Saraakallio

Saraakallio
ROCK PAINTING AT SARAAKALLIO NEAR LAUKAA, FINLAND

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland: The Arctic-Saami Ontological Frame


Two shamanic institutions existed in Finland and Karelia across prehistory—the Arctic-Saami and the Uralic-Finnic. Giving form and meaning to their rituals and practices over that time were their distinctive ‘ontological frames’.  I will explore the frame of the Arctic-Saami institution in this post, and in the following post that of the Uralic-Finnic institution.

Sieidi at Haukkasaari (A figurative sieidi, possibly feline.)

The Sieidi Tradition of the Arctic-Saami Institution

Ake Hultkrantz says that for the Saami, stone sieidis were the “true territorial guardian spirits”, governing hunting territories and fishing waters. (1)  As we saw in a previous post, the sieidi was usually in the form of an anomalous stone, boulder or cliff, sometimes with a human- or animal-like face.

Based on ethnographic accounts, noaidis (shamans) would conduct rites of animal ceremonialism, drumming and performing a joik (a form of ceremonial song or chant) to enter a trance state and establish contact with the sieidi.  At the same time, members of the band would prostrate in worship in front of the sieidi.


Offerings of portions of the previous successful hunt—e.g., elk, reindeer, seal or fish—would be made to the sieidi as part of the ‘cult of sacrifice’.  If the sieidi was satisfied with the offerings and the way in which they were presented, s(he) would reciprocate by providing abundant game for the wilderness hunters and fishers.  There is evidence that these rites of animal ceremonialism have been conducted by the Arctic-Saami since the Stone Age. 

The remains of a sacrifice from early modern times at Ukonsari Island, Finland

As we saw in an earlier post, when missionaries of the early Lutheran church encountered these rites in the 17th century, they called the sieidi deity a ‘false god’.  In the Lutheran ontology of the time, ‘true spirit’ only issued from the realm of God, and it was considered outside and above the material world of nature.  The sieidi of stone of the Arctic-Saami band—‘brute matter’ standing on a hill or by a lake—did not partake of it. I referred to this as an expression of spirit/matter dualism.

Again, recalling an earlier post, we saw that beginning in the 19th century, practitioners of the new profession of anthropology designated the elements of nature that the peoples worshipped—such as the stone sieidis—as mere objects. The peoples had ‘in error’ projected subjectivity onto them, through identifying them as spirit guardians of the local land and its game.  According to the modernist ontology that prevailed in mainstream anthropology, only humans could be subjects (persons) within social life, i.e., capable of intention, communication, and forming relationships with others. I have referred to this as an expression of subject/object dualism, or ‘objectivism’.

We cannot know in a direct way how the Arctic-Saami foragers of prehistory themselves regarded their worship of the sieidi and the rites of animal ceremonialism.  However, based on ethnographic evidence and the study of comparable hunter-gatherer-fisher cultures of today, ‘new animist’ anthropologists attribute to them a relational ontology that was non-dualistic in nature. 

To help us explore what this means, I have identified three core elements of such an ontology, cast here as questions. 

(1)  What ontological forms do spirit persons take?
(2)  What is the nature of social relations between human persons and spirit persons?
(3)  What is the nature of the ‘sacred geography’ of the worlds—of this world and the other world—where these social relations take place? 

Through answering these questions from the standpoint of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution, I believe we can arrive at an approximation of the assumptions that were held by its members about the ultimate nature of reality, that I call its ‘ontological frame’.  Deeply embedded in everyday life, it framed and guided the conduct of the rites of animal ceremonialism by the noaidi in relation to the sieidi, and the artists in their creation of works of sacred art that helped make these rites possible. 

Ontological Frame Element 1:  What ontological forms do spirit persons take? 

As we will recall, Rydving observed that a sieidi is a type of “spiritual being” who is “bound to the landscape and to certain natural formations”. (2) What was the ontological nature of this spiritual being, the sieidi, for the Arctic-Saami?  And what did it mean to be ‘bound’ to the landscape?

Regarding the ontological nature of the sieidi, there is substantial scholarly agreement that the sieidi was considered a deity.  For example, Parpola reports that in the Finnish-Swedish dictionary of Elias Lönnrot, a pre-eminent scholar of the rune tradition of Finland, the word “seita” is recorded with the meaning of “Lappish (pagan) deity”.  (3)

Sieidi at Porviniemi

What is the meaning of the sieidi deity being bound to the landscape, i.e., to the boulders or rock cliffs?  

There has not been unanimity on the question of how the Saami viewed the relationship between the sieidi deity and the stone formation among Lutheran missionaries and the later scholars who have depended upon their writings.  Manker states, “At times it (the sieidi stone) was considered the genius loci (spirit of the place), at others the worshipped god himself, his image, or his residence….” (4) Let us review these and other interpretations. 

Association Between Deity and Stone

According to one interpretation, the sieidi is primarily a ‘place’.  Korpela says, “The word seita actually refers more to the place where the idol is living than to the god itself.”  That is, for Korpela, the land on which the ‘idol’ sits is sacred, but the ‘god’ may be elsewhere.  (5)

Two other writers, based on their researches, suggest that for the Saami, the deity did not live beside or near the stone, but within it.  Karsten characterises the Saami view as that the sieidi stone was “inhabited by a spiritual being”.  (6)  Similarly, Itkonen (as reported by Aikas) suggests that Saami believed that the stone itself was a “godly dwelling site” or place of residence of a deity.  (7)

Äkässaivo sieidi, Äkäslompolo. Lapland

For both Karsten and Itkonen, the deity spirit is separate from the material stone in which it dwells, representing two separate and incompatible modes of being that nevertheless can coexist.  Each of their views, in its own way, reflects the influence of Christian spirit/matter dualism. 

