During Easter, people used to ward off evil with magic – now they seek safety elsewhere

29.3.2018
For many of us, the return of spring and sunshine is a sign of joy and hope: summer is coming! However, in traditional agrarian societies, spring was a distressing time. Modern urbanites are not worried about the harvest, but the old superstitions live on.

Kevät keikkuen tulevi, suvi suuta vääristellen (“Spring comes swaying, summer frowns and grimaces”) – which can be interpreted as food stores running low and hunger being a constant companion. Harvest season in the autumn is a long way off, after a laborious and uncertain summer. This made people interested in omens and superstitions. These were particularly popular during the turning points of the spring, such as Shrove Tuesday, Easter and the day that cattle were turned out to pasture.  These moments of transition meant that the door was open to the mystical realm.

Superstition keeps people in line

“Many church holidays feature superstitions relating to appropriate behaviour,” says Juha Nirkko, archive researcher at the Finnish Literature Society.

Working, napping or loud noises were sometimes frowned upon. These rules originated from the church’s efforts to transform the old pagan holidays into Christian ones. People were kept in line by threatening them with punishment from a higher power if they disrespected the holy day.

According to Risto Pulkkinen, docent in the study of religions, church instructions advised missionaries to replace pagan celebrations with Christian holidays as far back as the 9th century.

“The plan was to change traditions through syncretism. Pre-Christian traditions and holidays were given Christian meanings, and churches were built on old holy sites. The assumption was that people would gradually turn to the church –but the process wasn’t quite that simple.”

Long linens

The tradition is still to go sledding on Shrove Tuesday to ensure good grain and flax crops in the summer. Such practices are called sympathetic magic.

“Women were to let their hair down and brush it to ensure the flax fibres would be long and easy to comb. If the mistress of the house slid down the hill on her bare bottom, the flax would turn out particularly fine,” Risto Pulkkinen explains.

If people started work early on Shrove Tuesday and finished everything on time, the same would continue through the year. No fire could be made in the house on Shrove Tuesday to avoid flies in the summer, while spinning yarn was thought to cause “circling disease”, actually a symptom of listeriosis, in sheep. There may be a pagan holiday underlying the Shrove traditions, as there is also a tradition that the bones from pig trotters eaten on the day were to be kept intact and buried in early summer as a gift to the forest spirit.

Luck as a zero-sum game

According to Risto Pulkkinen, Finnish Easter traditions seem to be largely related to Christianity. Easter was a terrifying time. Starting on Shrove Tuesday, the focus turned to Christ’s suffering and forces of evil – such as the witches who would sabotage farmers – walked the earth, waiting for the three days during which Christ would be gone from the world. All magic was particularly potent. On a more practical side, food stores were running low and survival uncertain.

Women could sneak into their neighbours’ cowsheds to steal their luck by milking their cows or even harming them. Farming and cattle were central to people’s survival, and no method to ensure better luck with them was overlooked, including magic.

“The belief was that there was a limited amount of luck in the world, and that it could be moved around by magic,” Juha Nirkko explains.

Happier Easter superstitions have to do with Easter Sunday and the resurrection of Christ. People would look at the sun through a thin silk cloth, and the more the sun danced, the better the year would be. And if the wind moved the cloth, the sun would indeed seem to be moving.

Harvest omens

In an agrarian society, turning the cattle out to pasture and ploughing the fields were pivotal moments. The weather during the day was thought to predict the harvest and the risk of predators.

A variety of security measures were necessary. For example, cattle could be made to walk under a woman’s open legs so that her power would protect them. Farmers would walk around the pasture with a piece of iron and smear a potent substance along its perimeter, such as foul-smelling resin or rancid seal fat. According to Risto Pulkkinen, the ploughing of the fields was always started by the head of the household, freshly out of the sauna and wearing clean clothes. The start made all the difference.

“Christian farmers would start by ploughing the sign of the cross, while those with more pagan leanings would begin with a pentagram. Some would do both, just to be safe.”

As we move further from an agrarian way of life, we lose the related cultural images. However, there are two things that do not go out of fashion: sex and death.

“They remain important regardless of the century. People still do magic to find a mate on Midsummer, maybe jokingly, and All Saint’s Day is taken seriously,” Pulkkinen describes.

April fools?

Current traditions surrounding the turning points of the year are marked with carnivals instead of the reading of omens. According to Risto Pulkkinen, May Day, Midsummer and the Christmas party season, which has replaced the Finnish tradition of kekri celebrations in November, give people an opportunity to escape from their everyday lives.

“We still need holidays to mark the year, moments when we can exit the passage of time for a while.”

We may have firmly held habits or beliefs that we follow because it gives a sense of security, or because it is just how things have always been done.

“Beliefs, hopes and assumptions have always influenced our lives. The omens may not be true, but we want to believe in them,” Juha Nirkko explains.

Nirkko himself has a spring tradition of visiting his summer cabin while there is still snow on the ground.

“Perhaps I have a subconscious belief that something will go wrong if I can’t get to the cabin early enough.”

April Fools’ Day has been celebrated as a day of jokes and fun since the 19th century. The day has been used to train children and the gullible to think twice about what they hear. Nirkko believes that April fool jokes work particularly well in printed media, because the traditional media is still largely respected as a bastion of truth.

“Although in our post-truth times, it’s April Fools every day,” Nirkko quips.