Sunday, March 9, 2014

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland – Part 1


In the post called The Rise of Kalevala Era Shamanism:  The Kalevala-Metre Runes we explored the emergence of  the tradition of Kalevala-metre poetic runes in proto-Finland, highlighting the advent in about 500 B.C. of fixed-form incantations that were based upon them. The emergence of fixed-form incantations signaled the beginning of the shift in proto-Finland from the wilderness shamanic noita to a new type of practitioner, the tietäjä


I call it the beginning of ‘Kalevala-era shamanism’, a new form of the ancient practice that has continued, in some mode, through two millennia, up to the present day.  Some academics view the matter in very different terms.  The assessments of the incantation-based practice vary from it being a pale reflection of the earlier traditions of the noita, to a clear departure from them, to, as one academic recently put it—“anti-shamanic”. 

At the centre of this issue is the question of whether, and if so, how, the Kalevala-metre runes and the incantations based upon them are related to the earlier shamanic practices of wilderness noitas.  I believe that one of the most fruitful ways to explore this questions is through recognising that at the core of the spiritual practices of both eras were performances of what we can call “sacred arts”, in this case drumming, ecstatic singing and chanting, lamenting, rock painting and shamanic poetry (runes).  Other sacred arts of the pre-history of Finland include shamanic costumes, sculpting and carving, crafting of ceramic pottery, playing of the kantele (a zither-like instrument), and more. 

Playing a kantele

I use the term “sacred” in recognition of the capacity of these art forms, when incorporated as part of shamanic rituals, to help open portals of contact with elemental energies and spirit beings of the other world.  The various art forms have been closely interrelated with one another throughout the pre-history of Finland.  At any given time in a tribal group, there was a distinct ensemble of sacred art practices, forming as one writer puts it, a “spiritual whole”.  For this reason, I believe that the nature of the runic incantation tradition can scarcely be understood in isolation from the other sacred arts. 

When these sacred art forms are viewed together, I feel that there emerge certain continuities from the arts characteristic of the Mesolithic and the Neolithic Ages to those of the Bronze Age.  A continuity or ‘lineage’ seems particularly clear in the evolution from the ancient tradition of rock painting—an archetypal shamanic art—to that of the Kalevala-metre runic incantations.  Juha Pentikäinen (2010) alludes to such a lineage when he says, “The rock art of Finland is a kind of ‘Kalevala epical narrative’ written…in stone”.  

My objective here is to gain a better understanding of the roots, power and place of the rune-based incantation tradition.  To do this, I sketch an overview of the evolution of the sacred arts of Finland, beginning in the Palaeolithic Age, through more than ten millennia. I base it upon information from sources in English on the archaeology, ethnography, folklore, and comparative religion of Finland, as well as of lands to the south and east. 

Although my ultimate focus is on the traditions of the Finns, I also take into consideration the sacred arts of the Saami people.  Each people was indigenous to Finland and each had its own individual shamanic heritage related in distinctive ways to those of nearby Finno-Ugric cultures of Northern Eurasia.  However, the ethno-cultural identities of “Finn” and “Saami” are relatively recent; in the view of many archaeologists, these identities only emerged in the Iron Age.  For this reason, no firm identification is possible of ‘ethnic belongingness’ of sacred arts and artefacts prior to then.  At the same time, processes of ethnic differentiation were already at work in the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages in proto-Finland, and they helped lay the foundations of later developments.  I explore these processes here as well as their implications for the sacred arts of Finland. 

Rock Painting in the Upper Palaeolithic Age

The earliest rock art traditions began in the Palaeolithic Age, when the Scandinavian Ice Sheet covered Northern and Northeastern Europe, including Finland.  According to current thought, Palaeolithic populations had retreated to two areas, one located in the area of France and Spain, referred to here as the Iberian Refuge, and the other on the southern Russian plain, in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains, referred to here as the Ukrainian Refuge. 

