Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Original Instructions of the Wilderness Era of Finnish Shamanism


The Finns, no matter how urbanized and Christianized in modern times, have maintained an awareness of the importance held by departed ancestors and by all the spirits of the earth in their mythic past.”  (Shepherd: 1999)
This is the first of two posts tracing the early development of the core tenets and rituals of the wisdom tradition of Finnish shamanism.  This tradition, which researchers have called the “oldest cultural legacy of Finnishness” (Siikala: 2002), has two root sources: 

·         The first source is what archeologist Matti Sarmela calls “wilderness culture”, encompassing the shamanic way of life of Proto-Finns during the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Early Iron Age periods.  (Sarmela: 1987) It is profiled in the present post. 

Re-enactment of wilderness culture life, Kierikki Stone Age Centre

·       The second source, to be profiled in the next post on Spirit Boat, is what Sarmela terms “swidden culture”.  Drawing heavily from the shamanism of the previous wilderness period, this culture gave birth to Kalevala-era shamanism that continued in its full form in large areas of Finland until the late 19th century and is still practiced today. 

I believe that embedded in the tenets and rituals of Finnish shamanism are what Jurgen Kremer calls “original instructions”.  He says about original instructions, “Each of the peoples on this planet received an understanding—a teaching—which they had to take care of.  This was their responsibility.  Following this teaching would not just allow them to be in balance where they lived, but it was each people’s contribution to the balance of the entire planet.”  (Kremer: 1997)

The tenets and rituals of Finnish shamanism are similar in many respects to the traditions of other northern Eurasian peoples.  However, I agree with Kremer that while we can generalize and see commonality among traditions, there is specificity about each one that is just as important.  Kremer says, “The place and history of each diverse people is unique—taking care of them requires different things.”  (Kremer: 1997)

The goal of the two posts is to foster remembrance of the instructions of the Finnish shamanic tradition and to stimulate reflection on what taking care of them in the present day means, particularly for our contemporary practice of Finnish shamanism. 
In doing reading and study for these posts I found myself going to what felt like a deep and ancient place. During one of these times I had a dream that I considered to be significant.  In the dream, I was given a name that is rich in metaphor: “echo of the great shadow tradition”.  I interpreted this dream as encouragement to continue helping “echo” or retell the story of Finnish shamanism for the present day. 
I believe that receiving the name is a signal that the ancestors of this ancient tradition are receptive to and encouraging of anyone who sincerely seeks to share in its wisdom and to continue its practice. This recalls the advice given to Jurgen Kremer by First Nations people in North America: “Native elders have told me: You are not alone. The power is not lost, you are.  Ask the question about who you are and make an offering.  Ancestors will respond from the other side and help.” (Kremer: 2003)
Wilderness Culture in Proto-Finland
Wilderness culture is a term introduced by Matti Sarmela that refers the way of life of the fishing and hunting populations of Proto-Finland from the Mesolithic Age beginning 8500 B.C. through to the end of the early Iron Age, 800 A.D., a span of approximately nine thousand years. (Sarmela: 1987)

According to Sarmela, the people of wilderness culture lived in small nomadic bands in winter and summer camps that were oriented to waterways.  They progressed through a yearly cycle of fishing, hunting of seal, elk and deer, trapping of beaver, and gathering natural foodstuffs such as plants, nuts, bird eggs, and berries. Hunters frequently used the long, multi-oared boats frequently depicted in rock paintings.

A core feature of the culture was the practice of an original form of Finno-Ugric shamanism with many features in common with other shamanic cultures of the Eurasian subarctic coniferous zone, for example the Evenks of Siberia—the area known as the “cradle of shamanism”.  It also had features in common with Arctic shamanism, likely transferred from the Saami. (Siikala: 2002b)
Replica of a Neolithic summer camp dwelling,
Kierikki Stone Age Centre (photo: Leppä)

Lacking written records, we can only know of wilderness culture through indirect evidence such as the subject matter of the later Kalevala-metre runes, the archaic origins of certain Finnish words, material artifacts including grave goods and rock paintings, and analogies to related Eurasian shamanic cultures.  To develop our picture of wilderness culture we will rely here on the analysis of these sources by specialists such as archeologists, folklore experts, and comparative religionists.
Based on the available evidence, I have identified seven distinct yet overlapping and complementary themes of wilderness culture that I feel can be considered teachings for us today, or following Kremer, original instructions.  (In the next post on Spirit Boat we will see that swidden culture was the source of additional instructions, based on the flowering of Kalevala-era shamanism.)  These instructions from the ancestors of the Finns have continued to reverberate throughout Finnish folk culture across many centuries.

