Thursday, February 29, 2024

Louhi, Mistress of Pohjola

Louhi is Pohjolan emäntä, Mistress of Pohjola, in the Kalevalaic metre runic song-poems of Finland and Karelia.  Pohjola is a mythic northern realm, home of the land of the dead known as Tuonela or Manala. Kaarina Kailo considers Louhi as “no doubt the most powerful female character in Finnish mythology”. (1)

This is the first of two linked posts in which I aim to provide an opening to engage with Louhi for personal healing and assistance in one’s life journey.  Her nature and powers are particularly important for women, but I would argue their elemental character makes them relevant for people across the gender spectrum.

It may seem strange to consider Louhi in this way because while she is regarded as a woman of power, she is also often seen as selfish and evil, a ‘witch’, and hardly a source of healing. This is a view strongly influenced by her portrayal in the 1849 Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  (2) While Elias Lönnrot based the book on the traditional Finnish rune songs in Kalevalaic metre, in the view of many his selective reading and editing of the runes cast Louhi in an unfairly negative light.  Clearly, if we are to seek the assistance of Louhi in our healing, we must know her in a fuller sense. 

I begin this post by presenting and placing in context the often-negative portrayal of Louhi in Lönnrot’s  book. I go on to explore writings and cultural productions that critically appraise Lönnrot’s portrayal and offer a more rounded appreciation of Louhi as a mythic figure, some referencing the wider unfiltered set of runic epic songs and incantations in which she appears. I will pause on one important contribution, by Hiltunen, that explores the potential for psychospiritual healing through affirmations based on Louhi’s example as a powerful female figure.  (3)

Kemppinen calls Louhi a “full-fledged member of the Finnish polytheistic family of gods”.  (4)  Her very name is derived from a word, "lovi", that can be taken to mean a crack or gap in the earth that is an entrance the other world. I believe that a deeper level of healing is possible through responding to her nature as a deity.  In this respect, instead of accepting the prevailing scholarly view of Louhi as a ‘mythic image’ who is part of a ‘mythical imaginary’, I consider her as a living supranormal person who can be approached for assistance through shamanic means. For the remainder of the current post and the one following it, I attempt to lay the basis for this, a shamanist animist view.

Louhi of the Kalevala

Louhi, the Mistress of Pohjola, is sometimes called Loviatar in the Kalevalaic metre rune songs. 

Louhi by Eemil Halonen

The runic songs were composed and performed in a distinctive metre (unrhymed trochaic tetrameter), becoming the basis of an oral tradition that continued over many centuries in the rural communities of Finland and Karelia. Some runes were either incorporated in incantations or became incantations themselves, that were employed for healing purposes by the tietäjä.  This was a new ritual practitioner who succeeded the shaman or noita and was active from the Iron Age to the 20th century.  (The word tietäjä literally means ‘knower’, ‘one who knows’.)

Salo writes that “early Kaleva poetry in Finland survived and developed in the zone of the Kiukainen culture, on the coast from Viipuri to Ähtävä”.  (5)  The Kiukainen culture was the last stone age culture of Finland.  It was located in Southwestern Finland from 2400-1200 BC, with its influence lasting until the Iron Age, 500 BC.  The earliest runes convey epic events and persons from the wilderness culture that had existed for thousands of years prior to that time, for which the shaman or noita was intermediary with the other world.

Folklorists began collecting the rune songs in local areas beginning in the 18th century, and the collection now totals 150,000 songs, 89,000 of them in the online archive of the Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot (  It has been called the largest song book in the world.  Elias Lönnrot, himself a collector who made 11 collection trips in Eastern Finland and Karelia, went on to publish in 1849 the Finnish classic the Kalevala, based on the runes. (2)

The Kalevala was seen as presenting an authentic record of the lives and mythical beliefs of residents of early rural Finland and Karelia, who had undergone centuries of colonial rule and isolation from broader European culture. The book became, and remains, a source of considerable national pride.  However, while the book is based on the runes, Lönnrot chose particular versions of the original source runes in composing the Kalevala and then combined, edited, and added text to them, shaping larger narrative sequences that were in some cases of his own invention, thereby achieving a literary effect.

The Kalevala is considered to be a representation of Finnish mythology, but not as a documentary source of it. In Honko’s words, “Lönnrot's epic will apparently always perform like a tightrope dancer on the borderline between folk poetry epic and art epic.” (7)

At the same time, the very literary or artistic nature of the Kalevala has been a significant factor in its success, as it is likely that no purely scholarly presentation of a series of runes would have had the same impact or as wide a continuing readership.  Lönnrot’s book transports one to a world in which trees speak, a boat can be sung into existence, and a female shaman as a giant bird fights a battle at sea. Through this, one meets the animistic culture that persisted in premodern Finland, and behind it, the shamanistic one of prehistory. 

The account of these cultures in the Kalevala is refracted through 18th century gender, religious, political and other biases of Lönnrot, the editor/author.  Siikala says the Kalevala has a “male point of view” and in it ”the woman is the representative of the other, the stranger, the other side”.  (6)  A prime example of this is the treatment of the mythical figure of Louhi.

The central theme of the Kalevala, as constructed by Lönnrot, concerns the campaigns waged by the male heroes Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen, and Ilmarinen on behalf of the southern land of Kalevala, or Kaleva, against the cold, dark northern land of Pohjola, ruled by Louhi.  Pohjola is a “man eating, fellow-drowning” place and its female ruler or Mistress, Louhi, is a “hag”, a “gap-toothed crone”, who, while having immense supranormal powers, uses them in ways often described as evil. 

