Old men carved of wood have stood outside churches since the 17th century, begging for money to be given to the poor and the sick of the parish. These almsmen, or men-at-alms, mostly represented a disabled soldier; the tradition is not known elsewhere. Some 40 of the still surviving almsmen (there is one almswoman) were assembled for an exhibition in Kerimäki – in the world’s largest Christian wooden church – in summer 2013. The surviving specimens were hunted down and photographed by Aki Paavola for the book Vaivaisukkojen paluu (‘The return of the almsmen’). Otso Kantokorpi asks in the title of his introduction: are men-at-alms pioneers of ITE (from the words itse tehty elämä, ‘self-made life’; the English-language term is ‘outsider art’) or a disappearing folk tradition?
Many a church or belfry wall, particularly in Ostrobothnia, has been decorated – and is often still decorated – with a wooden human figure. Often they stand beneath a decorative canopy, sometimes accompanied by an encouraging phrase: He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD. They have been called men-at-alms or boys-at-alms. More…
In today’s world, many people find that it is not the lack of something that is problematic, but excess: the same goes for knowledge. According to professor of space astronomy, Esko Valtaoja, knowledge should contribute to the creation of a better world. His latest book is a contribution to the sum of all knowledge; over the course of two hundred pages Valtaoja delves deep into the inner space of man by taking his reader on a brief tour of the universe. Extracts from Kaiken käsikirja. Mitä jokaisen tulisi tietää (‘A handbook to everything. What everybody should know’, Ursa, 2012)
Whatever god you bow down to, you’re probably worshipping the wrong god.
The above is almost the only completely certain thing that can be said about religion, and even it does not encompass any deep truth; it’s just a simple mathematical statement. The world’s biggest religion is Roman Catholicism, which is confessed, at least nominally, by 1.1 billion people. If the Roman Catholic god were the true god, the majority of people in the world are therefore worshipping a false god. (According to the official stance of the Catholic church, the other Christian denominations are heresies, and their believers will be condemned to perdition: extra ecclesiam nulla salus. This inconvenient truth is, understandably, politely bypassed in ecumenical debate. But even if all those who call themselves Christians were counted as worshipping the same god, two thirds of the world’s population are still knocking at the wrong door.)
If you’re a religious person, don’t worry; I’m not blaspheming. And if you’re a campaigning atheist, hang on a minute: all I want to do is to find a clear and undisputed starting point to consider what it is we’re talking about when we speak of religion. More…
Extracts from Uskomaton matka uskovien maailmaan (‘An unbelievable journey into the world of the believers’, WSOY, 2012)
In his new book the writer, professor of cosmology, a scientist without a religion Kari Enqvist explores religiosity, how it manifests itself in present-day Finland, in various churches and parishes. How will the expanding scope of science and secularisation change the world and the forms of spirituality in the course of the next century?
When, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder on to the surface of the Moon, it was a huge propaganda coup for both the United States and the scientific world view. Manned space flights as a way of gaining knowledge are both ineffective and brain-numbingly expensive, but it is hard to imagine a stronger individual and universally understandable demonstration of the superiority of the scientific world view than an astronaut on the surface of a foreign celestial body. Everyone can recognise it as a triumph of both engineering technology and the hard sciences.
But the astronaut solution has been tested already, and I do not believe that space travel will expand our consciousnesses in the next century. It is possible that we will not even have visited Mars. Fantasies about manned flights to other stars are, in my opinion, utopian in the extreme and I do not really believe that humans as physical beings will ever leave the solar system. Journeys to the stars are inconceivably long and so expensive that they cannot be embarked on merely in order to fulfil the Buck Rogers fantasies of teenage boys. Carrying humans to the closest one, alpha Centauri, a mere four light years away, would take, at best, hundreds of years (we can dismiss rockets that travel at the speed of light as mere scientific fantasy). Even if deep-freezing to slow vital functions were possible, it would make as much sense to pay hundreds of billions to freight pig carcasses to the planets. For everything that human beings can do can be done better – and, more importantly, more cheaply – by machines. Even if the spirit were willing, the flesh is so weak that silicone beats it hollow.
So it is my guess that in place of the macrocosmos the scientific world view will seek consolidation in the microcosmos. As a cosmologist, I am not happy to admit this, but admit it I must. More…
‘An unflinching opera and a hot-blooded cantata about a time when the church was torn apart, Finland was divided and gays stopped being biddable’: this is how Pirkko Saisio’s new play HOMO! (music composed by Jussi Tuurna) is described by the Finnish National Theatre, where it is currently playing to full houses. This tragicomical-farcical satire takes up serious issues with gusto. In this extract we meet Veijo Teräs, troubled by his dreams of Snow White, who resembles his steely MP wife Hellevi – and seven dwarves. Introduction by Soila Lehtonen
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Hellevi, Veijo’s wife and a Member of Parliament
Rebekka, Hellevi and Veijo’s daughter
Moritz, Hellevi and Veijo’s godson
Agnes af Starck-Hare, Doctor of Psychiatry
Tom of Finland
The Bishop of Mikkeli
Old gays: Kale, Jorma, Rekku, Risto
Olli, Uffe,Tiina, Jorma: people from SETA [the Finnish LGBT association]
Second Lieutenant, Private Teräs, the men in the company
Big Gay, Little Gay, Middle Gay
Teemu & Oskari, a gay couple
The Apostle Paul
On the stage, a narrow closet.