The seven instructions of wilderness culture that I have identified are as follows:

1.    We live with our ancestors in cyclical time

According to Deborah Shepherd, the most basic and important tenet about reality for wilderness culture was that time was experienced in a cyclical and ritual way rather than in a linear or historical one. This tenet was the fundamental principle of their survival in the annual round of subsistence activities. (Shepherd: 1999)
Pentikäinen (2006) characterizes this time concept as follows, using the analogy of Northern cultures: “The creation in its entirety, including Man, stands on the circumference.  Cosmos, from heaven to earth, is constantly moving in yearly, monthly, daily rhythms, through human lives.”  This circular movement is suggested in the illustration below, "Wheel of Time", from the book on the subject of time by Finnish shaman Johannes Setälä, Aika. (Setälä: 2010)

"Wheel of Time"

In the cyclical world view of wilderness culture there was a fundamental link between the spirits of the dead and of the living:  birth and death were seen as mere passages in the larger cycle, like the annual rebirth of vegetation. “The ancestors” were seen as all of those who had gone before—not just one’s immediate kin—who through the process of cyclical renewal were always available if called upon to actively assist the living.  Moreover, this world of the spirits of the dead was one with the world of the spirits of nature, together making a single unified whole. (Shepherd: 1999)
We will see in the second post on the development of Finnish shamanism that this cyclical view of time became an obstacle for Christianity over the many centuries of its efforts to convert the pagan Finns, a project that took longer than anywhere else in Europe.  As Shepherd says, “So long as the majority of people lived a life focussed on maintaining harmony with nature and moving with the cyclical events of the year, the Finns needed a religion which spoke to this kind of world view.  Christianity with its historic sense and linear progression to the resurrection had no relevance for the Finns’ view of the world around them.”  (Shepherd: 1999)

2.    We are one with the living world

According to Shepherd, wilderness culture was based on “a very strong sense of kinship with animate Nature”.  Many entities—such as stones, plants, animals, places on the land, certain weather systems—were recognized as relational beings with whom it was necessary to maintain respectful communication in order to obtain assistance and protection in what was an often difficult and forbidding environment. Wilderness culture was at the root of what Shepherd calls the “traditional Finnish sense of living among a great crowd of powerful and fully aware forces, both of positive and negative intent (and sometimes both at once)”.  (Shepherd: 1999)
We have seen in a previous post how rock painting sites were sacred places where wilderness people related with rock cliff, and rock painting, persons.  As well, sacred fells—hilltops—were distributed across the landscape in the form of a network of alive, spiritually charged places, meaning that the hunter or fisherman could always feel within the sphere of at least one of them.  (Shepherd: 1999)  Each sacred site was seen to be overseen by its own spirit master or mistress, or haltia.
According to Shepherd, “The elements could themselves be addressed as powers, and for the Finns in their unique environment, the Greek quadruplet of fire, water, air and earth became in great measure fire, water, air and forest.” 

The forest itself, and the separate trees contained within, were recognized as animated.  A forest mother or father—the gender was indefinite—ruled the forest and was venerated by wilderness people.  At the beginning of each hunting season members of a group led by a shaman would respectfully approach this forest ruler for the purpose of obtaining luck in hunting and protection against injury or getting lost.  Bones of animals and other objects and were hung in the branches of special powerful trees in sacred groves as offerings.  (Shepherd: 1999)
It is widely speculated that proto-Finns in the time of wilderness culture were divided into two major totemistic clans: descendants of the bear spirit person and of the elk spirit person.  (Shepherd suspects there may have been a third clan--that of the pike spirit person.)  The totem animal in each case was the progenitor and protector of the kin group.  (Pentikäinen: 2007)
The principal evidence for totemism is the frequent appearance of objects and drawings incorporating these two animals in the archeological record of the Neolithic and Bronze ages across Finland. (Shepherd: 1999) Below is a photo of a graceful carved wooden spoon, a bear spoon person, likely associated with the totemism of the Comb-Ceramic people.  An elk spoon person can be seen above it, partially obscured. (In animistic terms, these spoons continue to be subjects with relational powers despite being sequestered in a museum setting and objectified as “displays”.)

