Ancient king of the Nordic forests

The elk

The elk is a mythical wild beast that has ruled northern coniferous forests since the Stone Age. The elk lives in the wild, feeding on trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. It does not need us humans, and yet it has influenced our culture for thousands of years.

For us northerners, the elk has always represented a highly valuable source of food, shelter, legends and tales.

According to the current view, Alces alces, the Eurasian elk inhabiting Europe and western parts of Asia, and Alces americanus, the moose native to the forests of North America and Asia east of the Yenisey River, are in fact two distinct species.

The Eurasian elk is a majestic animal that has a likeable appearance. An adult elk can stand over two metres high at the shoulders, with its head-and-body length sometimes as much as three metres. Male elk are clearly larger than female elk, and only males have antlers, which reach their most impressive size in bulls about ten years old. The massive antlers are indeed the crown of the king of the forest.

The elk has a distinctive appearance, thanks to its pointed shoulder hump and the spindly legs that allow it to wade through deep snow and wetlands.

The long face, with its bulbous snout and droopy upper lip, and the bell, the beard-like flap of hair-covered skin that hangs under the throat, only add to the elk’s charm. Its ears are large, its tail short and its fur coat a dark brown colour.

But the elk’s most distinctive feature is its large size. The elk is the largest species in the deer family and the largest animal in Finland. Seeing this majestic beast in a misty forest is a mystical experience you will not forget.

A wild wanderer

The elk is a thriving species whose estimated population in Europe numbers half a million. Although the elk is not a rare animal, it can be hard to spot because the vast wilderness of the boreal forest belt gives it ample room to roam.

Elk are solitary animals that mostly live alone. They may form small herds in the winter, but any loosely formed groups break up in the spring, when the bulls, cows and yearlings go off on their own in a solitary pursuit of food.

Attempts to domesticate the elk have failed. Elk are lone animals that do not bond with people. They also require a varied diet that would be very difficult to offer in a farm setting.

The king of the forest does not bow down to people, not even to human kings.

Legend has it that Charles XI of Sweden tried to train elk to serve in his army in the latter half of the 17th century. But the elk stands above the wars of humans, and Charles XI, like other warlords, had to settle for horses.

The elk, the crowned king of the northern forest, leads its life on its own terms. For thousands of years now, it has been humans who have bowed down to it rather than the other way around.

Elk must be hunted

Our family has been tanning uniquely soft elk leather for three generations now. We have a deep respect for the life and dignity of the elk and the long-standing tradition of leather making. We are able to source elk hides for making Kaarna thanks to the long-standing elk hunting tradition in Finland.

Elk are hunted even today, but never for their skin. Modern elk hunting is something of a necessary evil for the welfare of the elk. If elk were not hunted, their population would grow uncontrollably, and there would no longer be enough food for elk and many other animals.
Elk hunting is strictly regulated and subject to licence. It not only serves to keep the population at a sustainable level, but also reduces damage to the forest and helps keep collisions with motor vehicles, which are often fatal to people as well as elk, to a minimum. If elk were no longer hunted, the resultant increase in damage and accidents would be massively expensive for society.

That is why elk hunting is an ecologically important and justified practice, and why Kaarna is an ecologically sustainable choice. If elk were not hunted, we could not make Kaarna, but elk are not hunted so that we can make Kaarna.

The great mythological elk

In the old times, people in the Nordic North were hunter-gatherers who lived off the land and used every last bit of the animals they hunted. The elk was a highly valuable prey animal because it provided not only a source of food and skins, but also materials for tools.

The elk – and its cousin the moose – were so important to people that it is no wonder that they feature heavily in the culture and mythology of many native peoples in the northern hemisphere. According to a common myth, when the elk grows a new pair of antlers in the spring, it holds the sun in them and, by lifting the sun back up into the sky, brings an end to the polar night.

Suuri Hirvi Aurinkoinen, taivaan kaunis sarvipäinen, kuulee laulun luikerruksen, äänen äitinsä iäisen. Palaa Päivö paistamahan, taivaan tulen tarjoamaan, jotta kasvais' Hirven kansa, kasvais' hieno Hirven heimo, sarvipäiset salomailla, sarvettomat rantasilla.

The Eurasian elk is the national animal of Sweden and Norway. In Finland, it plays an important role in our mythology and folklore – we are even said to belong to “the tribe of the elk”. Elk feature in almost every third prehistoric rock painting found in Finland. Elk-themed paintings depict elk themselves, boats with an elk figurehead, boats made of elk antlers, and human figures with elk antlers on their head.

One of the best known elk myths in Finnish literature is the tale of the elk chase in the Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. In the tale, Lemminkäinen, one of the heroes, asks Louhi, the Mistress of the North but also a wicked witch, for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Louhi first declines but then says she’ll accept – but only if Lemminkäinen performs a number of heroic deeds of her choosing. The first of these dangerous tasks is to chase down the demon’s elk on skis and capture it alive.

So an elk they fabricated, And the devils made a reindeer: For the head, a hollow stump, For the horns, a fork of sallow; Legs of shore-line switches woven, Fen-grown saplings for the shanks, And a fence rail for a backbone; Sinews made of withered grasses, Eyes of yellow water lilies
And the ears of lily pads; Made the flesh of rotten wood Covered with a skin of spruce bark.

The Kalevala’s thirteenth rune includes a description of how the forest demons had fabricated an elk.

When the forest demons constructed the elk, they made its skin out of the bark of spruce trees. The greyish or reddish brown colour of spruce bark does indeed greatly resemble that of elk fur.

This legend of the elk’s creation inspired the name we chose for our elk leather. Kaarna is the Finnish word for tree bark, so we named our product Kaarna Elk Leather. The demons made the elk’s skin out of spruce bark, and we use bark as a tanning agent when making our vegetable-tanned Kaarna Elk Leather.

Finnish mythology roots us to the past, to a time when people had a very different view of the world. In the old times, people lived at the mercy of nature, so nature myths set a moral code for their actions. People had to treat nature, forest and animals with great respect because they were all part of the same interconnected world as people.

Even if it is easy to forget about it in the modern world, nothing has really changed since those times. Nature continues to provide us with food and shelter – or deny it.

The elk has roamed the forests of the Nordic North for thousands of years. For us, it is a symbol of continuity. Leather tanning is a process that also dates back thousands of years. Our legacy creates a link between generations and requires us to treat the elk with the respect it deserves. It just feels right.