Louhi by Joseph Alanen

For example, Louhi possesses the power to regulate the course of the sun and moon, and is portrayed as stealing and hiding them in Pohjola's Kivimäki hill, restoring them only under threat of being chained to a rock. She can command the weather, and is accused of sending life-destroying frosts to bedevil the southern land of Kaleva.

Under her other name of Loviatar, she is impregnated by the wind deity Ahava, giving birth to the nine diseases. For this, Loviatar/Louhi are repeatedly called “harlot”.

Loviatar, N.C. Wyeth

In perhaps the pivotal sequence of the Kalevala, she uses her considerable shamanistic powers to transform into a fierce bird to stop the theft by Väinämöinen of the Sampo, an object of her invention that creates unlimited prosperity, and is blamed when it is partially destroyed in the struggle.

Defense of the Sampo, National Museum of Finland,
Akseli Gallan-Kallela (photo Leppä) 

There is indeed textual basis in the runes for the contradictory nature of Louhi, but as Chahal writes, “In the Kalevala she becomes a composite of evil deeds.  Rather than the complexity of both good and evil that the runes show her to be, in Lönnrot’s telling she becomes simply evil”.  (8)  This treatment of the mythic female has been incisively critiqued in books and articles by Siikala (6), Kailo (1), Vakimo (9), Sawin (10), and others. 

The portrayal of Louhi in the Kalevala needs to be seen in historical context.  The Finland of the 19th century where Lönnrot wrote had been colonised for hundreds of years, first by Sweden and most recently by Russia.  It had undergone Christian conversion and its churches were engaged in a determined fight against what it called ‘pagan religion’.  For example, in the 17th century the Lutheran Church moved to eradicate rune singing.  (11) Witch trials were conducted across Finland that resulted in the execution for sorcery of at least 41, many of them tietäjä folk healers. (Wikipedia)

Referring to the fate of female deities like Louhi in conditions such as this, Monaghan says, “Many ancient Crone goddesses were demoted, when their people were conquered or converted, into hags, evil stepmothers, forest-dwelling witches, and other villains of fairy tale and legend. Thus we often find Crone goddesses appearing as evil or threatening figures. And the power she represents can still be threatening today to those who are uncomfortable with women of power”.  (12)

Of the epithets referenced by Monaghan, the term ‘hag’ is the one most frequently applied to Louhi in the Kalevala.  In the image of Louhi from the painted frieze by Gallan-Kallela on the ceiling of the National Museum of Finland the painter has chosen to give her an appearance that corresponds to that sexist and ageist epithet. The painting in its various forms has gone on to become perhaps the most enduring visual portrayal of her. 

Woman of Power

Tarkka pointedly encapsulates the nature of the threat posed by Louhi as perceived by those uncomfortable with women of power: “There is but one exception to the predominantly passive image of woman in the heroic epic: the Mistress of Pohjola, the matriarch of the northern otherworldly village and the demonic opponent of the positive male hero, equipped with the power to fly and addressed as a ‘whore’.”  (13) 

Siikala observes that the inherent strength of Louhi, and other female characters such as Lemminkäinen’s mother, as portrayed in the newly published Kalevala “astonished” critical readers of the time.  She says this strength “reveals something about the perceptions of women that lie hidden in the tradition of Karelian culture”.  (7)

We can experience the strength and powers of Louhi in a positive sense in the 2021 video and song Louhi by Värttinä here, featuring Sari Kaasinen, pictured below, with lyrics in English here

Materials that accompany the video state, “The song pays homage to all powerful women – the modern day ”Louhis” – around the world”.

Matti Kuusi and Pertti Anttonen, drawing upon their broad shared knowledge of archival folklore, observe that “Kalevala's Louhi has more human credibility and strength of character than similar female characters in folklore.” (14)  While clearly supranormal, not human, Louhi nonetheless presents in the songs and stories as a substantial and multifaceted person.

Feminist authors Aili Nenola and Senni Timonen provide summary thoughts about Louhi: The Louhi of the Kalevala and folk poetry, known as Pohjola's Mistress, is a contradictory figure.”  They continue, “She is hardworking but not humble, conciliatory but stubborn, fierce and bold, but can also be cunning”.  They conclude that “Louhi is an encouraging example for women, realizing the diversity of their nature”. (15)

Healing based on Louhi

Sirkku Hiltunen finds in the stories of Louhi, as well as other mythological females from the Kalevala, means of personal healing for women.  Her “Seven Stages of Womanhood”, is a “contemporary healing ritual from the Finnish mythology of the Kalevala”.  Hiltunen says she developed it while “seeking to define my own self identity and in the process of my own healing”. (3)  Available here.   

Hiltunen explains that “as a Finn, I began to draw strength from the metaphors of the Finnish epic of Kalevala, the mythological female imagery of which is rich and introduces maidens, daughters, wives, and mothers as powerful sages and warriors”. 

Hiltunen is particularly drawn to Louhi as “one of the central female heroines, sage and warrior mothers of the Kalevala”.  Hiltunen considers the incident in the Sampo runic epos, when Louhi transforms into a mighty bird to recover the Sampo from Väinämöinen, as the “most powerful act of warriorship and supernatural transformation in the entire Kalevala”.  In later runes, Louhi transforms herself into two other birds to seek information or transmit messages. Hiltunen writes, “These feats of magical physical transformations have inspired the metaphors for psychospiritual transformation for this ritual”.