Bear spoon person and behind, Elk spoon person,
from the Neolithic Age: National Museum of Finland

Juha Pentikäinen (2007) interprets a unique written record, dating from the latter stages of wilderness culture, as possible evidence for the existence of elk and bear clans.  The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in 98 A.D. of three peoples living in Proto-Finland, next to the Germanic peoples of Proto-Scandinavia. One people, in the north of Finland, were probably the forebears of the Saami. Two peoples living in the south might have been forebears of the Finns. He calls them the Hellusii and the Oxiones, names that are linguistically related to the words for elk and bear.  Tacitus states that these two peoples “have human faces and features, but the bodies and limbs of beasts.” 

Pentikäinen sees this statement as possibly referring to the ceremonial dress that would have been worn as part of shamanic rituals of elk and bear clans among the proto-Finns and seen by Tacitus or his informants.  Below is a photo of a possible example of this type of ritual dress—elk horns adorning what is likely a shaman (Finnish: noita) rock painting person—from the Comb-Ceramic period rock paintings at Astuvansalmi near Riistina in southern Finland.
Rock painting person, likely a noita, at Astuvansalmi (photo: Leppä)

For those whose totem animal was the bear spirit, a series of stories and rituals in wilderness culture guided hunting for the bear, including returning the its bones and other body parts to the guardian spirit in order to promote its rebirth.  In this way, the continued existence of the species could be safeguarded.
The people of the clan recognized the living astral presence of their totem animal in the constellation of the Great Bear in the night skies, the ‘primordial father’ and the main celestial authority in the heavens. (Siikala: 2002b)

Ursa Major (Great Bear) Constellation

Shepherd (1999) states that relationships of people within the clan and with the totem animal were more significant for them than individual identity or even human identity. This illustrates how wilderness people and animals related in a deep way, up to and including merging with one another. 

    3.  Our sacred history guides us

The ancient astral and cosmological stories of proto-Finland shared a great deal in common with those of other northern Eurasian wilderness cultures.  They are collectively referred to as ‘myths’, but we must be careful not to use the term in the usual dismissive way that suggests insubstantiality and lack of truth-value.  For wilderness people the stories we call myths were themselves alive, transmitted through an oral tradition, and the bearers of their sacred history.
In the view of Proto-Finns, as well as other northern Eurasian cultures and cultures of Proto-Scandinavia, the sky is held up by an enormous pole, mountain or tree—the tree of life—reaching up and attached to the North Star.  In turn, the cosmos is made up of three primary levels.  The middle world is where humans normally reside. The lower world is below the base of the pole or tree and is the home of the dead.  The path to the upper world is above the peak of the central support and that world is the dwelling place of higher beings.  Together, the lower and upper worlds make up the ‘other world’.   As we will see below, only the shaman (noita in Finnish) among human persons was able to travel among the three worlds. (Siikala: 2002b)

  The Great Oak by Gallen-Kallela, reminiscent of the World Tree
In addition, there is a horizontal component of the three-level cosmology.  That is, the underground land of the ancestral dead, Tuonela, was believed to lie to the north, reached by a waterway.  In wilderness culture the dead were often buried near a waterway to facilitate, it is thought, their departure to the land of ancestors.  
There was a generalized apprehension about the dead and they were not encouraged to linger near their graves.  When it was considered necessary, a shaman was called upon to accompany them to the land of the ancestors.  (Siikala: 2002b) This relative distance from particular deceased individuals, yet a deep reverence for the dead in a collective sense was the basis of the view that the “the ancestors” included all who had gone before. (Shepherd: 1999)
Perhaps the oldest sacred story of northern Eurasian wilderness culture is that of the creation of the world, as recorded in the Kalevala-metre runes of the late Iron Age.  The most cited version is the one in which the cosmos issues from the broken eggshell of a water bird.  However, according to Siikala (2002b), the alternative version—in which a water bird dredged mud up from beneath the waters of the primordial sea to create the cosmos—may in fact be older and less influenced by Indo-European myth.
The story of the creation of the world is an example of the significance of birds in the lives of northern wilderness people.  The migration of birds was a central theme.  The Milky Way was seen as the migration Path of the Birds (Linnunrata in Finnish).  The migration to the southern abode, which was ruled over by a female, was linked with the images of life, sun, warmth.   The northern migration was linked with images of cold and death.  As well, a female was ruler of the abode.  (Siikala: 2002b)