This spirit/matter opposition is explicit in a passage from Castren, considered the founder of the study of comparative mythology in Finland, who paid particular attention to the Saami seidr (sieidi) tradition. Writing in 1853, he disputes the view that in the case of a Saami stone seidr, the “person of the god lay in matter itself”.  (8) In doing so, it is clear that he considered them as two separate ontological forms—the spiritual ‘stuff’ of a god and the material ‘stuff’ of stone—and implies that it is an error to suggest they can be one in the same. 

However, two respected analysts of Saami lifeways do, in fact, step beyond the elementary spirit/matter dualism of the above accounts, suggesting a merging of the two ontological categories:  i.e., the deity incarnates as a sieidi.  Writing of the tradition of the Saami of Sweden, Inga Maria Mulk states that “Sejtar are shaped by nature and polished through erosion by water, ice and wind. They usually represent animals and birds but can also have human shapes.” They were “both the images and incarnations of the local divine masters who protected land and animals within a defined area.”  (9)

Excerpt from "Ancient Nordic Sami people Sacrifice
 and Pagan religious feast": Bernard Picart, 1724-26

In a similar way, Manker refers to what he calls a seite as “an incarnation of the divine ruler of the place (region) and hence the centre of power of that place (region) as well.” Seites are “stone images of gods, which showed slight traces of human craftsmanship … originally fashioned by nature herself:  thus the deity must have shaped herself.” (4)

In the two views on incarnation, there is a merging of ontological categories of spirit and matter.  Nevertheless, the existence of two originally separate ontological ‘essences’—spirit and matter—is still affirmed, even as the essences merge in a one-way process of incarnation—a deity shaping herself as a stone at some primordial time. 

Vladimir Soloviev, 1853-1900

Vladimir Soloviev, an early Russian observer of Saami lifeways, puts forward a view on incarnation different from those of Mulk and Manker.  He was an ‘anti-positivist’ philosopher who rejected the modernist trend of reducing the ‘real’ to only that which is immediately perceptible through the senses. 

In his book of 1873, Soloviev describes the views of a writer on sacred stone “seitars”, that were considered by the Saami to be deceased ancestors.  The writer in question believed that the Saami initially considered them as mere grave stones, and only later “started to look upon them as gods-ancestors” (i.e., projected the identity on them).  Soloviev disagrees with this interpretation, saying “The Lapps identified the sacred stone with the deceased in word because they did not separate them in conception; they believed that the dead person turns into a stone, and a stone turns into an elemental spirit, remaining a stone and a dead person.”  (10)

I would call Soloviev’s conception as that of a two-way process of incarnation.  Spirit becomes stone, and stone becomes spirit, with both of them attaining a joint status of subject as part of a new ‘gods-ancestor’ being.  In this view, matter is elevated to the same ontological status as spirit: both are capable of assuming subjectivity, while at the same time preserving their separateness. 

Overall, I believe Soloviev made an early and admirable attempt to reflect the animist relationality of the Arctic-Saami, going as far as one can while remaining within the boundaries of spirit/matter dualism.  However, recent theorising on the relational ontology of hunter-gatherer-fishers by ‘new animists’ goes beyond these dualistic boundaries, shedding fresh light on the ontological status of the sieidi in the Arctic-Saami shamanic tradition with which previous authors had been grappling.

Other-than-Human Persons

Vesa-Pekka Herva, drawing upon the work of Ingold and others, observes that relational ontology “basically proposes that neither organisms nor things have an unchanging ‘inner essence’”, composed, I would add, of either ‘spirit’ or of ‘matter’.  Instead, in a relational ontology, such as that of the Arctic-Saami, “what entities ‘are’ is defined by their past and present relationships and interaction with other entities.” (11)

Vesa-Pekka Herva, University of Helsinki

It is through such relationships and interaction that one shows oneself to be a ‘person’ (a defining category of animism) capable of operating in a social way (‘social’ being another defining category) in a larger community of persons.  The term ‘person’ applies to both humans and to all those objects and other beings who show themselves capable of entering into relationships with other persons, through displaying the capacities of consciousness, communication, agency and intention. The latter are termed ‘other-than-human persons’ by ‘new animists’, to emphasise the contrast between the hunter-gatherer ontology and the modernist view that only humans can be ‘subjects’ within social life. 

Regarding this point, Karsten records the observation of the early Saami author Johan Turi, who said that “The animals, the trees, the stones and other inanimate things have lost the power of speech, but they still retain hearing and intellect.  Therefore it is necessary to treat the animals well and to regard all things as if they were living beings who hear and understand.” (6)

Johan Turi, Swedish Saami author, 1922

In their wilderness environment, the Arctic-Saami respectfully communicated and negotiated with a wide range of other-than-human persons upon whom their survival depended, including ones we normally consider to be animate (e.g., elk), ones we consider to be inanimate (e.g., ceramic pots), as well as ones existing in the other world (e.g., Arctic-Saami upper world divinities such as Valralden Olmah).  The relations were specifically social. Viveiros de Castro states that animism is “an ontology which postulates the social character of relation between humans and nonhumans (i.e., other-than-humans):  the space between nature and society is itself social.” (12)

The dualism of subject versus object did not form part of what anthropologist Robert Layton calls the “indigenous theory of how the world works”, or ontology, of the Arctic-Saami shamanic complex.  (13)  This did not rule out the understanding by Arctic-Saami of the instrumental properties of physical things, based on a capacity to objectify them.  However, this objectification did not form the basis for categorisation of the nature of reality. 

