A few days ago, Mary of Terralectualism, posted on a curious problem: after one of her many, inspiring foraging trips, she returned home, placed her bounty in a specific place and went about
her everyday life, as we do. Later she returned to retrieve her wild harvest from its hiding place, only to discover that it was nowhere to be found. The usual suspects yielded no clues; she had not simply placed them somewhere else, her partner had not tempered with them, her toddler was not responsible.
Does this ever happen to you? She asked and we all chorused "Yes! Yes!". Because we humans, women, mothers, wives can be a forgetful bunch, too busy tending more than one thing at a time, forever letting ideas, socks, pieces of bread slip through our fingers into the nether realms of not-quite-lost and not-quit-found and "where the f*** did I put that f***ing thing?!?!?!?!?".
But there are times when things go missing so suddenly, so inexplicably , that it seems surely some magic or ill will is at play; it is almost as though some small, invisible spirit that lives in our homes, has been following in our footsteps snatching and hiding the things we need.
And perhaps that is the case. In Finnish mythology such a creature is called Kotitonttu. Koti, means home, or in the broader context of old-time Finn life, the homestead, meaning the house, the yard, the stables, the barns and the orchards and gardens. And especially the sauna building.
A Tonttu, or the Swedish Tomte (a word more commonly used in the English-speaking world), is a small, elf-like spirit, or sprite, who is more commonly associated with Christmas these days. In the "superstitious" agrarian societies of Scandinavia, his (Or her. Since Finnish only has a gender-neutral pronoun from him or her, the sex of the Tonttu is in the ear of the beholder. Both male and female Tonttu are commonly observed in folklore.) role was much more expansive.
The Tonttu's origins stemmed from the forest, which was the object of worship to the ancient hunter-gatherer Finns. He was a forest spirit among many deities, sprites and ghouls, but as the people moved out of the woods and into the clearings to farm, they brought the Tonttu with them and domesticated him as a home-spirit.
Not only did the Tonttu live with us in our homes, often on the warm shelf on top of the large masonry stoves that kept Finnish homes cozy in midwinter, but there was a Tonttu for every part of the homestead. A Tallitonttu cared for the stables from which he got his name, tending to the animals while we were busy with other things, braiding the tails of the horses all day and resting their heads on the cow's bellies at night, tucking themselves into the hay. A Aittatonttu looked after the grainary and a Saunatonttu lived in the sauna building.
The Tonttu were the invisible, ever-present caretakers of the household. Sometimes they would clean up after you at night, at other times they worked overtime to ensure a good harvest. Though small, the Tonttu possessed a supernatural strength and cunning and were able to communicate with animals and other spirits, as well as cast magic on behalf the house's inhabitants.
Their actions weren't necessarily always benign: the Tonttu were easily insulted if slighted by the inhabitants of the household and in their anger would create mayhem by reversing all their good deeds; they would push things out of people's hands, sending them flying across the room, sour the foods, startle the animals, hide and steal valuables.
Certain customs had to be carefully observed to keep the Tonttu placated. Food was to be offered to the Tonttu and other seasonal sacrifices made. Many Finnish families still leave a small bowl of Christmas porridge on the porch for the Tonttu-and lo-and-behold! often it is gone in the morning. (I do believe this is where the American "cookies for Santa"-tradition stems from.)
In a way, the fear of the Tonttu's wrath was a way for the family to adhere to the traditional methods and customs, the ways of cooking and planting and animal husbandry that were tried and true.
As Mary herself pointed out, the vengeful little Tonttu tried to remind us to adhere to the chores at hand in a neat and timely manner.
As the advent of Christianity did away with many of the traditional folk beliefs and customs of Scandinavia, the Tonttu persevered, by simply transmogrifying from a house spirit to a Christmas helper. His visage changed from old and impish to child-like and innocent, though he still often retained the white beard and red cap that he would later lend to the Multinational Corporation-created Santa Claus.
While the primordial Tonttu were wild and unpredictable, almost troll-like in their apperence and behavior and their helpfulness balanced with a streak of malignancy and unpredictability, the Tonttu of today are mostly a jolly breed of toy-making, red-cheeked elves, with not much bearing in our every day lives.
Like so many wild, unruly things, they have had to adapt to fit into our modern world.
And, as any domesticated creature, they abandoned their ancient ways for us and as so many of these creatures, once the humble servants and comrades of man, are now finding themselves becoming obsolete. Just as horses no longer plow the earth, or our milk come from the family cow, there are no Tonttus living behind our stoves, or in our attics; they have been replaced by forgetfulness and absentmindedness which makes our possessions mysteriously vanish.
Perhaps this is all fine and good, but when we abandoned "superstitious" beliefs, we abandoned everyday magic, making our lives that much more mundane.
So next time something goes missing, then appears somewhere you know you didn't
put it, take a moment to ask yourself how it got there? If maybe your subconscious mind, the mind behind this frantically searching one, did not hide it there, to teach something, to remind us of the proper way of doing things.
The subconscious mind after all, is where all magic came from, and where its manifestations, like the Tonttu still live. The dark forests behind our eyelids.