Culture

Vikings vs valkyries: who will be victorious in finland's battle of the sexes?

Article published on March 17, 2014
Article published on March 17, 2014

What with the economic crisis, a rise in alcoholism and the struggle for gender equality, a Finnish man has no choice but to turn away from nostalgia, from a history of savage warriors and untamed landscapes. To miss the modernity bandwagon in a country which prides itself on its work ethic and its economic independence can cost him a lot. Perhaps his life, judging by this lot.

Vikings vs. Valkyries: Who Will Win the Bat­tle of the Sexes in Fin­land?

What with the eco­nomic cri­sis, the blight of al­co­holism and the un­stop­pable march of gen­der equal­ity, there is noth­ing left for the Finnish male to do but re­treat into nos­tal­gia for a myth­i­cal past of un­de­feat­able war­riors and un­spoilt forests. How­ever, miss­ing the train to mod­ern life in a coun­try founded on work, pride and eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence might cost them greatly, and could even cost them their lives.

“Man can even go through the grey stone,” goes the hyp­notic re­frain of the song of the same title by the metal band, Ko­r­pik­laani. This may be so, but I can tell you that after see­ing these in­fa­mous Vikings eat or­ganic sal­ads, then get drunk in a cor­ner of a club while wait­ing to be picked up by a girl, I felt they would have trou­ble going through the toi­let door, never mind stone.  But what can you do? I’ve come to un­der­stand that the Finns are like this, all caught up in nos­tal­gia.

Be­fore the urban, cap­i­tal­ist rev­o­lu­tions, which grew out of tech­no­log­i­cal progress, even be­fore the ar­rival of Lutheranism, the Kale­vala, a story made up of poems and na­tional folk songs, was the only re­li­gion here. It tells of a mytho­log­i­cal world pop­u­lated by he­roes who have very lit­tle in com­mon with mo­bile tech­nol­ogy geeks, of­fices in the city of Helsinki and lunch time sushi. Väinämöinen The Wise, Il­mari­nen The Forger, and Lem­minkäinen The War­rior and Se­ducer are all char­ac­ters in the Kale­vala. They re­main undy­ing sym­bols of the Finnish man with qual­i­ties such as cun­ning, in­dus­tri­ous­ness, brav­ery and pow­ers of se­duc­tion. It may sound a bit like Game of Thrones to you, but this stuff never goes out of fash­ion here.

Folk Metal:  The Music of Choice for the Finnish Macho Man

Metal music is a prime ex­am­ple of this. It is an im­mensely pop­u­lar genre in Fin­land, par­tic­u­larly the in­creas­ingly ad­mired sub-genre of folk, or Viking metal. The lyrics are in­fused with leg­ends and a healthy pinch of old-fash­ioned male chau­vin­ism.  For Jonne Järvelä, front man of Ko­r­pik­laani, the Kale­vala is the Bible of nos­tal­gia. “I don’t be­lieve the world is going in the right di­rec­tion,” he tells me while gulp­ing down litres of black cof­fee. He has just got back from a con­cert the evening be­fore in the nearby city of Turku. “Men are los­ing their con­nec­tion to na­ture and the value of real work,” he says, and  I know what he means. Watch­ing him talk, with his long blond dreads and re­sem­blance to Charles Bron­son in Death Wish, I ask my­self how could a man like this pos­si­bly work at a desk? “Work, hard work, is in­grained in the peo­ple of Fin­land,” he says. “This coun­try is com­pletely cov­ered with forests, so we are used to sweat­ing and get­ting our hands dirty. Now that ma­chines work in­stead of us, it is dif­fi­cult for us to adapt. Trust me, when it’s cold, you need to have some­thing to do.”

Math­ias Ny­gard, the front man of Tur­isas, an­other leg­endary band, puts his fin­ger on the prob­lem. “With such long cold win­ters, you can’t even relax in the sum­mer­time. You have to plan, make pro­vi­sions, and work hard, oth­er­wise you won’t sur­vive,” he tells me in a bar next to Tavas­tia, the his­toric Helsinki rock club. How­ever the weather is not the only issue. “In Fin­land, which is pos­si­bly the least re­li­gious coun­try in Eu­rope, there are just two com­mand­ments: work hard and obey the law. For protes­tants, being use­ful to the State is the im­por­tant thing, not going to church.”