Multiple Worlds

Another defining category of animism is the existence of multiple worlds, including the material one of ‘this’ world and the non-material ones of the ‘other’ world.  In this regard, ‘spirit persons’, including divinities and deities, are a specific type or class of other-than-human persons recognised by animists, ones who can inhabit the non-material worlds.  ‘Spirit’ here does not have the same meaning that it does within transcendental religions, that is, as being in dualistic opposition to ‘matter’.  (14)

Spirit persons can be either discarnate or material, or both at different times.  Unlike Christian cosmologies, those of Saami and Finnic peoples often have as their basis natural forms, such as the wind or thunder, rather than transcendental ones.  According to Honko, in the oldest form of the myth of creation in Baltic-Finnish area, “the process of creation takes place independently of any identified supra-normal forces or persons.”  The ‘earth diver’ bird and the ‘cosmic egg’ figure prominently in the process of creation and the ‘world tree’ forms the backbone of the three worlds.  (15)

While Saami deity persons are recognised for superior powers and abilities, unlike Christian figures they do not require ‘belief’ in something that is not fully knowable.  That is, the powers and abilities of deity persons are demonstrated in reciprocal social relationships with other persons.  (11)  At the same time, they alone are not considered as powerful:  particular individuals or groups are also recognised in every species of animist persons for their power or wisdom, such as elders—whether they are human, tree, or other.

Returning to the seitar of Soloviev, this spirit person was not treated by the Arctic-Saami as having an elemental ‘inner essence’ of either spirit or stone. (As Soloviev puts it, “they did not separate them in conception”).  Rather, because Arctic-Saamis were able to communicate and form relationships with him/her, the seitar was for them a single, integral ‘god-ancestor-person’.  Moreover, this personhood was not just mentally projected onto the ‘gods-ancestor’, as the other writer suggested (i.e., “started to look upon them as gods-ancestors”).  Rather, it was in the nature of a discovery made by the Arctic-Saami in the course of person to person communication with him/her.

Herva expands on the nature of such a discovery, saying, “To encounter a nature spirit was to recognise that a spring, tree or some other landscape element behaved in a manner characteristic to persons.” (11)  We have an example of this in the identification by the Arctic-Saami of a sieidi, discussed earlier.  Through the medium of an offering, the sieidi would recognise the humans as other-than-sieidi persons, and conversely, the Arctic-Saami band would recognise that the sieidi as an other-than-human person. 


Päällyskivi sieidi, Lake Inari, Finland

In this way, according to Herva, the identification of an other-than-human person—as we are identifying the sieidi deity here—was “empirically based”, i.e., determined by whether or not there had been reciprocity.  Herva continues, “Unlike (the) Christian god, non-human beings could be directly perceived and known even if they were not always around or engaging with people.”  (11)

Sieidi as person

The Finnish archaeologist Antti Lahelma is, to my knowledge, the first researcher to apply the ‘new animist’ analysis to the Saami sieidi.  Writing in 2008 he said, “the sieidi were viewed as ‘other-than-human persons’ – animate, human-like beings that could be communicated with.” (16) He refers to a sieidi, with some hyperbole, as a ‘living, breathing stone person’.  He observes that Saami themselves applied the term keäd’ge-olmuš, or “stone person”, to anthropomorphic sieidis. 

Click here for an excerpt of an animation from the National Museum of Finland.

The significance of Lahema’s identification of the personhood of the sieidi can be seen in  the fact that, according to Harvey, “Stone personhood presents a particular challenge to the modern Western worldview which presumes that rocks are the primary, archetypal form of inanimate matter.”  (14)  Overcoming the challenge required an understanding of what can be called the ‘sacred geology’ of the Arctic-Saami.

Carpelan observes that the stone on a lakeshore or mountainside is the original and only form of the deity—no prior ontological form existed—differentiating it from the other Arctic-Saami deities, who reside in the upper and lower worlds. (17)

Lahelma points to an aspect of the ethnography of the Saami, in which “the sieidi have been reported variously to have shared a sacrificial meal, moved around independently, and assumed a human shape.” (16)  Lahelma’s statement may appear to suggest that the sieidi deity is independent of the sieidi stone.  Instead, I believe that it indicates that a sieidi can, like a noaidi, ‘shape shift’, i.e., take on alternative ontological forms, such as that of a human person.  It is not necessary to fall back on the dualistic habit of thinking, that originated with Christianity, that the stone and the deity were two different things: a deity inhabiting the stone, being incarnated as the stone, or separate from it in some other way.  Instead, s(he) is an integral relational being, as suggested by the use of the term ‘stone god’ (Kied-yubmel) by Saamis in Sweden. (16)

Lahelma wishes to be careful not, without evidence, to project to earlier pre-Christian times the historically known sieidi tradition.  Nevertheless, he concludes that based on ethnographic and archaeological evidence, “more likely than not” the sieidi tradition existed the during Neolithic and early Bronze Ages, 4000 B.C. to about 1500 B.C., the time of the rock painting tradition in Finland. (16)

Photo from A Touch of Red, Antti Lahelma

Lahelma found what is for him convincing archaeological evidence for his conclusion through excavation of a rock painting site, Valkeisaari, a cliff with an anthropomorphic ‘face’ located on an island in Lake Saimaa.  He says, referring to Valkeisaari, “Like the Saami of Lake Inari, the prehistoric inhabitants of Lake Saimaa region appear to have repeatedly taken food to a sacred island, cooked it there and ‘shared’ it with the god of the island, manifested by a rock cliff.”  (16)

Valkeisaari cliff

This would suggest that the Valkeisaari cliff, ‘decorated’ with rock paintings, was recognised by the Arctic-Saami as a sieidi, a living stone person, in the Neolithic period.

