In Finland, I discovered blue hour. That time between sunset and darkness, when the sky changes colour; from burning red to apricot, to pink, to lilac, before becoming blue. It turns blue like a robin’s egg, then it becomes deeper, blue like the bottom of a lagoon, and the stars begin to twinkle.
In winter, blue hour is magical. Days are short; every hour of sunlight is treasured – and blue hour, that brief moment that separates day from a deep, never ending night, feels like a window to a parallel world.
My Travel Story of Finnish Myths
It was blue hour when we met Tirja. She came to pick us up at our hotel near lake Saimaa, in the heart of the frozen Finnish lakeland. We had spent three days hiking and snowshoeing, horse-sledding and ice fishing, but the night we were going to spend with Tirja was going to be something different.
She would take us on a journey beyond place and time, a night walk around nature, to get in touch with Finnish myths and the spirits of the forest, to feel the origins of this ancient land.
It was hard to tell how old she was. She could have been 45, or 60. Her face was that of someone who lives outside, during the long summer days and the long summer nights. She wore mismatched clothes. A pink jacket and tartan skirt, with big, chunky boots. Her bright blue eyes were elusive – as if she were trying to be in two places at once.
She gave us a piece of birch bark with our name written on it. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of charm. Tirja didn’t explain too much. She wanted us to feel. And so, as we walked towards her teepee in the forest, she told us of Tapio, a spirit of the forest and protector of hunters. He’s a Green Man, a Finnish version of Treebeard, she said, with a beard made of lichen and eyebrows of moss.
Tapio inhabits the forest, or rather he ‘is’ the forest. He is the master of all the forest spirits. Hunters in the woods are Tapio’s guests; he can bring them game, or take it away. Forest animals are sacred too; especially the bear, seen in Finnish mythology as the king of all animals, so mighty and powerful that his name could not be uttered.
We entered Tarja’s wooden teepee, with a log fire burning in the centre. She gave us tea made from lichen and fungus. The liquid was warm an nourishing; I could imagine hunters camping out in the woods having the same cup, light brown in colour, tasting of earth, of forest, of time.
Tirja pulled out her drum, large and shallow like a tambourine, made of birch wood and cow hide. It gave a hollow sound, that vibrated within the walls of the teepee, before spiralling outside over the treetops.
We walked out, into the long Northern night. We crossed a frozen lake, heading towards an island. There were no sounds, save the soft thud of our boots onto the recently fallen snow. We had no lights on us; the shimmering Milky Way, the moon and stars lit our path.
We reached a clearing between the trees in the island, where sheepskins were laid out on the ground. She invited us to lie down, and look up. In the middle of the sky, a star shone brighter than the others. It was the Northern Star, Tirja explained, that the ancient Finns believed to be the ‘peg’, a pillar supporting the half-dome that was the sky.
The half dome covered the world of the living; outside it was Tuonela, the land of the dead, where both good and bad souls lived, and where shamans travelled to seek answers. On the edges of the living world was an earthly paradise, Lintukoto, where the birds went to spend the winter. The Milky Way is the path to Lintukoto, a land of great beauty and where everyone is happy. Nowadays, in Finnish, the word lintukoto means ‘happy place’, one’s own paradise on earth.
We laid still, listening to Tirja’s tales. She told us of the role of birds in Finnish myths. They are the carriers of souls, taking the soul to newborn children, and collecting it at the moment of death. For this reason, even today, many Finns sleep with a wooden bird on their bedside table. It’s the ‘guardian bird’, making sure that the soul doesn’t become lost forever in the world of dreams.
Then, Tirja invited us to listen to the night. Nothing moved. Not a bird, an animal or a tree branch. Not often have I been in deep, total silence. I could still glimpse the treetops and the stars, twinkling above, so I closed my eyes and for a moment I felt as if were about to tumble into the realm of dreams.