Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland: Part 3


My family, and a number of other Finnish immigrant families, farmed cranberries near the community of Grayland on the Pacific coast of Washington State.  When I was older, I often visited there with my own family to see my parents, Sulo and Florence, and my brother Jim.  Sometimes during those visits I would take the opportunity to stroll alone on a favourite nearby beach called Washaway.  It was a chance to meditate and to reflect on my life up to that point. 

Early morning on Washaway Beach, North Cove,
Washington (photo: Kevin Freitas)

On one particular morning, as I walked along the beach, the rising sun was still very low on the horizon and just beginning to shine on the sand ahead of me, as in the picture above.  Then I was surprised to see a sudden flash—what seemed like a ‘mini-explosion’—of amber light.  I ran to the place from where it came about 5 metres away and found a small piece of agate partially buried in the wet sand.  The translucent agate stone had, quite improbably, captured and brilliantly refracted the first rays of the morning sun on the beach. 

I picked up the agate and cradled it in my hand.  Gazing at its luminous surface, I experienced a strong and fulfilling sense of connection—I would call it ‘cosmic’—to the radiant stone, the ocean waves, and the sun, breeze and sand.  At that moment I began a ritual relationship with the agate, and it has continued to the present through my incorporating it into my personal practices

My encounter with a stone while in walking on an ocean beach is separated by a vast gulf of years from when hunter-gatherer-fisher peoples inhabited the wilderness of early Finland.  At the same time, for them, the incident might not have seemed extraordinary.  Ancestors from the Bronze Age—who spoke an early form of Finnish—might have explained it as a case of walking in a place of pyhä (a liminal space, i.e., the intertidal zone) and encountering a powerful akaatti (agate) that radiated a concentrated charge of kivenväki at me (väki is a supranormal force that can reside in various parts of the environment, such as a stone, or ‘kivi’) in the form of the flash of light, momentarily ‘raising’ my luonto (‘personal nature’ or ‘soul-force’), and allowing me to briefly see beyond tämänpuoleinen (this world, literally: ‘this side’). 

The capacity to recognise subjectivity—e.g., an agate as an ‘acting’, relational subject—in what is solely considered as an object within our currently dominant Cartesian ontology, is characteristic of the animisms have that existed for millennia as threads in the cultural fabric of Finland.  In this series of posts, Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland, I endeavour to follow these animist threads throughout prehistory and into the modern period, through the lens of the sacred arts. 

I consider the whole sweep of the shamanic tradition of Finland.  However, I am particularly concerned with tracing the roots of Finnish shamanism, so as to better understand the critical  transition from the proto-Finnic wilderness shaman, or noita—with art forms such as drumming, ecstatic singing and rock painting—to the Bronze Age tietäjä—with the practices of runic incantations and playing of the kantele.  Specifically, did the Finnish shamanic tradition end at that time, as some scholars suggest, or did it continue in new forms?  I feel that there is strong evidence for continuity, and that the tradition has considerable relevance for us in the present day.

In preparation for this series of posts, I have consulted primary source material, particularly the Kalevala metre runes and the incantations based on them.  I have also ‘re-read’—in light of and the ‘new animism’ trend in anthropology, represented by scholars such as Robert J. Wallis and Anna-Kaisa Salmi—a number of archaeological and ethnographic studies in English, and some in Finnish, on the prehistory of Finland. 

Dalva Lamminmäki presenting to Canadian Friends
of Finland, Toronto, 2013 (photo: Lëppa)

Finally, I have travelled to Finland to visit sacred sites and to learn more—as a practitioner—about Finnish shamanism from people who practice the ‘old traditions’, including Susanna Aarnio, nature photographer, lamenter, and noita; Johannes Setälä, shaman, artist and musician, and Dalva Lamminmäki, a good friend of mine who is a teacher of Finnish shamanism and a healer in the Karelian tradition.  (Of course, I take sole responsibility for the arguments I make and the conclusions I reach in Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland, and I apologise to them in advance for any errors I have made in interpreting the teachings they have so generously provided!) 

In this post, we will continue from Part 2 to explore the distinctive way of life of wilderness hunter-gatherer-fisher communities in early Finland, and how the arrival of pottery helped them maintain it in the face of a considerable new challenge:  the advance of agriculture.  We will see that the two types of pottery that initially appeared in 5150 B.C.,  Säräisniemi 1 ware and Sperrings 1 ware, were to become initial markers of differentiation of populations—and shamanisms—in early Finland.