Let us now return to the saivo (saajvh), the other class of ‘spiritual beings’ who were also ‘bound’ to the landscape. 

The Ontological Form of Saivo

We will recall from an earlier post that saivo are Arctic-Saami guardian and helping spirits living in sacred mountains, passevare.  According to Laestadius, “the Lapps (Saamis) considered the inhabitants of saivo to be real beings”. He says they were considered “half spiritual and half material beings”. That is, they could travel beyond their homes and appear in human form.  They were “invoked by singing a juoigos (a sacred song) and then appeared in human form. If the Saami refused his services, the spirit threatened to tear him to pieces.” (18)

The helping spirits were the ‘property’ of the shaman, the noaidi, including the bird, fish or snake, and the reindeer bull saivo.  The wild bull reindeer (sa´iva sarva) was most important.  The noaidi could assume its shape and go out to fight the saivo bull reindeer of another shaman or send it out alone to do so. 

All these animals (bird, fish, snake and reindeer) were referred to with a common name saiwo-vuoign.  Vuoign means both ‘spirit’ and ‘the air that humans breathe’, again suggesting being half spiritual and half material in their ontological form. The saivo birds that acted as the messengers and guides to the shaman were not actual birds, but rather, according to Laestadius, “semi-spiritual representatives of these birds in saivo”.  (18)


Noitatunturi Fell, Finland, a sacred dwelling of saivo
  
From the ethnographic evidence, it seems clear that the Arctic-Saami viewed both guardian and helping saivo as ‘persons’ in the sense of animist relational ontology.  Moreover, they were living ‘between’ the worlds, half of their being residing in each.

Lahelma assigns a dynamic role to the saivo beings in his study of the rock painting tradition.  However, while he refers to sieidis as living stone persons or other-than-human persons, he does not explicitly extend the same animist status to the saivo beings.  This is in spite of the fact that his many references to the saivo indicate their power and their close relationship to the noaidi, and include the terms “spirit helper beings”, “soul animals”, and “powerful allies”.  He says “the wild reindeer (sa´iva sarva) was most important. The deer of the noaidi was a manifestation of his power, his alter ego.”  Lahelma says elsewhere, “the relationship between a noaidi and the sa´iva sarva was special. A strong bond of ‘co-essence’ united the noaidi and his steed.” (16)

The saivo clearly exhibit the characteristics of animistic personhood, i.e., the capability for communication, intention, and most significantly, of entering into relationships with other persons, including humans.  In her study of the animism of the Saami, Helander-Renvall says the Saami “perceive lands, and animals and spirits dwelling on those lands as persons and subjects.” This would apply to the saivo spirit persons. (19)

By excluding saivo beings from the category of personhood, Lahelma limits his ability to interpret the social nature of relations of humans and other-than-humans in the area of his study, the rock painting tradition of early Finland.  I will return to this point below.

The Saivo as Bound to the Landscape

As a class of ‘spiritual beings’, the saivo, like the sieidi, were ‘bound’ to the landscape.  What was the ontological nature of being 'bound'?

As we saw previously, the ‘homes’ of saivo spirit beings were inside sacred mountains, sacred ‘fells’ (high barren plateaus), and in sacred lakes, all also called saivo. Beneath the surfaces were their homes, in sacred, invisible realms of the other world where they carried on their lives. (1)

Noidekörmai, the shaman’s snake” living on a noaidi drum, National Museum of Finland

Unlike the sieidi, in which deity and stone were one, the saivo could travel outside the sacred cliffs and mountains where they lived into the middle world in order to assist and guard humans.  For example, the sacred bird could scout across the landscape on behalf of the noaidi

Saivo and Sieidi

A core argument of Finnish archaeologist Antti Lahelma in his book on Finnish rock painting, A Touch of Red, is of interest here as it centres on the ‘homes’ of saivo.  (16)  Let us take a moment to explore it.

Lahelma argues that for the early Saami, the cliffs on which their rock paintings appear, such as Valkeisaari, are ‘quite probably’ sieidis, that he also terms ‘living stone persons’.  He says that residing “inside” the cliffs are saivo guardians of the noaidi—elk, fish or snake, and bird.  In turn, the red ochre rock paintings inscribed on the surfaces of the cliffs depict these saivo and the interactions of noaidis with them. The noaidi uses the rock paintings of the saivo to call forth their assistance as his “supernatural helpers”, and by touching them, to tap their “supernatural power”.

Elk saivo painting on Valkeisaari

Lahelma sees as “crucial” his assertion for his portrayal of the Saami role in the rock painting tradition that saivo lived in the sieidi cliff.  However, I have suggested that in the animist relational ontology of the Saami, sieidis were integral relational beings, persons, not dwelling places. 

Lahelma’s proposition harkens back to the Christian-influenced dualistic spirit/matter conception of Itkonen and Paulaharju in which a sieidi spirit is ontologically separate from, but lives inside the material stone or cliff, only now s(he) co-inhabits it with additional spirit beings, the saivo.  However, in view of the animist ontological standpoint of the sieidi as an integral relational being, the intrusion by saivo would represent something akin to rape.

The source of this ontological confusion appears be the fact that in the ethnographic literature, there were two categories of cliffs and mountains—the first associated with sieidis and the second associated with saivo—and they were both called sacred, or passe.  (1)  Lahelma does not distinguish between the two categories in his book. Rather, he merges them and their properties into one.  To the same cliffs that he identifies as sieidis, or ‘living stone persons’, he also assigns ontological properties of the saivo dwellings, i.e., as places that saivo spirit persons enter and exit and make their homes.  

