The Magical Self: Body Society and the Supernatural in Early Modern Rural Finland (FCC 290)

By Laura Stark. 2006. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica/Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia. 524 pages. ISBN: 951-41-0998-8 (soft cover).


Reviewed by K. A. Laity, The College of Saint Rose

[Review length: 1035 words • Review posted on September 5, 2007]


Stark’s latest study continues her exploration of nineteenth and early twentieth-century folk narratives gathered in the Finnish Literature Society Folklore Archives. Her previous volume, Magic, Body and Social Order: The Construction of Gender Through Women's Private Rituals (Studia Fennica Folkloristica, no. 5. Helsinki: SKS, 1998), delved into this rich storehouse of materials to understand the ways in which women negotiated gender construction within the confines of their social circles by the use of magic and rituals. She continues the process here, again employing an interdisciplinary approach that yields rich fruit, combining narrative studies, psychology, and Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, along with a firm footing in folklore studies.

The volume is broken into four major parts: Preliminary Perspectives, where Stark establishes the context for magic in the early modern world as well as the concept of the open body schema; Tensions Between the Individual and the Collective, where she examines the social dynamics of magic including specific techniques and its interactions with Christianity; The Body and the Threatening Environment, where she explores the conception of the body of the self and its vulnerabilities as well as the nature of the magic worker’s body; and finally, The Self in the Social Hierarchy. This final portion scrutinizes how magic unfolds within social interactions and how, eventually, magic practices fell out of use with the changing patterns of socialization of the twentieth century.

This volume begins with the more encompassing question at the heart of much scholarship on the past: how did people in the past view their bodies, selves, and environment? Those of us who struggle to understand the lives of those in the past (whether recent or ancient) know the difficulty of stripping away contemporary conventions of thought as we try to situate the experience of those we study. While Stark has a wealth of material at her fingertips, she rightly argues that the narratives of magic need to be understood within the milieu in which individuals perceived themselves and others within the community.

Using the farm household as the habitus of study, Stark examines the uses of magic, but also the narratives recording its use. “Magic was not only performed, but was also narrated within the community.... A fundamental premise of this study is that the stories and accounts which community members intended to be understood by others did not merely reflect reality but also constituted it” (30, emphasis in the original). While not all persons acquired advanced skills in magical workings, they were conscious of the techniques and types of magic, including when and where they might be employed. Stark shows that a reputation for magic could be a powerful attribute, strengthening the perceived authority of the household or, in the case of itinerant magic workers, providing a good living for someone on the margins of society.

The self in early modern rural Finland was defined in terms of a person’s place within the farm household: “masters and mistresses, daughters and sons, uncles, servants, itinerant labourers or cottagers living on the household’s land” (447). Individuals identified themselves within that habitus and threats inevitably came from outside, whether in the shape of the natural world (including beasts like bears and wolves or the “forest cover” [metsänpeitto] which could be employed by a clever magic worker) or from other households, all of whom were in competition for the same scarce resources. The collected narratives reveal magic provoked by envy and spite.

Magic workers included the tietäjä (“one who knows”), the noita (more often the word for a “bad” magic worker), and a further variety of terms, the wealth of which demonstrates the nuances of magic in rural Finland. While healing was an important component of these practices, at the heart of much magic was an attempt to affect the onni or “luck” of a person or household. Like the Scandinavian term hamingja, this luck “was thought to exist in a finite quantity” so opponents often aimed at “the ‘stealing’, ‘spoiling’ or ‘breaking’ of that luck” (46). If cows became sick or stopped giving milk, suspicion immediately fell upon neighbors who might be using sorcery to increase their own relative onni. Despite the secrecy many of the magical techniques required, the respondents all seemed to be acquainted with them. While many rituals could be carried out by any person, the tietäjä was seen as a valuable resource because of his or her skills in successful working of magic. Wandering witches used their reputations to forge economic survival outside the household unit, employing a variety of techniques from their shamanic past.

Stark argues that it is not the “rationality” of the modern science-oriented socialization that leads to a reduction in the belief of the efficacy of magic, but rather the re-direction of the supernaturally-oriented open body culture. “While modern selves learn to limit the sensory impact of their emotions, bodily processes and behaviours upon others, early modern Finns strove to reduce the impact of others’ intentions, impulses and desires upon themselves” (456, emphasis in the original). As children were socialized into a new hierarchy in public schools and other agencies outside the farm household, they ceased to find necessary the techniques of guarding the self defined within that relation. As younger generations saw themselves as part of a larger society, they transferred the desire to control from others to themselves.

This study offers a complex apparatus suitable for the examination of a rich body of texts within a roundly observed and exhaustively delineated time period. For those interested in Finnish history, it provides a wealth of fascinating materials from the narratives of those who lived them, including both rituals and incantations as well as photographs of artifacts. The book also provides a vivid context for historians of witchcraft that will supplement the information provided in the charges of trial records. Narratives of actual practices impart a useful amplification of the often unreliable nature of accusations. Those interested in folklore studies will find much to explore here, from the vivid details of daily life on the farm to engaging descriptions of popular magical practices. Stark’s book offers a challenging study of vast materials in a complex historical context which produces a lively narrative of its own, both informative and interesting.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.