(Numbered source references are at the bottom of the post.)

Cultures of Mesolithic Finland

The Suomusjärvi and the Late Komsa were the original aboriginal hunting, gathering and fishing cultures of Mesolithic Finland.  (In Post 2, I used the name Komsa, but am calling  it ‘Late’ Komsa here, and in coming posts, for reasons I explain below.)

The Suomusjärvi culture was composed of migrants from three other cultures formed out of the movement of peoples out of the Ukrainian refuge, home of Swiderian culture, at the end of the Ice Age.  These ‘post-Swiderian’ cultures were the Butovo and Veteyre of Russia, and the Kunda of the eastern Baltic. 

The post-Swiderian migrants entered Finland from the southeast in 8,300 B.C.  As members of what was now the Suomusjärvi culture, they subsequently moved northward, occupying sites all the way to the Barents Sea. 

What I am calling here the ‘Late Komsa’ culture originally descended from Paleo-European peoples who had travelled north from the Iberian refuge in France and Spain, along the ice-free coastline of Norway, at the end of the Ice Age.  I term the travellers ‘post-Ahrensburg’ for the final Palaeolithic culture—Ahrensburg—of the refuge. 

The migrating post-Ahrensburg peoples subsequently settled in northern Fennoscandia, forming the Fosna culture of west and central Norway, the Hensbacka culture of Sweden, and the original, or ‘early’ Komsa culture in the present county of Finnmark in northern Norway, just above early Finland. 

People from the early Komsa culture moved south into Finland to occupy land as the Fennoscandian glacier receded.  According to Carpelan, the first evidence of their presence was near Lake Inari.  (1)  Moving southward, in 7,800 B.C. they encountered elements of the northward-migrating Suomusjärvi culture, and over time, the Komsa peoples mutually assimilated with a segment of the Suomusjärvi population. (2)

In this way, what I am calling the ‘Late Komsa’ culture (also referred to as the Northern Saami culture) came into being.  Its members spoke the Proto-Uralic language—the precursor to Finno-Ugric—of the Suomusjärvi and occupyed sites across Mesolithic northern Finland. 

The nature of the colonisation of Mesolithic Northern Finland—early Finnish Lapland—is not a settled matter among archaeologists.  In particular, the identity of the colonists is the subject of considerable debate, and definitive archaeological evidence is lacking.  Among the alternative accounts, I find the one that I have presented above—based largely on the views of Milton Nunez (3), Christian Carpelan (1), and Vladimir Šumkin (4)—to be the most persuasive.  

A “Cosmic System of Sharing”

The peoples of the Late Komsa and the Suomusjärvi cultures subsisted by means of what Ingold calls the “hunter-gatherer mode of production”.  (5)  At its foundation were the following:

  • Equality among band members that was based on a deep ethic of sharing;
  • A reciprocal or sharing relationship with the spirit persons of nature, particularly the guardians of species that they hunted and fished; and
  • Open—not private—access to land and resources. 
The two forms of sharing—within the band and with the animal guardians—were interrelated, experienced by the hunter-gatherer-fishers as what Bird-David calls a “cosmic system of sharing”, based on kinship, both biological and spiritual. (6)

Kinship bonds provided the main principle for sharing of goods and property within hunter-gatherer-fisher bands.  For example, a band member returning after a successful hunt did not ‘own’ the catch, but instead shared it according to kinship relationships.  In this way, sharing was what Lee calls a “leveling device” that served to control differences in status and wealth in bands.  It helped provide “a metaphorical ceiling and floor:  a ceiling above which one may not accumulate wealth and power and a floor below which one may not sink.”  Another leveling device was the absence of private ownership:  the hunter did not own a hunting territory—there was open access to it by the whole band—although the hunter might own his personal hunting equipment. (7)

The hunter-gatherer-fishers had kin-like relationships, as “children of the forest”, with a natural environment that was “peopled by human-like relatives”.  (8)  Among the most important of them were the spirit owners or guardians of the game species (Finnish: haltijat, Saami: halder), such as reindeer in the North, elk in the south, as well as seal, beaver and otter, and fish species including pike and bream.

In the gender-based division of labour, men were hunters and fishers and women were gatherers. According to Zvelebil, gathering actually contributed more to the group diet than did hunting and fishing. 