The healing ritual of Seven Stages of Womanhood includes chanting of affirmations.  Hiltunen finds that “both negative and positive affirmations can be found in the Kalevala, embedded in the charms or prayers”.  She encourages reading of the Kalevala to find additional affirmations of one’s own.

Metaphysical and Cosmological Aspects

Hiltunen finds qualities in Louhi that through their example help facilitate psychospiritual healing.  Irma Korte sees such qualities as only some of those that make up the multi-faceted nature of the mythical figure of Louhi. (16)  She says, "There is not just one mother of Pohjola". In Louhi we find "metaphysical, cosmological, natural scientific, practical and even medical aspects along with psychological aspects".  Korte continues, "In a way typical of a mythical portrayal, she is not just this or that. She is a whole network of interconnected associations and analogies”. 

From Suomalaisen kansanuskon
sanakirja, Pulkinen and Lindfors

While the mythical Louhi presents as a network of different aspects, I believe there are clusters of “associations and analogies” around each of the categories Korte has listed.  For example, Hiltunen considers the psychospiritual aspects of Louhi relevant to healing. Korte herself engages in analysis of what could be called the depth psychoanalytic cluster of aspects of Louhi and Pohjola.  

My own concern in the remainder of this post and the next is in focussing on what Korte calls the “metaphysical, cosmological” cluster of aspects, that relate to Louhi as a supranormal person. I will argue that behind the multiple personas highlighted by Korte is an incarnated Uralic deity. 

While Nenola and Timonen, and Hiltunen, look to Louhi as an inspiring example for personal growth and healing, I propose that additional forms of growth and healing are available through direct contact with Louhi by shamanic means. I will only touch on these means in the present post but will devote fuller consideration to them in the following one. 

Nature Goddesses

Ganander recognises Louhi as one of several powerful mythical female rulers, “Mistresses (rulers, queens) of the Nordic area”.  (17)


In addition to Louhi, whose land of Pohjola includes Tuonela, land of the dead, is Hel, the deity of Norse mythology who rules over the underworld realm of Heli, a destination of the dead. (Wikipedia)

Jabme-akka, pictured at left, is the Saami goddess of the underwater land of the dead, Jabmeaivo. This land, and a soul bound for it, are pictured at right. They are drumhead drawing persons from a Saami drum living at the National Museum of Finland, as interpreted by Ernst Manker.  (The graphic of Jabme-akka is from

Heidi Abendroth-Goettner, a founder of Matriarchal Studies, has extensively documented and explored female deities of life and death, most recently among the matriarchal cultures of Central Europe in the Megalithic era.  In turn, Kaarina Kailo’s work is foundational in extending Abendroth-Goettner’s Matriarchal Studies framework to the Nordic and Uralic areas, particularly as focussed on Louhi and her sister deities of the North. 

Kailo expresses a reservation about applying the term Goddess to the northern female deities like Louhi.  She says, “Goddess as a concept evokes anthropocentric, human-centric metaphors of the divine which fails to do justice to the spiritual figures being metaphors being taken from nature”. (1)

Uzi Varon, Louhi, 2019

While otherwise in accord with Kailo, I consider Louhi’s existence as beyond that of metaphor, i.e., as being instead ontologically ‘real’, inhering in nature.  In this regard, I will now argue that she has been empirically perceived in this way through mythical consciousness from as early as the Mesolithic, beginning 10,000 BC.

Taken from Nature

It was common among early Uralic peoples that the distant northern land of the dead was presided over by an old woman.  She is part of what Napolskikh calls the “Proto-Uralic world picture” that he has reconstructed from mythical narratives and other elements from the original Uralic and Proto-Finno-Ugric cultures of the “Ural progenitor people”.  (18)

An example of a mistress of the land of the dead appears among the Evenks, a culture that is located to the east the Urals in Siberia but in prehistoric times maintained close links to the Uralic cultural area. Anisimov writes, “Among the concepts of the Evenks about the nether world there is one very characteristic feature—the link of these views with the image of an old woman, the mistress of the buni (the world of the dead). She appears most clearly in the shamanistic rite--the guiding of the corporeal soul of the deceased to the world of the dead”. (19)

“When the shaman ‘conveys’ the corporeal soul of the deceased on a raft, he is met by the mistress of the buni, on whom it depends her the person will be taken or not taken (admitted or not admitted) to the otherworld.”  Anisimov says, “Analogous concepts are distinctive also of other peoples of Siberia. Among the Nanays, the mistress of the buni helps the shaman to carry the deceased into the land of the dead”.

Siikala relates Napolskikh’s “Proto-Uralic world picture” to Finland and Karelia. She says, “The counterforce to the Mother of Life, that is, the ruler of death and illness, is … depicted among Uralic peoples as female. The clearest example of a northerly realm of bitter cold, death and illness is the Land of the North (Pohjola) encountered in Kalevalaic epic and incantation, whose ruler is the female Loveatar or Louhi.” (20)  

Vitali Dobrinen (1955-2021)

Based on the above and other similar examples, I suggest that in the Uralic area in prehistoric times, an elder female deity ruled the northern land of the dead.  She was an earth goddess, immanent to nature. I suggest that she was ontologically real, a living supranormal person recognised from the earliest time of inhabitation of the Uralic area in the Mesolithic Age by the foragers migrating there from the eastern Ice Age refuge.

