Last week despite rain and snow Helsinki celebrated May 1, or Vappu in Finnish, with as much joy and good humour as always. Vappu is one of the most important holidays here along with the Independence Day and Christmas. In many other countries May 1 is celebrated as a Labour Day whatever that means these days. In Finland Vappu is a holiday of students, everyone who is applying to become a student and everyone who has ever been a student. Why so serious? ask the Finns and turn this first May (sometimes quite chilly) day into one big outdoor city party.
However, the post is not about Vappu per se but about one of the symbols of the holiday.
The official part of Vappu celebrations takes place on the holiday eve at the fountain on the Kauppatori. What takes place here is a traditional ceremony of washing the fountain mermaid sculpture. Once the mermaid is clean and shining and people around the fountain are properly drenched, the most important part of the ceremony starts. The representatives of the Students’ Committee put a student graduation white cap on the mermaid’s head.
And that’s her, the Mermaid of Helsinki, who is the focus of my attention. Her name is Amanda Havis or Manta.
The mermaid was designed by a Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren and cast in bronze in Paris in 1906. The statue was the centrepiece of the fountain commissioned by the city if Helsinki to be built on the Market Square. The sculptor’s idea was that the female figure rising from the sea symbolised Helsinki and the birth of the city.
After the statue had been unveiled Swedish language newspapers nicknamed her Amanda Havis. The name caught up although originally the statue was called simply Mermaid (Merenneito). While working on the fountain sculptures Vallgren lived in Paris and it is believed that a young 19-year old Parisian girl, Marcelle Delquini, was a model for the mermaid.
When the fountain was opened in 1908 the nude bronze beauty and its creator became targets of strong criticism. The mermaid was completely naked and it was considered inappropriate. Furthermore, the artist, was criticised for representing a woman solely as an object of sexual desire. The four sea lions around the fountain were said to represent men craving for a woman. Well, that wouldn’t be my first thought at the sight of these statues and not even the second one! Times change and instead of seeing these statues as suggestive and controversial, we now consider the fountain one of the most recognizable and loved city sights.
P.S. Speaking of sea lions and seals. Yes, sea lions are known for their mating rituals and fights. However, a sea lion is also a symbol of wealth and abundance in some cultures. Another interesting angle on the symbolism of the fountain sea lions is the legends of Selkie, mythological creatures found in Scottish, Irish, and Faroese folklore. Selkies are said to live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land.
Links to the photos on Flicker
Helsinki Whitecaps by Alain Kyd
Havis Amanda, pre-“crowning” by John Tolva
Hanging out by John Tolva