The Iberian Refuge is widely believed to be the place of origin of the proto-Saami population who came to occupy the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.  The Ukrainian Refuge was inhabited by Uralic peoples, i.e., living in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains, who in the view of some archaeologists and linguists, spoke dialects of a Proto-Uralic language.  Their later descendants were peoples speaking languages derived from Proto-Uralic:  the Samoyed language and the various Finno-Ugric languages, including Finnish.  

Museum depiction of Ice Age scene in Mezhirich, Ukraine
According to Pavel Dolukhanov (1996), Finns have clear links to an ancestral homeland in the Ukrainian refuge, or as he terms it, the "Periglacial Zone”.  Dolukhanov says, “archaeological records show a considerable cultural continuity which may be traced from the Upper Palaeolithic (in the Periglacial Zone) to the ethnographically recognisable Finns.” 

The two refuges, the Iberian and Ukrainian, were home to rich traditions of figurative art, particularly rock painting, and the proto-Saami and proto-Finnic peoples inherited significant legacies in this regard.  Below is an example from the Iberian refuge, a painting from the Lascaux caves located near the village of Montignac, in the French department of Dordogne.  

In the Ukrainian Refuge, Kapova Cave (also known as Shulgan-Tash Cave) is an Upper Paleolithic rock art site in the republic of Bashkortostan in the southern Ural Mountains of Russia.  Pictured below are rock paintings from the cave and a reconstructed hunting scene.

The “Anthropomorph of Chaos Hall” at Kapova Cave, the bending figure at left, is considered to be a shaman. 

Ernits (2001) believes that the heritage of the rock art tradition of the Ukrainian refuge may have been significant for the sacred arts of later Finno-Ugric peoples.  He says, “Comparative study of cave paintings discovered in Kapova, the Urals, and more recent art objects of the region has indicated that it is possible that the prehistoric culture of Finno-Ugrians has been influenced by the Palaeolithic tribes settled near the edges of permanent ice sheets.” 

Dolukhanov (1996) suggests that there is a common Upper Palaeolithic tradition of cave art between the Iberian and Ukrainian refuges.  He bases his conclusion on the chronological match—the Lascaux Caves are dated at 15,000 B.C. and Kapova Cave, at the oldest, at 13,000 B.C.—and the fact that the rock art at these two widely separated locations is stylistically similar.

Kapova Cave is 3 storeys tall and 3 kilometres long, with 170 rock paintings

A Relational Approach

It is widely held that the inhabitants of the Ukrainian refuge, which included the Kapova Cave area, were shamanic peoples.  They believed that one of the souls of a human being dwells in the other world, but only shamans are able to—and dare to—take full advantage of this fact.  That is, the shaman, as intermediary on behalf of their tribe, journeys in the form of their “free soul” (Finnish: haltija) across what was seen as a tripartite reality—from the everyday or middle world  to the realms of the other world:  including the upper and lower worlds—in order to negotiate harmonious relations with beings there. 

Some of these beings were the guardians of the mammoth and other animal species that these people relied upon for their survival.  The shaman  would have encountered the mighty spirits at places like the rock painting galleries at Kapova Cave, and made offerings and requests to them, hoping to ensure that the souls of those animals who had been hunted and killed would be returned again to the hunting grounds, in an unbroken cycle. This interpretation of the meaning of the paintings is called ‘animal ceremonialism’. (Siikala, 1998) 

'Animal persons', Upper Palaeolithic
In older anthropological sources, entities such as the guardian beings of animal species are described as collective mental projections of the hunter-gatherer peoples.  Similarly, the cosmology of the other world and accounts of journeys there by shamans are typically viewed as the products of mythic imagination, with no substantial reality. These views of the spiritual beliefs of hunting and gathering peoples are consistent with the ontology (set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality) that developed in the West through the influence of Cartesian philosophy, the rise of science, and Christian thought. This ‘modernist’ or ‘objectivist’ ontology is characterised by dualistic boundaries between spirit and matter, natural and supernatural, and human and animal.