As is characteristic of an animist culture, the highest beings of Proto-Finns were associated with natural phenomena and the four directions.  The Finnish name Ilmarinen can be traced back to the Finno-Ugric proto-language and refers to “sky”, “air” or “weather”, and was represented the highest “sky god”.  However, while Ilmarinen may have formally had the widest scope of powers, in practice this spirit person may have been too remote from the daily lives of Proto-Finnish people to be of great significance.  (Shepherd: 1999)

4.    Spirit persons are accessible to every one of us

For ancestors of the Finns, the spirits persons (haltiat) of nature, of animals and of ancestors—rather than the sky gods—were the ones with whom they interacted with and consulted on a daily basis. (Shepherd: 1999)

For instance, the many clay figures found at Comb-Ceramic archeological sites are representations of nature spirits rather than of “higher” figures, suggesting their relatively greater importance in daily settings.  (Shepherd: 1999) The tiny (2-3 cm tall) whimsical figure below is a clay nature spirit person from the Comb-Ceramic period, living at the National Museum of Finland.
Clay nature spirit person, National Museum of Finland
(Photo: Leppä)
Shepherd observes that the wilderness people of Proto-Finland experienced the spirit (discarnate) persons of the water, air and forest as often nearly formless and not arrayed in a hierarchy.  As well, their gender was either ambiguous or they were genderless.  (According to Shepherd, sexual distinctions were never as strong in wilderness culture as they were later, after contact with Christian Europe.)   (Shepherd: 1999)

Wilderness people had relatively fluid, personal, relations with the local nature spirits they encountered.   Billson states, “As a man would naturally call a neighbour to his assistance rather than a stranger, so the ancient Finns…would pray to familiar spirits, like those of well-known trees and streams, rather than remote beings, like sky-spirits, whom they did not know and could not expect to control.”  (Billson: 1917)
The acts of anthropomorphizing nature spirit persons (attributing qualities of human persons to them) and ranking them in terms of criteria of relative power, tended create distance from them and resulted in less personalized relations with them on the part of early peoples.  There is evidence that this was fertile ground for the development of spiritual authority figures, bent on channeling and regulating access to spirit persons.  (Shepherd: 1999)

It is true that there was a later trend to anthropomorphism in the animism of Proto-Finnish culture, likely introduced through Indo-European influence.  For example, the genderless primordial forest mother/father discussed above later became anthropomorphized by Finns as Tapio, the male forest spirit.  However, we will see in the next post on Spirit Boat that in in later Finnish folk culture there was also on-going resistance to ‘spiritual distancing’.  For example, Shepherd (1999) quoting Unto Salo, says, “Finnish society was probably too egalitarian to comprehend let alone formulate any hierarchy of deities.” 

