One such practice was frog burials, which Lönnberg says were a way to combat misfortune believed to have been caused by malicious magic. In the ritual, the frog represents the malevolent witch, who is buried in a custom-built coffin and then hidden in a Christian church or churchyard. Such a burial place may seem a strange choice, but Dr. Sonja Hukantaival, the leading expert on miniature frog coffins, explains that it was a way to invoke “the otherworldly power needed to fulfill the impact of the ritual.” While the practice was most often performed to counter magic, Hukantaival’s research has revealed that there were also occasions when it was used to cause harm. Some believed, for example, that it was possible to spoil a neighbor’s field by taking grains from its harvest and placing them in the frog’s mouth. Hukantaival’s research has also shown that frogs were not the only animal used: fish, specifically pike, and even squirrels were also buried. Most of the coffins have been uncovered in Eastern Finland: at least 32 have been found in Kuopio Cathedral, and another 100 have been discovered in a nearby church in northern Savo. Given that many of the frogs were buried with fishing equipment, Hukantaival suspects that the findings may be linked to the problems experienced by the region’s fishermen in the late 19th century. The casket in the Game of Power exhibition is a rare exception, the only one that has so far been found in the south-west.
Some believed, for example, that it was possible to spoil a neighbor’s field by taking grains from its harvest and placing them in the frog’s mouth.
Frog in a Coffin – And Other Finnish Folk Magic
Until earlier this year, I was working at the Australian War Memorial, a museum whose unique collection is a testament to Australians who have served in wartime. I thought I had seen some strange objects: compasses disguised as buttons, radios concealed inside brooms and even false teeth cast from the silver foil wrapping of Red Cross-issued chocolate. But there was nothing as obscure as the wooden box that I spotted in the Game of Power – Reformation in Finland exhibition at Turku Castle. It was a tiny coffin, made for a frog. Open since early 2017, Game of Power commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the social, cultural, and political twists and turns of the 16th century. According to Päivi Lönnberg, the curator of the exhibition, it was a time of change but there were also some traditions that stayed the same. Lönnberg says, “the fact that Christianity took root in Finland did not displace the old folk beliefs; rather, many practices and beliefs survived alongside Christianity and even merged with it in some cases.”