Instead of seeing animal guardians as their own projections, or soul journeys as products of their imaginations, hunter-gatherers experienced themselves as living in the world  in a relational way, interacting with a multiplicity of persons , both human and “other-than-human”, on various planes of existence.  This is the account developed by adherents of the ‘new animism’ in anthropology to characterise the views of hunter-gatherer groups (e.g., Harvey, 2006.

Collapsing the dualistic boundaries imposed by modernist ontology, hunter-gathering peoples saw “other-than-human” persons as including what we normally consider to be animate beings, such as animals, plants and trees; beings we normally consider to be inanimate, such as rocks  and rivers; as well as ones we classify as supernatural, such as the guardian of an animal species (e.g., the mammoth guardian person).  (Adherents of the ‘new animism’ prefer the clumsy term ‘other-than-human persons’ over that of ‘spirits’, as the latter is seen as evoking the Christian spirit/matter dualism.)

Dwelling at Kostenki 1, constructed with mammoth bones and tusks
The hunter-gatherers saw no fundamental distinction or hierarchy between humans and other-than-human persons; all are capable of communication, intention, and most important, of entering into relationships with one another.  The other-than-humans were critical for the survival of humans, and hunter-gatherers strived to have respectful relations of exchange and reciprocity with them.  As in the example above, the Palaeolithic shaman would have negotiated with the guardian-person of the mammoth for hunting fortune and would have given gifts in return.  Overall, there was a strong ethic of sharing; no one strived to own or control the ‘giving earth’.

Proponents of the ‘new animism’ in anthropology consider the hunter-gatherer assumptions about reality,  sketched above, to represent a different ontology, termed relational.  Robert J. Wallis (2009a) encourages us to harness its explanatory power in what he calls a “relational approach” to the study of prehistoric art.  It incorporates essential features of modernist ontology—the basis of science—but expands our interpretive scope beyond it, avoiding the ‘objectivism’ that results in a “process of disenchantment”.  In doing so, “the relational approach enables new, re-enchanting insights”.  For this reason, the approach will be adopted here. 

The relational ontology accords closely with how hunter-gatherers, such as those in the Finland of prehistory, viewed themselves and approached the world.  As a contemporary practitioner of Finno-Ugric shamanism—that finds its inspiration in the ancient traditions—I strive to approach the world in this way, as relationally constituted.  For this reason, I strongly concur with the following statement by Tim Ingold (1996): 

“I propose that we take these hunter-gatherer understandings seriously, and this means that far from regarding them as diverse cultural constructions of reality, alternative to the Western one, we need to think again about our own ways of comprehending human action, perception and cognition, and indeed about our very understanding of the environment and of our relations and responsibilities to it.”

In order to use a ‘relational approach’ here, we need to adopt several analytical tools that are compatible with it and that are specific to prehistoric art.  They will give us the capacity to look deeply into the sacred arts tradition and its relationship to that of shamanism in Finland.   Over the next several sections, we will consider these tools and then return to our review of Finnish prehistory, continuing into the Mesolithic Age.

Avoiding “Iconocentrism”

We begin by focusing on an article by Vesa-Pekka Herva and Janne Ikäheimo  (2002), who would counsel caution in using “animal ceremonialism” and similar frameworks in the interpretation of prehistoric art objects.  In the view of Herva and Ikäheimo, archaeologists too readily interpret the main meaning of these paintings and other pieces of prehistoric art as expressions (‘icons’) of the religion and cosmology of the hunter-gatherers who made them.  The authors term this tendency “iconocentrism”. 

Instead, they believe these artifacts should be seen as material objects with multiple possible meanings and uses in everyday life, only some of which were expressive or ritual in nature.  Herva and Ikäheimo give the example of a small piece of talc carved in the shape of an elk discovered  at a Bronze Age site in Finland.  It is quite simple in technical carving terms, having been completed with a few strokes and possessing no polished surfaces.    

From an “iconocentric” perspective the carved talc might be interpreted as a religious or ritual object. Instead, in view of the roughness of the carving and archaeological context in which the carving was found—suggesting the carving may have been casually discarded—the authors propose what they term a “more appealing” interpretation. They suggest that the sculpture may represent the “situated practice” of a carver who was engaging in carving as a “meditative act”, in pursuit of “deeper knowledge of the world”. 