Mythical Consciousness

I argue that incarnations of this deity were perceived and then personified by the proto-Uralic hunter-gatherer-fishers by means of pre-Cartesian mythical consciousness.  This is a form of consciousness based largely on images rather than on the abstract concepts characteristic of the neo-Cartesian verbal-conceptual mode of communication, that is our default today. That is, the mistress of the northern land of the dead was ‘seen’ and ‘felt’ as an empirical being rather than simply ‘thought of’ as a mental construct. 

Mythical consciousness, like all forms of consciousness, is culturally conditioned.  This means that the various Uralic cultures pictured or personified the Mistress of the northern land of the dead differently, and in each culture this tended to change over time.  I would argue, though, that the personifications of the Mistress always had a common, core ‘cluster of aspects’, including female gender, advanced age, and rulership over a northern land of the dead. 

In this way, the Mistress has always been what we can call a ‘deity in formation’, successively incarnating and becoming personified in various ways in different places and in new cultural settings.  She is always showing her face, but it is always changing, from the time of the “Ural progenitor people”, who first made contact with her, to Louhi of the Kalevala metre runes.

Instances of incarnation and personification of the Mistress have been captured in forms, or mediums, of sacred art.  In this regard, Clottes says that within the context of shamanism, “art could be a privileged means of entering into a relationship with the spirits of the supernatural world and of retaining the powers that this contact made it possible to obtain”. (21)

A form of sacred art that I see as a privileged means of entering into a relationship with the Mistress is the Kalevalaic epic runes of Finland and Karelia.  I will argue that in the performance of particular runes, the Mistress incarnated and ‘became real’ and personified as Louhi, and was not just a metaphor or a ‘mythic image’ as part of an ‘imaginal world’. 

In earlier posts I have concentrated on the incarnation of beings in sacred artworks with a material basis, such as painting persons appearing on rock faces, but I have not considered performative artworks such as runic songs.  For this reason, in making the argument for Louhi’s incarnation in them, that is central to this post, I will first explore from an animist standpoint the nature of incarnation of beings in the performances of epic stories in general.  As part of this, I will present documented examples from four different cultures of ways in which this happens.  


The Kalevalaic epic runes are first of all stories, narratives of events and persons.  How might a supranormal person such as Louhi become incarnated, or present, in the performance of these stories? 

The academic Frog, speaking of the performance of epic stories, says, “The idea that performance manifests what is performed with objective existence is found widely and in a variety of forms. In some epic traditions of Northern Eurasia, people conceive performance as actualizing the mythic events they narrate, giving historical events objective reality in the present”.  (22)  In actualising the mythic events, the persons or heroes who take part in them are given objective reality in the present as well, i.e., become incarnated or reified.

The currently prevailing view is that ontologically, the Kalevalaic epic runic songs in performance were not of this type, i.e., actualising what they describe, but rather were simply representations in narrative form of epic events and their participants, such as Louhi.  The academic Mr. Frog articulates this view: “The noita appears to have used song…in poetic epic as a means of communicating knowledge of the mythic world”.  (23)  The runes were two-dimensional “textual objects” limited to a communicative function. 

How does Mr. Frog come to this conclusion?  He refers to stories of the Northern Uralic Nenets culture, whom we will meet below, that “seem to have been conceived, not in terms of text made of language, but as events with historical or mythic reality”.  They were “ imagined as iconic and actualizing what they describe”.  Moreover, “In Nenets tradition, an epic song was conceived not simply as events constituting the narrative but also as an active and independent being that could move around and do things, as well as be present as an agent within the narrative itself”. (22)

The main criterion that Frog seems to put forward for the identification of stories that in performance are independent beings who can actualise persons and events seems to be that they are ‘conceived’ or ‘imagined’ by their creators to have this capacity.  Apparently, unlike the Nenets, the original creators of the Kalevalaic runes did not conceive or imagine the performance of runes in this way, and so they remained “text made of language”.

This would not seem to be sufficient as a grounds for distinguishing between the stories of the Nenets and the Kalevalaic runes.  That is, while the Nenets have continued to exist in the historical period and their stories have been the subjects of academic fieldwork, this is not the case for the original composers and performers of the runes.

Runic Origins

We lack a similar contemporary window into the world of the first creators and performers of the runes in the Baltic nations and in Finland.  According to an hypothesis of Matti Kuusi, the proto-Kalevalaic metric form first took shape in the Late Neolithic among Proto-Finnic peoples that I identify as of the shamanistic Comb Ceramic cultures in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (24)  In turn, Unto Salo hypothesises that the metric form, as well as a musical instrument, the kantele, were carried by the Corded Ware culture to Finland. (5)

Vainamoinen, Pekka Halonen

According to Salo, it was within the cultural area of the Kiukainen culture that the first Kalevalaic epic rune songs in Finland were composed and performed, as accompanied by the kantele, perhaps supplementing or replacing or earlier shamanic drums.

Accepting the hypothetical views of Kuusi and Salo, and returning to Frog, it is clear we cannot know how the composers and performers of the runes in either the Baltic nations or in Finland ‘conceived’ or ‘imagined the influence of their songs. In general, the songs have not yet been investigated in a way appropriate to the animist nature of the shamanistic cultures in which they were likely first composed and performed.  For this reason I suggest we cannot close the ‘ontological book’ on them, as seems to have happened in the scholarly community.