While the rock surfaces of sacred cliffs known as saivo could serve as membranes between this world and the other world—ontologically penetrable by spirit persons—the surfaces of sacred cliffs recognised as sieidi could not.  Lahelma’s analysis of how the noaidi was able to use as helpers the rock paintings of saivo on the surface of the sieidi would appear to founder on this conflation of ontological forms. 

However, I do not agree with Lahelma that the notion of the residence of saivo inside of stone sieidis is in fact crucial to his analysis.  There is another way to conceive of the relationship between the two types of spirit persons.

Referring back to my previous post on the process of the sacred artist, I suggest that the saivo rock paintings are not representations or depictions of saivo living within the cliff, but rather are reifications of saivo spirit persons living upon the rock surface of the sieidi, in addition to their original ontological forms in the other world, in the sacred mountains.  The sacred art 'meshwork' that created them would have included at a minimum the following 'rhizomic persons':  the sieidi as the stone being 'dressed', the saivo spirit persons, the spirit person of the red ochre of the paint and, as 'executor', likely a noaidi shaman-artist.

Photo from the top of the Pyha-Nattanen Fell, a sacred dwelling of saivo

Like the drawing persons on the face of the noaidi’s drum that we visited in an earlier post, the rock painting persons on the surface of the sieidi are present and ready to be called as spirit intermediaries with regard to the saivo, who may live some distance away in sacred mountains.  If this argument is accepted, the integral personhood of the ‘decorated’ sieidi is respected and the central role of rock paintings of saivo is reaffirmed. 

This modification of Lahelma’s argument entails recognition of the personhood of rock paintings. It parallels the suggested acknowledgement, above, of the personhood of saivo. I believe that the two forms of recognition would accord with the relational understanding of foragers themselves.  Moreover, I believe that they are essential if we are to understand the social nature of relations of humans and other-than-humans in the rock painting tradition.  Lahelma’s embrace of the ‘new animism’ for understanding the rock painting tradition in Finland and Karelia, while ground-breaking, is seriously incomplete in this respect.  I will return to this point in a later post devoted to that tradition.

Ontological forms

We now have enough information to answer the first question addressing a core feature of the Arctic/Saami ontological frame. 




Let us now explore the ways in which humans engage socially with sieidis and saivo by means that are appropriate to their ontological forms.  We will see that the concept of social relations is broader than just reciprocal communication.  It involves negotiation, contracting, and mutual care.

Ontological Frame Element 2: What is the nature of social relations between human persons and spirit persons?

When entering a new hunting or fishing area, it was necessary for an Arctic-Saami band to locate the sieidi there. As we saw in an earlier post, factors that could identify a particular stone, cliff or other landscape feature formation as a sieidi included an unusual anthropomorphic or zoomorphic shape, a direct experience of the deity at a place, a flash of lightening over a rock formation, or the experience of noaidi who slept next to it.  If sacrifices to the sieidi resulted in good fortune in hunting or fishing, the choice would be confirmed and the noaidi could on to develop a reciprocal relationship with her.

Social Relations with the Sieidi

In Carpelan’s words, the sieidi “operated on the same basis” as the Saami. That is, unique among the otherworld deities of the Arctic-Saami, the sieidi resided as a stone in this, the middle world, along lakeshores or mountains. (17)  For this reason, the sieidi was a living presence for the wilderness Arctic-Saami band. 

Lahelma says, “The rock may have been ‘talked with’ and viewed as a potent actor in questions of subsistence and other important issues.” (16)  These ‘talks’, and other social relations with the sieidi, were primarily conducted by the noaidi, who in an ecstatic state adjusted his ‘style of communication’ to that of the deity.  He would have been assisted by his saivo helpers, perhaps himself transforming into the saivo bird who was his scout and messenger in order to interact directly with the deity.  In his communication, he would have made use of products of the sacred arts as means of communication, including drumming, joiking (ritual singing), and other ritual objects and performances. 


Taatsi Sieidi, Kittilä, Finland

A primary communication task of the noaidi was to negotiate and maintain a personalised subsistence ‘contract’ with the sieidi, to which both parties would adhere.  In exchange for maintaining the power of the sieidi through offerings, the band would receive from the sieidi a “humans’ share” of the fish or game into the future.  In receiving animals and fish as sacrifices from the foragers, the sieidi ensured the continuing rebirth of species under her care.  (6)

From the side of the Saami, the fulfillment of the contract with the sieidi was principally through the rites, led by the noaidi, that are referred to in anthropological literature as the “cult of sacrifice”.  Traditionally, the sacrifices, or offerings, consisted of a portion of the products of fishing and hunting.  According to Manker, this could be reindeer bones or antlers (as in the graphic above), fish fat, or other ‘food’ that was ‘rich’ in what he calls the ‘soul force’ or ‘vital power’ of these fish and game, that could be ‘consumed’ as ‘food’ by the sieidi.  (4)  In bones and antlers of reindeer, Karsten says, “there was something left of the soul or vital power; hence it was supposed that through these parts of the body it was possible to continue the existence of that kind of animal.” (6)


Illustration in The History of Lapland, John Scheffer, 1674

According to Högström, the generosity of a sieidi guardian deity in bestowing benefits varied according to the quantity and quality of what was sacrificed and the number of people making sacrifices.  (6)  Within the reciprocal contractual relationship, the sieidi possessed the power to either provide or withhold fish and game, and as Högström says, “the power of health and illness, life and death.”   According to ethnographic sources, the sieidi also had the ability to conjure violent storms or other natural catastrophes if displeased with the actions of the humans.  Not surprisingly, sieidis were held in great reverence, even awe, and the attitude of Saamis was one of worship and supplication, as in the drawing above. 