In light of the analysis of Herva and Ikäheimo, compare the following two carved figurines, below, from the Ukrainian refuge. (They are from Kostenki 1 site in Russia, representing theKostenki-Avdeevo Culture, an upper Palaeolithic culture that is dated between 26,000 and 12,500 years before the present.)

The figurines are a mammoth and a feline, both of sandstone with red ochre. The mammoth sculpture on the left is not elaborate in its detail.  Herva and Ikäheimo say, “Artefacts that play a marginal role in social interaction may be less elaborated than those contributing to the formation of self-image.”  This might mean the carving was for “situated” uses other than ritual ones, for example, as a children’s toy.  On the other hand, owing to the amount of detailed working, we might hazard the guess that the feline on the right is likely to have been executed as a ritual object. 

I take from Herva and Ikäheimo that in order to interpret the main meanings of prehistoric art objects,  it is it is necessary to investigate them in their archaeological context at different “scales”.  These extend from the macro scale—normative ideas and values of collectivities—to the micro—“situated practices”.  I developed a set of scales or levels building on the analysis of Herva and Ikäheimo, and present it below.  It will be used here as a tool for our work in reviewing the prehistory of arts in Finland. 

When interpreting a work of prehistoric art, it is necessary to consider it in terms of the following features of its archaeological context:

(1)   The ontology, or fundamental assumptions about reality, of the makers.  The ontology of proto-Finland was broadly relational, but within it we can identify various ‘sub-types’ that were present, including animist,  totemist-animist, animal cultist, and others;

(2)   The cosmology or worldview that oriented the makers in terms of who they are and their relations to the world, such as the ones pertaining to hunter-gatherers, hunter-traders, agriculturists, and various combinations of them, all of which could be found among peoples in proto-Finland;

(3)   The environmental/cultural setting of the local group, including factors such as the archaeological time period, spiritual practices, nature of the economy, technologies in use, population migrations, geographical area, ethnic characteristics of the people, and others;

(4)   The situated practices, or everyday practical engagements, that take place within the specific setting, an example of which is identified by Herva and Ikäheimo as “carving as a meditative act, in pursuit of deeper knowledge of the world”.

I concur with Herva and Ikäheimo in rejecting what they consider to be the root cause of iconocentrism:  an unquestioned assumption that any object of prehistoric art of Finland can be explained as primarily expressing cosmological or religious beliefs. With the two authors, I believe that the relationship of art objects to such beliefs must be treated as an empirical matter, subject to test through examining the archaeological context and referring to the factors in the set of four scales, above. 

At the same time, I believe that when we hold up this empirical lens, we find that a significant subset of prehistoric art can in fact be shown to hold sacred, ritual significance—specifically the objects and performances that were used in shamanic practice in proto-Finland.  Herva and Ikäheimo only note the important association between prehistoric art and shamanism in passing, but we will explore it in depth here, as it is critical for our work.

"Sacred Arts": A Definition

First, we need to clarify that many of the “religious beliefs” that Herva and Ikäheimo are referring to are those of shamanism, which was a central feature of the world view and cosmology of the foragers of proto-Finland.  Like Shepherd (1999) and others, I would not call them “religious”.  Shepherd says,  “shamanism is not a religion, but, rather, a medium of communication with the ancestors as well as with other universal forces.”

Johannes Setälä, Finnish shaman
What was the purpose of the communication?  According to Siikala (2002), “The shaman’s role was to be in direct communication with supranormal beings in order to resolve crisis situations.” Perhaps the gravest crisis was famine; maintaining a continuing supply of game animals was paramount.  Speaking of the high stakes at play in  communication with supranormal beings, Zvelebil (2008) says, “Appropriate conduct and relations with them ensures health, welfare and hunting success, while a failure to meet obligations may bring illness, famine and other misfortune.”

