hear the harp of Väinämöinen...

Sacred Birch

by Lani K. Thompson


The roots of the birch tree grow deep in the history, culture and soul of the Finnish people. Birch trees are mentioned countless times in the Kalevala and were considered to be, along with mountain-ash, a sacred tree. When Väinämöinen cleared the forests, so barley could be planted, he cut down all the trees, except for birch, which he left standing so the birds would have a place to rest.

Wainamoinen, wise and ancient,
Made himself an axe for chopping,
Then began to clear the forest,
Then began the trees to level,
Felled the trees of all descriptions,
Only left the birch-tree standing
For the birds a place of resting,
Where might sing the sweet-voiced cuckoo,
Sacred bird in sacred branches.

After the first kantele was lost, Väinämöinen made a second kantele out of birch-wood, after listening to the birch tree complain about how "small" and "weak" it was.

Another story, related in John Abercromby’s, Magic Songs of the West Finns, tells how the birch tree was created from the tears of a girl who was crying.

Tree Spirits

Ancient Finns believed trees had spirits and they worshipped them and brought them gifts at different times of the year. In the fall they might bring porridge or the head of a slaughtered ram. In the spring, they hung Aiolian harps on the trees and wrote spells on the bark to help new saplings grow. This tradition is still carried on by school children today.


Finns used birch in everyday practical magic. Fishermen would smoke their nets over a birch fire to ensure good fishing. Farmers would carry a circle of birchbark counter-clockwise around a newly made forest clearing and recite the words "Stay now within this circle" before setting the brush and undergrowth in the clearing on fire. John Abercromby collected numerous charms, incantations and prayers that mention birch trees, and included them in his book, Magic Songs of the West Finns. This incantation was for a cross-bow man:

"Strike now, thou birchen bow, pray give a blow, thou fir-backed bow, spring, hempen bowstring, hastily discharge forthwith and powerfully. If my hand shall point too low, just so much may the arrow rise; if my hand shall point too high, just so much may the arrow fall."

Those with hiccoughs could recite this charm against them:

Go, hiccough, to a clump of limes; I'll come to strip the bast; go, hiccough, to a clump of birch; I'll come to strip the bark.


One of the reasons why birch trees were sacred was because they were so useful to the Finns. The bark could be used to make baskets, dishes, cups and shoes. Sauna whisks and brooms were made from birches, and the wood was used for heating and cooking, or to make furniture and knife handles. Birch sap, which has many medicinal properties, was drunk as a beverage, used in porridge and fed to young calves.

For the Finns, that which was sacred always went hand in hand with that which had a practical use.


  1. Forest Management Associations: Facts of Finland, Birch – national tree of Finland
  2. Take2theweb.com: Spirit of the Trees 2012
  3. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens: Silver Birch
  4. Sacred Texts: Kalevala – Rune II, Wainamoinen’s Sowing
  5. Magic Songs of the West Finns, Vol. 2, by John Abercromby, [1898], at sacred-texts.com