Finns Still Taking Up Arms
Whether you’re at Oulu Airport or driving from town to town, one of things that is likely to strike you in Finland is the presence of coats of arms. Finland seems to love them. 65DN investigates.
Heraldry is hardly fashionable. Once upon a time, the right to ‘bear coat armour’ was a respected as a sign of ‘breeding.’ Only lords, knights and their descendents could use these ornately decorated and esoterically meaningful family shields. They were displayed on their graves and, originally, as banners when knights rode into battle. By the twelfth century, strict rules had developed regulating ‘arms,’ and they were being passed from father to son. You’d think that the interest in heraldry had pretty much died out, especially in a republic. But you’d be wrong. There’s still an organization dedicated to registering new coats of arms and even professional ‘heraldic artists.’
One of the most prominent is Espoo-based Tuomas Hyrsky of Hyrsky Oy, a company dedicated to making people their very own coats of arms. In some countries, coats of arms are legally restricted to descendents of nobles, but not, so it seems, in Finland.
‘Everybody can have their own coat of arms,’ explains Hyrsky. ‘You can design it by yourself or use an expert, known as a heraldic artist.’
‘Heraldry has some rules, so it is quite difficult to design a good heraldic coat of arms if you haven’t any knowledge of heraldry. For example there are rules about the colors and helmets.’
For Hyrsky, heraldry is popular in Finland because, ‘It is a good communication system even today. In one little picture, you can tell your family “story.” If you are outdoor people you can have trees and animals in your coat of arms. One clever Swedish heraldist once said that what a surname is for the ears, the coat of arms is for the eyes.’
‘If the coat of arms is well designed, it can be used for ever,’ he adds.
Testimony to heraldry’s popularity in Finland, Hyrsky Oy has been in business since 1986 and this is against competition from many other heraldic painters. Hyrsky charges about 500 euros to design your coat of arms – based on information about your family and your hobbies – and then there’s a 50 euro fee to register it, alongside 1700 others, at the Heraldic Society of Finland.
Heinz Sturmer, is the chairman of the group within the society which decides which arms should be registered. He explains that a 1949 law dictated that every municipality must have a coat of arms. This led to fierce competition amongst heraldic painters to design them for ‘all 350 municipalities.’
‘The Finnish Noble Society have their own crests,’ says Sturmer, a Finland-Swede from Helsinki. ‘But according to Finnish Heraldic Law every person has the right to their own crest.’ Sturmer, who designs arms himself and is co-editor of the 2006 book Finnish Coats of Arms, tells me that there are ‘Noble Arms’ (restricted to Finland’s recognized ‘nobles’) and ‘Burgher Arms,’ and everybody is entitled to the latter.
For Sturmer, who became interested in coats of arms when he was twelve because they were ‘beautiful,’ coats of arms remain popular because, ‘They are your own brand . . . your own trademark . . . the picture is your identity. It’s your own symbol and it’s the only one in Finland.’
Jukka Suvisaari, also retired, designs arms ‘as a hobby’ and maintains a website displaying the many he has created. They include the arms of ‘Espoo School and Lukio,’ Jokela Folk School, Mikkeli’s football team, and the arms of many different families.
The popularity of heraldry in Finland can be explained by the fact that arms are ‘timeless. They can be updated according to the style of the times. And they are very European. They were born in Europe and they are part of European culture.’
‘They are also a symbol of being a free man. In the past, Finnish people were poor but they were free. When I create arms I often refer to a thirteenth century heraldry expert who said that any man should have a coat of arms as long as they don’t try to use somebody else’s.’
Arms fascinate Suvisaaari because in order to understand them ‘you require a knowledge of culture, history and art’ and how they overlap. He says that Oulu’s coat of arms, as an older city, predates 1949. The castle represents Oulu’s castle – now a café – ‘because in Swedish “Oulu” is Uleåborg and “borg” means “castle.” The salmon is because of the Oulujoki river, which was a famous place for catching salmon.’ The other details, such as the colours, are, in Suvisaari’s view, probably just for reasons of aesthetics.