There is evidence that various forms of prehistoric art have played critical roles in helping to establish and maintain this all-important communication, and to foster appropriate relations.  These art forms were interwoven with shamanism, the central institution of forager society in prehistoric Finland.  The artists derived guidance and inspiration from this institution, and devoted many of their artistic creations to shamanic practices.  In fact many who practiced these arts were themselves shamans: shaman-artists.  For example, it is believed that shamans may have played important roles in the creation of Finnish rock paintings.  Also, shamanic drumming was an important art form in its own right.

In recognition of how closely the arts were interwoven with the practices of shamanism in proto-Finland, I propose the following term for our use here:  ‘sacred arts’.  I define them as those applications of creative skill—drumming, rock painting, carving, dance, sculpting, costume, chanting,  poetry, ceramics, and more—that generate objects or performances empowered with the agency to help establish and mediate communication with the other world, as part of appropriate shamanic rituals.

I want to underline that the term ‘sacred arts’ is not intended to apply to all of prehistoric art.  That is, not all artists of prehistory were “sacred artists”—only those with an initiation into the sacred and whose creations were used in shamanic rituals—and not all of the works of the ‘sacred artists’ had sacred functions.  For example, ceramic pottery that was decorated with sacred motifs was normally used for food preparation. (Note, however, that food and its preparation could take on ritual significance at times.)  Also, as in the example from Herva and Ikäheimo, the carving of a likeness of a sacred elk might have been for “process” objectives, not to be used in rituals. 

The definition encompasses a much broader range of activities than is usually considered under the category of ‘prehistoric arts’.  Herva and Ikäheimo, for example, only consider objects of visual art.  The net has been cast wide here to include both objects and performances, and from a wide selection of creative disciplines, in order to as fully as possible explore what I referred to above as the “spiritual whole” of art practices supporting the institution of shamanism.  It is hoped that this will assist us to better understand the interweaving of the artistic and ritual realms. 

"Adjusted Styles of Communication"

The focus of the definition above is on the role of shamans in communicating with the other world on behalf of the community, and the role of the sacred arts in assisting them.  What is the “agency” of sacred arts objects and performances that is being referred to in relation to support for communication with the other world?   To understand this, we need to introduce a new concept—“adjusted styles of communication”.

Normally, the activity of a shaman is described in terms of what Wallis (2009b) refers to as “achieving, controlling, and utilising ‘altered states of consciousness’”, or “ASCs”.  This exaggerated emphasis on altered states owes much to the writings of Mercia Eliade and Michael Harner.   However, a more useful description for our purposes derives from the work of ‘new animists’ such as Harvey and Wallis, that focuses on the shaman’s communicative practices, rather than on their neurophysical state.  It is that of shamans “adjusting their style of communication” to match that of the other-than-human persons with whom they wish to communicate.  (Wallis, 2009b)

Susanna Aarnio, Finnish noita/shaman
The sequence of activities of these ‘new ASCs’, “adjusted styles of communication”, is as follows.  As I explained above, the ‘free soul’ of a person—the haltija, also called the luonto— is seen as already dwelling in the other world.  The shaman “raises” it to enter the other world, and there is able to make contact with an other-than-human (or spirit) person (e.g., the guardian haltija of the elk).  The shaman then becomes familiar with the communicative “style” or “level” of this other-than-human (“sees as they do”), and then adapts their own style to it.  At this point they are ready to initiate communication to gain information,  negotiate for hunting prey, or a number of other purposes on behalf of their community.   

Returning to the definition of sacred arts, this new concept of ASCs helps us to understand the agency of objects and performances of the sacred arts.  Wallis observes that through “various means” shamans adjust themselves to meet the communicative style of other-than-humans, and one of the means is through employing ritualistic objects and performances, products  of the sacred arts. 

For example, a shaman’s costume—adorned with ornaments that personify specific beings and energies of the other world—supports the shaman in fluidly adjusting to the perspectives of these other-than-humans, ‘seeing as they see’, as well as in communicating with them. Shamanic knowledge is actively embedded in shaman’s costumes, making them “ontological tools” that confer on a shaman the capacity to “attain otherwise unattainable points of view” and to “crosscut the boundaries between human and nonhuman beings”. (Pedersen, 2007)

Contemporary shaman's feather headdress, Finland
Similarly, as Van Deusen (2004) says, “The drum is the most ancient of human musical instruments, (and) playing it connects us with powerful energies.”  