The species that the women gathered for food included, among others, hazelnuts, water chestnuts, seeds, fruits, and roots.  Other plants would have been gathered for healing purposes.  Each major plant species would have had its own spirit guardian, just as the species of fish and game.

Sarmela says that for the hunter-gatherer-fishers of the wilderness era, “The haltijas of animals and nature… determined whether man received a catch, how successful the hunting or fishing was.  The metaphor for a catch, osa (share), traceable to Finno-Ugrian languages, has evidently meant ‘mans’ share’.”  (I will use here the more inclusive term ‘humans’ share’.)  (9)

According to Sarmela, in return for their share, “Hunter-fishermen had to give a reciprocal gift, an offering, for all that ‘nature gave’, a portion of the hunt.”  In previous posts I have referred to this ritual exchange as ‘animal ceremonialism’.  (In in the light of the importance of gathering to subsistence, we could also use the term ‘animal and plant ceremonialism’, as the shaman would have also requested a ‘humans’ share’ from plant haltijas.)

Rock carving, Lake Onega, Karelia, 5th
Millennium B.C.:  the guardian of the otter? 

Together with humans, these “owners and guardians of nature”—as Sarmela refers to them—were full participants or subjects within the “hunter-gatherer mode of production”.  Humans maintained what I would call ‘ontological bonds’, or ‘sacred partnerships’, with them across the boundaries of personhood—animal, plant, spirit and human—in this way forming the foundation of the “cosmic system of sharing”. 

The Arrival of Agriculture

In the 6th millennium B.C., the appearance of agriculture was to challenge these ontological bonds, and the system of sharing built upon them, of the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi bands.  Agricultural communities formed south of the Baltic, in Central and Southern Europe, and the ‘agricultural frontier’ began moving toward early Finland.  In 5,400 B.C. the Eastern Baltic area of proto-Estonia had its first contacts with Linear Beaker culture farming communities further south, near the Danube. (10)

In the new ‘agricultural mode of production’, subsistence in was, in the words of Zvelebil, “no longer a matter of ritually sanctioned collective exchange between humans and animals but a product of individual human labour”.  (10)  Moreover, agriculture brought with it tendencies to private property and to accumulation of surpluses of goods and prestige items, both of which fostered inequality.  This threatened the “cosmic system of sharing” of the forager communities. 

The transition to agriculture had already ended the hunter-gatherer-fisher way of life in communities of Central and Southern Europe, beginning about 5,000 B.C.  In contrast, the response of the forager communities along the shores of the Baltic, including early Finland, was to resist the transition, and ceramic pottery played a key role in this response. 

A Strategy of Resistance

Using the abundant rivers, lakes and sea routes of early Finland, hunting-gatherer-fisher bands had long maintained wide-ranging networks of contacts, communication and trade with similar bands.  They traded valuable materials such as pumice, red slate, green slate, flint, and amber.  The new farming communities to the south of the Baltic were highly productive and had need of these and other products of wilderness areas, creating a new, more competitive exchange system.  The hunter-gatherer-fishers of early Finland risked becoming marginalised in this new system and losing access to valued goods. 

They avoided marginalisation by adopting what Zvelebil calls a “strategy of resistance”.  (10)  That is, they ‘commercialised’ products of their hunting, fishing and gathering that had high value for purposes of trade with the new agricultural communities.  The most important of these was seal fat, including grease and oil.  Trade in these products was made possible by the arrival in early Finland of ceramic pottery. 

We will recall that according to Carpelan, the Volga-Oka region of Russia was the centre of successive cultural “waves of influence” spreading to Finland and Karelia during the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages, based on joint mating networks between the two areas.  An initial wave carried ceramic pottery, an innovation that had developed in the Upper Volga Culture.  (11)

Sperrings 1 ceramic pot. (Photo by Lëppa:
National Museum of Finland)

The new ceramic culture that appeared among the Suomusjärvi people is termed by archaeologists Sperrings 1 (also known as Early Comb Ware), and the one appearing among the Late Komsa is termed  Säräisniemi 1, or Sär 1. 

