The History of the Festival of Lost Souls and the Birth of Tuonela
When the earth was heavy with spirits, a long time ago, there were a people who dwelled beneath the surface of a vast sea. These people were beautiful, with a sparkling glow like the scales the sea spirit, and possessed the power to cast enchantments. In those times the humans of the land would worship these magical beings as gods and in exchange for offerings the sea people would bring them good fortune. The land was plentiful as was the sea and harmony lasted peacefully for many years… until the tall men came from lands far to the north.
Large and daunting, the men brought with them violence and foreign beliefs. Ignorant to our culture, they forced upon us the story of their god, but the people were unwilling to change for they had come to love the spirits that surrounded them. Angry with the resistance, the tall men began to demonize our gods, marking them as evil and forbidding us to worship them. With no other choices the people conformed and offerings stopped.
Years passed and beneath the tides the sea people grew distant from humans. They wondered where they had gone to, but they dare not come up for air. For like an anchor the water’s weight held their magic down. It caressed them fondly and held the tremendous force inside of them. Without it they knew the power would consume them like anger and hatred so often do the human soul. They were pure in the water. They would not leave it.
This purity, however, did not last. As the humans on the surface were overtaken by the tall men so were their souls to evil. This evil spread across the land turning once benevolent spirits into creatures of darkness and eventually crept into the sea. The sea people cast spells to ward off the pollution, but it wasn’t enough. Consumed by fear they resigned themselves to the taint until three young sorcerers came up for air. Above the surface the sorcerers’ magic grew powerful and consumed the land in a dense wood filled with spirits and magic. In the wood the sorcerers passed judgment on the tall men’s crimes. Unable to triumph over such great power, the tall men dubbed this land with the wicked name, Tuonela, and fled. The sorcerers kept this name to ward off any others who would threaten the land.
All seemed well, but without the water to hold their spirits, the sorcerers had become weary and spiteful. Unable to forgive the wickedness of the humans they decided to separate them from magic forever, tucking it away within the wood. It is said that judgment will be passed on all who enter the wood. Those who cannot overcome their trials will be lost to it and like the tides their souls will be led out by the light of the moon. For this reason, on each moonless night, the people of our village string lanterns together and pass them into the wood, hoping that the lit pathway will lead the lost spirits to safety.
Though Sea People are not a part of actual Finnish folklore, Tuonela is. However it was not created by mermaid sorcerers. It’s actually the Finnish underworld and unlike my Tuonela which is run by a witch, the actual Finnish underworld is run by Tuoni, the Finnish God of the dead, his wife Tuonetar, and a team of hand picked Gods. This (at least to me) is one of the oddest interpretations of an underworld in any cultures folklore… and I read a LOT of folk stories. It’s not really cruel or scary at all. It’s supposedly very mundane, reserved for people who’ve lived boring lives and are contented to have boring afterlives. Despite this, most Finnish Gods, many of whom reside in Tuonela, are depicted as being very scary. Huh. I wonder when they get the chance to show that off…
The Spirits and Creatures of Tuonela
One common creature found in Tuonela is called a menninkäinen which can come in many forms. They are usually manifestations of objects that have either received great love or great neglect which will often contribute to their disposition. They are not incapable of magic however it is rare to find one that knows even a single spell. Menninkäinen only speak in rhymes, often only riddles, but if you understand them they can be of great use.
Many of the spirits that wander Tuonela are lost souls, either contented to stay in eternal limbo, or incapable of finding their way out. The weakest of minds will become shapeless, but those with strong wills can sometimes even look human.
It is said that there are elves that can enter into the human world and offer guidance and protection to humans, though we cannot see them. These creatures reside in Tuonela, but are mysterious even to native spirits.
Sea People are beautiful, but above water their magic is unstable. It is said that the song of a mermaid is both the most beautiful sound you will ever hear and the most dangerous magic. If you can manage to bottle one, it’d be worth a fortune.
Menninkäinen are real creatures of Finnish lore, however they do not follow such strict laws. In actuality they’re more like gnomes and, though they do often speak in riddles, it’s not the only way hey know how. Menninkäinen are usually depicted in wars of sorts and remind me more of the trolls that guard bridges, but are described more like leprechauns or fairies that inhabit forests. Originally they were thought to be spirits of dead people but, like many creature of ancient folklore, that’s changed over time.
My depiction of lost spirits isn’t really based on anything in Finnish lore or mythology. There is a bit of correlation to the way spirits in Tuonela are typically portrayed in folk stories, but only up to the eternal limbo thing. Many of the creatures that will be a part of the story are actually more influenced by Shinto religion and Japanese folk tales.
House elves (no, not like in Harry Potter) are a real part of Finnish mythology and are usually described as short men in black cloaks with red hoods. It is said that only humans with great spiritual power can see them. Often they are said to be guarding homes or guiding humans. I’ve heard few tales where these are malevolent beings, but I don’t think it’s unheard of.
Mermaids are an important part of Finnish lore, but not nearly as important as they are to my story. Weirdly, I haven’t read too many Finnish stories with mermaids, but one interesting fact it that Ahti, the Finnish Water God is a a depressed guy who’s always brooding. He’s also very jealous of the attention the sky Gods get from humans. His wife is a downer, too. I thought that was funny.