominent figure in Karelian mythology, Ilmarinen is the eternal blacksmith and the creator of the sky. He is renowned for his skill and is often depicted crafting extraordinary artifacts, including the magical Sampo, a symbol of prosperity and good fortune. Wikipedia

  • Lemminkäinen: A heroic figure, Lemminkäinen is known for his daring and adventurous spirit. He is often involved in quests and battles, showcasing both his bravery and his susceptibility to pride and recklessness. His resurrection story is one of the most poignant in Karelian lore. Wikipedia

  • Kullervo: A tragic hero whose life is marked by hardship and sorrow. Kullervo's story is one of fate and vengeance, embodying themes of destiny and the tragic consequences of one's actions. His narrative is a powerful exploration of the human condition in Karelian mythology. Wikipedia

  • Seppo Ilmarinen: Distinct from Ilmarinen, Seppo Ilmarinen is a master smith and cultural hero known for forging miraculous creations. His skills and the objects he creates often play crucial roles in various mythological narratives.

Mythological Creatures

  • Iku-Turso: A sea monster, often appearing in myths as a formidable antagonist. He is associated with war and disasters, typically depicted as a terrifying creature emerging from the depths of the sea. Wikipedia

  • Hiisi: Forest spirits or trolls, Hiisi vary in their descriptions from malevolent to mischievous. They are often associated with sacred groves and hills, embodying the untamed aspect of nature. Wikipedia

  • Haltijas: Spirits or deities that are guardians of specific places, such as forests, water bodies, and even homes. They are respected and often appeased with offerings to ensure harmony and avoid their wrath. Wikipedia

  • Ajatar: Also known as Ajattara, she is often depicted as an evil forest spirit. Ajatar is believed to spread disease and misfortune, lurking in the depths of the woods and feared by those who venture into her realm. Wikipedia

  • Otso: The spirit of the bear, revered and often referred to euphemistically as "Otso". The bear is considered a sacred animal, and its hunting involves elaborate rituals. Otso is not just an animal but a powerful spirit in Karelian belief. Wikipedia

  • Liekkiö: A fire spirit or creature, often depicted as a small, elusive being. Liekkiö is believed to control the behavior of fire, playing a significant role in a culture where fire was central to survival and comfort. Wikipedia

  • Tuoni and Tuonetar: The rulers of the underworld, Tuoni (male) and Tuonetar (female), oversee the realm of the dead. They play a crucial role in myths concerning the afterlife, death, and the journey of souls. Wikipedia

  • Louhikäärme: A dragon-like creature often associated with Louhi, the powerful witch of the Northland. This creature symbolizes the formidable challenges and obstacles faced by heroes in their quests. Wikipedia

  • Tonttu: Similar to elves or domestic spirits, Tonttus are guardian spirits of the home. They are believed to protect the household and ensure the well-being of its inhabitants, provided they are respected and properly appeased. Wikipedia

Rituals and Beliefs

Rituals in Karelian culture are deeply rooted in the agricultural calendar and the natural world. They include:

  • Sowing and Harvest Rituals: These rituals are performed to appease deities like Ukko and Äkräs, ensuring a successful crop. Offerings and songs form an integral part of these rituals.

  • Hunting Ceremonies: Hunters sought the favor of Tapio before a hunt, often leaving offerings at sacred groves or stones. These rituals were crucial for a successful hunt and to maintain the balance of the forest.

  • Bear Cult: The bear holds a special place in Karelian mythology. It is revered and feared, considered a sacred animal. The killing of a bear involved elaborate rituals, symbolizing respect and honor to the spirit of the bear.

Unique Beliefs

One unique aspect of Karelian belief is the concept of 'soul dualism'. It posits that a person possesses two souls – a life soul and a free soul. The life soul is tied to bodily functions, whereas the free soul can leave the body during sleep or shamanistic practices. This dualism is a central theme in understanding Karelian views on life, death, and the afterlife.

The concept of "soul dualism" in Karelian belief, as well as in wider Finno-Ugric cultures, is a fascinating and complex aspect of their spiritual worldview. This notion posits that every individual possesses not one, but two souls, each with distinct functions and characteristics. This dualistic view of the soul reflects a deep connection with both the physical and spiritual realms.

Components of Soul Dualism

Life Soul (Elävä Sielu): This aspect of the soul is closely tied to the physical body and is considered responsible for the biological processes of life. It is often associated with breath or blood, seen as the animating force that sustains life. The life soul is what gives vitality and health to an individual. It is typically viewed as staying with the body throughout a person's life and is directly affected by physical well-being.

Free Soul (Vapaa Sielu): In contrast, the free soul is believed to be more ethereal and less bound to the physical body. It can leave the body under certain circumstances, such as during dreams, trances, or shamanistic practices. The free soul is capable of traveling to other realms, communicating with spirits, and experiencing things beyond the physical world. It is associated with an individual's personality, emotions, and spiritual well-being.

Implications and Beliefs

  • Afterlife: In Karelian belief, the journey of the free soul after death is of great importance. It is thought that after death, the free soul leaves the body to travel to the afterworld or to be reincarnated, depending on the cultural and individual beliefs.

  • Shamanism and Spiritual Practices: The concept of the free soul is central in shamanistic practices. Shamans are believed to have the ability to consciously control their free soul, sending it on journeys to the spirit world for guidance, healing, or to commune with ancestors.

  • Dreams and Visions: Dreams are often seen as the experiences of the free soul. When a person dreams, it is believed that their free soul is roaming freely, encountering spirits, ancestors, or gaining foresight.

  • Protection and Vulnerability: The free soul is considered vulnerable when it is outside the body. Thus, various rituals, charms, and protective measures are often used in Karelian culture to safeguard the free soul, especially during shamanistic practices or in times of illness.

Cultural Significance

This dualistic concept of the soul reflects a holistic understanding of human existence in Karelian and Finno-Ugric cultures, acknowledging the interplay between the physical and spiritual worlds. It underscores the belief in a life force that transcends physical existence, yet is intimately connected to the corporeal experience. Soul dualism, therefore, is not just a metaphysical concept but also a practical aspect of daily life, influencing rituals, social practices, and personal beliefs.


In conclusion, the Karelian people's beliefs, mythology, and rituals offer a fascinating glimpse into a culture that intricately weaves together the natural world, spiritual realms, and human existence. Through their deities, heroes, and rituals, the Karelians have preserved a rich heritage that continues to be a source of cultural identity and historical interest.

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