According to a convention adopted by archaeologists, the arrival of ceramics in early Finland in 5,150 B.C. signalled the end of the Mesolithic Age and the beginning of the Neolithic Age.  Correspondingly, new names are used to refer to the two population groups, Suomusjärvi and Late Komsa, that reflect the new ceramics.  They are Sperrings 1 culture, or Early Comb Ware culture, and the Säräisniemi 1 or Sär 1 culture, respectively. 

Säräisniemi 1, or Sär 1, ceramic pottery. (Photo
by Lëppa: National Museum of Finland)

Although not well suited to cooking, the new ceramic pottery had a major social and symbolic role as a new form of sacred art, as we have seen in Part 2.  As well, the large size of the pots, up to 70 litres, made them quite functional for purposes of trade. 

Siiriäinen says that the hunting of large animals—particularly elk and bear—had long dominated the subsistence base of the Mesolithic Suomusjärvi culture, but by  5150 B.C., the time of the introduction of pottery, the base in Finland had shifted to seal-hunting. (12) He says, “In Finland it appears that the Combed Ware was adopted from the south-west and used for the processing, storing and trading of fish and seal fat.”  (13)

There are indications that foragers stepped up their hunting of seals to accommodate the needs of trade.  The map below shows the trade routes that existed and the products being distributed in Finland and beyond, including seal fat. 

The routes multiplied and trade accelerated as farming communities in areas to the south offered new products and markets for groups in early Finland.  Zvelebil says, “The increase in sealing in the area during the third and second millennia may have been particularly important, reflecting the commercial demand of the farming communities to the south and west of the agricultural frontier.” (10)

Zvelebil summarises the effects of the trade in seal fat.  In Finland, “the existence of trading networks may have upheld the viability of an essentially foraging economy.”  He  concludes that as a result, in the eastern Baltic, including Finland, “the process of agricultural ‘transition’ was arrested in the early stages.” (14)

Zvelebil’s conclusion is supported in the findings of a 2015 study by a team of archaeologists.  (15)  The researchers examined the different patterns of use of personal ornaments by people associated with farming communities, on one hand, and with forager communities on the other.  In Central and Southern Europe, as agriculture spread, ornaments typically worn in forager communities, e.g., elk teeth, had given way to those characteristic of farming communities, e.g., perforated shells. 

However, in the Baltic region, the ornaments associated with foragers continued to be made and used for several thousand years.  This indicates what the authors of the study call “cultural resistance” to the new ornamentation, as well as to the beliefs and practices of the agriculturalists.  An “enduring cultural boundary” was created that separated the subsistence practices of the Baltic region from those of the rest of Europe from 5,800 to 2,500 B.C. 

In this graphic adapted from the study, we see examples of ornaments associated with foraging populations in the Baltic area and those associated with farming populations in Central and Southern Europe.

‘Ontological Strains’

Through a “strategy of resistance”—using pottery for the trade in seal fat—the hunter-gatherer-fisher peoples of early Finland successfully responded to the initial challenge posed by the arrival of agriculture near to the region, and thereby were able to continue their wilderness-based ways of life.  However, this was only the first of what over centuries and millennia were to be ongoing threats of marginalisation and extinction, calling for new strategic responses, posed by what Zvelebil terms “the historical reality of living an increasingly farming world”.  (10)

The strategies adopted by the hunter-gatherer-fisher communities to these challenges—beginning with the intensification of seal hunting and trade in seal fat—were successful on social and economic grounds, as indicated by the 2015 study.  However, I would argue that at the same time the strategies introduced strains in the ‘ontological bonds’ that the peoples had with the haltijas of fish, game and edible plants, as well as the “cosmic system of sharing” which they made possible. 

Prior to the advent of trade, shamans had requested a ‘human’s share’ for their band from the guardians of the seal of the local hunting area.  Now, however, people who were unknown to the community and possibly living at a great distance from their hunting territory would also be receiving and consuming products of the hunt.  This was a new element in the reciprocal relationship of hunter-gatherer-fishers with local guardians of the seal that would not have been reflected in the original cosmological principle of ‘human’s share’ and the practices of animal ceremonialism.  As well, another new element was the use of ceramic pot persons—who we have seen held sacred significance for local bands—as conveyances for the seal fat bound for these other, often unknown, communities. 

