10 strange historical facts about Finland

The modern nation of Finland is the heir to many centuries of history: it was a wilderness at the edge of early Europe, a powerful component of the late medieval Swedish empire, and a Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia. Finnish history is also rich with oddities – here, Jonathan Clements, the author of An Armchair Traveller's History of Finland, reveals 10 of the most surprising…

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1) One of the Viking sagas is about a feisty Finnish princess who strangled a king with a golden chain

The Heimskringla [the best known of the Old Norse kings' sagas, written c1230] includes the story of Skjalv, daughter of the Finnish King Froste. After defeating her father, King Agne dragged Skjalv back to Sweden to serve as a concubine.

Skjalv, however, waited until the drunken Ingemar was asleep, and then strangled him with his golden chain, Jabba the Hutt-style. His corpse was found hoisted into a tree.

 

2) Finns pay with squirrel skins

From the 5th century AD onwards, trading connections started developing between Finns and other European groups. During the Roman Empire, for example, traders brought goods from all corners of Europe – wine glasses and gold bracelets from Italy, and luxury weapons from France and Germany.

Early Scandinavian and German traders in Finland sold goods, tools and weapons for the country’s most precious resource – soft animal furs. Raha, the word for pelt in Finnish, came to mean money, and Finnish slang can still refer to cash as ‘oravannahka’, meaning squirrel skins.

 

3) Finland has its own Adam & Eve story

The Black Death, which hit Europe in the middle of the 14th century, killed a third of the Finnish population, and hit the town of Espoo particularly hard. According to an eerie folktale, only a girl and a monk survived.

When the monk died, the girl climbed the church tower and tolled its bell in his memory, signalling her presence to the only other survivor in the vicinity: her future husband. Together, they repopulated Espoo, although hopefully with a few more additions to the gene pool.

 

4) A Japanese spy once tried to start a revolution with an old steamer packed with guns, explosives and hundreds of gallons of wine

During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), Motojiro Akashi, the Japanese military attaché in Stockholm, was ordered by his government to distract the Tsar with a Finnish revolution.

Consequently, Akashi acquired the John Grafton, an ageing steamship, in the name of a British wine merchant. He stocked the boat with 15,000 rifles, 2.5 million bullets, some 2,500 revolvers, and three tonnes of explosives. Owing to a misunderstanding, the boat also came with hundreds of gallons of wine.

The mission was a catastrophic failure, mainly because the crew got drunk and the lead rebel, Konni Zilliacus, unwisely tried to quit smoking during the voyage – he was nearly caught trying to break into a cigarette shop in Copenhagen. They made it to the coast of Finland, but had to blow the ship up when the Russian navy arrived.

 

5) The Finns invented the Molotov cocktail

At the onset of the Second World War, Stalin demanded to use Finnish territory for strategic purposes – he ordered that the Hanko Peninsula would serve as port for the Soviet Navy.

The Finns refused, however, and Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, declared that it was ‘time for the soldiers’ to do the talking. Some 65 men, women and children died in the first bombing raid on Helsinki, while Molotov snidely remarked that Soviet aircraft were only dropping ‘food parcels’. Later in the war, Finnish troops returned the insult by hurling ‘Molotov cocktails’ at Soviet tanks.

 

6) 10 per cent of Finland is missing

Soviet soldiers invaded Finland during the Second World War. The Nordic country later struck back with a controversial ‘co-belligerency pact’ with Nazi Germany, in which the nations were not allies, but agreed to be fighting the same foe.

The Finns fought the Soviet Union to a standstill on the border, but had to cede 10 per cent of their eastern territory, including the second largest city, Vyborg. Post-war Finland had to cope with the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the lost lands.

Finnish remained an official language of the Republic of Karelia (the Russian state that includes much of the lost land) until the 1980s, and there are still occasional attempts to get it reinstated.

 

7) A Finnish doctor helped inspire Lord of the Rings

Bored with small-town life in remote Kajaani in the 1800s, the Finnish doctor Elias Lönnrot made several trips into the wilds of Karelia to collect folktales from local storytellers. He then attempted to reconstruct the myths that Finland might have had before the coming of Christianity.

The resulting book, the national myth of The Kalevala, kicked off a revolution in Finnish arts and crafts, and informs much of the imagery of late 19th-century Finnish culture. It inspired JRR Tolkien to write a similar ‘national myth’ for the English. In the process, he based Quenya, the language of High Elvish, on Finnish.

 

8) Finland had its own version of prohibition

Finnish women were the first in Europe to get the vote, and one of their initial acts was to pass temperance laws keeping booze away from their menfolk. The result was Kieltolaki (prohibition), a ban on alcohol that was in force from 1919 to 1932.

As in the USA, the new laws resulted in an entire subculture of bootleggers, ‘fortified’ teas and speakeasies, and an estimated 85 per cent of crime derived in some way from resistance to the booze law. But it wasn’t all bad – light beer at two per cent alcohol or less apparently didn’t count as beer at all.

 

9) Finnish industry was started by a Scotsman

The Quaker investor James Finlayson immediately realised the potential of the Tammerfors rapids for generating water power in the 1820s. His name became synonymous with the six-storey factory he built at the water’s edge – the first in Finland to have electric light, and still a brand name for Finnish textiles, including today’s popular Moomin towels and Angry Birds duvets.

The Finlayson factory led to the city of Tampere’s rather odd nickname, ‘the Manchester of Finland’. Finns followed suit, and a factory on nearby rapids started as a sawmill, but eventually diversified into rubber and telecommunications. It took its name from the nearest town, Nokia.

 

10)  Finland’s Patron Saint is English

Saint Henry of Finland was said to be an English bishop who arrived with Swedish crusaders in the 12th century. He got into a fight on a frozen lake with a forester called Lalli, who smashed his skull in with an axe.

His bones were later wrapped in white cloth, tied with blue string, and laid to rest in a church in south-west Finland. There is no proof that Henry or Lalli ever existed, but Lalli is regarded by many as the ‘first Finn’, and his stubborn resistance to change considered a part of the national character.

To find out more about An Armchair Traveller's History of Finland, by Jonathan Clements (Haus Publishing, October 2014), click here.

To read the latest issue of BBC History Magazine on your tablet or mobile, click here. Alternatively, why not subscribe to the print edition?

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