Serpent Stone and Bear Claw OR The Mysterious Contents of a Finnish Divination BoxNovember, 2019
The collections of the Museum of Ethnography are by no means lacking in objects associated with the practice of magic; indeed, amulets, talismans, and other accessories said to ward off evil, conjure, heal, influence love outcomes, and/or predict or alter the inscrutable future have played roles of importance in societies throughout time. Still, every so often one comes across an object infused with a greater-than-usual share of mystery, one with minimal information attached, whose use from our vantage point a century after collection is difficult to divine. This Finnish divination box is just such an object: a simultaneously magical and mysterious thing that has piqued the investigative curiosity of scholars in both Hungary, and Finland.
Artefact no. 6236 is not a modern piece. Inventoried by the Ethnographic Department of the Hungarian National Museum in 1894, it originally belonged to a body of several hundred objects purchased from the Finnish Ethnography Museum in Helsingfors (Helsinki) as the result of a special endowment. Facilitating the transfer was the “father of Finnish ethnography,” Theodor Schwindt, whose detailed catalogue of the material was later translated by Béla Vikár. Regarding the divination box, the only information left to curators was that it had been used in the municipality of Kirvu, then still part of Finland, and that it contained the following articles: “smooth stones, tiny nodules that, having grown under tree bark, have never seen the light of day, bits of iron, juniper twigs and berries, and some sort of claw.” The two final items, it was noted, had been lost, leaving a total of seven objects still in the box. As to what they were used for and how their magic was wrought, none of the staff had the faintest clue.
To answer these questions, a search was launched, the outcome of which was the discovery of the writings of Sonja Hukantaival, a Finnish archaeologist who had conducted research on (among other things) frogs found buried in tiny coffins under cathedrals, and the use of pigs’ snouts in healing and love magic. Scholarly interests like these made her a likely source of insight as to the contents of the box, and as it turned out, her guidance in the matter extended not only to published works and enthusiastic blog posts, but also to an exchange of personal letters. Indeed, Hukantai’s subsequent clarifications on the translation of Schwidt’s notes and visual survey of the box’s contents both lent considerable momentum to the investigation.
In the end, it would seem, even the object’s name poses certain questions. A literal translation would be closer to “witch’s bag,” the word “witch” here carrying the sense of an herbal healer with links to the supernatural. In other words, the objects in the bag may be assumed to have served the purpose of effecting cures through magic. In contemporary Finnish folklore, this capacity was said to derive from väki, a force residing primarily in natural features, materials, and objects. Väki, it was believed, gave the waters, forests, earth, and even various metals the power to cause illnesses. Ostensibly, an ailment associated with a particular form of väki could only be cured using an object of corresponding väki. In general, stones, plant and animal parts, and pieces of metal of curious form or having special properties were imbued with healing power by bringing them into contact with the material possessing the original väki of that type. Certainly, some of the pieces in the Museum of Ethnography’s “witch’s bag” had been placed in contact with some sort of väki, thus elevating them to the status of healing objects.
As none of the bag’s three “smooth stones” had ever been officially named, it could not be determined whether they represented what are known as “serpent stones” or “raven stones”. A serpent stone was one associated with the earth, or the power of the serpent, something it acquired indirectly when the serpent – an animal that, in the course of locomotion, lives in constant contact with the soil – transmitted its väki to the earth at the time of its spring council. At this mythical meeting, the serpents were said to confer punishment upon the one among them responsible for the most bites in the course of the foregoing year. As part of their deliberations, they passed a stone from mouth to mouth, an action that both smoothed it, and imbued it with väki. The finder of such a stone could use it not only to cure skin conditions caused by the earth force, such as abscesses, boils, rashes, or growths, but also to guarantee victory in the settlement of legal disputes.
Raven stones, on the other hand, which looked exactly like serpent stones, could be found in the nests of birds and served the primary purpose of alleviating toothache, though they also conferred invisibility when held in the mouth – a property that could doubtless be used to identify the object definitively today, if it were not for museum conservation regulations, which prohibit museum staff from performing tests of this kind.
The pair of “tiny nodules,” too, were used to cure skin conditions via the earth force, in this case by pressing the warmed nodules onto the injured skin three or nine times while incanting a “spell of the waning moon and setting sun” that caused the condition to “dwindle and disappear”. In order to retain their powers, however, it was important that they never come in contact with sunlight. Fortunately, no such accident can possibly have occurred during their years in museum storage; of that we can be completely certain.
As for the remaining contents of the bag, much less is known. The significance of the bits of iron likely lay in the power of metals; that of the juniper in the part its striking scent played in local healing practices. Regarding the claw, we can but speculate that it was originally a bear’s, used to alleviated labour pains, or – being invested with the power of the forests – to protect domestic herds from wild, forest-dwelling animals.
The paucity of information doesn’t stop here, however. Indeed, of the spells and magical substances the bag’s owner once used, we have only our knowledge of local folklore to go on, while the person’s identity and personal methods are, perhaps, forever consigned to the misty past. Still, while many unanswered questions remain, for the first time in 125 years, a few – at least – can be checked off the list.