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A haltija (haltia) is a spirit, gnome, or elf-like creature in Finnish mythology that guards, helps, or protects something or somebody. The word is possibly derived from the Gothic *haltijar, which referred to the original settler of a homestead — although this is not the only possible etymology.
The word is also used in modern Finnish to mean, depending on the context, holder, occupant, lord, master, owner-occupier, occupier, possessor, bearer, or owner.
There are many different kinds of haltijas. There are, for example water haltijas and forest haltijas. Even graveyards have their own haltijas (kalman väki, "death folk").
Human settlements also have haltijas. One type is the tonttu or maan haltija (land haltija). The tonttu is the Finnish version of the Swedish tomte. The Finnish tonttu and the Swedish tomte are related to the words tontti (Finnish) and tomt (Swedish), which both mean building lot and building site. (Later, such local spirits are also referred to as a tomtegubbe ["old man of the homestead"] in Swedish). The kotihaltija (home elf, home gnome) is the tonttu who lives in every home. He takes care of the house, and it is important to treat him with respect. The saunatonttu lives in the sauna and protects it but also makes sure that people do not behave improperly in it. Joulutonttu is Finnish for Christmas elf. Unlike the Christmas elves in some countries, the Finnish joulutonttu doesn't have pointy ears.
There are even personal haltijas, which are protective spirits similar to angels in Christianity. One of them is called "luonto", which means "nature".
In Estonian mythology a similar being is called haldjas, whereas the term used in Estonian for a holder, master, or owner-occupier is haldaja.
Folk and power
Some haltijas are divided into races or folks, which are called väki. This word means either "strength/power" or "group/corps (of people)" (e.g. väkiviina "strong liquor", sotaväki "the military"), of which the meaning of "power" is etymologically older; the meaning of väki meaning "folk" is the result of the anthropomorphication of abstract concepts like "kalman väki", the power of dead spirits. There are different kind of väkis of haltijas, like veden väki (water folk) or metsän väki (forest folk). However, väki should not be simply translated to mean folk or race, because it also has another meaning at the same time: it means folk, and it means (magical) powers. Sometimes väki is more like folk, in which case it refers to a group of individual haltijas. Sometimes väki is more like magical power, and then it means the qualities of certain environments and elements, or powers that can cause or cure diseases. Usually both meanings are true at the same time. Magical powers are caused by groups of haltijas. For example, if someone gets sick while swimming, this could be caused by väki of water that become attached to a person. In this sense väki is more like a magical power of water that can make people ill, but it can also mean that very small or invisible haltija-spirits are attached to a person. However, if someone goes fishing, (s)he can ask for väki of water to bring fish by calling individual haltijas belonging to that väki by their names. In the latter case väki is understood more as a folk, but it can be seen also as a (luck bringing) magical force.
Some väkis of haltijas:
- Väki of forest (metsän väki) means haltijas of forest. Their leader is Tapio, the king of forest. It also means magical powers of the forest.
- Väki of water (veden väki) means haltijas of water. Their leader is Ahti, the king of the sea. Veden väki is also the magical power of water that can make people sick or heal them.
- Väki of woman (naisen väki) is usually understood as special magical powers of women.
- Väki of death (kalman väki) means ghosts and spirits, but also the magical power that can be found in a graveyard. This power can make people ill and it can also be used against other people.
- Väki of fire: (tulen väki) means spirits of fire, but also the destructive forces of fire and healing power of warm air, for example in a sauna.
- Väki of mountain (vuoren väki) usually means the haltijas of hills and big stones.
- Väki of wood (puun väki) means the race of haltijas of trees, and also the power of wooden material, which can cause pain if you are hit by a wooden object.
- Väki of iron (raudan väki) means haltijas of iron. They can hurt people who are hit by bladed weapons. Väki of iron can also be commanded to heal the wounds they have given.
Haltija väkis of different environments and materials were thought to be in conflict with each other. For example, when wood is burned, it is an assault in which väki of fire is beating väki of wood. Väki of fire can be used to scare other väki away. For example, if you were made ill by väki of water, that attached to you while you were swimming, this väki and the illness could be removed in sauna, which had lots of väki of fire.