Animist Investigation

To better understand in an animist way the possible nature of incarnation of spirit persons in the runes, let us explore examples of animate stories from four shamanic cultures in which this takes place. I suggest that in their commonalities, they point to the outlines of a model of the animate Kalevalaic rune story.


Kailo reports that women from North American Native cultures with whom she has worked consider stories about spiritual figures to be “shamanic vehicles” that allow them to “become one with the Spirit world”. (1)

Here I would refer to the work of anthropologist Irving Hallowell, who, based upon his fieldwork of the 1950’s wrote of sacred seasonal stories, called “grandfathers”, of Native American Ojibwe traditional culture. (25) The Ojibwe are an Anishinaabe people who reside in southern Canada, the northern Midwestern United States, and Northern Plains. 

Grandfathers are sacred stories that can only be told in the appropriate season and in a ritually correct way. Their performance requires the careful attention of those involved.  For example, the grandfathers cannot be interrupted in the telling. Harvey says, “This respectful etiquette accorded to the grandfathers showed that they were living persons”.  (26)  The grandfathers are “willful and powerful”, as indicated in their ability to withhold words of their own stories from being told.

Anishnaabe winter storytelling

Hallowell says, “The characters' about which grandfather stories speak (thoughtfully and intentionally) are also alive”. During the telling, “There is 'social interaction’ among them and between them and Änícinábek (human beings)”.  The characters in these stories, “to the Ojibwa … are living 'persons' of an other-than-human class”. (25)

The Grandfathers were both entertaining and educational in conveying their sacred teachings.  Harvey says, “when the myths are narrated on long winter nights, the occasion is a kind of invocation: 'Our grandfathers' like it and often come to listen to what is being said’”. (26)


The Nenets are a Samoyedic culture located in the Russian Far North.  We saw that for Frog, their epic stories are examples of ones that actualise what they describe and display their own agency.

Lukin writes that the shamanistic syudbabt is a mythic epic story sung as part of séances in which audiences take part. In performance it “both narrates and actualises the unseen world and the shaman’s adventures there on his or her journeys to distant places”. During its performance, spirit helpers who are present in the song make sounds that “describe the presence of the otherworld” to the assembled listeners.  (27)

Nenets male shaman

The teller of the Nenets epic is the syudbabts-wada, “a personified word or narrative”, who is at the same time the main actor in it. However, it is the human shaman who actually sings the syudbabt poem, based on what they hear from the syudbabts-wada.  Lukin says that this means that “both the listeners and the singer himself are listening to the events that the syudbabts-wada brings about”. (27)


In a similar way, for the Khakass culture, their epic stories called khais are narrated in the in the ear of the singer, the Khaiji, by the spirits of the stories, and the Khaiji sings them aloud using a traditional form of throat singing.  Van Deusen writes how, a khaiji, or singer, describes the performance of the a khais epic song: "I close my eyes and see scenes unrolling, which I then describe". (28)

The Khakass are a shamanic people who live in Khakassia, republic of Russia, located in southern Siberia. The Khaiji singers establish contact with the spirits of the khai epic songs with the help of mountain spirits called khai eezi, who, according to Van Deusen, “are so important in Khakass folklore and shamanic practice”.  (28)

Anna Sarlina,
Khakass Khaiji 1987

“Once the khai eezi has entered the teller and the spirits of the characters in stories have been brought present at the telling, they must complete their actions and be put back into their places of rest. If the teller takes a break in a long tale, he must leave the heroes at a feast”.  Van Deusen continues, “A precept of great storytellers says you must not leave the story unfinished, cut off in the middle. The heroes will be offended and curse you. The storyteller's talent will drift away and he soon dies”. (28)


As in the khais stories,  characters are made present in the epic yoik of the Saami.  The Saami are the indigenous people whose land, Sápmi, is located on the territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  Yoiks are a traditional form of song among the Saami, resembling chanting, with or without lyrics, with a form that is reminiscent of Kalevalaic metre.  They play an important part in the shamanistic practices of the noaidi.

Laitinen writes, “The Eastern Sami form of the yoik, the leu'dd…is sometimes described as an "epic" form of yoik; it often consists of a long, personal narrative in a more poetic form. This narrative could serve to "[record] the unwritten history of the native village in poetic terms”.  (29)

According to Aubinet, “To chant a yoik …amounts to summoning the presence of the person, animal, or place evoked, as well as personal memories attached to it”.   She says “it is common to hear in Sápmi that your yoik is you; or, that although people may sing about a person, people yoik the person (i.e. not “about”).  (30)

The persons, animals and places that are summoned through a yoik are “made present within the vocalisation”, that I might call a form of incarnation in a liminal space.  Aubinet says, “Yoiking then appears as a craft of incantation” or “a vocally induced form of ‘enhanced ‘animacy’”. (30)

Gaski, quoted in Burke, says, “It is not the one who composes a yoik who owns it, but rather that which is yoiked.”  In this way, it “acquires some degree of autonomy from its creator”.  (31)

Summary of Examples

We have seen four examples, from diverse and widely separated cultures, of human and other-than-human beings implicated with one another in the creation and/or performance of epic stories.  This was made possible by the fluid natures of personhood and agency in the animist lifeworld. 