5.    The noita is an emissary who travels the three worlds on our behalf

In the often challenging and dangerous environment of wilderness culture in Proto-Finland, the shaman or noita (the original Finnish term) was the person who could move with ease across the three different levels of the cosmos—upper, middle, and lower— to intercede on behalf of the tribe or clan.  Along the way, the noita could call for assistance from the ancestors and animistic beings such as animals, trees, waters and elements of the landscape. (Siikala: 2002a)
To be a shaman of the indigenous cultures of northern Eurasia was a sacred vocation; one was called to it by the spirits and one was at the service of the band or clan.   According to Siikala (2002a), the shaman was expected “to secure good fortune in hunting and fishing, to protect the lands of the clan, to promote the health and continuation of the family, to accompany the dead to the other side, to predict the future, inquire about circumstances in distant places and to ward off all manner of illness.” 
It was characteristic of northern Eurasian cultures that most of the difficulties that humans face were seen to be caused by the activities of beings of the other world.  One of the main ways the Proto-Finnish noita responded was to embark on an “ecstatic journey” (the term ‘ecstatic’ means here to go, or be taken, outside oneself) to the other world.  (Siikala: 2002a)
To accomplish the journey, the noita entered an altered state of consciousness through the use of drumming and rhythmic singing, and perhaps through the use amanita muscaria mushrooms.  (Siikala: 2002a)

Amanita Muscaria

The noita was assisted on the journey by animal spirit helpers, either being joined by them or taking the form of one of them.  When reaching the other world, the noita engaged in communication with spirit persons to obtain assistance, appeasing, negotiating with, or even compelling them.  The shamanic session was public, and the status of the noita in the clan hinged on how well the dialogue between this world and the other world proceeded and how well the expectations of the audience were met in terms of results.  (Shepherd: 1999)
In the shamanic session, the noita relied upon spirit persons in all that was done. This is similar to the traditional shamanic concept of the “hollow bone”.  That is, the noita of wilderness culture did not use personal power to cure illness or divine information, instead invoking the power of spirit persons through visions, journeys and ceremonies. (Siikala: 2002a)
Healing of illness was the most common shamanic activity.  Illness was commonly thought to be caused either by soul loss, when the soul or a soul part of the person became stranded in the other world, or soul intrusion, in which a foreign soul or element invaded the person’s body.  Shamanic journeys were required to find and recover lost souls or soul parts, discover information about the illness to aid in treatment or to call upon helper spirits to battle the intruder. (DuBois: 1999)
The content of the visionary experiences of the noita in the shamanic session was not spontaneous.  It was built around the ‘mythic’ metaphors and images preserved in the Proto-Finnish oral tradition.  For this reason, the noita needed to be expert on this sacred oral tradition, particularly in the topography of the other world.  Juha Pentikäinen calls the special competence in the cognitive and behavioural aspects of their culture that shamans require a “grammar of mind and body”. (Pentikäinen: 2006)

Juha Pentikäinen, Professor of Comparative
Religion, University of Jyväskylä (Photo: YLE)

For Finno-Ugric cultures, what made it possible for the shaman to travel from the middle world of everyday life to the lower and upper worlds was the fact that humans possessed dual souls, one of which is able to move freely outside the body.  One soul is the henki or löyly (the term for “sauna steam” in modern Finnish), which is the spirit or breath, the vital soul element for sustaining life, that enters the body at birth and leaves it at death.  The other is the ego or self, the itse.  Pentikäinen says, “It is precisely this self (itse) that is the soul that leaves the shaman’s body as he journeys in the form of a fish, a bird or even a bear, returning to the body as he comes out of his trance.”  (Pentikäinen: 1985) 

In addition to two souls, Proto-Finns and other northern peoples saw each individual as having a personal spirit guardian, a haltia. (Sarmela: 2009)  This personal guardian watched over the person in a similar way as did the guardians of animal species and sacred places. In the next post, we will see how an intimate relationship with the haltia became particularly important for the Kalevala-era shaman figure, the tietäjä 

The most common form adopted by the shaman for travelling to the other world was the bird.  In the photo below of the rock painting at Juusjarvi Lake in Kirkkonummi, near Helsinki, the rock painting person at the top, probably a noita, appears to be morphing into the form of a bird person, likely his spirit helper. 

