Cactus Gallery LA
MIELIKKI, Mistress of the Forest by artist Ulla Anobile
Paper mache, wood, acrylics, mixed media, 18” tall
Mielikki, Metsän Emäntä (Mistress of the Forest), is either the spouse or the daughter-in-law of Tapio, the King of the Forest, in Finnish folklore. Ancient Finnish spirituality was fluid and non-dogmatic that way. It was preserved throughout the centuries in various versions via sung or recited poetry, and collected in written form only in the past couple of centuries by folklorists.
Mielikki’s realm was the ancient forest of the hunter/gatherer days. But her influence extended into fairly recent times, and can be detected even in some of today’s rituals. For example, one should never wish good luck to someone leaving for a hunt; just as in show business, one must tell actors to ‘break a leg’ as they prepare to go on stage, never wish them luck.
Mielikki was both the protectress of the old forests and their riches, and the provider of livelihoods to small game hunters and mushroom and berry pickers. She was considered the spirit guardian of healing herbs and other beneficial wild plants.
The word ‘mielistellä’ in contemporary Finnish means to flatter, to butter up. That, and other related present-day words and expressions, stem from the ancient root word, ‘mielu’, luck, from which also Mielikki’s name is derived.
Mielikki could be capricious with her favors. If she did not think the petitioner for hunting luck was worthy, she would show up in raggedy clothing, which told the petitioner no luck would accompany the hunt. But when she felt favorable, she would appear in splendid attire: a blue cape and red stockings, adorned with heaps of gold and silver jewelry. ‘Havuhattu’, a hat or headdress made of conifer branches, is mentioned as being worn both by her and by Tapio.
In one of the many tales about the birth of the bear, Mielikki is mentioned as the one endowing the king of the animals with his sharp teeth and claws - but on the condition that such weapons never be used against a worthy human being.
Besides granting folk access to her riches (she carried a golden key at her belt), Mielikki also healed the paws of animals hurt after escaping traps, and put back baby birds fallen from nests. She would tend to the wounds of male wood grouse after their fierce pre-mating battles.
Among the many spells and poems addressing Mielikki are ones asking her to protect grazing cattle from predators. That’s why my Mielikki holds that string of ‘bells’ in her upraised hand: she uses them to bring the cattle safely home.
More about my Mielikki’s attire: I embroidered two birch leaves and branches of spruce and pine onto the hem of her forest green skirt. And I gave her a traditional ‘vyötasku’ (belt pocket). Those embroidered pockets used to be part of a country woman’s working attire. These days, such pockets belong to Finnish folk costumes, worn on certain holidays and traditional celebrations.