The sacred artist, like the shaman, must match the communicative level of other-than-humans in their work.  They do this by  varying the “style”—the form, design, pattern, or ornamentation—of the object or performance.  This is done by following conventions of their culture (“pattern books”), through the exercise of their individual creativity and inspiration, and crucially, through their own direct on-going ‘conversation’ with spirit. 

With regard to sacred art objects, when the artist is successful, according to Harvey (2006), the objects are considered to be invested with their own agency or “personhood”.  He observes that, “Many indigenous peoples consider the objects and sometimes their decoration to be other-than-human persons in their own right. While never forgetting the constructed nature of the objects (e.g., drums, masks…) with which they work, they perceive a more active and personal dimension to them.”  They can be called “object-persons”, including, among others, ‘rock painting persons’, ceramic ‘pot persons’, and ‘poem persons’.  It is in this state of personhood—the cohabitation of this world and the other world—that their agency lies for helping mediate communication between beings of the two realms in support  of the shaman.

The photo above is of a piece, or shard, of clay pottery given to me by my teacher, Susanna Aarnio.   Her father collected it, along with many other pieces, from the fields of their family farm.  It is about 6000 years old, from the  Typical Comb Ceramic period.  On the right side of the shard there is a reddish patch, evidence of red ochre from iron oxide, that had been added to the clay paste. Red ochre was revered because of its connection with the colour red, to blood and to life force.  Red ochre has been present in human burials since the Palaeolithic Age, and in pottery in Finland beginning in the Early Comb Ceramic period.  In effect, the potter “enlivened” her pot—reinforced its animacy—and thereby assisted in its transformation from raw clay to a relational pot person, ready to play its role in both domestic and ritual settings.

In addition to sacred art objects, there are sacred art performances—for example, drumming, lamenting, and singing of incantations.  In this case, agency is achieved through a spirit presence being drawn into and ‘animating’ the performance. 

Woman performing Karelian lament, or itkuvirsi
That is, a person effective in lamenting, drumming or singing runes enhances receptivity to the presence of spirit and may lose conscious direction of the performance.  In surrendering to the experience, to the action of spirit, performers frequently do not remember details of it afterward.   It is during this period of the presence of spirit, acting with and through the shaman/performer, that agency is exercised to mediate contact with other world beings.

In the view of Tom Bender (2006), when we apply the concept of “sacred arts” to the creative practices of traditional indigenous societies, “many of our familiar concepts are transformed”.   For example, “beauty”—a primary category of the aesthetics of modern art—can become for sacred art a form of offering to spirit, as well as an avenue for uncovering truths at a deeper level.  “Decorating” an object might mean making apparent through designs and colours the actual encounters of people with beings and places of the other world.

"Situated Shamanic Practices"

As we have seen, establishing the primary meaning of objects and performances of the sacred arts, and avoiding “iconocentrism”, requires that we analyse their archaeological contexts, searching for their actual use in what Herva and Ikäheimo call “situated practices”.  What are common situated practices of a specifically shamanic nature that incorporated sacred arts, known from Mesolithic and Neolithic Finland? 

A few examples are presented here, preliminary to sketching the role of sacred arts over many millennia in Finland.  Let us recall that by definition, the ‘products’ of the sacred arts are active and relational, with the agency to help the shaman establish and mediate “appropriate conduct and relations” with regard to energies and beings of the other world. 

In accounts of North Eurasian shamanic cultures, the drum has been referred to as a “horse” that the shaman rides to visit supranormal beings. 

The situated practice of drumming could be called enlisting the spirit of the drum to carry one to the other world’.   We might also call the creation of the drum a sacred art; the drum was considered a living being—a drum person—and the shaman needed to ‘awaken’ its agency before playing it. 