Lake Saimaa seal
Although we have no direct evidence, it is likely that over time, the shamanic practices of hunter-gatherer-fisher groups changed in ways that responded to the ‘ontological strains’ resulting from the strategies of resistance.  An example from a hunter-gatherer culture of the present day provides some  guidance.  That is, faced by the need to trade with an outside group for the purpose of band well-being, the hunter-gatherer Nayaka of South India, as reported by Bird-David, ‘compartmentalise’ their usual sharing behaviour, distinguishing between members of their own group, “equals”, for whom their strong ethic of sharing applies, and outsiders who are “unequal”, who must “pay as you go” .  (16)

In a similar way, I suggest it is probable that the Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 peoples created new rituals of animal ceremonialism, or modified existing ones, in order to avoid damaging the ontological bond with seal guardians.  The guardian may now have been asked to continue to make available seal persons for consumption by the band, but also for trading partners who are ‘unequal’—“not Sperrings” or “not Särs”—where trade with them would nonetheless bring goods that contributed to the overall welfare of the band. 

The adjustment of rituals would have been led by the shaman of each band, who, in Zvelebil’s view, had the power in Northern hunter-gatherer-fisher societies to enact transformations on behalf of their communities during periods of crisis.  (10)  As part of the process, the shamans would have relied on the ongoing guidance and assistance of the spirit guardian—the haltija or haldi—of the seal. 

Marek Zvelebil
What about the use of the sacred ceramic pot persons as conveyances for the seal fat bound for unknown, communities?  Recall from Post 2 that each pot person embodied as part of its ‘sacred biography’ a unique assemblage of components and qualities intimately related to the lifeways and cosmology of the band.  They included the use of local clay and of impressions of bones of mammal and fish species that they hunted.  As a result, the pot persons were active agents of the band as well as of the landscape where they lived.

I suggest that the fat of the seals given by the guardian for the purpose of trade with outside communities would have been considered no less sacred than that of the fat retained for the immediate consumption of the band.  For this reason, it can be supposed that the rites of animal ceremonialism would have included the commitment to honour the hunting yield by enclosing and shipping it in vessels that were also sacred to the band. 

The seal fat would be respected and protected by the powerful pot persons.  This would be the case even if the seal fat was ultimately to be consumed by people in agricultural communities, who would have likely been unaware of (and uncaring about) the agency of the pot persons from the wilderness bands, and as well would have been incapable of ritually communicating with them. 

Early Asbestos Ware was the eastern region variant of Sperrings 1

At the same time, the distinctive ceramic motifs of the pots would have been visually emblematic of Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 bands for the peoples of the outside communities where the seal fat was consumed.  Dolukhanov believes that “there is strong evidence suggesting that ceramics played a significant role in signifying the group identities and intertribal connections.”  (17)  I would argue that the signification of group identity through ceramic design may have been an unintended consequence, rather than a deliberate strategy on the part of the two aboriginal cultures of early Finland, whose life was very local in its orientation.  As we will see below, the larger sense of ‘peoplehood’ that it implies was only to develop much later in prehistory.

Divergence of Wilderness Populations

Through employing strategies of resistance, both cultures of “innovating hunter-gatherers” of early Finland, as Zvelebil terms them, were able to continue to resist the spread of agriculture.  I have suggested that at the same time, they maintained their ‘sacred partnerships’ with spirit guardians through adapting their rituals of animal ceremonialism.  The use of strategies of resistance continued well into prehistory, when proto-Saami and proto-Finnic foragers emerged as recognisable groups.

However, the specific strategies of the two hunter-gatherer-fisher populations were later to diverge.  That is, in the face of disruptive challenges from agriculture, and the later the fur trade, the cultures succeeding the Late Komsa maintained, well into the premodern period, a consistently wilderness-based existence, with the “cosmic system of sharing” at its core.  Nomadic reindeer herding, a later economic activity, helped make this possible. 

In contrast, the cultures succeeding the Suomusjärvi adopted a strategy of forging limited accommodations with the advancing agriculture, including incorporating certain elements of farming into their way of life, while at the same time maintaining strong wilderness connections.  Zvelebil suggests that these new communities did not easily fit conventional categories of hunter-gatherers or farmers; they remained “suspended between them”.  (10)

This was only one of the ways that the two hunter-gatherer-fisher populations were to become increasingly distinct from one another, with significant implications for the course of the prehistory of early Finland.  The first harbinger of this distinctness in the archaeological record came with the arrival of ceramics in 5150 B.C. , in the dramatic difference in the ceramic design motifs of the two cultures, Sär 1 and Sperrings 1.   We will now explore this difference and possible explanations for it. 

