The Stoat – A “Furry Venomous Snake”

Among other animal remains, the magic object collections include a few heads or dried carcasses of stoats (Mustela erminea, Fin. kärppä). Where it is quite easy to understand the powerfulness of big predators, such as the bear, it may be a bit more puzzling why a stoat could be seen as useful in folk magic practices. Again, it is helpful to look at how the animal is perceived in folklore accounts describing its use in magic practices or the relationship between humans and the stoat more generally.

Short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), aka ermine or stoat, standing upright on rear legs.
The stoat or ermine is a swift predator that hunts small rodents. Photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS, Wikimedia Commons.

First, it was commonly believed that the stoat was venomous. This is an old and widespread belief, mentioned already in the writings of the Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder in the first century CE. In the Finnish folklore, it was also believed that the stoat would attack, bite and suck blood from cattle and even wild elks, for example. Perhaps controversially, the mice-hunting stoat was also sometimes believed to be a manifestation of the benign guardian spirit of the cattle shed.

The swift movement of the animal and its short legs and relatively long body would bring a snake to mind. This is perhaps one reason why the stoat was believed to be venomous. Snakes, especially grass snakes, were also sometimes believed to be the guardian spirit of the cattle in animal form. These animals were probably often seen around cattle sheds where their prey, rodents, would find plenty of food. Another rodent-hunting animal with a special role in magic is the cat. In fact, also cats were believed to be venomous in the Finnish folklore. There is a clear association between the idea of venom/poison and magical power in other connections as well.

A stoat skull used as medicine for horses in the collections of Tampere Museums.
This stoat skull has been used as medicine for horses. Photo: Tampere Museums.

In folklore accounts describing the use of the stoat in magic practices, it is often connected to care of horses. For example, it was believed that horses will stay healthy when a stoat carcass is kept in the stable and a small piece of stoat meat is fed to a newborn foal to ensure its good health (SKMT IV, 1: I 100; III 696). This connection with horses is also visible in the legends connected to the objects in the museum collections. Most of the stoat remains have been used to prevent or cure the disease called strangles in horses. One stoat carcass in the Tampere Museums that was bought from three rune singers in 1908 has been used to cure both horses and people. Small pieces of the carcass had been given to the patient mixed in food. The sellers specified that no incantations were needed for this cure: “the power is won without chants”.

This short survey into local folklore has shown that the stoat was believed to have potent powers. But what was its connection to the health of horses? Perhaps its energetic swiftness was hoped to be transferred to the horses. Or maybe some part of this puzzle is still missing.

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