Ukko, The Mighty Finnish God of Thunder and Lightening
Every culture has its sky deity or old man of the heavens. The ancient Greeks had Zeus. The Romans had Jupiter. For the Norse, Thor essentially played this role. The Finns are no exception. For them, it was Ukko.
Ukko is a relatively less well-known deity that was associated with the sky and with thunder. He also has similarities to the Proto-Indo-European Dyeus Pater and his Indo-European derivatives. Current conceptions of Ukko may have also been influenced by later Christianization of the Finns.
Origins of Ukko
The name Ukko means ‘old man’. This suggests something about Ukko’s original role in the ancient pre-Christian Finnish religion. He may have been some sort of elder god or perhaps the king of the gods, similar to the role of Zeus in ancient Greek religion.
Another meaning of the word ‘ukko’ is ‘thunder’. Furthermore, ancient Finnish incantations related to rain and weather invoke Ukko. Like Thor and Jupiter, Ukko was believed ride a chariot through the sky. Thunder was believed to come from the sound of his chariot.
Ukko was also additionally associated with the sky in general, though that may not have been his original role. It is possible that much of his later role as a supreme god was because of Christian influence and that, originally, he was more of a weather god rather than the almighty Sky Father.
If Ukko is best understood as a primordial sky god, he may be related to other sky gods such as Zeus, Jupiter, Thor, and the Hindu Dyeus. These are sky deities, some of which were considered the rulers of their respective pantheons. All these deities are also part of the Indo-European pantheon and may share a common derivation from the original sky god worshiped by the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture, Dyeus Pater.
Painting depicting Thor who like Ukko was also a sky god. (DcoetzeeBot / Public Domain)
Dyeus Pater is a construct created by PIE scholars to represent the hypothetical original PIE sky god. He is reconstructed based on features common to all Indo-European sky deities. ‘Dyeus’ appears to originate from a Proto-Indo-European root which means ‘to shine’. This suggests an association with light or with the daytime sky.
PIE scholars believe that Dyeus Pater later became adapted to the mythologies of different Indo-European factions as they spread out from their ancestral homelands to become the disparate Indo-European groups people of today.
Despite similarities to these figures, Ukko is best understood in the context of the non-Indo-European cultures that have inhabited the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea since the Bronze Age. Finns are not an Indo-European speaking people, but a Finno-Ugric speaking people, a group which also includes the Magyars, Mordvins, Karelians, Nenets, and Sami, among other cultures. Since the Finns do not share common origin with the Indo-European cultures, it is more likely that the origin of Ukko is to be found in common with the deities of the Finno-Ugric pantheon.
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Ukonkivi, Ukko's rock, in Lake Inariin, Lapland, Finland. Ukonkivi was a holy site to the local Sami. Archeological finds, apparently offerings, have been found at site. (Bff / CC BY-SA 3.0)
The ancestors of the Finno-Ugric speaking people originated in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains. Around 5000-4000 BC, they began to split from other groups within the Uralic language family. The first proto-Finns split off from the other speakers of the parent Finno-Ugric language by about 3000 BC. The Finns first settled the area around the Baltic Sea about 1500 BC.
It is hard to determine the original religious beliefs of the Finno-Ugric people, but general details can be gleaned from various Finno-Ugric mythologies. These details include information about deities worshiped by ancient Finno-Ugric populations. Cognates to Ukko can be found in other Finno-Ugric traditions.
Nonetheless, the Finns have long been neighbors of Indo-European cultures such as the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia. There is abundant archaeological evidence of Germanic influence in Finnish culture.
For example, pendants related to the Norse god Thor are also found in many Finnish archaeological sites. There are also similarities between the domain of Ukko and Thor since they were both gods of thunder that rode in chariots.
Abilities and Traits of Ukko
Ukko is associated most of all with thunder. In the Kalevala, a major work of Finnish poetry, Ukko is said to make thunder with his hammer. In addition to a hammer, golden clubs and arrows are also associated with Ukko.
Certain wedge-shaped stones have been found in Finland which have been referred to as ‘Ukko’s wedges’. They were associated with the thunder god and were believed by the ancient Finns to be weapons that the god used to strike trees and other objects.
Stones thought to belong to Ukko were also kept as pendants and talismans which were believed to protect the wearer from fire and evil spirits. Furthermore, thunderstones found in the northern and eastern parts of Finland have been referred to as ‘Ukko’s claws’, further demonstrating the relation between Ukko and thunder.
Pre-Christian pendants associated with gods of thunder, such as Ukko. A - Finnish type, B -Swedish type, C -Wolf's cross. (Tuohirulla / Public Domain)
In addition to weather, Ukko was also thought to be associated with healing and the spirit world. During the birth of their children and cattle, Finnish pagans would call upon Ukko to aid in delivery. The ancient Finns also believed that directly invoking Ukko could deliver them from the power of evil spirits.
Since Ukko was a deity associated with thunder and rain, he was also an agricultural deity. In ancient Finland, festivals would be held in the spring and summer in which beer would be drunk in his honor. This was done to ensure successful crop yields and to ward off drought.
At least in some cases, the wife of Ukko is believed to have been Ravdna, a childless goddess. Rowan berries would purportedly be dedicated to her. Ravdna is also known among the Sami. The wife of Ukko is not mentioned in all stories but sometimes an earth mother is mentioned when Ukko is described as the sky father in certain eastern Finnish rites.
Ukko after Christianization
Christianization of the Finns was slow compared to western and south-eastern Europe. Some of the earliest archaeological evidence for a Christian presence in Finland comes from inhumation burials dating to the late 6th century.