Veijo Teräs appears, struggling to get out of the closet.
Veijo Teräs is dressed as a prince. He is surprised and embarrassed to see that the audience is already there. He seems to be waiting for something.
He speaks, but continues to look out over the audience expectantly.
This outfit isn’t specifically for me, because… I mean, it’s part of this whole thing. This Snow White thing. I’m waiting for the play to start. Just like you are. My name is Veijo Teräs and I’m playing the point of view role in this story. Writers put point of view roles like this in their plays nowadays. They didn’t use to.
Just to be clear – this isn’t a ballet costume. I’m not going to do any ballet dancing, but I won’t mind if someone dances, even if it’s a man. Particularly if it’s a man. But I don’t watch. Ballet, I mean. Not at the opera house, or on television, or anywhere, and I have no idea why we had to bring up ballet – or I had to bring it up – because this is a historical costume, so it’s appropriate. This is what men used to wear, real men like Romeo and Hamlet, or Cyrano de Bergerac. But we in the theatre these days have a hell of a job getting an audience to listen to what a man has to say when he’s standing there saying what he has to say in an outfit like this. People get the idea that it’s a humorous thing, but this isn’t, this Snow White thing, where I play the prince. Snow White is waiting in her glass casket, she died from an apple, which seems to have become the Apple logo, Lord knows why, the one on the laptops you see on the tables of every café in town. More…
Suomalainen piru. Paholainen kansanperinteessä [The Finnish devil. The Evil One in Finnish folklore]
Suomalainen piru. Paholainen kansanperinteessä
[The Finnish devil. The Evil One in Finnish folklore]
Toim. [Ed. by] Mari Purola
Kuvitus: [Illustrations]: Christer Nuutinen
Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2011. 144 p., ill.
€ 25, hardback
In Finnish folklore the Devil has borrowed features both from ancient popular belief and from the Christian faith. Unlike the devil of Christianity, the Finnish devil is not wholly evil, and the relation between man and devil may sometimes recall a contractual relationship: man can benefit from his link with the devil without losing his soul. In the mythological stories the devil is a a creature that supports the values of village society, who punishes misdemeanours and with whose help inexplicable phenomena like surprisingly good luck or illness can be explained. Finnish folk belief contains a numerous group of lesser magical figures such as elves and sprites. The devil has also borrowed the powers of the ancient gods, such as good luck in hunting from Tapio, and in fishing from Ahti. The folk archives of the Finnish Literature Society contain a collection of devil-themed stories from the 1880s to the 1960s.
Translated by David McDuff
Tuomas Heikkilä & Liisa Suvikumpu: Suomen Turku julistaa joulurauhan. Åbo kungör julfred [Finland’s Turku announces the Christmas peace]
Suomen Turku julistaa joulurauhan. Åbo kungör julfred
[Finland’s Turku announces the Christmas peace]
Swedish translation: Malena Torvalds-Westerlund
Helsinki: Kirjapaja, 2011. 71 p., ill.
€ 24, hardback
This bilingual book offers a broad interpretation of a unique Christmas tradition upheld by the Finns: at 12 on Christmas Eve a large proportion of the population falls silent to listen to the declaration of the Christmas peace from Turku cathedral. After its bells have rung noon, the deputy mayor ceremonially opens a manuscript prepared according to mediaeval tradition and reads the announcement in both Finnish and Swedish. After the announcement, the land settles down to celebrate Christmas following traditions dating from the 13th century. The Christmas peace has been announced in Turku almost without interruption since the Middle Ages. The last time it went unread was in 1939, during the Winter War. The Finnish Broadcasting Company broadcasts the occasion to all the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union EBU. The Christmas peace is also sent out into the world by Swedish radio, reaching a total of some 140 countries.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
[The religion of the world citizen]
Helsinki: Otava, 2011. 199 p., ill.
€ 29, paperback
This book focuses on the core questions of religious philosophy with special emphasis on Christianity, but it also addresses Judaism, Islam and the Middle East conflict as well as conflicts between Hindu nationalists and Muslims. Juha Sihvola, a professor of history, ends up advocating the view which holds that religion and science are largely independent of one another: under-standing the special nature of belief enables a justifiable critique of both religious fundamentalism and radical neo-atheism. In this work, Sihvola examines the relationship of faith and morals to history, freedom of conscience, religious tolerance and the possibilities of developing a more pluralistic society. The ideas of contemporary philosophers John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum seem closest to Sihvola’s own thinking. He formulates an optimistic vision in which religion that is liberal, non-fundamentalist and understands the special nature of belief faces important tasks ahead.
Translated by Ruth Urbom
Extracts from Kuoleman ja unohtamisen aikakirjat (‘Chronicles of death and oblivion’, WSOY, 2009)
What’s the meaning of life? There are those who seek it in religion, while for others that is the last place to look. The scientist Kari Enqvist ponders why some people, including himself, seem physiologically immune to the lure of faith. Perhaps, he suggests, we should look for significance not in the big picture, but in the marvel of the fleeting moment
As a young boy I must have held religious beliefs. However, I cannot pinpoint exactly when they disappeared. At some point I eventually stopped saying my evening prayers, but I am unable to remember why or when this happened. ‘I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason their elders had had it – without knowing why,’ writes the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet. More…