Monday, September 3, 2012

Encountering a Shamanic Tradition: A Retreat in Finland

I attended a three-day spiritual retreat in the Savo region in Finland held by my teacher, Susanna Aarnio, a noita in the Finnish shamanic tradition.  I went in order to make first-hand contact with the world view and practices of Finnish shamanism, and to take my personal quest to a deeper level. 

The experience was a very meaningful one and I am interrupting the series of posts tracing the development of Kalevala era shamanism in order to share my account of it.

I took the train to Mikkeli, and then rode by car with and Lea and Dalva (above).  Dalva is a co-teacher with Susanna.  We drove north toward Kotukoski, the location of Susanna’s family property where she was holding the retreat.  We first stopped at Astuvansalmi, perhaps the foremost Neolithic and Bronze Age rock painting site in Finland.  This was my second visit there.

Photo: korvessa,
For the Comb Ceramic peoples, Astuvansalmi was a place for contact with the spirits guardians of the animal species whom they depended upon for survival, particularly the elk.  It has been suggested that the Astuvansalmi cliff was chosen as a rock painting site because it was seen as a ‘liminal’ or ‘in-between’ place, where water, rock and sky meet and the veil is thin between ‘this world’ and the ‘other world’.  For the three of us, it was an exciting prelude to our participation in the retreat.

Photo: Saarijärvi Museum
The rock paintings of Astuvansalmi were done by members of the Neolithic Comb Ceramic culture, dating from the time before proto-Finns and proto-Saami diverged as separate groups from it.  The name of the culture refers to the distinctive comb pattern on the pottery they created.

It is likely that for the Comb Ceramic people, the rock painting figures, as seen in the photo above, simultaneously existed in ‘this world’ (tämänpuoli)—as ochre images of on the rock—and in the ‘other world’ (tuonpuoli) as other-than-human persons—beings capable of intention and communication. 
In a similar way, in the Finnish shamanic tradition, each human being has both a bodily existence in ‘this world’, and a personal ‘nature’ (luonto) or soul-force that dwells in the ‘other world’.  (It is sometimes referred to as one’s haltija, or spirit guardian.)  This personal ‘nature” is of one piece with nature as a whole. 
We are able to ‘raise’ or strengthen our personal luonto through gathering or absorbing spiritual power from otherworld beings who are associated with nature, such as elk rock painting persons, and other-than-human beings of nature, such as the rock väki of the cliff at Astuvansalmi, forest väki, and water väki. 

In viewing the cliff at Astuvansalmi, I particularly focused on the painting panel that includes the boat image appearing at the top of the Spirit Boat blog.  In this panel, an elk—one of the totem animals for the Comb Ceramic culture—appears to be in the process of passing across or through a prominent crack in the rock.  Behind the elk what is what is likely a shaman—mediator of contact with the other world—and what is usually interpreted as a spirit boat bound for the lower world, with 11 spirit person paddlers.  

This scene is clearer in the following outline of the paintings.

Image by Pekka Kivekäs

In Finnish shamanism, the phrase used from very early times to refer to entering the other world is “loveen lankeaminen”, or ‘falling into a hole or crack’.  For this reason I interpreted the scene as a procession of people following an elk into the other world, perhaps in a gesture of affirmation of the sacred connection of Comb Ceramic peoples with the elk species. 
Standing before the paintings, that are so charged with spiritual power, or väki, I felt myself in a state of ‘raised’ luonto in which my identity became decentred in an animist way.  That is, I experienced a radical shift in perspective in which I—the observer—became objectified, and the rock painting persons—the observed—became subjective.  Roderick Main (2007) calls this a “a holistic state of perception”. 
For a short time I ‘saw’ the rock painting persons and their procession as occurring then and there, with my personal luonto as witness and co-participant. In a sense, I felt myself to be travelling with ancestors in their spirit boat. 
Why do I have such as strong spirit connection to this place, Astuvansalmi, that I personally feel is reciprocated, when I am living so far away from Finland and formed in a very different culture and epoch?  I believe the bridge between such different realities is through ancestors, a relationship that I intended to explore through the coming retreat. 

