The Hakkapeliitta: Unsung Heroes of the North

In the early years of the 17th century, Europe was in flames. The Thirty Years War ravaged the Holy Roman Empire from within and throughout. At stake was the future of Christianity and the legacy of the Roman Empire. From a distance, it seemed to be a war to determine whether Protestants or Catholics would dominate Europe. In reality, it was a small regional conflict which began in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague. The war grew from a small conflict centered in Bohemia to envelop nearly all of Europe in a grand war steeped in power-politics. French military involvement was limited to funding the enemies of the Holy Roman Emperor during the early and middle phases of the war. Instead, France turned to its nominal ally Sweden to fight Its enemies for them.

Sweden was still a developing power – it had only been 100 years since a Danish king ruled Sweden under the Kalmar Union. Sweden’s people and resources, (specifically Its grain harvests) had been exploited by Denmark for over a century. During the hundred years following Its independence, things did not improve greatly. Sweden suffered at the hands of the Hanseatic League, which controlled the lucrative herring trade, as well as locking Sweden out of trade relations with most of the other Baltic nations. Moreover, the Swedish army suffered defeat after defeat, especially at sea. Rebellions plagued the country, and the barons took what they wanted. A series of tax reforms, a permanent break from Denmark, and the hereditary ownership of the Swedish crown by the Vasa family was the first step towards power for them.

Finland had been a Swedish territory since around 1250 CE. Throughout the middle ages, Finland had remained a very sparsely populated and rural land. Natural resources aren’t in abundance – the exception being fish. Sami fishermen, (Sami being the native population of Finland throughout the middle ages) made up the bulk of the coastal provinces. Villages were organized through ecclesiastical authorities, and in many ways it was simply a Swedish colony.

In 1628, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden invaded the Baltic coast of Germany with his Finnish Hakkapeliitta cavalrymen and began a campaign to bring the Holy Roman Emperor to his knees.

The Hakkapeliitta were an exceptionally trained army of light cavalrymen. Their name is derived from the Finnish war-cry “Hakkaa päälle, pohjan poika“, which can be literally translated to ‘Hack through them, sons of the north!’ They were a form of cuirassier, or lightly armored cavalry equipped with sabers and firearms.

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Hakkapeliitta Cuirassier Cavalry.

As they charged their enemies at full speed, they would fire a pistol shot at the enemy to disrupt their formation, and then slash through them with cold steel. Hakkapeliitta typically rode very small horses of the Finnhorse breed. They often performed flanking maneuvers and would bait the enemy into firing their first shot at an elusive and fast-moving target. At a time in history when reloading mechanisms for firearms were still quite slow and cumbersome, this was an invaluable tactic. The enemies of Sweden, who were primarily Catholic, came to have their own understanding of the Hakkapeliitta’s effectiveness.

 

They were witches.

Yes, throughout Germany and the Baltic coastline, the Hakkapeliitta came to have a reputation as practitioners of witchcraft. The Finnish horsemen were said to be invincible, and that gunfire would simply pass through them and leave them unharmed. Western Europe had relatively little knowledge of Finland and the native Sami people, and their understanding was that Finland was the frontier of Christianity, and the home of dark spirits. Finland had fairly recently been the target of the Baltic Crusades. In a time of relative ignorance, the Christian Finnish troops of the Hakkapeliitta were understood as Pagans and practitioners of black magic – it was the only explanation the western armies would accept for how the noble Christian knights of the west could be defeated.

Obviously they weren’t witches, but they were effective.

The Hakkapeliitta were instrumental in the Swedish victories at Breitenfeld (1631) and Lützen (1632), which effectively left Sweden the masters of northern Germany and with the potential to create a new Protestant Holy Roman Empire. The death of Gustavus Adolphus changed all of that, but for a brief moment – the fate of Europe hung in the balance of a small band of ‘witches’ on horseback.

Stories such as these are fundamental to the identities of their respective cultures, but are otherwise unknown to outsiders. I’ve found that the most engaging historical narratives for non-historians are those ‘oddball’ stories about groups often neglected in larger historical narratives. That being said, it’s a shame that researching topics like these is so difficult, and really only a possibility for native audiences. For example, when I was researching this project, I came upon a Finnish website run by their government, with a great deal of historical context for this period and the subject itself. However, I don’t speak Finnish, and neither do 99/100 people on earth. Hopefully, if subjects like these generate more interest, local groups will feel incentivized to translate their sources and appeal to broader audiences.

 

5 Replies to “The Hakkapeliitta: Unsung Heroes of the North”

  1. Very good story. There are so many stories of soldiers and their achievements that they get lost in history. Unless you take a specific college course you never get to hear about special warriors like the Hakkapeliitta. An interesting side note, their descendants would play an important role in helping the Allies win World War II. Soldiers from Scandinavia would destroy a laboratory that was making an important component for the Nazi’s nuclear weapon.

  2. It’s interesting to look at this as the origin of folklore– something that people living in a time can’t explain. It would make sense that they were witches if they were so effective that they could not be stopped. Happy late Halloween to these old timey death witches

  3. Super cool story. I had never heard of this. I really find myself being drawn into stories like this, I mean everyone know the popular histories, but its these back round histories that provide so much context. Also, there area of the world is very unpopular in the history arena so its really good to be able to see stories like this brought to light.

  4. Thanks guys, i’ve always loved this story and i’m glad you all enjoyed it. It’s covered in more detail in a book of mine, but finding materials about them without speaking Finnish is tough. I did my best to provide a lot of context, as this is probably one of my favorite historical periods to research.

    Weird little stories like this are always fun – if I had the time and resources, i’d be really interested to learn more about the folklore of this area, and that of modern day Belarus, Estonia and Latvia. Their folklore is tied so much to their history – it’s been a battleground between ‘native’ Europeans and nomads, and Christianity and the pagan and animist traditions of pre-Christian Russia.

    I think for my next one I might talk about Varangians and the Byzantine traditions they adopted that differentiate them from the Rus. I’m still kind of towing the line figuring out how effectively you can do local history without living there, speaking the language and having access to the abundant sources of that native land.

  5. Okay, I have decided I’m going to tattoo that battle cry on my arm because that is great. As mentioned above, I love a good analysis of folklore ESPECIALLY when it comes to witches. I love that whenever those on the losing side cannot understand why they are losing come to terms with stories like this, and somehow… it seems more reasonable to them… weird. This is really great thank you for sharing your interesting tidbits of history.

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