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Moose soup

Every autumn the local people gather together to eat moose soup. The event is organised by the hunters, and they invite not only the land owners who allow hunting on their grounds, but just everybody is welcome. And then there is music and dancing. This is a common habit everywhere in Finland, and I guess the origins date back far into the pagan past. Nowadays there are hardly any religious or spiritual elements to be seen in the ritual, but the social aspect is strong. Eating together is kind of a universal way of enforcing collective feeling of "us local people". I can easily imagine an ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers, feasting together after a big kill. And there's some of that feeling still surviving today; people might disagree on many things, but that doesn't count when everybody comes to enjoy the moose soup.

Well, I've been living in this corner of the world for some 15 years, and if I remember correctly, I've never attended the moose feast. Until last saturday. Again, I was thinking that I'm too tired to go there, I don't feel like talking with anybody, and I'd like just to rest alone at my home. But then, on the other hand, I've been borrowing a trailer from one of my neighbours, and he kindly allowed be to keep it for the whole week so that I can transport all the materials I need for my house renovation project. And it was exactly him who shot the moose for the soup to be served. So, I finally decided to go. After all, it is a social ritual, and I do like my neighbours, so why not eat moose soup with them.

I don't know but I've hear that the moose feast often includes people drinking some booze. So, I decided to follow the tradition and poured some cognac in a small flask, flipped the flask in the chest pocket of my coat and went out. The feast took place about one kilometre away from my home, so it was not a long distance to walk. It was already dark, and it was raining a little. I had a flashlight with me, but I didn't need to use it, as I could still tell where the road is - there is forest on both sides of the road, and in the very dim light the trees appear completely dark while the sky above the road is bit less dark. I went on, occasionally sipping little of the cognac. After a short while I saw lights behind the trees - funnily it felt bit like you can imagine in any of those phantasy stories or rpg's - wandering alone in the dark, then finally seeing lights coming from a big house, warm food and cheerful company awaiting indoors.

Well, the moose soup was very delicious. And there was also coffee and cake. It is not easy to estimate, but I'd say there were bit more than one hundred people in the house. As I might have mentioned in my earlier posts, in my teenage years I often felt that many people treated me as no-good - I was too different and didn't always quite fit into their social categories. I learned to take that as a normal state, and later in my life I have been genuinely surprised when I feel that other people just accept me the way I am. But after so many years it seems that my concept of "normal state" has shifted. Now many of the local people stopped to talk with me; about horses, about business, about old stories and everything - and it just felt normal to me; yes of course, I accept them the way they are, and they treat me as an accepted part of the local community.

Later on in the evening there was an one-man band playing traditional dance music. There were a handful of pairs dancing, while others went on with the casual chatting. Most of the people there were somewhat older than I am, but I could also spot some young adults in their twenties, dancing smoothly and effortlessly. Also, couple of families had their kids with them. Deep down in my soul I felt like a piece is missing; when I was kid, our family never attended to anything like this, I never learned to dance as a kid. There was very little of music in our daily life, and not that much communal joy and fun. I have always wanted to learn those traditional dances like finnish tango, waltz, jenkka, polkka and humppa. Well, I know the steps, but due to serious lack of practice I just can't move freely and effortlessly enjoying the music and movement. If I try, all too soon I stumble with my feet and miss the beat. So, I recognize I've kind of a grown outside some central elements of Finnish countryside traditions. Sure, I was glad to escape the local community of my childhood, as I always experienced the atmoshpere being more restricting than supporting. But I also see that tradition is not always about controlling and restricting individuals - there are also aspects of promoting sharing and communal joy. Things like freely dancing humppa with your neighbours.

Finally I left, happily wandering the silent dirt road in the night.

For Sunday's meal I roasted a rooster. (Those who have been following "picture of the day"-section might already know that I slaughtered the roosters couple of days ago). I remember my father tried roasting a rooster couple of times when I was a kid. The first time he was surprised how long it took until the meat got properly well-done. The second time he started by boiling the meat for some time before roasting. But I didn't remember exactly how much time was needed with those different ways of cooking a rooster. So, I was just generally speaking mentally prepared to take all the time it takes. I started a fire and removed the feathers. First I placed the rooster high over the flames and went working on my yard, every now and then adjusting the position of the rooster. After an hour or so the flames were out and there was a good heap of hot ambers left. I lowered the position of the rooster so that it was now just inches away from the embers. Again I left it there - it was already getting dark but I could still get some work done using a led light. I didn't apply any spices to the rooster, so I decided to make two sauces for seasoning. My idea was that I can cut small pieces of the meat and dip them in a sauce to make it tasty. Well, I started by trying to break a wing apart, but I realized that the joints aren't yet properly cooked - when they get well-done or overdone, the joints will just fall apart easily. I added some smaller twigs into the fire to boost it a little, turned and repositioned the rooster and drank a can of beer. After ten minutes I tore apart the first wing, using my teeth to separate the meat from the bones. And yes it was very tasty with spicy sauces. But soon I realized that it is surprisingly tasty even without any spices - without salt it still tasted delicious. Oh, yum yum!