"Two Ceramic Traditions"

Although Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 pottery types shared a common origin in the pit-comb ceramic style of the Upper Volga Culture, their own respective ‘pattern books’ were not related to each other in terms of decorative design.  Torvinen says that in fact, the “differences between Sär 1 and Early Comb Ware are so numerous that we can refer to two completely separate ceramic traditions.” (18)

Torvinen argues that a “geographically and archaeologically discernable boundary between the two cultures”, Sär 1 and Sperrings 1, had developed.  Similarly, Siiriäinen refers to what he calls a “spatial differentiation of ceramic styles” that indicates that the two Finno-Ugric populations were in the process of becoming distinct from one another, a process that he calls the “fragmentation of society into tribes.”  (12)

In Siiriäinen’s view, the fragmentation began at the time of the appearance of Sperrings 1 and Särs 1 “at the latest”.  His qualification “at the latest” suggests that he believes that it may have already begun during the Mesolithic Age in Finland, with the Suomusjärvi and Late Komsa, even before the appearance of pottery. 

Moreover, Siiriäinen suggests that the fragmentation continued down through prehistory.  It was again evident in the archaeological record in the ceramics of the 5th millennium of the late Neolithic, in the differences between Typical Comb Ceramics, commonly seen as following from Sperrings 1; and asbestos-tempered variants such as Kierikki, seen as following from Sär 1.   

Ethnicity as Explanation

What was the basis of the social and geographic differentiation of the Sär 1 and  Sperrings 1 populations, as signalled by the respective ceramic design motifs?  For some writers, it indicates a growing ‘us versus others’—i.e., ethnic—sentiment. 

For example, Huurre identifies early ethnic differentiation as the major factor in the diffusion of Särs 1 ceramic pottery, that he sees as part of a process that later led to the advent of the Saami people. [Quoted in (18)]  Torvinen is somewhat more cautious, saying that, “The divergence of Sär 1 Ware is thought to have reflected one primordial cell for the development that then, much later resulted in the emerging of the Saami tribe.”  (19)

There is reason to question the application of concepts of ethnic ‘peoplehood’ to these early Neolithic populations, in this case the ones who produced Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 ceramics.  Ethnic sentiments of ‘us vs. others’ suggest high levels of internal group self-awareness and of recognition by outsiders.  It was not until two millennia later, around 3,500 B.C., that the first indications appeared of distinct proto-Finnish and proto-Saami populations, and it was only during the Early Metal Age, about 1000 B.C., that their respective ethnic identities and languages began to clearly emerge.  [See for example (20)]

Skandfer is an archaeologist who questions the application of ethnicity to the Neolithic Sär 1 culture.  Specifically, she criticises Torvinen’s suggestion that it represented a step toward later Saami ethnicity, calling it “an essentialist and static view on ethnicity and culture as social phenomena”.  She argues that a difference in pottery type is the only material element that distinguishes the two groups.  Otherwise, they pursued the same “hunter-fisher economy”, made use of the same tools, and even adopted ceramic pottery at the same time.  (20)

Meinander explains that owing to the openness of the wilderness cultures to one another, ethnicity was not yet an important social factor. “The North European hunting-fishing cultures were not closed communities, but on the contrary very open ones, which traded knowledge, inventions, raw materials, and gifts, and accepted among themselves individuals from over very large areas.”  (21)

Reconstruction of a Neolithic dwelling of Finland

He continues, “It was because of this that no sharply demarcated ethnic cultures came about in the area of North European hunting-fishing cultures.”  We will see later that there were even clear instances of joint cultural influence and even mutual assimilation and between what Torvinen calls different “primordial cells” of the two populations.

Pesonen issues a call for “alternative ways to analyse prehistoric periods—ways that would describe the phases and regional groups even better than the elements of decoration on clay pots.”  He says, “In Finnish archaeology, the position of ceramics chronology has been overemphasized and the clay pots have turned into expressions of cultural phases and groups.  The ceramics have been seen as social and even ethnic markers of the Stone Age people”.  (22)

What is such an alternative way to account for the observed social and geographical distinctness of the two “regional groups” responsible for Sär 1 and Sperrings ceramic pottery in 5150 B.C., that only increased during the period of their parallel existence, until 4400 B.C., and into the Bronze Age and later?