One of the pos­si­ble ways of heal­ing this wound be­tween the past and pre­sent, be­tween a sub­sis­tence econ­omy (where every­one feels use­ful) and global cap­i­tal­ism (where, like Nokia, na­tional com­pa­nies are sold off and the em­ploy­ees are let go) is with al­co­hol. Jonne is very aware that peo­ple drink too much in Fin­land. “Even I have a few prob­lems,” he con­fesses, smil­ing, yet many of his songs cel­e­brate the plea­sure of being drunk, as if al­co­hol were a mag­i­cal po­tion al­low­ing you to go back to being men of old. The track ‘Vodka’ is the best ex­am­ple.

Women in Fin­land are Nat­u­rally Fem­i­nist

So while the men take refuge in metal and in bars, Finnish women, de­fined by Jonne as being “fem­i­nist by na­ture, with no need to label them­selves as such,” con­tinue their fierce march to­wards the fu­ture. They are not sat­is­fied with the record 86 women elected in a par­lia­ment of 200 rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 2011, or with Fin­land being the best place in the world to be a mother, or know­ing that Finnish women feel freer and more eman­ci­pated com­pared to south­ern women. For Finnish fem­i­nists it is never enough, “even to the point of hu­mil­i­at­ing their own hus­bands,” says Jonne.

Even Tetti Vähämaa, Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of the Fem­i­nist As­so­ci­a­tion Union, ad­mits, “it’s likely that women’s in­de­pen­dence scares men,” even more so in times of eco­nomic cri­sis. “Los­ing your job, es­pe­cially in a so­ci­ety like ours, cre­ates strong feel­ings of frus­tra­tion,” she says, wel­com­ing me into a splen­did 1920s build­ing in the cen­tre of Helsinki. “It leads men to be­come vi­o­lent with them­selves and with oth­ers. Cases where men kill their wives and chil­dren, and then com­mit sui­cide are not that rare.

Male Frus­tra­tion Re­sults in Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence

Ac­cord­ing to the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion, Fin­land has the sec­ond high­est num­ber of cases of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in Eu­rope after Es­to­nia. Kostas Tas­sopou­los knows this only too well. He is head coun­sel­lor at Lyömätön Linja, an or­gan­i­sa­tion which has been treat­ing men in­volved in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence since 1993. “This is not a ques­tion of vi­o­lent peo­ple, but of vi­o­lent be­hav­iours,” he ex­plains. “They are al­most al­ways the ones who call us be­cause they are seized by strong feel­ings of guilt.” Then he shows me a stack of tis­sues placed on the table in his of­fice. “You have no idea how many it takes to dry my pa­tients’ tears!” he says. Other than al­co­hol and un­em­ploy­ment, there is also a cul­tural ex­pla­na­tion for do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.  “A sort of neg­a­tive sol­i­dar­ity is cus­tom­ary here. Protes­tants are taught to re­solve their prob­lems in­di­vid­u­ally, so men, who are al­ready less in­clined to talk things over, bot­tle every­thing up until some kind of vi­o­lent act be­comes in­evitable”. How­ever there is a new trend, which Kostas con­firms, for vi­o­lence by women against men.  “These days women are judged less by so­ci­ety for what they do,” Tetti the fem­i­nist re­minds me. “So they feel jus­ti­fied in act­ing as they want to”. For Finnish men, per­haps there is noth­ing left to do but dust off their swords and ar­mour.

Video Cred­its: Nu­clear Blast Records/youtube

This ar­ti­cle is part of a se­ries of spe­cial monthly city edi­tions on ‘EU­topia on the ground’; watch this space for up­com­ing re­ports ‘dream­ing of a bet­ter Eu­rope’ from Naples, Dublin, Za­greb and Helsinki. This pro­ject is funded with sup­port from theEuropean com­mis­sion via the French min­istry of for­eign af­fairs, the Hip­pocrène foun­da­tion and the Charles Léopold Mayer foun­da­tion for the progress of hu­mankind