When we were kids, me and my brothers read every Asterix album we could get. And I always wanted to cook and eat wild boar the way the do in the village of Asterix. Well, this weekend there were both these aspects - first eating together with the local people, and then eating meat roasted on open fire.

arriving at the moose feast
arriving at the moose feast
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I was actually wondering about this, how people in old days used to eat food without salt. I suppose it's not too bad, if you're used to it. But I personally can't imagine it :D

I just joined today. My boyfriend plays URW a lot, and it made me want to write a novel based on iron-age Finland. I've been writing and researching for a few months, and I know a lot more than I did before I started. But I'm never going to know how it actually feels to live like that (barring throwing up everything and actually moving to the Finnish woods). I have some questions I want to ask, if it's okay with you?

Hmmm, I think most of the people had access to salt in Iron Age Finland - after all, salt is produced in Europe so it has been an imported trade good here in Finland. I'd guess more exotic spices came available only later in history.

And sure, feel free to ask - I'll try to answer what I can =)

Right, there was salt (and it's there in the game, too) but I'm guessing it was expensive? Maybe too expensive to put in food, at least for everyday.

As for my questions, just a few of them for now:

1. The characters in my story need to tan fur, and I've read a lot about how the Sami did it, but I don't know if the eastern and western Finns would have used the same method, in that time period. As far as I know the Sami didn't soak their leather/fur, and they didn't even really tan the skin, just kind of spread the bark on the flesh side and let the tannins get into it, which makes it a superficial treatment. But the hideworking process in URW does involve soaking. I am wondering how a non-Sami Finn at the time would have tanned fur and leather... I've heard that skins tanned in the Sami way were supposed to be weak to moisture (though I rather doubt that's true, since the Sami were rolling in snow for most of the year). The furs the character sells in the Unreal World would have been traded overseas, and I don't know if the "foreign traders" would have required the furs they bought to be water-resistant or supple... or does that just go into hide quality? (harsh, decent, fine, etc.)

2. Is it possible to build a log house on your own? I imagine it would be almost impossible without at least one person helping you. And if you're repairing a log house, what does that involve? What exactly do you need to do?

3. How do you winter your sheep? Do you take them inside, or do you keep them outside? And what do you do with them when you're going to be away for a long time? (say, a week) Bonus question: are your sheep Finnsheep?

I think actually you could talk about the last two questions as blog posts. I'm very sure people beside myself would be interested in reading about it.

Thank you so much for your time, and to you and Sami for the great game!

Just a quick reply before leaving for work;

1. For what purposes are your story characters tanning furs? To be traded for fogeign goods? To make winter clothes for own use? To make leather for various tools etc? I guess all that kind of matters affect the preffered method of tanning. I'm not expert on the issue, but I know people who have been doing it (and actually I'd like to try it this winter), so I hope that with some time and asking my friends I can find a detailed answer =)

2. quickly: a skilled (wo)man armed with a good axe could build a simple log house all alone.

3. my sheep are indeed finnsheep breed. I don't shear them in the autumn, so with their natural wool they survive the winter in their shelter. They have a roof and three walls, with dry straw on the ground. Cold is not an issue for them, as long as they stay dry and protected from wind.

Thank you very much for your prompt reply :)

I would like to thank you for your fast reply again.

"For what purposes are your story characters tanning furs?"

This is actually a bit of a difficult question, when it comes to the story. My characters will be doing a lot of trapping, both for meat and for furs to trade. One of the two will have been from a hunter-gatherer background, and will both know how to tan skins AND how to use them. She will have much use for furs to make clothing, as well as leather for tools.

The other character... he will have been raised on a farm, not in the wilderness. He will be used to wearing woven cloth, though he will probably know how to make shoes from leather (and skis from fur?). And this goes back to another question I've been wanting to ask someone, but it always seemed too vague: I don't know how well someone who grew up on a permanently settled farmstead (with cows and sheep and regularly tilled fields) would adjust to the swidden and hunting lifestyle. Would it be an easy transition? Would it be difficult? This is the sort of thing I cannot understand without experience.

If we are talking about Finnish Iron Age, I'd bet most of the people had considerable wilderness experience. Even the families living in settled houses had a habit of making two or three wilderness trips each year - spending several weeks on the go. For example, the area where I live now was mostly unpopulated wilderness back in the 1600's. People living in settled farms 100 - 150 km south of here had their permanent wilderness camps here - they rowed up the lakes and rivers to get here, and to reap the seasonal harvest hunting and fishing, then returning back home with boats loaded with furs and dried meat and fish.

So, if you want to have a male character with very little experience of being in the wild, you have to invent a good reason for it. Maybe he had overprotective parents who were afraid of losing their only son and didn't allow him to do anything dangerous?