The pagan Finns cremated their dead, while Christians buried their dead, often in wooden coffins with their arms crossing their chests. Inhumation did not become widespread, however, until the 11th century. An archaeological site dating to the year 800 AD also contained crucifix and cross motifs, suggesting continued Christian influence.
Before the arrival of Christianity, the Finns practiced shamanism and ancestor veneration. Probably for this reason they were regarded by their neighbors as more ‘superstitious’. Their religion was characterized by their western European neighbors as the worship of spirits.
A depiction of the ancient Finnish underworld, Tuonela, from a myth found in the ‘Kalevala’. (CCCP / Public Domain)
Gods in traditional pagan Finno-Ugric religions tend to be distant figures that intervene in the world indirectly through intermediary spirits. Most Finno-Ugric pantheons include a sky god reigning over the other gods.
Although later depictions of Finno-Ugric gods tend be ruled over by a supreme god, it is likely that ancient Finno-Ugric peoples did not originally have a concept of divine hierarchy. Finno-Ugric cultures that adopted agriculture also emphasized the importance of an earth mother in addition to the Finno-Ugric sky father.
It is not clear what stage Finno-Ugric religion had reached in the pre-Christian Finns by the time Ukko had become popular, but it is likely that the Finnish view of their sky god was influenced by the Christian and Islamic cultures to the south. One primordial Finnish sky god is Jumala, whose name is also used as the modern Finnish name for the Christian God as well as a generic term for deities of any religion.
Jumala was considered to be the chief of the gods and was the god of the sky as well as weather. Considering the similarity between Ukko and Jumala, they were likely either closely related deities or different names for the same deity.
Jumala the sky god. (Graham Stanley / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Guardian spirits are believed to be the main supernatural beings with which humans interact in many Finno-Ugric spiritual traditions. Each guardian spirit would govern or steward a domain.
A house spirit would be responsible for bringing luck to a house and warning of calamity to those in that house. A house guardian spirit was considered to be the original owner of the plot of land on which the house was built.
Cattle spirits would watch over cattle during the winter, and forest guardian spirits were responsible for watching over cattle during the summer. Finno-Ugric ancestor worship only consisted of the deceased family members. All other dead or undead beings were considered wandering or haunting spirits which needed to be exercised.
Another important part of ancient Finnish religion was the role of sacred animals. Sacred animals may have been totemic ancestors of specific clans and families. This is possibly reflected in other Finno-Ugric cultures where animal names are common, such as the Karelians and the Hungarians.
The bear was a particularly sacred creature that was believed to be the son of the sky god. Some Finno-Ugric cultures would even have festivals where bear meat was eaten, and a maiden was symbolically married to a bear that was ritually slain.
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The bear was a sacred animal to the Finnish pagans. (Luco29 / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Women believed that the slain bear could impregnate them at a distance, so they were careful of their proximity to the bear during the festival. Vestiges of totemism are still evident among the modern Sami and it was probably also practiced among the ancient pre-Christian Finns.
The practice of shamanism and totemism among the Finns also gave the impression that the Finns had magical powers which may have made them particularly feared during the Viking Age.
After 1000 AD, the Finns began to come into more frequent contact with the Latin, Germanic, and Slavic worlds which were all either Christianized or undergoing Christianization by that point. Christian influence originally came more from the east and most linguistic and archaeological evidence of Christian influence shows eastern Christian rituals and symbols.
The spread of Christianity increased as Finland began to come under the influence of Christian kings and missionaries. At first, the Finns resisted Christian influence, but by the 13th century, Finland had probably become almost entirely Christian.
By the 14th century, Finland had come under the dominance of Sweden which was Roman Catholic at the time. Because of this, western Christianity became more dominant later in the Middle Ages.
Some scholars of religion believe that it was during this time period that Ukko took on more universal characteristics. Because Ukko was a sky god, Christian missionaries may have identified him with the God of Christianity.
The word Jumala as the name of God in Finnish Lutheran church. Jumala on Rakkaus translates to God is love. (Messir / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Ukko may have gone through a transition from being mainly a god of weather to being a more universal god who also provided healing and protection from evil spirits. The current stature of Ukko in this case would be due to Christian influence over the centuries leading to eventual conflation of Ukko with the Christian God.
Legacy of Ukko
Today, Ukko is not as well known outside of Finland and the areas around the Baltic Sea. Nonetheless, Ukko has played an important role in the history of Finland. The current understanding of Ukko is that he was a Finnish sky and thunder god with power over the land and its fertility for agriculture. He also had the ability to heal and protect humans from evil spirits.
He is additionally considered to have been the ruler of the gods. It is unclear how much of this represents the original Ukko and how much of it is due to later Christian attempts to make him more like the Christian God for the purpose of evangelization of the Finns.
Another interesting trend in Finno-Ugric societies in general is the tendency for their deities to be distant, associated with sky, and to interact with humans through intermediaries. This could be due to the animism inherent in Finno-Ugric religions which kept nature spirits at the forefront of their religious practice, keeping the cosmic gods distant.
On the other hand, many depictions of these sky gods appear to have been influenced by Judaeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of God. The gods sit in the heavens and communicate with humans through semi-divine intermediaries.
Regardless of how much the modern Ukko resembles the Ukko once worshiped by the ancient pre-Christian Finns, he is now a symbol of Finland. Although he may not be identical to the god of the ancient Finns of the same name, he is a cultural god of modern Finland.
Top image: The Finnish sky god Ukko. Source: Risukarhi / Public Domain.
By Caleb Strom
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