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.”
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.
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.
Perhaps it is the fact that I spent my childhood reading Harry Potter, but I was surprised to learn that these types of magical rituals were not only performed by witches. In fact, according to Hukantaival, most people practiced magic in their everyday life: “Magic was used to ensure good luck in farming, animal husbandry, fishing, hunting and other means of livelihood. It was used to heal the sick and avoid misfortune. Thus, everyone in the community was at least somewhat skilled in magic and everyone knew that it was practiced.”
As Hukantaival explains, however, there was a line in the sand: “There was a belief that good fortune/luck was limited and thus one could not increase one’s luck without taking it from others. In the communities, it was seen as approved magic to protect one’s own share of luck against witches that might try to steal it. But it was forbidden witchcraft to steal luck from others. Also, causing illness or misfortune to someone through curses and ill-willing rituals was not okay, so any anti-social behavior was condemned.”
Magic was widely practiced until the early 20th century, even despite the “witch-hunts” that took place in the wake of the Reformation. According to Lönnberg, the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy saw pagan practices attacked as “something harmful and even as a crime against God.” Lönnberg says that the Church attempted to stamp out these traditions by punishing practitioners and promoting Christianity. Hukantaival adds that it was common for quarreling neighbors to point the finger at each other, hoping the accusation would destroy their rival.
While the time of magic may have passed, miniature frog coffins and other seemingly obscure objects continue to serve as a testament to this rich history. And, Hukantaival believes there are many more to be found: “Churches and churchyards are the most probable places to find miniature coffins, but they might be found in other types of buildings as well. Coffins have also been buried in nature, but a lot of chance would have to be involved in order to find them.”
Game of Power – Reformation in Finland is open at Turku Castle until November 25, 2018.