The idea of maps to show the diffusion of items of ethnic folk culture first spread in cultural geography and ethnographic statistical geography in the mid-19th century. Interest was aroused in Finland, too, before the century was over. When a large-scale atlas project was launched in Germany in the 1920s, ethnographers in Finland likewise began to demand a similar venture. Projects at mapping various aspects of folk culture were gradually put in hand in the 1930s by linguists, ethnologists and folklorists.

Volume one of the Atlas der deutschen Volkskunde appeared in Germany in 1937. In the same year the Finnish Literature Society, the Finnish Antiquarian Society and the Dictionary Foundation set up an ethnographical mapping office under the auspices of the Finnish Literature Society. In charge of the office was Toivo Vuorela, a young ethnographer who was later to become head of publishing and Secretary General of the Finnish Literature Society. The work was enthusiastically directed in the early stages by Dr Kustaa Vilkuna, Assistant Director of the Dictionary Foundation operating in the same building, and Dr Martti Haavio, the director of the Folklore Archive at the FLS. Vilkuna felt that the materials already accumulated in the collections of the Dictionary Foundation and others contained good potential for drawing up maps that would provide the keys to determining the origin and history of many phenomena. The test maps made by Haavio with the assistance of Jouko Hautala were mainly concerned with calendary tradition, belief legends and aetiological narratives. In interpreting the maps published in the journal Virittäjä in 1939 Haavio at the same time mentioned the following as factors influencing the diffusion of phenomena and the look of the map: “geography, economic geography, botanical and zoological geography, the mentality, religion, level of education of the people; national and administrative borders; the history of settlement; dialect borders.”

During the war atlas projects soon came to a halt as the cartographers were ordered to the front or other special wartime assignments. But the 213 maps appended to the Suomen murteet (Finnish Dialects) produced single-handed by Professor Lauri Kettunen appeared in 1940 already.

New attempt

The mapping of folk tradition then had to be shelved for a couple of decades, until in 1962 it was once again initiated with funds from the Academy of Finland. The driving forces were once again Academicians Haavio and Vilkuna with Toivo Vuorela, Secretary General of the FLS, as the responsible director. The research assistants were picked from the students in Professor Matti Kuusi’s seminars held on the ground floor of the Society’s building. Matti Sarmela was one of the students chosen.

Sarmela became thoroughly immersed in the problems of mapping techniques and in 1965 published an article on the mapping of folk culture in the journal Virittäjä. In it he explained the problems surrounding the use of archive materials and the quantitative distribution of data in the regional units, which in Finland were taken to mean mainly the rural municipalities or parishes. Sarmela proved that the existence of a large corpus of data noted down and archived at different times in the same parish does not always prove that a phenomenon is common. The maps could be viewed mainly as graphic representations designed to serve the general objectives of research or theoretical problem formulations. Of the many types of map defined by Sarmela, the ideal type map was the one that best seemed to fit the maps of oral tradition and customs drawn on the basis of the Finnish archive material. The basic rules for this type of map were, he said: firstly, only one map symbol for each local unit; and secondly, only the tradition representing the oldest, most ideal or most functional stratum in each case would be considered.

In 1962-1968 Toivo Vuorela, Matti Sarmela and their assistants drew up a thousand or so maps, of which they finally chose 84 ethnographical and 99 folkloristic for publication. Years were still to pass, however, before either volume of the Atlas of Finnish Folk Culture finally came off the press.

Atlas of material folk culture

The maps of material folk culture produced by Toivo Vuorela were published in 1976 with commentaries in Finnish and German, the map legends in English, too. They described the artifacts made by people in peasant or agrarian culture, their tools, buildings, items of furniture, means of transport, textiles, articles of clothing, food and drink in the Finnish-Karelian cultural area. They also mapped out the regions inhabited by people with certain special occupations, such as reindeer breeding in the north, and certain variations on working methods. The data on the items to be mapped were selected from official documents, museum collections, literature, or the replies to researchers’ questionnaires. The commentaries are mostly accounts of the construction, manufacturing method, use and names for the items in question. Reference is also made to any counterparts among neighbouring peoples.

In the brief introduction Vuorela outlines the inherent cultural-geographical features of the different regions of Finland. Southwest Finland is said to represent the oldest area of arable cultivation, while Turku and the other old coastal towns were cultural gateways for innovations entering or leaving Finland. It further reports that the new artifacts, fashions, working methods and ways of building often spread to the peasants via the gentry and the clergy. The influence of models from east and west on the life of the Finnish peasant can be seen in many of the maps.