We may add that the act of worship of the sieidi itself was an additional source of ‘vital power’.  Thompson says, “Worship itself seems to have the potential to influence the spirit world.”  He says, “Perhaps worship is best viewed as the officiator creating a link between his spirit force and the seite’s.  In other words, the officiator allows a part of his self to be consumed, in order to be bonded with the seite’s spirit force.” (20)

The band was not without its own ability to enforce the contract in its reciprocal relationship with the sieidi.  For example, if the sieidi did not provide a continuing supply of game or fish or confer other benefits, the band had the option— occasionally exercised according to ethnographic accounts—to sever the ontological bond through discontinuing their offerings, abandoning the sieidi, or even destroying her.  Högström says, “If it happens that the offerings are suspended, they at the same time lose their power and then are not able to do good or ill.”  Such powerless and decayed gods are rarely seen, because no one any longer fears them.” (6)

While relations with the sieidi could be quite formal, with reciprocal obligations, the Saami are also known to have cooked and shared sacrificial food with her as part of ceremonial feasts.  The capacity for ceremonial sharing highlights the rich, expansive quality of the ‘personhood’ of a sieidi.  We have seen that in addition to sharing ritual meals, the sieidi ‘talked’ with the Arctic-Saami hunter-gatherer-fishers, entered into contractual relationships with them, displayed emotions such as anger, and ‘consumed’ as ‘food’ the ‘returned’ souls of fish and game animals provided to her. 

Poem of a Saami Hunter

The personalised, contractual nature of social relations between the Saami and the sieidi is on display in the following excerpt of a poem from the early modern period, addressed to a sieidi by a Saami hunter.  (21)


The recognition of the personhood of the sieidi is evident in the term used for her, forest crone, ‘old woman of the forest’, and there is evidence of an explicit contract with clear negative consequences for non-compliance.  The poem is notable in indicating that a sieidi could be viewed as female by the Arctic-Saami.


Bernard Picart, 1724

Several themes of the sieidi tradition are represented in the above iconic drawing by Bernard Picart, dating to the early 18th century.  In the drawing, the three sieidis are human-like and bird-like. They occupy what may be a ‘sacred mountain’ (passe-vare).  Saami people have congregated, some of whom are in worshipful poses, bowing deeply to each of the sieidis.  A sacrificial meal is being prepared of what may be reindeer meat, to be ceremonially shared with the sieidis. 

As Lahelma said, above, sieidis would sometimes appear in human form.  According to an account of a sacrifice in the eighteenth century, “Then a being in human form, like a great ruler, extremely good to look at, dressed in expensive garments and trinkets, appears and sits down to take part in their meal, speaks with them and teaches them new arts…”  (22)

The title “great ruler” is reminiscent of the mutual obligations of a feudal lord and his subjects of the Middle Ages.  That is, the feudal lord received loyalty and service as well as worshipful reverence and supplication in exchange for providing means of livelihood and protection.  Similar to these feudal bonds, the foragers provided worship and sacrifice, and in return the sieidi, guardian of a locality, made possible opportunities for their successful hunting and fishing (the ‘humans’ share’) and safeguards of their health.

In this way the Arctic-Saami band created a hierarchical but personalised bond with the sieidi across ontological boundaries.  Lahelma says, “In all respects, the Saami relationship with the sieidi can be described as a relationship or a contract based on mutual respect and responsibility.”  (16)

Social Relations with Saivo

Laestadius says of the nature spirit persons who served as their guardians and helpers, “Since the Lapps considered the inhabitants of saiwo to be real beings, they formed unions with them whereby the Lapps sought help from Saiwo.” (18)  The noaidi would on occasion visit their homes in the sacred mountains, and in Hultkrantz’s words, “take part in their festive life.” In compensation for acting as guardians or helpers, the saivo “demanded their tribute, that is, sacrifices.”  For example, offering places were frequently to be found at saivo cliffs.  (1)

Hultkrantz describes the terms of contracts that were formed between Saami and saivo: “Skanke gives us to understand that a covenant was drawn up between the saivo people and the Saamis.  For their services the saivo could claim their desired sacrifices from the Saami’s reindeer herd.  For their part the saivo assumed the obligation to bestow reindeer luck, fishing and hunting luck, to save his client when the latter’s life was in danger, to scout for him and to give him revenge for injuries.” (1)  

The social relations of Arctic-Saami with saivo were similar in many ways to their relations with sieidis.   Let us summarise them both:




Ontological Element 3:  

What is the nature of the ‘sacred geography’ of the worlds—of this world and the other world—where these social relations take place? 

The word ‘sacred’ comes from the Latin verb sancire, which means separated off, or sanctified.  The principal places on the ‘map of sacredness’ of the Saami were the dwelling sites of the sieidis, who were unique among Saami deities of the otherworld in that they resided in this, the middle world, as living stone persons.  Aikas refers to sieidis as being “between worlds but not divorced from this world”.  (7)

Lake Ketojärvi sieidi stone in Enontekiö, Finland (from Aikas)

The characteristic sites of sieidis were beside lakes, rivers, or on islands, and on mountains and fells.  These sites were, Aikas’ words, “at the edge of the world”, i.e., at the meeting place of land, water and sky. Here the boundary was thinnest between the physical and cosmological worlds.  The locations are described as liminal, based on the Latin word meaning threshold or boundary.  (7)

Karsten says, “The place where a sieidi stands … becomes a sort of power centre, a sacred place, since the spirit controls the whole environment.”  The noaidi, as the specialist in managing liminal boundaries, was responsible for marking off what Karsten calls the “sacred precinct” around the sieidi within which social relations with the sieidi would be carried on, consisting of sacrifices and rituals. (6)  In the photo below, ancient reindeer bones were uncovered near a sieidi, located within the sacred boundaries that would have been established by the noaidi.