We drove on to Susanna’s secluded family homestead, the location of the retreat.  It is a forested place, at the end of a road, bordered by a river and a lake.  While the distance by road is farther, the property is only 40 kilometres ‘as the crow flies’—by land and water—from Astuvansalmi. 

In walking the fields of their property and adjacent fields over a period of years, Susanna’s father had collected many pieces of Comb Ceramic pottery.  The photo above shows some of these many fragments.  Their presence there makes it reasonable to assume that noita-artists from the bands who lived on this very land six or more thousand years ago were responsible for some or all of the Astuvansalmi rock paintings.
When you examine the fragments closely, some display the fingerprints of their makers.  This very personal and tangible link to these shamanic people—ancestors—helped create a very sacred context for the three days we as participants were to spend together.

Our first activity of the retreat was erect together a kota as one of the centres for our ceremonies.  This style of dwelling—seemingly identical to the teepee common among the First Nations of North America—was used by the Comb Ceramic culture and the subsequent early Finnish and Saami peoples.  

Susanna, Leppä, Lea, Dalva, and Antti
We met inside the kota for the opening ceremony.  Susanna began by calling upon the väkis of the forest, the water of the lake and river, the rock; the haltija of the forest; and Ukko, the spirit of thunder, to help us to raise luonto. 
Siikala (2002) says, referring to the ceremonies of early tietäjäs and noitas, that “various ritual procedures existed for the (drawing) borrowing of väki or luonto from the environment.”  In this case, Susanna used drumming (“to the rhythm” Susanna says, “of the pulse of mother earth”), incantations from the Kalevala metre runes, chants, as well as various ritual objects. 

Later, a participant requested a healing session.  In the photo above, Susanna prepares for the session, lighting candles representing the four directions. 

For the healing, Susanna wore ritual costume elements pictured above, some made of metal.  Susanna said she sometimes wears what she jokingly referred to as ‘heavy metal’ to meet the challenges she comes up against in doing healing and other work, such as encounters with powerful and dangerous spirits.  Some of the items were given to her by a Siberian shaman.  She explained that using them is appropriate because Finland and its shamanic tradition are part of the larger Finno-Ugric cultural area that includes Northern Eurasia and Siberia, and there has always been much similarity and sharing of shamanic elements—including ritual objects and costumes— among these cultures.
The healing ceremony proceeded with the ‘patient’ lying on a blanket on the floor with eyes closed. Susanna chanted and drummed as she slowly moved around the person.  At the conclusion of the ritual, Susanna shared what she experienced and had accomplished with the help of her haltijas, or spirit helpers.  She asked the patient for an account of their personal experience, and then the rest of us, as participant-observers.  At  the conclusion of the sharing, the ‘patient’ was left with much input to assist in their personal healing.

As discussed in a previous post of Spirit Boat, The noita was the original shamanic practitioner of the wilderness era.  In the late Bronze Age, with the rise of the new hunter-cultivation, and later swidden, culture, the practitioner known as the tietäjä  began assuming some of the functions originally carried out by the noita. 

The tietäjä’s principal role was that of healing, employing incantations based on the world view of the Kalevala metre runes that addressed the synty or origin of common sources of disease and injury in order to control them.  In addition, the tietäjä carried out other duties relating to everyday needs of families and communities of swidden culture, including, as pictured above, helping hunter-cultivators protect land that had been burned prior to cultivation.

Lemminkäinen’s mother, the mighty female noita figure from the Kalevala metre runes, bringing her son back to life after his dismemberment. Painting by Robert Wilhelm Ekman

At the same time, the noita continued to play an important role as one of an array of practitioners of Kalevala era shamanism.  The noita was able to carry out healing and the other roles of the tietäjä, but in addition, was able to respond to serious and unfamiliar threats to the well-being or survival of the community—such as a famine, epidemic, or a crisis in the availability of game.  In doing so, the noita mediated relations with nature and the cosmos, a role beyond the capabilities of the tietäjä.
The noita tradition, as part of the culture of Kalevala era shamanism, continued in eastern Finland and Karelia until the 19th century and has persisted to a limited extent to this day. (The history of the noita tradition during the period of Kalevala era shamanism remains relatively undocumented; it will be taken up in an upcoming post on Spirit Boat.)