Another situated practice was making an offering’.  This involved the creation of objects that have inherent meaning and value for particular energies and beings of the other world, and that are invested with the agency to transmit their meaning and value to them in the context of appropriate rituals. Below is an amber sculpture deposited in the river in front of the rock painting site of Astuvansalmi. (Photo by Juhani Grönhagen.)

Photo by Juhani Grönhagen
Regarding this situated shamanic practice, Zvelebil and Jordan (1999) refer to “items of material culture (that were) ”lost”, often deposited in bogs and wet places perhaps as votive artifacts, which are carved, sculpted or otherwise altered to instil and symbolise ritual meaning in them.”

Sacred Arts in Context

To this point, we have been focusing on the similarities of sacred art objects and performances, whether  drumming sessions or stone sculptures.  However, sacred art objects that were created by different groups—for example rock paintings—may closely resemble one another in outward form, but the meaning of each one may be very different, reflecting their respective profiles in the ‘nested scales’ of archaeological context:

1.  Ontology
2.  Cosmology or worldview
3.  Environmental/cultural setting
4.  Situated practices

For example, we will explore below the rock paintings of proto-Saami and proto-Finnic groups, which, in spite of outward similarities, may differ significantly in their meanings.  It will be argued that differences in ontologies and world views, therefore the situated practices, of the two populations had critical implications for the meaning of the products of their respective sacred arts. 

At any given time, there were a number sacred arts in play in any particular prehistoric group, together forming an ensemble or “spiritual whole”.   We must be alert to how these ensembles functioned in the context of situated shamanic practices.  For example, there is the operation of an ensemble of sacred arts as part of a sequence of situated shamanic practices.  Let us consider a hypothetical sequence (not intended as a full contextual interpretation) at the sacred rock painting site of Astuvansalmi.

In order to invite the elk guardian spirit person to visit, a shaman might have carried out a ceremony of summoning them, through shamanic drumming and chanting.

When this was successful, the shaman may have engaged in a negotiated process with the spirit person, assisting them to take form as a rock painting person’.   The photo above is ‘the woman with a bow’ at Astuvansalmi, considered to possibly be the ‘guardian person of the elk’.

The arrowheads pictured above were found in the water in front of the paintings. Perhaps they were fashioned (knapped) in a ceremonial way, and through making an offering of them, a request might have been made to achieve good fortune in hunting.  

Another type of situated shamanic practice requires that an ensemble of sacred arts operate in a composite way.  This is the situated practice of enlisting them to accompany human soul(s) safely to the other world,  as part of which sacred art objects were placed in the grave of a recently deceased person.  In addition to the remains of the human person, the grave could contain pot persons, animal persons, and stone carving persons.  As Wallis (2009) says, “the personhood of these people is entangled in death as it was in life”. 

Finally, let us consider the role of ensembles of sacred arts in times that situated shamanic practices were changing, particularly preceding or accompanying periods of fundamental social and cultural transition.  These periods of change were major factors in the appearance, transformation, replacement, or disappearance of various forms of sacred arts. 

One such period was the transition from wilderness shamanism to Kalevala-era shamanism, marked by the end of the rock painting tradition and the appearance of runic incantations.  This period is our main focus in Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland.  We now have several tools that will assist in our inquiry, ones that respect the relational ontology of hunter-gatherer peoples.  They include ‘sacred arts’, ‘altered styles of communication’, and ‘levels or scales of the archaeological context’, including ‘situated shamanic practices’.

Looking Ahead

This concludes Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland – Part 1.  In Part 2, the next post, we will continue with our sketch of the evolution of the sacred arts of Finland, beginning with the Mesolithic Age. 


  1. Thank you for your contribution. Excellent article, deep insight.

  2. Kiitos paljon. Thank you for writing these fascinating essays. I am a poet and live in the US, and my all my grandparents immigrated from Finland. Much resonates!

  3. This is such important information that ties the ancient past to the ancient now of contemporary artists worldwide.
    So appreciate the blend of your scholarship and intuition. Many Thanks