Sieiddakeädgi in Utsjoki, Finland
In this space around the sieidi, rituals were carried on that Salmi says, “involved interaction between groups of people, animals and gods”. (23)  The Saami, entering and leaving the sacred space of the sieidi, were able to remain in close on-going contact with her. 

Lapinkivi, Nurmes, Finland

Such a sacred site was in Lund’s words “animated”.  (24)  This accords with the observation of Mulk and Bayliss-Smith about the far-reaching quality of “aliveness”, or animacy, of the physical landscape that is part of what they call “Saami religion”. (25)

Liminality and Arctic-Saami Sacred Arts

To this point we have considered the liminal places where social relations with the deity could be carried on. In an earlier post I explored Kashina’s concept of liminal “zones”, that extends liminality beyond simply places to include objects and performances of the sacred arts.  (26)  The products of these arts are social beings, empowered with the agency of helping enable communication between the worlds.  In the liminal zones that they generate, social relations between human persons and these spirit persons can be carried on.  They are zones of sociality between the worlds.  I will provide two examples of liminal zones that are associated with sacred art.

The first example of liminality and the sacred arts of the Arctic-Saami is the ritual chant, or yoik (also spelled joik) of the noaidi.

Click here for a contemporary performance of a yoik.

According to Kjellström, when used as part of a ritual of communicating with the sieidi, “the yoik acted as a method of both attaining a state of ecstasy and of mediating a message between the different worlds.”  He calls it “a purely magical incantation” that is “supposed to have an irresistible affect up on supernatural beings. It has an irresistible affect upon external nature itself, with which it brings the shaman into a mysterious magical relation.”  (27)  I would refer to this “magical relation” with “external nature” as a form of liminal zone of sociality created by the yoik persons, within which the noaidi was able to contact the sieidi and other spirit persons.

The second example of how the sacred arts related to liminality is of a type of ceramic pottery called Sär 1, made by an early population that was part of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution. 

The Sär 1 population left very limited archaeological materials.  Torvinen says, “For the time being the Sär 1 populations are manifested as a group or culture only via their pottery.”  (28)  An outstanding example consists of shards from the Kiikarusniemi site in Sotkamo, East Finland, dating to the early 5th millennium B.C., that have impressions of water birds. According to the authors of a study on the shards, Nieminen and Ruonavaara, they are “the first known Finnish bird motifs in Sär 1 ceramics and are thus possibly the oldest. It is also the northernmost find of bird motifs in ceramics.” (28)

National Museum of Finland, photo: Leppä

In his study of remains at Sär 1 sites, Torvinen discovered evidence that seals were a major food source.  He also found the bones of water birds, indicating they were also a hunted species. In Saami cosmology, water birds as saivo are very important in linking the worlds.

Based on these factors, I suggest that the pot from which the shards came might have been used for a ritual purpose:  to hold seal fat as part of sacred ‘meals’ for a seal fishing sieidi.  The noaidi might have contacted his saivo helpers living in a distant sacred mountain—through their ontological form as impressed clay water bird persons—to assist him in conveying the ‘food’ to the sieidi of the seal, as part of a situated shamanic practice of offering a sacrifice and requesting a human’s share of the seal herd.  In this way, it is possible that the impressed water bird-persons, as objects of sacred art, helped the noaidi by generating a liminal ‘channel of communication’ with the saivo beings of the other world. 


The two examples illustrate Jordan’s observation that objects and performances of the sacred arts function as “media of communication”—“animate artifacts” that are “charged with life forces”—supporting an “unfolding dialogue between humans and supernatural beings of the lower, middle and upper worlds.” (30)

This completes the exploration of the sacred geography of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution.  Below is a summary of findings:



This completes the presentation of the ontological frame of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution.  At this point, let us stand back to look at how the Arctic-Saami ontological frame fits into the broader perspective of relational ontology, as based on an influential typology put forward by Timothy Ingold.  He focuses on what he terms “totemism” and “animism”.  (31)

Totemism and Animism in the Arctic-Saami Tradition

In defining “totemism”, Timothy Ingold refers to the ontology of the Australian Aboriginal people, in which ancestor beings became “metamorphosed into the landscape” during the Dreamtime, “congealed in perpetuity in the features, textures and contours of the land.”  Rapoport says the features are “natural phenomena, such as trees and rocks”.  (32)  These natural phenomena became landscape-based sources of power which require tending by humans.  Ingold says, “the land…will continue to bring forth new life so long as those who dwell upon it – by fulfilling their custodial responsibilities towards it, or ‘looking after’ it in the proper way – do not allow its powers to be dissipated.”  (31)

Ingold says that in this totemic Aboriginal ontology, “it is the land that harbours the vital forces which animate the plants, animals and people it engenders”.  He contrasts it with an “animist” ontology, in which “The power of vital or soul force that brings forth life, far from being petrified in a solid medium, is free-flowing like the wind, and it is on its uninterrupted circulation that the continuity of the living world depends.”  He gives the example of northern hunting peoples, whose rituals are based upon a continuing cycle of reincarnation of the souls of game animals.

The sieidi tradition shares similarities with both totemic and the animistic ontologies as presented by Ingold. Let us examine them.