Photo:  From Kalevala Mythology, Juha Pentikäinen

Susanna Aarnio, herself a noita, feels a heart connection to Marina Takalo, noita, rune singer and lamenter who lived in the Viena Karelia area.  Marina was born in 1890 and died in 1970.  She is pictured above at the Kiuta rapids on the shores of the Oulanka River, near Kuusamo, Finland, considered a very sacred place.

In addition to the tietäjä and the noita, the array of practitioners during the historical span of Kalevala era shamanism has also included practitioners with specific personal gifts, such as traditional healers, diviners, blood-stoppers, and the takoja. 
The Iron Age takoja was a smith who had mastered the revolutionary new technology of smelting and fashioning iron.  This figure is represented in the Kalevala metre runes in the person of Ilmarinen, the smith-hero.  He was considered to have transformational skills and knowledge that he employed to increase harmony between humankind and the cosmos.  According to Siikala, “He forges the roof of the heavens, the fortune-bringing Sampo (Leppä: the Sampo perhaps represents the pillar of the world), the image of a golden woman, and is the inventor of iron.” 

Painting of Ilmarinen by Johannes Setälä

According to Shepherd (1999), there is evidence that the Finns of the Iron Age extended the theme of transformation beyond the technical sphere to encompass the spiritual realm.  One indication of this is the discovery of considerable amounts of slag—the byproduct of the smelting of iron—in late Iron Age burial grounds in Finland.  The presence of slag—likely placed there by noitas—suggests that the process of dying was seen as a transformation of the body and soul analogous to the smelting of iron.  Like slag, ”the corpse is the end-product of the life process”, while the self, itse—that has been is inherited from the ancestors—is released to live on—in a cyclical way—after death.  
Consistent with the theme of spiritual transformation as introduced by Iron Age ancestors, Susanna Aarnio believes that working with our physical and our spiritual pain is a part of Finnish shamanism.  We could rephrase her view by saying we heal ourselves by transmuting our own pain in the forge of shamanic practice. 
As the last soul journey session of our retreat, Susanna provided an opportunity for participants to engage in this form of transformational work.  In helping the participants to do this, Susanna drummed and chanted to take us to the Mountain of Pain (Kipuvouri), a major site in the topography of the lower world as laid out in Finnish shamanic tradition.
In my personal shamanic journey there, I met there my haltija, or spirit helper, who showed me about negative and self-limiting thoughts, and a way to proceed in transforming them.

I was brought into the presence of a large, fierce looking figure, as suggested by this image of a giant Finnish troll, trulli.  Walking behind it with my haltija, I could see it was just a façade, like the one the Wizard hid behind in the film Wizard of Oz.  In effect, negative thoughts were shown to be insubstantial.  They can be transformed—seen for what they are—by ‘looking behind’ them.
In later reflecting on this soul journey, I felt I had been given a new and helpful personal practice.  I also thought back to my reading on the history of Finnish shamanism, and wondered if proneness to negative ‘self-talk’,  in addition to being psychological, is also in part cultural, perhaps indicating unfinished business passed on from ancestors.
The distinguished Italian scholar Domenico Comparetti wrote in 1898, “From the eleventh century onwards the Finnic people was the object of war, of conquest and of armed dispute between Russians, Swedes, Danes; it was conquered, dominated, Christianized, socially organised with cities of Swedish foundation;  yet it succeeded in remaining distinct from its conquerors and dominators, never amalgamating with them, but preserving its language and with this its own manner of poetry pregnant with the pagan myth that Christianity was not able to extinguish.”
The Finnish people and Finnish folk religion survived, but a negative psychological legacy was laid down by almost a millennium of attempted mental colonisation, of denial of legitimacy of belief and action, by figures in authority.  Can personal issues of today be related in some way to this now-distant reality?  I don’t believe the question is far-fetched; I and perhaps many other Finns may to this day be shaking off the residue of that collective history.   If this is the case, ‘looking behind’ our self-limiting thoughts is a most appropriate practice.

