Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rock Paintings in Finland: Re-Enchanting the World

The sociologist Max Weber wrote that we are living in a time of “disenchantment of the world”.  (Koshul: 2005)

By this Weber meant that the rational-scientific thought that arose on the basis of the Enlightenment and Cartesian philosophy—and provided a key underpinning for the emerging capitalist order—displaced and devalued the animist worldviews and ontologies of indigenous peoples which had previously held sway. 
This condition of disenchantment was reinforced by the success of a long struggle against pagan animism waged by Christian churches in the West, including in Finland.  Adorno and Horkheimer (1972) observed that, “In place of the local spirits and demons there appeared heaven and its hierarchy.”  As a result of this success, in the words of Lynn White, Jr. (1967), “Man’s effective monopoly on spirit in this world was confirmed, and old inhibitions to the exploitation of nature crumbled.”  This was certainly a factor in the genesis of the world-wide ecological crisis.
Today however the widespread revival of shamanic traditions in the West and the advent of the ‘new animism’ in anthropology and comparative religion are providing avenues for ‘re-enchantment of the world’.  This is accomplished through re-valuing the ontologies and worldviews of indigenous animist wisdom traditions, of which Finnish shamanism is one example.  In this post I explore ‘re-enchantment’ as I see it relating to a site in Finland I recently visited that has neolithic rock paintings, known as Ukonvouri. 

In one sense I felt an ancestral call to visit this place, based on my experiences with shamanism.  I also felt drawn because, in the words of archeologist Sven Ouzman (1998)`,“…rock art (is) a theoretically informed class of material culture which is arguably the best positioned to approach the ways in which archeologically observed foragers thought and lived”.  This includes the way they thought and lived in a spiritual sense, including through the practice of Finnish shamanism. 
In recounting my visit to Ukonvouri, I describe my personal experiences with “enchanted” mind- and feeling-states—what might be called coming into one’s indigenous mind—that I feel are available to us as we explore a sacred landscape such as a rock art site.  These are states that I feel can enrich the practice of Finnish shamanism.

In spring 2011 I canoed with my wife and daughter, and a guide, into the site called Ukonvouri (literally Ukko’s Hill), located in Kolovesi National Park in the Lake Saimaa region of Finland.  It is one of the 120 or so locations in Finland identified so far with rock paintings from the neolithic Comb Ceramic period.

Paddling up to the Ukonvouri site, one sees that the cliff has a shallow cave and other rock features that appear to form a face.  In fact, it is considered likely that people of the Comb Ceramic saw it as a living deity. 

I could sense the numinous power the cliff must have had for my proto-Finnish ancestors—its capacity to evoke awe—and approached this sacred place with humility and respect. 
For the intellectual heirs of the original animism of Tyler, the reaction of proto-Finns would be seen as what Horkheimer and Adorno call in relation to the “disenchantment of the world” thesis, “the projection onto nature of the subjective”.
However, in viewing the cliff I was mindful of the response to Tylor’s views by Graham Harvey (2006), a theorist of the ‘new animism’.  He writes that for indigenous people such as proto-Finns the concern was beyond the rigid subject/object dualism of Tylor.  Instead, it was with developing respectful and harmonious relations with persons, only some of whom are human, who are crucial for their survival and well-being—in this case a ‘cliff person’. 

I made the trip to the site as a shamanic practitioner, by definition an animist, but one who is still learning the animism of the Finnish shamanic tradition.  While I personally had not yet formed a relationship with the cliff god and other-than-human persons there, I was fully open to what might happen. 
We were accompanied during the first part of our trip to Ukonvouri by a guide who has lived on the land that makes up Kolovesi Park for nearly 50 years.  He has extensive knowledge of the site based on his personal experience fishing and hunting there and then working in the park as a guide, as well as his many conversations with older residents of the area who know the local folk history of the site that extends back many generations.  In fact, he was the person who many years ago brought the Ukonvouri rock paintings to the attention of who he called “the museum people”.

The guide showed us that Ukonvouri forms a multi-faceted sacred landscape that has two main loci: 1) the hill above the cliff that includes two altar rocks, a sacred tree, and a sacred well, and 2) the cave by the water that includes rock paintings and a large hole in the back of the cave with a quartz deposit (which sadly was plundered several years ago).  

The Cave and the Rock Paintings 

Neolithic rock paintings are normally seen by archeologists in approximately the following way: 

As expressions of the beliefs of their tribal group, shaman-artists—perhaps in altered states of consciousness—created paintings on rock faces and other elements of the natural landscape of what are likely pictures or representations of beings probably seen as spirits dwelling in the landscape.
However, this view is nearly diametrically opposed to what would be said by contemporary indigenous groups who either produce or venerate rock paintings or carvings, as well as the adherents of the ‘new animism’ who have studied the cultural contexts of the paintings. Their favoured interpretation would be closer to the following: 

The rock paintings, as well as important elements of the landscape where they are located (e.g., the cliff at Ukonvouri), are themselves persons, with full capacity for intention and communication.  They existed before being recognized by human persons, and if they changed form (e.g. a bear spirit-helper that was previously residing in the rock shape-shifted to become a rock painting person) it was through a negotiated process among those persons in which the shaman-artist likely played a central role representing human persons, likely in an altered state of consciousness.  However, the application of the red ochre paint by this shaman-artist, while being a sacred act, did not ‘create’ the rock painting person. 
Moreover, according to Robert Wallis (2009), a key theorist of the new animism, the rock paintings do not express mere ‘beliefs’ of the indigenous peoples.  Instead, they were made through sophisticated indigenous ways of knowing (epistemologies) based on a non-Cartesian view of the nature of subjectivity and personhood (a relational ontology) that together made it possible for proto-Finns, for example, to maintain harmonious relations with other than human persons—indeed all of nature. 

Experiencing Ukonvouri

I approached the trip to Ukonvouri as the opportunity for a personal encounter with sacredness.  I present the trip in the following slideshow, as a Google Album:  Ukonvouri
From Beyond Millennia

I conclude with a quote from Vaino Poikalainen, Chair of the Estonian Society of Prehistoric Art (quoted in Rathje: 2004), who says:

“…the ancient world view and system of beliefs were doubtless part of a considerably larger whole than the fragments that have been passed on to us in the form of rock art.  And yet, we can use our rich capacity for imagination together with our sense of the time and place to penetrate this ancient world in order to bring it to life in our minds, if for no more than a brief moment.  The resulting spiritual contact with our ancestors from beyond millennia will prove to be an unforgettable experience; much like the first sensations in childhood:  fragmentary, perhaps not fully understood, pictures, sounds and smells out of one’s memory, full of emotion and fascination, coming back to each person in its own way.” 

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