Niina is a folklorist and a storyteller who loves to research and explore myths from all around the world.
Cats Were Dear Pets
In the past, Finland was largely an agricultural society. Because they destroyed rats and other rodents, cats were considered very valuable animals. Many households had "lyylieläin," domesticated wild animals that resided on farms, though not in the same way that we today keep pets in our houses. These creatures were fed and cared for by people. They were thought to bring luck to the family and the property. Lyylieläin might, for instance, be a cat, a snake, or even a wild deer.
It was thought that an elf might manifest as a white cat. Also, a white cat might easily assume the guise of ghosts or other agitated spirits.
The belief that cats are the most common witches' pets originated from other countries. Most of the animals associated with shamans in the early shamanistic Finnish tradition were birds. However, there are currently a lot of pagans in Finland that have cats as their spirit animals.
Cats were widely kept as pets because they exterminated rats. In Finnish folklore, where they were thought to be the guardian spirits of structures. Witch hunts began relatively late in Finland and Sweden compared to the rest of Europe. As cats were never thought to be witches' pets in Finland, there were never the widespread cat burnings that occurred in many other European countries.
Born in the Sauna
Every type of animal and plant has its own Emuu in Finnish mythology. The ancestor spirit of the species is called Emuu.
Of course I know the cat’s origin
The incubation of “grey beard”
On as stone was obtained
the cat with a nose of a girl
with the head of a hare
with a tail of Hiisi’s plait of hair
with the claws of a viper snake
with feet of cloudberries
from a wolf the rest of it’s body comes
We learn from this that Elf the Grey Beard was that cat's Emuu. He assembled the cat from various materials and hurled it upon the sauna's stones. The cat has a connection to people (girls' noses), hares (a hare's head), and snakes (claws). It also has a hair plait tail that belongs to Hiisi.
In Finnish mythology, the term "Hiisi" can refer to both a giant and a site of paganism and natural sacredness. This may also illustrate a cat's wild side. The wolf provided the cat with the remainder of its body; if you look closely, the cat's paws resemble cloudberries.
One of my favorite myths in Finnish mythology is about the cat's birth. Given the feline's love for warmth, it makes perfect sense that a cat would be born in a sauna. The sauna would be the logical end of the constant search for the house's warmest (and frequently quietest) place.
Additionally, could the way they constantly search for these warm places represent a subconscious need to search for the warm place where they were born? Saunas are used as symbols for wombs in shamanism. It makes sense that visiting the sauna is associated with life transitions like birth, death, and marriage in Finno-Ugrian tribes.
Birth of the Cat in Finnish Folklore
This myth's premise that cats were made by an elf is another intriguing one. In Finnish folklore, elves are frequently associated with various buildings. According to a widely spread story, the first person to bathe in the sauna eventually transformed into the sauna elf. Additionally, the first resident of the house they built ended up being the house elf.
Elf specifically refers to a protection spirit in Finnish. Some academics have proposed that perhaps the origin story of the cat explains how an elf wanted to make an animal companion guard their crops and homes.
Despite being tamed animals, cats are prone to developing attachments to various objects and environments. Folklore and mythology in Finland frequently have deeper connections to reality than we even understand. Cats are the most prominent home protectors.
Lönnrot, Elias. (2011). Magic Songs of the Finns. Jon Hällström.
© 2022 Niina Pekantytar