Rock painting persons, Juusjarvi Lake

This person appears to be travelling upward along with three other rock painting persons.  The person at the far right has been interpreted as a noita morphing into a snake based on the crooked, snake-like shape of the person’s legs.  All four persons may be midway in ascending to the upper world. 
The ability to ‘create’ rock paintings—i.e., assist spirit persons to manifest as rock painting persons—was an important one in the repertoire of Proto-Finnish noitas of the Neolithic phase of wilderness culture, 5000 to 1500 B.C.  The noitas probably used the cliffs where rock painting persons dwelled as the site of various sacred activities, including vision quests and communicating with the guardian spirits of game animals such as the elk.  (Not all rock painting sites in Proto-Finland are attributed to Proto-Finns; many appear to be associated with the distinctive shamanism of the Proto-Saami people.)  (Lahelma: 2005)

     6.  Our way is to live in peace and sharing

The social life of wilderness people revolved around migrations to hunting grounds and gathering in winter encampments and markets.  During these annual occasions, agreements were made on matters relating to kinship groups, fishing and hunting grounds, and marriages.  (Sarmela: 2009)
Sharing was at the root of decision-making and communal life.  Sarmela identifies it as a core element of the philosophy of life of Proto-Finns.  Food was shared in common, meaning that individual families and hunters or fishermen did not need to fear failure and hunger.  Sharing and exchange among different hunting communities in the same area made for peaceful coexistence.

Re-enactment of wilderness culture life at Kierikki Stone Age Centre

There were few status symbols and little hereditary social inequality.  This was due in large part to the fact that wilderness people did not accumulate surpluses of food or other valued goods.  Surpluses would have led to differentiation of individuals or groups in terms of status and power and resulted in relations of competition and conflict. 
Also, based on the experience of Neolithic Brittany, the capacity of a particular kin group to produce a larger surplus than other groups could have been taken to mean that it had a closer genealogical relationship to the founding ancestor or animal spirit person.  This would have allowed the kin group to take a mediating role with regard to the ancestor or spirit person, limiting access of other groups to that figure and thereby accentuating social hierarchy.  (Patton: 1993)
There was no private ownership of land, animals or plants.  This extended to the animals taken in hunting.  That is, the spirit guardians of bears or elk shared some quarry for the use of humans and in return the hunter returned the soul (henki) of the animal to the guardian, in a reciprocal exchange.  The lack of private ownership on the part wilderness people is considered to be the origin of the traditional Finnish legal concept of ‘everyman's right’:  the free access of anyone to the land and waterways and the right to harvest natural products such as mushrooms and wild berries, regardless of who owns the land. (Sarmela: 2009)
Archeologist Christopher Tilley said that the wilderness peoples of Proto-Denmark and Proto-Sweden—and we may add here Proto-Finland—demonstrated a form of “primitive communism.”  Tilley says he uses this term advisedly in that Marxism and communism have, in his words, “supposedly shown themselves to be dead ends”. 
Tilley goes on to say, “Today we are so used to hierarchy, to inequality, domination and exploitation they have become almost norms, so that we are unable to think beyond such a situation to a society that was totally different.” (Tilley: 1996)

7.    This world and the other world coexist    

The Proto-Finnish—living in the challenging environment of the wilderness—saw their world as co-existing and intersecting with a parallel other world. The other world was inhabited by a variety of other-than-human persons, including spirit beings, who wilderness people honoured and called upon for information and assistance. How can we understand this teaching, or instruction today, a time when a very different view prevails?

Previous posts on Spirit Boat pointed out that the ‘old animism’ takes the view that indigenous people such as the Proto-Finns are confused about the difference between subjects and objects, between persons and things.  According to this account, the confusion leads them to erroneously project spirits onto objects, conferring on them life and the ability to converse, and to accept non-empirical, supernatural beings as real entities. (Harvey: 2006) 

For example, Sarmela (2009) says that early Finnish scholars influenced by the ‘old animism’ took the view that the guardian of water, the veden haltia, originated when early Finns attributed life to rivers and bodies of water and developed “imaginary ideas of a water deity.”