A sacred tree of Susanna’s family homestead,  traditionally the place  where a family gathers to honour and communicate with ancestors.

Susanna, and Johannes Setälä, feel very strongly that it is important to remember and revalue in a positive way the ancient knowledge and wisdom of the ancestors.  The shamanic tradition was a vital one up to the beginning of the 20th century, and even later in some areas. They believe that within the history of each family there is knowledge and wisdom from this tradition, much of it transmitted by word of mouth, to be recovered and shared.  
Both Susanna and Johannes conduct ceremonies at various events to reacquaint Finns with traditional shamanic practices and the folk practice of lamenting.  They also recommend that people visit and learn from sacred sites, such as rock paintings, sacred mountains, ancient cemeteries, and sacred trees. 
At the retreat, Susanna urged us to reconnect with our own ancestors.  Dalva, Lea and I had already begun doing this with spiritual ancestors at Astuvansalmi,  all the way back to the Comb Ceramic culture.  We were now asked to focus on our more recent family history.

Maria Miettinen, Hieroja ja Kuppari, Savo (1911)
In recounting my own family story, I explained that my father’s mother was a parantaja perinne, a traditional folk healer.  Above is a photo of her, Maria Miettinen, masseuse (hieroja) and cupper (kuppari).  Living near Tuusniemi in the rural north Savo area of Finland, she practiced her skills to support her family from approximately 1900 to 1920. 
Based on traditional knowledge of the body, the cupper made a small incisions and created vacuums to draw out blood by applying  cattle horns.  This was done in order to treat certain disorders.  Salo (1973) states that originally cupping was associated with the activities of the tietäjä in Finland:  “The similarities in the training of a cupper and of a tietäjä (were) striking.  The knowledge (was) considered as something sacred….” 

 Practicing cupping in a sauna
Maria continued her practice in a Finnish community in the U.S. for another 35 years after immigrating there in 1921. 

Aina and Florence Jalo (1918)

My mother’s mother, Aina Latva (later Jalo), born in 1885, was considered to have psychic gift.  For example, she had left Vähäkyrö for America when she was 25, but often ‘knew’ when things had happened in Finland before the news had arrived, for example, when there were deaths in the family.  My mother felt she had inherited sensitivity like that of her mother, and said she thought that I had as well. 
When these and other aspects of my family story, as well as those of other Finns, are brought to light, there can be many positive outcomes.  On personal level, the stories suggest possible practices that I can develop within Finnish shamanism that build upon my ancestral past.  (I feel particularly drawn to the practices of the arpoja—diviner—as this has long been an area of interest for me.)

On a broader level, this recovered knowledge can assist in the reconstruction of a Finnish shamanism for today, a process that is already under way.  Susanna says that each of us forms one link in a chain of ancestors, from past to future, that we are not here just for ourselves, but as part of a greater whole.  Our species is destroying mother earth.  We need to reconnect with the ancient wisdom tradition that promotes harmony with the natural world.  It is our responsibility to future generations.
At the retreat that Susanna conducted, we had the opportunity to experience first-hand the power of the millennia-old tradition of Finnish shamanism to foster this harmony. 


  1. Boating Community

  2. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    Web Design Liverpool

  3. Thank you for your posts, they are really informative and inspiring. You have an unique perspective to finnish shamanic tradition.

  4. I am so intrigued by your stories. I am of Swedish roots, but don't know my family history because I was adopted. I have traced my family back to an area where the Sami lived. I also have been studying Shamanism for several years, beginning at the ripe old age of 51!!! I would love any advice to go visit areas where there are still traditional shamans practicing.