Distinctive ‘Shamanisms’

I will shortly propose an explanation of this distinctness of the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures, and ones that succeeded them, that is based on the concept of ‘shamanic institutions’. 

As Siikala uses the term, a shamanic institution is a decentralised set of shamanic practices and worldviews that originates within in a particular complex of shamanic cultures and continues over time.  The ‘worldviews’ include cosmology , and I would also add the ontology—or fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality—that underlies the practices of the institution. (23)

The Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures were part of two different complexes of shamanic cultures:  the post-Ahrensburg complex of northern Fennoscandia, including Finland, and the post-Swiderian complex of Russia, Finland and the east Baltic, respectively.  The two cultures of early Finland continued the core practices and worldviews their respective complexes—i.e., their shamanic institutions—while adapting and expanding upon them within in their wilderness settings.

The graphic above pictures the two complexes of shamanic cultures as they existed in the early Mesolithic Age.

The core practices and worldviews of the two shamanic institutions were associated with quite different ways of life.  For example, there were differences in traditions of sacred arts such as pottery designs, in relationships to the land, and in hunting practices.  I suggest that in pursuing these unique lifeways, the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures increasingly diverged from one another, socially and geographically. 

This divergence of populations, that began with the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures, continued down through prehistory.  That is, each culture was followed by a succession of cultures in early Finland that maintained social, cultural and economic ties with the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic complexes.  The successive cultures continued to be ‘bearers’ of  their two respective shamanic institutions, and the distinctive ways of life based on each.

Cultural ‘Breaks’

The above explanation of distinctness of populations depends upon a succession of cultures maintaining the two shamanic institutions.  However, the notion of succession might be challenged on the grounds that there were apparent cultural breaks and discontinuities in early Finland. 

For example, an apparent break specific to the post-Swiderian institution is the one between the Sperrings culture, that ended in 4,000 B.C.  and the one that immediately succeeded it, the Typical Comb Ceramic culture.  Some archaeologists have argued that little or no cultural content was passed on from the older to the newer culture, and this could have resulted in a break in what I have claimed is the continuity of shamanic traditions.  (24)

I would respond by suggesting that the core practices and worldviews of the successive cultures of each institution were periodically renewed and stabilised through influences emanating from ‘outside Finland’, i.e., the larger shamanic complexes, the ‘keepers’ of their respective forms of shamanism.  

In the example, if the core shamanic practices and worldviews of the post-Swiderian institution were lost with the decline of the Sperrings culture, they would have been introduced anew into the Typical Comb Ceramic culture through the continuing influence of the larger shamanic complex centred in the Volga-Oka region of Russia.  In this way, the explanation of the distinctness of populations by reference to shamanic institutions does not depend on the principle of cultural continuity within early Finland. (The pattern of influence of shamanic complexes held from 8,500 B.C. to 3,500 B.C., when it began to change.  I will explore this change in later posts.)

Two Shamanic Institutions, and Two Shamanic Lineages

I have argued that an important factor in the differentiation of populations in early Finland is the existence of two distinct shamanic institutions in early Finland and the divergent ways of life associated with each.

I believe that this explanation of the differentiation of populations responds to Pesonen’s call for ways of analysing historical phases and regional groups that are not based on ceramic styles.  As well, it does not depend on continuity of either an ethnic or a cultural nature in Mesolithic and Neolithic Finland, i.e., early Saami or Finnish ‘peoplehood’, sources of contention among archaeologists.  

The table above summarises the two shamanic institutions represented in early Finland and what can be called the shamanic ‘lineages’ of which each was a part. 

  • The column at the far left indicates the origins of the two lineages in the shamanistic Ahrensburg and Swiderian cultures, located in the areas of the Iberian and Ukrainian refuges, respectively, of the Ice Age. 
  • Thereafter, the lineages were continued by the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic complexes of northern Fennoscandia; and Russia, Finland and the east Baltic, respectively. 
  • In early Finland, the two lineages were represented in the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures, that were the first ‘bearers’ here of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic institutions. 
  • In turn, the two institutions were each continued by a succession of ceramic cultures, with the lineages passed down to the Bronze Age proto-Saami, proto-Finnic and proto-Karelian cultures.
It is a frequent assumption in the literature of archaeology, anthropology and folkloristics that there was only one ancient shamanic institution in early Finland, the one ancestral to modern Saami peoples.  [See for example Nunez:  (25)]  Even in everyday conversations, when the topic of shamanism in Finland is raised, a common response is “Oh, you mean Saami shamanism.”