While each animate epic story must be viewed against the backdrop of the rich and unique cultural tradition in which it is embedded, at the same time I suggest there are important similarities across the four examples. The similarities are not in cultural particulars, but rather based in their ontological characteristics.  Specifically, in each, an epic story is sung or chanted, with human and other-than-human persons collaborating in its composition and/or performance, in which beings and events are actualised, as audiences take part, and in performance becomes an animate person in their own right. 

In each story, beings and events are actualised. That is, main characters of the stories, along with the events in which they take part, ‘come alive’ in performances for human audiences.  These include the syudbabts-wada of the Nenets, the characters of the Ojibwe grandfather stories, the characters of the Khakass khai stories, and the persons yoiked into being in the Saami example.

Across the four stories, human and other-than-human persons collaborate on the basis of equality in their composition and/or performance.  In some cases, spirit persons join with the shamans as ‘sacred artists’ in the composition of stories, or in other cases replace them entirely.  In performance, spirit persons may be the ‘tellers’ of the stories, and human shamans, because of their vocal capacity, may act as singers of them.

The four stories become animate persons in performance. That is, an Ojibwe grandfathers can withhold words in the telling of their own stories and visit their own performances while they are being told.  The Nenets syudbabts-wada constitutes both the story narrative itself and a character in it.  Each Khakass epic song, a khais, possesses its own independent spirit.  Finally, the Saami yoik is ‘owned’ and controlled by the subject of it rather than by the noaidi or other person who has chanted the subject into presence. 

In these varying ways, the four forms of epic narrative become in performance what Wallis calls “story persons”, that he defines as “’artworks’ (that) can ‘perform as animate ‘persons’ with their own social intentionality and agentive contribution to community life”.  (32)  I would single this out, the independent creation of animate ‘story persons’, as the principal similarity among the examples of the four cultures. Story persons represent a distinct form or medium of performative sacred art, that elevates what would otherwise be representational storytelling to the level of actualisation of epic events and persons for audiences in the here and now. 

Kalevalaic Epic Runes

How does the above picture of animate epic stories of the four cultures apply to the Kalevalaic epic runes? 

In what could be called Frog’s ‘representational model’, Kalevalaic epic songs are limited to being a means of “communicating knowledge of the mythic world”.  As profoundly engaging for an audience as presentation by a shaman of a journey to the mythic world in a ritual setting might be, it would only be about the nature of the mythical world as experienced by the shaman, and not a living instance of it. 

Based on Ingold’s analysis of myth and sacred art, I suggest that the Proto-Finnic shamans who, according to Kuusi, created the first epic runes in Neolithic Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the late Neolithic, would not have stopped with merely representing a journey to the other world. With their command of the powers and resources of the animist lifeworld (like the shamans of the cultures in the four types of animate stories), I suggest they would have taken the performance of an epic story, in Ingold’s words, “deeper and deeper”, beyond a “representation of the world” that is “map-like” to a space where “boundaries between person and place, or between the self and the landscape, dissolve altogether”.  (33)

What would such a performance of a Kalevalaic rune been like, in which the boundaries dissolve altogether?  I will present my own hypothetical conception of the nature of the first composition and performances of epic Kalevalaic proto-rune songs—in the Baltic area of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—that actualised what they described, and focus on an example in which of the Mistress of the northern land of the dead is incarnated.  I offer this account as an ‘animist model’ of the runes, as contrasted with the ‘representational model’ of them, that is defended by Frog.

Runic Story Persons

© Johannes Setälä

Kuusi hypothesises that as early as 3000 BC in the Baltic area, Proto-Finnic peoples (that I would identify as being of the Comb Ceramic culture) along the Väinäjoki (Daugava) River that flows through Belarus and Latvia, developed a metric performance code for ritual performance of epic narrative songs that facilitated easy memorisation. (24)  I hypothesise it became the platform for the creation of the proto-runes as a form of performance-activated ‘portable’ sacred artwork: ‘runic story persons’.

© Johannes Setälä

The new performance code made it possible to ‘record’ an animate epic story performance by a co-composer/singer that was repeatable in later animate sessions, a feat not possible before the advent of the code. The metric performance code thus represented a sacred art breakthrough for the early proto-Finns. Kuusi says “Our ancestors did not have any means of lasting linguistic communication apart from Kalevala language.”  He judges its appearance as significant as the later development of written language.  (24)

The ‘recordings’ of animate performances of proto-runic epic stories would have represented both continuity with, and departure from, the previously premier sacred art medium, that of rock painting. Pentikäinen writes, “The rock art of Finland is a kind of "Kalevala" epical narrative written, or rather in stone".   (34)  Here he is calling attention  to the continuity from rock paintings on stone cliffs to runic songs in the capacity to embody mythical narrative. 

I suggest that at the same time, the new runic sacred art form constituted an important departure from rock paintings in terms of other characteristics. 

That is, story persons as a performative medium of sacred artwork reified or incarnated beings as did rock paintings, but as ‘recordings’ of runic performances were ‘portable’ from band to band over large distances.  As well, being linguistically based, they facilitated extended narratives of mythic events beyond anything possible at rock painting sites.

