The Burdensome Journey of Collecting Magic Objects

How did the magic objects end up in the museum collections? Most of these objects were collected in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this period, there was a huge effort to collect the “folk culture” of Finland to be preserved in archives and museums. Thus, researchers, students, schoolteachers, and other interested individuals interviewed people and bought objects to be sent to the collections. It was believed that the “purest” folk culture could be found in peripheral areas, so much of the collecting effort involved travelling to distant villages and often enduring many hardships on these roadless journeys. It was often necessary to travel partway by foot.

Student Ahti Rytkönen standing on a brushwood path crossing wetlands.
Student Ahti Rytkönen brought a few magic objects, for example some snake meat and the head of a viper, from his field trip to Maaninka in 1927. Photo Finnish Heritage Agency, CC BY 4.0.

Collecting magic objects could be difficult for another reason as well. Especially collectors of Stone Age tools have reported that people were sometimes very reluctant to give up these stones. As was revealed in the post Bolts of Thunder, these stone tools were believed to be the tip of lightning. As powerful objects, they were widely used in many kinds of magic practices, especially in healing. The reports show that collectors had very different attitudes towards encounters with users of the objects: some did not try to conceal their contempt towards the “simpleminded”, while others felt sympathy. For example, the schoolteacher Kustaa Killinen showed compassion towards the people whose remedies he was collecting and decided to overlook the stone axe of “Shoemaker’s Tiina”, which was known for its great healing power.

Collectors of folklore who were interested in recording incantations have also reported that some informants would omit parts of the chants in order to keep them powerful. Thus, it may be possible that sometimes the object given to the collector was not the real powerful object. Perhaps this is what has happened with one “head of a stoat” in the National Museum. The object in this case is not at all the head of a stoat but a vaguely head-shaped bone of an animal. Was the collector fooled?

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