Forest Spirits and Dull Stories: Toleration as Governing Emotion in Seventeenth-Century Finland

By Raisa Maria Toivo, University of Tampere

In 1675, a church visitation was held at Kesälahti, a parish located in the county of Kexholm at the eastern border of Finland, which had been annexed to Sweden from Russia in 1618 and had set the stage for a bloody war between Sweden and Russia, and between the Lutheran and Orthodox local populations, from 1656 to1658. Going through the routine list of questions for visitations, the provost also asked about the spiritual state of the parish and the religious offences that were generally known but yet not resolved.


An informant turned up with an interesting story: the inhabitants of the village of Oinaanvaara, in the neighbouring parish of Jaakkima, practiced forbidden arts and idolatry. His information was hearsay, but nevertheless disturbing enough for the provost to pursue the matter when his visitation rounds reached Jaakkima. He held a preliminary inquiry with the local vicar, and sent his results for further investigation in the local secular court’s next session. Witnesses said that on St Peter’s days at the end of each June, the villagers of Oinaanvaara gathered for a party on a certain hill hidden away in the forest. When they reached the top of the hill, they prepared a gruel with milk and egg. When the food was ready the villagers would fish the egg from the gruel and place it on the rocks, and one of the villagers would climb a tree and call for the forest spirits to come and eat. The rest of the food was then consumed by the villagers. If someone mentioned the name ‘Jesus Christ’ during the meal, his nose and mouth were punched bloody. Anyone not willing to take part was likewise punched, as was anyone who spread word of the secret parties.[1]

The matter seemed grave. The provincial governor, who led the court session, ordered the whole village of Oinaanvaara to be summoned to the next court session and the bailiff was ordered to act as prosecutor so the matter would not be forgotten. Problems arose, however, because although the local bailiff travelled around the parish no factual witnesses could be found.

Four years later, the new vicar of Jaakkima sent a letter to the court of law, explaining that though he had not heard of such rumours before the provostand bailiff’s inquires he had tried to find out more on the matter. But he too had been unable to find anyone who knew anything about it. The only thing people talked about was that the ‘Russians’ who had lived in the village before the Rupture War had practiced ‘all sorts of idolatry and superstition’. Since the former inhabitants had emigrated to Russia directly after the war, they could not be examined. The court then tried to follow the chains of hearsay to establish where the accusation had originated. Finally, they concluded that a few men, including the one who originally reported the matter, had discussed the habits of the Russians and had gotten confused about whether something still was or, indeed, had ever really been going on.[2]

There is no mention of a witches’ sabbath or Blåkulla – a hill or sometimes a field, described as the place of the witches’ meeting in Sweden – or the Devil appearing as a person in this case. The ingredients of the narrative, however – the gathering at a place outside the village, the meal and the aversion to Christ – are similar to stories of witches’ sabbaths, adjusted to the circumstances of the Karelian areas.[3] Religious war propaganda had projected images of subversion and threat onto the enemy: a combination of familiar details that rang true for the Karelian villagers, like the gruel and the climbing of a tree, with strange and scary images of violence and secrecy made for a believable demonisation of the ‘other’. Such images were meant to stir up fear and hatred, although by the late 1670s they also evoked curiosity and probably some morbid amusement.

At various places in Europe, similar rumours sparked chain trials that led to witch-hunts and other persecutions, where emotions had gotten out of hand.[4] In Kexholm, however, the stories and the contained emotions were meticulously controlled. Indeed, when witnesses were called but not found, and the story was retold each time more and more concisely, with less and less detail and less and less expectation of anything real being found, the local authorities effectively stripped the story of its original agitation and excitement.