The epic stories would have been jointly composed by human and other than human persons through collaboration spanning the worlds. As a way of exploring how this might have taken place, I rely here, as I have done before, on Wallis’ animist conception of a ‘rhizomic meshwork’ as a means or vehicle.  This is a decentred non-hierarchical network of communication and collaboration across the boundaries of the worlds taking the form of a ‘rhizome’, an organic structure found in nature best exemplified in the mushroom mycellium.  (31)

A collaborative ‘rhizomic meshwork’ in the creation of a recorded runic performance would have included the the Comb Ceramic shaman and spirit persons, including those who were implicated as 'characters' in the epic story. 

I will suggest that one of the epic story performances created by a meshwork would likely have been that of one of the most important and demanding roles of the shaman, accompanying a soul to the land of the dead, a ‘psychopomp’ journey, where they personally meet the Mistress of the northern land of the dead.

The word 'psychopomp' comes from the Greek psychopompós, literally meaning 'guide of souls'. Siikala says, “The shaman was required to take up the role of a psychopomp when the soul of the deceased was not for some reason transferred in the proper manner to the realm of the dead but instead remained behind to disturb the peace of the living.” (35)

In this role, the shaman would have already met the Mistress many times.  As part of the meshwork in the composition and performance of the runic song, she would have negotiated her own incarnation and personification.

Evenk Woman shaman

In animate performance of the epic psychopomp story of the journey to the land of the dead by the shaman/singer, a liminal zone would have been opened within which the events and the participants, including the Mistress and the soul of the deceased person, would have become ‘real’, or in Frog’s term, ‘actualised’, for the audience.  

In this way, an epic runic story in performance would have become a ‘runic story person’, a new type of sacred artwork among Baltic Proto-Finns who if approached, could be respectfully asked to be shared and ‘reanimated’ in other settings.  

This is a fifth example of a story person, along with the other four explored above. That is, the runic story person displays the same ontological characteristics of the four examples of story persons above, for whom ‘the boundaries dissolve altogether’.  Using my words, the characteristics consist of “an epic story sung or chanted, with human and other-than-human persons collaborating in its composition and performance, in which beings and events are actualised, as audiences take part, and in performance becomes an animate person in their own right”.  

A feature which particularly distinguishes the hypothetical runic story person from the other four examples is in how the ‘crystallised’ runic code and associated performance mode made it possible for shamans to ‘record’ stories, i.e., memorise them word for word, share, and repeat them in animate performance in other settings, actualising them for audiences anew.  

In my next post I will argue that this crucial Baltic innovation travelled to Finland and eventually made possible the development of the Kalevalaic epic runes of Finland and Karelia.  There the Mistress of the northern land of the dead continued to incarnate, now as Louhi. 

I will now offer a partial preview of this section of my next post.

The Runes in Finland and Karelia

As we saw above, Unto Salo hypothesises that the proto-Kalevalaic song form, developed by Proto-Finnic peoples of what I identify as the Comb Ceramic cultures of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, was carried to Finland by the Corded Ware culture. There, the Corded Ware culture and the song form were absorbed into the Late Neolithic Kiukainen culture, also a shamanic Comb Ceramic culture.

Subsequently, Salo says, “Early Kaleva poetry in Finland survived and developed in the zone of the Kiukainen culture, on the coast from Viipuri to Ähtävä”.  (5)  This zone is indicated in pink on the map above.

I suggest that with the arrival in Finland of what Salo calls “early Kaleva poetry”, that I hypothesise as ‘runic story persons’, the ancient Uralic Mistress of the northern land of the dead would have continued to be incarnated, but now with the help of rhizomic meshworks based in the shamanic Kiukainen culture.

I believe the nature of personification of the incarnated Mistress by the Kiukainen culture would have been similar to that of the Comb Ceramic hunting and gathering cultures of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, that developed the runic story person form. That is, the personification would have mirrored the original Uralic core ‘cluster of aspects’ of the Mistress, including female gender, advanced age, and rulership over a northern land of the dead.  It was this personification that Napolskikh relied upon for his Proto-Uralic World Picture and that I drew upon for my ‘hypothetical’ picture of the Baltic runic story person. 

In the Bronze and Iron Ages, through the influence of cultural factors such as the rise of agriculture, her personification in the ‘actualised’ runic story persons and incantation persons of the new proto-farming communities would increasingly have became that of the Louhi we know. While Louhi continued to be Mistress of the northern land of the dead, only now located in the land of Pohjola, new facets of her identity came to include, among others, those of powerful shaman, mother of diseases, midwife, healer, and, I will suggest in my next post, goddess of life and death. Clearly, the nature and scope of powers of the Mistress were considerably enriched through her personification as Louhi in Finland and Karelia.

This recalls my earlier statement that the Mistress of the northern land of the dead is a ‘deity in formation’, who is “successively incarnating and becoming personified in various ways in different places and in new cultural settings”.  

At the same time, I argue that her original ancient identity as a nature goddess, as the Mistress, continued to be present in, and a uniting factor of, all the facets of Louhi in Finland and Karelia. This recognition of her was anchored by the long persistence of a hunting/foraging economic base in Finland and Karelia, in addition to the emerging agricultural one. This led to direct, continuing involvement of Finns and Karelians in the animist lifeworld, where she resides as a living supranormal person, and in Uralic mythology, that extends back to the “Urals progenitor people” who first made contact with her.

from Mythologia Fennica Tarot
Susanna Salo

The legacy today of this historical continuity is the availability to us of Louhi, incarnated in Kalevalaic runic songs, for healing and for assistance in our life journeys.  She continues to be, as Kailo refers to her, the “shamanising healer-midwife-spiritual leader”. (1) I will review shamanic means of contact with her in my next post, of which this section has been a partial preview.