Atlas of Finnish-Karelian folklore

Sarmela had been appointed Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Helsinki before the folklore maps were finally published, more than 30 years after the second start, in the Suomen perinneatlas or Atlas of Finnish Ethnic Culture 2: Folklore in 1994. The maps are here accompanied by Sarmela’s visions of the cultural eras of Europe from a time perspective spanning thousands of years. In the 1970s and 1980s Sarmela turned his attention to cultural-anthropological research projects and went on field trips to Thailand, where he studied the lives of people in rice-growing villages. By this time his theoretical frame of reference had become more demanding.

In Sarmela’s hands the Atlas number 2, winner of the Tieto-Finlandia prize for non-fiction in 1995, finally took the form of a treatise in which the maps and a great many of the commentaries he had made thirty years before acted as his research material and at the same time the illustrations to the book. The aim of the study was to identify the structural differences in local Finnish culture. Sarmela was by this time no longer content merely to describe the local variation in individual features of items or the names for them, as was the custom in the conventional cultural atlases. By cultural structures he explained that he meant the material or non-material forms of activity that in a given environment reinforce the functional cultural system, hold the ecosystem together and provide a lasting framework for people’s lives. Village festivals, various forms of cooperation, narratives and other genres of oral tradition reinforce the moral code, keep the community capable of survival and create security.

Over the decades concepts of the way folklore, expressions or representations of culture spread had also changed. It was now considered that external models are not enough, and that the message must correspond to the strivings, explanations and interpretations of the people operating in a certain environment. Tradition bearers take part in the discourse, the discussions of their community and adapt their message to the listeners’ reality.

On examining the Finnish cultural region, Sarmela identified three ecosystems: the cultures of the hunters, the slash-and-burn farmers and the agrarian peasants, in each of which man has had a different relationship with the environment. Western and Southern Finland, with their flat claylands and river valleys, were suitable even at an early era for arable cultivation, the hilly forests of Eastern Finland and North Karelia for slash-and-burn cultivation in which the forest was burnt and rye was sown in the ashes. The northernmost regions of Finland were for a long time the sole domain of hunter-gatherers and reindeer breeders.

Sarmela rejects the views of Haavio, Vilkuna, Vuorela and others that folk culture is moulded as the diffusion of individual phenomena, customs and tradition items or as part of a trend led by the upper social classes. He also considers it unlikely that cultural awareness stopped at political borders of no significance to the people of Häme and Karelia. He further refutes the claim that the oldest borders of Finland were dictated by the interests of Sweden and Novgorod and would therefore be reflected on the cultural maps. Borders did, by contrast, grow up between ecosystems.

Sarmela uses four types of maps, which he defines as follows: (1) the diffusion map, (2) the register map, (3) the reconstruction map, and (4) the statistical map in which the basic regional units are the historical provinces and their combinations and the frequencies are calculated in percentages from the data for the region and presented in the form of diagrams. – The headlines and the legends of the maps in Suomen perinneatlas are given in English, too.

Cultural era theory and structural models

Sarmela places the Finnish archaeological, linguistic and tradition eras in the same chronology, beginning with the millennia after the Ice Age, the proto-Uralic language and the northern hunting culture, and ending with the farm economy of the 20th century, the era of local dialects, youth culture and new genres of folklore. He gives a comprehensive table comparing Western Finnish, Eastern Finnish and Karelian culture and allowing for (1) the economic and social background, (2) occupational rites, (3) the individual life cycle, (4) the forms of social intercourse and (5) the performing tradition.

Sarmela’s three successive cultural eras in the atlas time perspective are the same as the ones he first called ecosystems, i.e. in order of age (1) hunting culture, (2) slash-and-burn culture and (3) agrarian society; this is followed by industrial competition and the consumer society in which we presumably live today. Sarmela believes that “the philosophy of the conquest of nature and human domination is not the outcome of learned treatises but of the living conditions of the European peasant”.

Toivo Vuorela (ed.): Suomen kansankulttuurin kartasto 1: Aineellinen kulttuuri
Atlas der Finnischen Volkskultur 1: Materielle Kultur
Atlas of Finnish Folk Culture 1: Material Culture
– Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki 1976. 162 pages. FIM 200

Matti Sarmela: Suomen perinneatlas. Suomen kansankulttuurin kartasto 2
Atlas of Finnish Ethnic Culture 2: Folklore
– Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki 1994. 259 pages + 99 maps. FIM 386

Urpo Vento
Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki

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