When the court traced, bit by bit, the evolution of the rumours, they effectually cut the story into short bits that lost their narrative power, leaving just a boring recital of who had repeated the rumours to whom. As the case was handled at public court sessions, which the local populace attended for duty and amusement, the repeated processes formed a group enactment or a communal emotional practice, to loosely use the term coined by Monique Scheer.[5] It has been shown by psychologists that not only deep enactments – such as being personally involved in court actions – but also superficial enactments – such as merely watching court proceeding as a non-participant – can amplify emotions.[6] If they can amplify, they can also suppress or transform. This happened in Jaakkima: Whatever the parishioners may have felt privately, their shared experience gradually created a shared rationalisation of emotion: what might have looked like a fearsome conspiracy of idolaters and apostates was now just a rather dull story.

Similar tactics were sometimes used in German cities. Alison Rowlandsnotes that while witch-hunts raged in the one town, the neighbouring one carefully dampened all rumours that could lead to matters getting out of control.[7]

The early modern period has often been called the period of persecution or persecution societies. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries faced the Wars of Religion as well as heresy trials and witch-hunts. It has also been called a period of Confessionalisation, when states committed themselves to religious confessions, and churches and states sought to reform the lives of their subjects – leading to policies of control, uniformity and oppression. On the other hand, as argued by scholars such as Bridget Heal, the presence of different confessions on German multi-confessional cities or areas like Kexholm needed pragmatic tolerance. [8] The period of persecution was, therefore, also a period of toleration, even though this most often meant nothing more than putting up with essentially unwanted things.

As seventeenth-century Sweden aspired to lead the way for Lutherans, if not Protestants, Swedish Lutheranism developed as a sort of middle ground religion, one with an identity centered on avoiding extremism. Religious polemic was often engaged in, but was also defused by the constant tendency of the authorities, both lay and secular, to see deviant religious behaviour – such as offering at home altars, celebrating Catholic saintdays, using rosaries or mixing non-Christian deities in their prayers – as ignorance and superstition rather than heresy, apostasy or blasphemy. Minor offences were punished with small fines and admonitions that did not have the same potential to cause upheaval as executions did. Tolerance became a pragmatic means to maintain peace within society and avoid disturbance: based not on compassion, understanding or any other strong emotion, but rather on strict governance and the suppression of emotion.

Raisa Maria Toivo is an Academy Research Fellow at Trivium Center for Classical, Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Tampere. Her work concentrates on the history of lived religion, persecution and toleration, and witchcraft and magic. From 2018, she will be Director of a program on Lived Religion at the Center of Excellence for the History of Experience(s) at the University of Tampere. Raisa’s publications include Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Society: Finland and the Wider European Experience (Ashgate, 2008) and Faith and Magic in Early Modern Finland (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[1] National Archives of Finland, Province of Kexholm KO, District court Records, Jaakkima, 10–11 March 1675, a 4: 22–23..

[2] National Archives of Finland, Province of Kexholm KO, District court records, Uukuniemi, 28–29 March 1679, a 4:184–5..

[3] For an analysis of European Sabbath images, see, Rita Voltmer, ‘Witch-Finders, Witch-Hunters or Kings of the Sabbath? The Prominent Role of Men in the Mass Persecutions of the Rhine-Meuse Area (16th–17th Centuries)’, in: Witchcraft and Masculinities in the Early Modern World, ed. by Alison Rowlands (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 74–99. On Sweden specifically, see Jari Eilola, Rajapinnoilla. Sallitun ja kielletyn määritteleminen 1600-luvun jälkipuoliskon noituus- ja taikuustapauksissa (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2003).

[4] Lyndal Roper, The Witch-Craze (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

[5] Monique Scheer, ‘Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And is That What Makes Them Have a History?) A Bourdieuan Approach to Understanding Emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2012): 193–220.

[6] Tim Hallet, ‘Emotional Feedback and Amplification in Social Interaction’, The Sociological Quarterly, 44 (2003): 705–26.

[7] Alison Rowlands, Witchcraft Narratives in Germany: Rothenburg 1561–1652 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003).

[8] Bridget Heal, The Cult of the Virgin Mary in Early modern Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).


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