Works Cited

1. Kailo, Kaarina. Finnish Goddess Mythology and the Golden Woman. Helsinki : Lore & Loom, 2019.

2. Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala. [trans.] Keith Bosley. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008.

3. Seven Stages of Womanhood: A Contemporary Healing Ritual From the Finnish Mythology of the Kalevala. Hiltunen, Sirkku. 2, 2001, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 33.

4. Kemppinen, Iivar. Suomalainen Mytologia. Helsinki : Kirja-Mono, 1960.

5. Salo, Unto. Luonto Ja Kulttuuri. Helsinki : Oy Amanita Ltd, Somero, 2012.

6. Honko, Lauri. Prologi. Kalevala Ja Maailman Eepokset. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1987.

7. Siikala, Anna-Leena. Kalevalaisen Mytologian Nainen. [ed.] Pekka Hakamies. Nakokulmia Karjalaiseen Perinteeseen. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1996.

8. Conjuring vaki through the Kalevala. Maki-Chahal, Taina. n.d.

9. Vakimo, Sinikka. Louhi - Sopimaton Nainen? [ed.] Ulla Piela, Seppo Knuuttila and Tarja Kupiainen. Kalevalan Hyvat ja Havyttomat. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1999.

10. Lonnrot's Brainchildren: The Representation of Women in Finland's "Kalevala". Sawin, Patricia E. 3, s.l. : Indiana University Press, 1988, Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 25.

11. Siikala, Anna-Leena. The Singer Ideal and the Enrichment of Poetic Culture. [ed.] Lauri Honko. The Kalevala and the World's Traditional Epics. Tampere : Studia Fennica Folkloristica, 2002.

12. Monaghan, Patricia. The Goddess Path. St. Paul : Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

13. Tarkka, Lotte. Other Worlds - Symbolism, Dialogue and Gender in Karelian Oral Poetry. [ed.] Anna-Leena Siikala and Sinikka Vakimo. Songs Beyond the Kalevala. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1994.

14. Kuusi, Matti and Anttonen, Pertti J. Kalevla-lipas. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1985.

15. Nenola, Aili and Timonen, Senni, [ed.]. Louhen sanat - Kirjoituksia kansanperinteen naisista. Helsinki : Suomailaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1990.

16. Korte, Irma. Nainen J Myyttinen Nainen. Helsinki : Yliopistopaino, 1988.

17. Ganander, Christfrid. Mythologia Fennica. Klaukkala : Recallmed, 1995.

18. Napolskikh, V.V. Proto-Uralic World Picture: A Reconstruction. [ed.] Mihaly Hoppal and Juha Pentikainen. Northern Religions and Shamanism. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1992.

19. Anisimov, A.F. Cosmological Concepts of the Peoples of the North. [book auth.] Henry N. Michael. Studies in Siberian Shamanism. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1963.

20. Siikala, Anna-Leena. What Myths Tell about Past Finno-Ugric Modes of Thinking. Myth and Mentality. Helsinki : Finnish Literature Society, 2002.

21. Clottes, Jean. What Is Paleolithic Art? Cave Paintings and the Dawn of Human Creativity. Chicago and London : University of Chicago Press, 2016.

22. Approaching Ideologies of Things Made of Language: A Case Study of a Finno-Karelian Incantation Technology. Frog. s.l. : Association of Folklorists of Serbia, 2019, Journal of the Association of Folklorists of Serbia.

23. Frog. Baldr and Lemminkäinen: Approaching the Evolution of Mythological Narrative through the Activating Power of Expression. London : University College London, 2010.

24. Kuusi, Matti. Varhaiskalevalainen runous. [ed.] Matti Kuusi and Simo Konsala. Suomen kirjallisuus 1: Kirjoittamaton kirjallisuus. Helsinki : Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1963.

25. Hallowell, A.I. Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view. [ed.] S. Diamond. Cultural History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin. New York : Octagon Books, 1981.

26. Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York : Columbia University Press, 2006.

27. Lukin, Karina. Lonely Riders of Nenets Mythology and Shamanism. The Retrospective Methods Network (RMN) Newsletter. 2015, 10.

28. Van Dusen, Kirja. Singing Story, Healing Drum. Montreal and Kingston : McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004.

29. The Many Faces of the Yoik. Laitinen, Heikki. 4, 1994, Finnish Music Quarterly.

30. Meaning or presence? Ways of knowing of the Sámi yoik. Aubinet, Stephane. 4, 2022, American Anthropologist, Vol. 124.

31. Burke, Kathryn. The Sami Yoik. Sami Culture. [Online] [Cited: February 28, 2024.]

32. Re-Enchanting Rock Art Landscapes: Animic Ontologies, Nonhuman Agency and Rhizomic Personhoo. Wallis, Robert J. 1, 2009, Vol. 2, 1. 2009, Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, Vol. 2.

33. Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment. London and New York : Routledge, 2000.

34. The Signs of the Sacred on the Rocks. Pentikainen, Juha. Capo di Ponte, Italy : Presented at XXI Valmonica Symposium, 2004.

35. Siikala, Anna-Leena. Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry. Helsinki : Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2002.