May I ask that where are you from - which country? As, I have a feeling that there are some subtle differences between Finnish tradition and mainland European culture. Most notably the villages - in Finland we never quite had tightly packed villages with fields spreading around the hamlet. Here it is more like a network of single farms, connected with paths, fields and forest in between each house. Here and there it might have been tight units of two or three households, but pretty much nothing comparing to the stereotypical image of European Medieval village with inns and shops and people divided to different classes or professions. So, in Finland the forest is pretty much everywhere. Generally speaking any yard is bordered by forest, and it is the one and the same vast forest everywhere. (In a sense it still is so, altough most of the forest is now heavily affected by forest industry. But still, if you walk into the forest in the central park of Helsinki, theoretically speaking you can walk up all the way to Lappland without ever leaving 'wilderness' - provided that we count any lake, river, clearcut, thicket, bog and forest as 'wilderness')

I see. Thank you for your in-depth reply. Greetings from Korea :)

One question, was this true throughout all of Finland at the time? I am given to understand that there were some differences between the southwest / coastal areas and the rest of Finland. I've heard something to the effect that in the east, swidden farming was more common, while in the Southwest, glaciers had swept most of the fertile soil deep into the valleys, so it was more profitable to have settled farms than slash-and-burn fields.

I also heard that western Finland was affected more by Viking culture, so I imagined a more intensive form of agriculture and animal husbandry being practiced in that region, with less time devoted to foraging. In Iceland, I know it was mostly large and self-sufficient farmsteads - not villages - so I imagined something lke that for western Finland as well. Basically I was imagining something like the main character having many reasons for his inexperience: protective relatives, yes, and also being from a tribe that has become "civilized" through trade (closer to the Vikings and other agrarian societies) and somewhat lost its connection to the wilderness.

But then again, Finnish forests are richer than Icelandic tundra, and maybe it would have been stupid for any tribe, Driik or otherwise, not to take advantage of the bounty. It is likely there was no real difference, or ther was one but slight and I am exaggerating it in my head.

One more (just one more!) question before I slip back under the surface: how strict a division would there have been between men's work and women's work at the time? I know the Vikings were very, very strict about this sort of thing, to the point where a man would literally die before being caught doing "women's work". Viking culture is not Finnish culture, however (there is, however, way more written down about it). In a situation where there WERE women around to do it for him, how willing on a scale of 1 to 10 would a man be to do the cooking / sewing himself? And how would they look on a woman who hunted (both trapping and going after the big game?)

Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to reply to my questions. It is very much appreciated.

Oh, my humble greetings to Korea!

Well, yes, sure there were regional differences and you are generally speaking right. In east slash and burn agriculture was the dominant form of farming, in west and south-west they did more settled farming with some additional slash-and-burn. But if I remember correctly what we studied at the University, those regular hunting trips were especially characteristic of the more settled cultures. In a way it makes sense - living near your settled fields, then occasionally travelling out into the wilds where fish and game populations are rich.

But if you allow yourself some freedom of imagination, I think you could take Driik (in real life Turku-region) as a culture so settled that they already begin to have more city-like structures and specialiced professions. Turku is our oldest city, and I think it started to grow already a thousand years ago, so it might well be that it was the only city-like structure in Finland at those times. And yes, it is a coastal place, with Viking traders regularly visiting. So, I guess it might have been that our 1000 AD population already had a handful of families who didn't have that much wilderness experience =)

Hmm... there isn't that much written history to document gender roles in pagan Finland. There are reports of Sami women hunting, and stone age cave paintings of female archers. But I'm not so sure about Iron Age culture. Yet, Finland was the first European country to allow women to vote (at 1906), so that speaks something of our less strict gender division. Also, I'd guess gender roles is one of the things which has a lot of regional variance. The more tougher it gets, the less you can allow to have strict gender roles - when it is question of surviving, everyone is going to split wood with an axe, cook food, mend clothes or what not.

EDIT: it just came to my mind that regarding to women being independent or doing "mens work" - in many cases it might be relative to age. Young, unmarried maidens are supposed to take more female role, and when they get married there is a natural division of work, the woman taking care of kids and household, the man building, hunting, farming and fishing. But for widows or otherwise unmarried women it is more natural to go out hunting or fishing themselves - having no family to sustain and no man to feed them, they are going to do it themselves (well, of course they might stay living with their parents taking care of them when they get old, but still they could occasionally go out hunting or some such)

Wow, thank you so much for these responses! They're way more than I dreamed of getting. This clears a lot up... and I've been suffering writer's block lately, and this is really helpful in getting me back out of that :)

Do most Finnish people learn this stuff in university, or did you take a more specialized course? In Korea it is uncommon to take courses out of one's main major, so my boyfriend wants to know if it is typical for a philosophy major like you to take courses in ancient history :)

To get a university degree we are required to study a major subject and then two or three secondary subjects (and then some obligatory language courses for everybody). And we are mostly free to choose any secondary subjects we like, even from a different University. Of course we didn't study those secondary subjects as much as the main one. My secondary subjects were psychology, educational sciences and folkloristics.

Ah, and at university one of my mates did an exchange year in Korea =)


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