Soul or Vital Force

Knut Helskog, a Scandinavian archaeologist, notes a resemblance of the totemist ancestor beings of the Dreamtime—embodied as features of the landscape—to the sieidis of the Arctic-Saami— stone persons located alongside lakes, waterways and mountains.  He says that in both traditions, the “spiritual world” is given “a human face”, making it part of the “perceptual world” in “physical space”.  (33)

At the same time, consistent with Ingold’s conception of animism of northern cultures, the sieidi is an otherworld deity responsible for the circulation of ‘soul or vital force’ “that brings forth life.” According to Karsten, through the cult of sacrifice, she receives a continuing supply of a portion of the souls of game and fish in the form of fresh sacrifices of ‘food’ ‘rich’ in the ‘soul force’ or ‘vital power’ of game, such as antlers or other body parts, or of fish fat smeared upon her.  This makes it possible for her to continue making possible the rebirth of the game animals and to make them available to the foragers.  (6)

In Ingold’s animist ontology, the cycle of rebirth is not interrupted (“it is on its uninterrupted circulation that the continuity of the living world depends”) and does not become “petrified in a solid medium”, i.e., the land.  Here is where the sieidi tradition shows a totemist character.  That is, as we saw earlier, the ‘vital power’ of the landscape-based sieidi would periodically diminish, and it was necessary for the band to ‘recharge’ it through fresh sacrifices.  If these were not sufficient, the vital power could be interrupted in its circulation or lost.  As a result, the sieidi could lose her power to regenerate species and confer benefits, or even die. 


The sieidi Inari Ukko, pictured above, is on Äijih Island. 
Many bones from earlier sacrifices were found in an opening 
in the sieidi and under the small stone adjacent to it.

Karsten likens the power of a sieidi to that of an electric battery: “its power had to be continually maintained by sacrificial acts, just as an electric battery has continually to be recharged with the electric current.”  Karsten says, “If the energy is exhausted, the sieidi is “only fit to be destroyed or thrown away.”  (6)

The basis of comparison of the sieidi to an electric battery arises from her distinctive ontological nature. That is, while the sieidi oversees the circulation of vital power through regeneration of the souls of fish and game—responsibilities related to the otherworld— at the same she is resident in the middle world and subject to its powerful forces.  Foremost among these forces is entropy, one example of which is the exhaustion of potential energy in a closed system, such as the electromagnetic charge in a storage battery. The periodic exhaustion of the supply of ‘vital power’ of a sieidi suggests that an entropy-like force operates in the middle world on the ontological plane of the sieidi as well.  In this way, her residence in ‘this world’, the middle world, made the sieidi vulnerable to decline, abandonment and even death. 

At the same time, it is the very residence of the sieidi in the middle world that is perhaps the most important source of her unique influence as a deity.  As was discussed above, the sieidi was a powerful living presence for the wilderness Arctic-Saami band and key to their survival.  Rydving observes that “it was the beings that were bound to the landscape and to certain natural formations that were important in daily life”, and the other divinities “played a much lesser role”.   (2)  As a feature of the landscape in the physical world, Carpelan says the sieidi “operated on the same basis” as the Arctic-Saami, and this led to relationships that Lahelma characterises as “based on mutual respect and responsibility”.  


Multiple Worlds

Ingold identifies the other world as the place of residence of the deities of the animist northern hunting cultures who are responsible for the regeneration of the species of fish and game. Shamans journey there to negotiate with them—“the spirit masters, who control the disposition of animals”—in order to secure “their release to human hunters.”  (31)

Ingold's ‘spirit masters’ are not landscape-based deities, like the sieidi, who are subject to the energetic forces of ‘this’ world, including ones that interrupt the process of regeneration of souls.  However, while the sieidi physically occupied the liminal edge of the physical world, she was at the same time—like the 'spirit masters'an otherworld deity (“between worlds but not divorced from this world”). Soul journeys on the part of a shaman were also required to communicate with her. 

A definitional element of animism is the existence of tripartite worlds—the material middle world and the non-material ones of the ‘other’ world: the upper and lower—and it is fundamental to the shamanism of the Arctic-Saami institution.  This firmly distinguishes this tradition from that of the Aboriginal people of Australia.


The three cosmological worlds and and the world tree that connects them

That is, the totemist Aboriginal people of Australia consider themselves, and all other living beings, to be directly descended from the land-based ancestor beings and to inhabit the same ontological ‘world’ as them.  For this reason, soul journeys are not required in order to contact them.  In the words of Ingold, “A man does not have to leave his body to take on that of his totem” because the “ultimate source” of both “lies in the land”.  

The noaidi journeyed to the sieidi for a variety of purposes, particularly in the rites of animal ceremonialism.  However, animal ceremonialism—the interchange with spirit guardians of the land through the medium of soul journeys—would have had no place in the Australian Aboriginal tradition. 

In summary, we can say that in terms of the typology presented by Ingold, the Arctic-Saami ontology is fundamentally animist in nature, but with a notable totemist element.  As a hybrid of the two ontologies, I would call it ‘totemist-animist’.

Looking Ahead

We have explored from a relational animist standpoint the distinctive totemist-animist ontological frame of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution of Finland and Karelia.  I would argue that it framed and guided the activities of noaidis and sacred artists over thousands of years.  We can refer to this as ‘shamanic continuity’, that can be distinguished from other possible forms of continuity over that time, whether ethnic, cultural or genetic.  I will make use of this distinctive frame in coming posts, particularly when I consider the tradition of rock painting.  In the meantime, across my next two posts I will present the ontological frame of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution—the other indigenous shamanic institution of Finland and Karelia.    


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