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Laura Stark-Ahola encourages Finns to feel proud of their great, rich tradition. The rest of the world should recognise that richness and immense value of the Finnish folklore archives.

    Women used magic to shape their world

    Satu Lehtinen


Laura Stark-Ahola, an American-born folklorist, excavated a body of material on women's magic from the folklore archives of the Finnish Literature Society. The job was not an easy one: it took several years to put together all the material, as it was classified under a variety of genre headings. Women's own special rites could be detected in poems and incantions, beliefs and narratives alike.

Stark-Arola's heroic labour resulted in a doctoral dissertation on Finnish magic, focusing on women's rites from the last few centuries. As late as in the 19th century, magic was a natural part of women's everyday lives. The material of the dissertation includes rites related to pairing, child rearing, managing after marriage in the new home of the mother-in-law, caring for cattle, and protection of property.

Stark-Arola's dissertation is heroic also in the sense that before the 1980s, the appreciation of women's magic among folklorists was scarce. Although there were plenty of descriptions of the rites, little was known of what women themselves were seeking in the rites they performed.

"My attempt is to prove that magic is a tool for revealing women's objectives. It reveals what they considered important and what they were concerned about," says Stark-Arola.


Getting a good husband

When setting out to work, the researcher expected to find mainly rites connected to fertility and childbirth, but there was a surprise in store for her. Women's own rites were primarily focused around pairing, the establishment and management of a relationship. The largest number of incantations and poems were related to love magic, lempi-raising, and cattle protection.

In the opinion of Stark-Arola, researchers should re-evaluate whether childbearing was the main issue in the woman's life after all. There were usually more children than actually necessary, and their raising was a mere sideline.

"Magic indicates that marriage was an important aim. There were a lot of tensions connected to a relationship, and getting married was not something that could be taken for granted. It had to be manipulated and protected through magic."

The community expected the woman to sit and wait for her husband. She was not allowed to make her own choices. Women, however, refused to accept this role, interfering instead by using magic. In order to get the boy of her fancy, the maiden dropped some of her menstrual blood in his coffee cup or liquor bottle. After drinking it, the man wanted no one but the maiden and could not live without her.

Stark-Arola says people truly believed in the power of the love magic. Men feared having to marry against their own will and developed their own anti-rites. Sadly enough for the women, the power of their magic often failed to last over the wedding. Magic marriages were told to end in disaster.

"The community disapproved of magic in which the woman adopted the aggressive role. This is why there were countless exemplary stories of the unhappy marriages," remarks Stark-Arola.


Marriage luck through Lempi-Bathing

In addition to love magic, women had another, more approved-of method of increasing their luck in love. A lempi-raising, a ritual that involved sauna bathing and incantations, increased the maiden's sex appeal or attractiveness, lempi, and thus her charm in the eyes of potential suitors.

"Men had nothing against lempi-raising. It was a natural force, it was not regarded as a threat like love magic."

Although the ritual was secret, everyone knew about it. There was little privacy, and rumours travelled around the village. Even a sauna being warmed at a "wrong" time aroused curiosity. Smoke coming out of the chimney in the middle of the week made young people in particular to sneak behind the windows to find out what was going on.

In the 1960s there were still people who recalled lempi-raising, but the ritual itself seems to have died out by the Second World War. Paradoxically enough, most of the information of this practice was collected from male informants.


Women as gatekeepers

For a peasant woman, the highest aim in life was to become the mistress of a household. When a young woman married, with or without the assistance of magic, she stepped into a new life under the domineering eye of her mother-in-law. Life became a fight for control over the home.

Magic helped the young woman in the new situation as well. After proving that she belonged to the new household and acted for its good, she was accepted. Some women chose to emphasise their housekeeping skills; others resorted to magic. According to Stark-Arola, for young women magic was a way of seeking respect.

In her household, the woman had a lot to guard. Through magic she protected her home and family against evil from outside. A neighbour was a potential possessor of the evil eye. The 'ruining' of children and cattle was particularly feared. Through magic, women also protected the "butter luck" and thus the wealth of the household.

The woman was able to protect her children and cattle by her väki, the dynamic force of her vagina. The researcher relates an example of a cattle ritual performed before letting the cattle out in the spring.

"The woman stood over the cowshed door while the cattle went between her legs. Her force protected the cattle from jealous neighbours and wild animals alike."

The woman's husband could also seek protection against wild animals from her. He saw to the protection of his hunting equipment, but only his wife had the power to protect him.

The woman's positive force only functioned within the boundaries of the household. When she crossed the boundaries, she became subject to supernormal powers, and could fall ill or even become insane through exterior dynamic forces, such as kalmanväki, related to death.

"Men had the right to see the world outside, while for the woman it was safest to stay home. Folk beliefs and narratives supported this notion. They were an indirect method of subordinating women."


Using influence behind the curtain

Through magic, women pursued influence. Sometimes they failed to content themselves with protecting their families or improving the luck of the household. Through negative magic they aimed at stealing luck from their neighbours, be it related to butter or fertility.

Magic could also be used in pursuing marriage above one's social class. There were a lot of rumours about the tricks of women who had allegedly gained their higher status through magic.

In the opinion of the researcher, the issue of influence is more complicated than it seems. Instead of influence, Stark-Arola would rather that researchers looked at the tensions within the family and the household.

"The issue of influence could not be tackled explicitly. The maintenance of marital harmony was important for the well-being of the household. Both spouses had to work for that aim. Although women also practised harmful magic, it was rarely explicitly criticised. Criticism would have brought forth the issues of authority behind the magic."

Although men had political power, women had influence within their homes. According to Stark-Arola, it is incorrect to claim that women had only little influence.

"If we approach women's lives from their own perspective, we can see that they did not feel subordinate. Through magic, peasant women were able to prove they were active members of their community."

Laura Stark-Arola: Magic, Body and Social Order. The Construction of Gender Through Women's Private Rituals in Traditional Finland. Finnish Literature Society - Helsinki. Studia Fennica. Folkloristica 5. 331 pages. Tammer-Paino Oy, Tampere 1998. ISBN 951-746-051-1. ISSN 1235-1946.