Niina is a folklorist and a storyteller who loves to research and explore myths from all around the world.
Birches in Finno-Baltic Folklore
Birches have a 300-year life span and can reach heights of 40 meters. Birches have long been revered by numerous Finno-Ugric, Baltic, and Slavic tribes, as well as other people. The word "birch" in Russian (berjoza) implies protection.
The word for birch in the Komi and Udmurt languages means burned clearing. Burnt clearing referred to the burning of woods to make way for agriculture. On occasion, too much forest was destroyed, and these bare fields were replaced with birches. Birch has always stood for innocence, virtue, warmth, and the summer season. Birch is described by the proto-Finno-Ugric word koivu in Finnish. Birch was regarded as the tree of life by the Moravians. The sap flowing inside the tree represented rebirth and the continuation of life. The leaves signified the starry sky and ancestors.
Birch has long been a popular building and carving material in Finland for items like wheels, plates, cups, skis, firewood, sleighs, and handles for hammers and axes. As much as plastic is used today, birchbark was a versatile material. It was used to make tinder, plates, sacks, shoes, and even early writing papers by the Finno-Ugric people of antiquity.
Birch Trees in Finnish Folklore
Birch twigs were used as wands to cast protective spells over the cattle in Finland and Russia. These "wands" were used to guard cows, and the milk they produced was thought to be superior to birch sap. Some nations in Southern Europe also followed a similar tradition. Homes were once decked with birch branches for Mother's Day and the summer solstice festival because they were thought to symbolize the coming of summer. For the entire upcoming year, bundles constructed of birch twigs were prepared during the summer.
The branches that were used to make up the bundle each had a unique symbolism. The bundles stood for virtue and wellness. Mahlakuu, which translates to "the sap month," was one of the historic Finnish names for March. After a long winter, some individuals drank birch sap for refreshment. The best sap trees may even have their owners' names on them. One could be fined or required to provide two equivalent birch trees if they cut down a sap tree. Beer and lemonade were prepared using the sap.
It was consumed with dinner and used as a medication to treat scurvy, bladder issues, and limb discomfort. The rash and pain were treated with clothing soaked in hot water that young birch leaves had been boiled in. Burns and toothaches have been treated using birch tree tar.
Connections With the Deities
Birch is associated with numerous gods, including Thor; the Norse deity of thunder, Brigid; the Irish goddess of fire and forgery; and the Germanic goddess Berchta, who was the defender of women and children. Venus was a Roman goddess of love and sex. Birch is associated with the nature goddess Luonnottaret in Finnish mythology.
Birch sap magic: To prevent sunburn in the summer, girls cleansed their faces with the first sap in the spring. The magic would never work until they first tasted the sap.
Willows in Mythology
In the Finnish language, the word "Willow" has two different names. There is a willow bush called "paju." The word "Paju" has Finno-Ugric roots, while the word "raita," which comes from Baltic languages and means "willow tree," also has Finno-Ugric roots. Willow has a 50–80 year lifespan and experiences rapid growth. Willow flourishes in areas with plenty of sunlight and close to bodies of water.
Forest Gods and Goddesses in Finnish Mythology
In Finland and Estonia, Willow branches were seen as "magic branches" to help people locate hidden fountains. Willows were also utilized to create fishing traps and baskets. Various items were made from willow bark. It was used to dye threads and leather, and it was also utilized to weave shoes and fishing nets.
Willow bark was used to make tea by shamans and folk magicians. Rheumatism, headaches, and fever were all treated with it. Willow branches were traditionally gathered into a bowl, and the location of the branches was utilized to predict the weather before Christianity moved to Western Finland. Willow branches were a popular material for magic wands in Eastern Finland. They were used to carry out springtime rites to safeguard livestock and the land.
A custom known as "virpominen" is practised in Western Finland. On Palm Sunday, touching someone lightly with a willow twig was customary while reciting a rhyme to wish them health and happiness. Western Finland still engages in this practice (the day is not always Palm Sunday, but it usually takes place during Easter week).
Children dress up as witches and knock on doors, offering sweets and money in exchange for brilliantly adorned willow twigs. It reminds me a little bit of trick-or-treating on Halloween. In the nineteenth century, customs travelled from Sweden to western Finland.
Sunday is known as Urbepäev in Estonia, which refers to the flowering of willows. In Estonia, it was customary to gently tap oversleeping family members with a willow branch in the morning to wake them up. Sometimes the person who woke you up was the housemaster, and they also read a poem that wished you health and longevity. People indulged in cookies and eggs to celebrate. It was also common practice in Estonia to cast spells to defend livestock and agricultural areas.
Since palm trees don't grow in the northern hemisphere, both the Lutheran and Orthodox churches substituted willow branches for palm leaves when they appeared in the Bible in Scandinavia, Russia, and the Baltic countries. Willow branches play a significant role in the Orthodox church's Easter celebrations in Finland and Estonia. The willow is also a sign of nature's regeneration and the soil's awakening.
Lönnrot, Elias. (2011). Magic Songs of the Finns. Jon Hällström.