In reply, proponents of the ‘new animism’ point out that indigenous cultures have ontologies different from that of modern Cartesian dualism, as embedded in their world views as transmitted in their oral traditions.  They cannot be judged by the same standards. (Harvey: 2006)
For example, in the world views of northern Eurasian indigenous cultures such as that of Proto-Finland, the strict dualisms of modern Cartesian ontology do not apply.  Pentikäinen says, “The dividing lines between natural and supernatural, between humankind and the animal kingdom, and between life and death are drawn differently from our experience in the West.”  For these cultures, dreams count as evidence as much as “live” experience, shamans can transform themselves into animals and cross the boundary between life and death, and the presence of “belief creatures”, nature spirits, can be proven by personal experience. (Pentikäinen: 2006)
I will offer an account of a personal experience that relates to how we might interpret the animist world view of the wilderness people in the present day.
I was participating in a vision quest in the wilderness in Ontario.  One of my intentions as part of the quest was to find an animal that would become a spirit helper to me.  To begin, I drew from a pack of 52 animal spirit cards and discovered that I had chosen the card for the moose, alces alces, the same species that in Finland is called the elk.  The totemic elk clan, mentioned above, is associated with the part of Finland where my mother’s family originated. 

Elk rock painting person, Astuvansalmi  (Photo: Leppä)
Later we intensively prepared to be alone and in touch with the wilderness landscape.  I chose to spend the time of the vision quest on an alder mound in the midst of a wetland by a lake.  During the night I was awakened by loud splashing sounds.  It was a moose walking past in the water very close to me, in my sleeping bag.
Several days later when I was at my home altar reviewing my recent experiences in the vision quest, I glanced backward through the large bank of windows behind me. I saw a cloud float past that was in the quite precise shape of a moose head.  I was astonished by this third “meaningful coincidence”, or in the terms of C.G. Jung, “synchronicity”.  (Main: 2007)
During a brief period of disorientation— that lasted as long as it took for the cloud to drift from one side of the windows to the other—I experienced direct communion with the moose spirit person, who I felt had accepted me as a spirit partner.  I also had a profound sense of personal relatedness to the sky and clouds accompanied by a sense of certainty that I am not isolated in my individual consciousness, that I am part of a larger whole. 
I consider the writings of Roderick Main, who is a foremost scholar of C.G. Jung’s concept of synchronicity, to provide the best explanation of what I experienced. He says, “From a state in which one is centered inwardly in one’s psychic processes one is shifted into a state in which one’s sense of identity extends beyond the psyche into the physical world. In this way one’s identity is decentered—the observer becoming objectified while the observed is rendered subjective.”  Main says the result is a “holistic state of perception, however briefly it lasts.”  (Main: 2007)
I believe my identity became decentred in a specifically animist way—radically shifted away from the perspective in which human persons are in the ‘subject’ position, and all else, including animals, places and things, are in the position of ‘object’.  The decentring experience can be seen as an ontological shift away from the Cartesian dualism of today toward what we might call animist pluralism, which formed the basis of the original ‘enchanted’ world view of the ancient Proto-Finns and other hunter-gatherer peoples. 

Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine at University of Buckingham, terms the experience “recovering animism” and argues that it is a common one for practitioners of contemporary shamanism. It happens through synchronicities—as in the example I gave—as well as through shamanic journeys, vision quests, dreams, divination and the use of psychoactive mushrooms. In his view, the experience confers the same sense that we “belong in the world” as was felt by hunter-gatherer peoples. (Charlton: 2002)  For myself, I began to develop a personal sense of belonging—of having a place to stand on this earth—through being reunited with my ancestors and my Finnish animist heritage.
For those of us today, the decentring experience typically lasts only a short time before our conditioning takes over again.  However, unlike us, the people of wilderness culture always already saw the lines as fluid and permeable between person and object, humankind and natural kingdom, and matter and spirit.  “Holistic perception” might have been a perpetual ‘default’ state for them.  They would have found it easy to recognize subjecthood in other-than-human persons and to relate with them in a variety of ways.  This might help explain why wilderness people saw this world coexisting with the other world, as told in the sacred history of their oral tradition.

In this post, The Original Instructions of the Wilderness Era of Finnish Shamanism, we have seen how wilderness culture was the original source of what Shepherd calls the “traditional Finnish animistic sense of oneness with the entire world.” (Shepherd: 1999)  In the next post, on swidden culture and Kalevala era shamanism, we will see how this legacy flowered and was able to remain vital over many centuries.

1 comment:

  1. Phenomenal post! I appreciate this wisdom very much. I will try to incorporate what I learned from this into my everyday life. Keep up the good work, your wisdom is great. You must continue to spread these teachings!