The ancient people of Finland feared and respected the thick evergreen forests that surrounded them. The forest either offered the necessities of life, or of their demise. The realm was mysterious, dangerous, yet rewarding and necessary at the same time.
Hunters who ventured there consistently were aware of the bounty and follies to be found in an evergreen forest. Thus, when they entered this realm, they made sure to pray to Tapio, the forest god who’d guide and protect them on their hunts.
Tapio and his tree family rarely moved about. However, Tapio didn’t need to. As one source stated, he could branch out his knowledge and let it “whisper through his foliage (Pantheon, 2010).
With deforestation and nearly every part of the ancient Finnish forest having been explored, the mystery behind them has nearly vanished. As a result, the significance of Tapio has been minimized as a legend of the past with some cultural significance. However, this doesn’t mean that Tapio is dead and long forgotten.
The old forest god is the inspiration for type of alcoholic drink, a name for a section of Helsinki, and a reoccurring character in the pages of Marvel Comics. While his old dominion is vanishing, Tapio is finding new ones.
According to ancient oral tradition and Elias Lonnrot’s collection of Finnish folklore, “Kalevala,” Tapio had a unique appearance. He was a tree, in particular an evergreen fir tree that was common in the region. Also, he had a beard made of lichen and eyebrows of moss.
He was not alone. Tapio was the patriarch of forest gods. He had a wife, Mielikki, mistress of the forest. Tapio referred to her as the “All-pleasing Woman” As Godchecker, a website dedicated to mythological gods, states: “It hard to know what to make of that. How do you please a tree?”
Unlike his wife, Tapio’s children had distinct roles. His son, Nyyrikki was the god of hunting and cattle. His daughter, Tuulikki made sure the forest was stocked with crucial game for hunting.
Tapio also had a maid. Unlike the others, Tellervo, she was not a tree. Instead she was the golden haired deity who looked after the milking process of cows. In many respects, she was a milkmaid.
With advent of the spread of Christianity in the region, modernizations, and loss of Finnish people autonomy to Russia, Tapio eventually fell out of favor among the people. He was branded a pagan god and was dismissed as an ancient and useless belief by the Finns.
That is, until the late 19th century when folklorist, Lonnrot published “Kavalla.” Consisting of folklore and epic poems from Finnish and Karelian (Lapp) cultures, the collection brought back to life the stories and significance of the long-forgotten gods of Finnish mythology. Among them was Tapio.
Considered one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, the collection started a new national recognition and identity for the Finns. Eventually, the national awakening it created led to Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917. And with independence, came the renewal of the old gods, in name at least.
Tapio’s name became the basis for the name of an urban center. Tapiola is an urban center within the city of Espoo, outside Helsinki. Also, it is the name of a brand of Finnish viina (a vodka-type alcohol), and a symphonic poem by Jean Sibelius. Also, reference to the god can be found in a song, “Elvenpath” by Finnish heavy metal band, Nightwish. In this song, he is referred to as the bear-king, ruler of the forest (possibly, he was confused with Leib-Olmai, the bear god).
Aside from finding new life in Heavy Metal lyrics, Tapio also appeared in comic books with a new look. In its ever expanding universe of superheroes and revamped gods, Marvel Comics brought the Finnish gods to the pages of “Thor I #300” in October 1980. Tapio was part of collection called Jumala, named after the chief Finnish god (also the name for god in the Finnish language). Tapio is still made of wood; however he looks like a tall, wooden elf with pointy ears, moss growing from his shoulder, and green pine hair.
It’s a new look for an old god. However, it’s also a new start. While the ecology around Finland changes, and mystery behind it vanishes. Old god’s roles have changed as well. This is particularly true of Tapio.
“Tapio (retrieved 2010)”: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tapio_(spirit)
Sharpe, Kevin (2010): “Jumala (Finnish Gods)” Marvel Universe Online, http://www.marvunapp.com/Appendix/godsfinn.htm
“Finnish Mythology: Tapio (retrieved 2010)” : Godchecker.com: http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/finnish-mythology.php?deity=TAPIO