Less familiar is the recognition that there was a shamanic institution ancestral to Finns and Karelians.  Such a recognition is not, however, unprecedented among academics.  For example, according to Siikala, Finnish folklore and mythology scholar Martti Haavio conjectured in his 1967 book that Finns were heir to “an ancient shamanistic institution” that existed up to the Bronze Age.  Siikala says, “in order to depict this institution, he drew upon the shamanistic practices of northern Eurasia….Haavio assumed that they represented an ancient tradition possibly stretching as far back as the Palaeolithic era.”  (23)

Unto Salo
Similarly, archaeologist Unto Salo argues that a proto-Finnish ethnic group and its “ancient Finnish religion”, i.e.,  Finnish shamanism, began to emerge in the latter part of the Typical Comb Ware period, about 3,500 B.C.  However, he says that the “roots” of this ancient religion in early Finland “may even date back to the earliest settlement of the land, around 8,500 B.C.”  (50) I suggest that the roots were to be found in the post-Swiderian shamanic institution that the Suomusjärvi brought with them to early Finland.

I hope to show later that the explanatory principle of distinct shamanic institutions helps us answer a number of significant questions concerning the prehistory of Finland.  For example, as referred to above, one of these questions is why and how post-Ahrensburg peoples maintained a more or less consistent wilderness-based subsistence over the course of prehistory, while post-Swiderian peoples later went on to forge accommodations with the advancing agriculture. 

I am not proposing distinct shamanic institutions as a ‘one size fits all’ explanation for the differentiation of populations. Clearly, many other factors were at play, such as culture, ‘economics’, linguistics, and population dynamics. 

At the same time, I believe that shamanism deserves to be recognised as what sociologists call an ‘independent variable’—i.e., a factor with its own unique explanatory power—for the reason than that it had been a central feature of the lives of foragers for more than 20,000 years before the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures appeared in Mesolithic Finland. 

Domestic scene from the Ukrainian refuge of the 
Swiderian culture and a painted figure, likely 
of a shaman, at Kapova Cave

Siikala says, “It can be argued on the basis of numerous facts that northern hunters knew the art of trance already in the Palaeolithic era.” (23)

Moreover, a focus on shamanic institutions complements explanations based on the other factors that were at play.  It does so by revealing the ‘animist threads’ in the story of prehistory, in which the many other-than-human persons of early Finland emerge as the subjects, or ‘actors’ they were, alongside the human persons with whom they formed enduring relationships that I have called ‘ontological bonds’ or ‘sacred partnerships’.

The major premise of the explanation I have put forward for the differentiation of populations is that there existed two distinct forms of shamanism in early Finland.  In the next section I will suggest that ontology provides a ‘way in’ to understanding how they were alike and how they differed.

‘Theories of Being’

As we have seen, the initial archaeological ‘markers’ of the differences between the Late Komsa and Suomusjärvi cultures were in the motifs of their respective Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 ceramics. 

We saw in Post 2 that as a result of the external design and internal makeup of ceramic pots persons—their sacred ‘biographies’—they were able to help the shaman conduct the attention of hunter-gatherer-fishers deeper into their world, into closer communion with other-than-human beings, including ancestors and the haltijat or guardian spirit persons of the wilderness.  This suggests that ceramic designs can give us a window on the two shamanic traditions of which they are a part, if only we are able to ‘read’ them in this way. 

For example, Torvinen says,  “Perhaps the most characteristic form of Sär 1 decoration is a horizontal band with the stamps touching each other usually at an angle of… 45 degrees…”.  (18)

We can see a row of this pattern type in the shard in the illustration above.  According to Torvinen, “Similar decoration is not found in any other type or style of prehistoric ceramics in Finland.”  Could this specific pottery design element—the horizontal band of stamps—have an as yet unknown sacred significance as part of situated practices of the potters and shamans of the Sär 1 culture, in contrast with those of the Sperrings 1 culture? 

In the view of Anthropologist Robert Layton, to answer this question we must identify the ontology underlying the shamanism of the culture in question.  Layton refers to ontology as a “theory of being” or an “indigenous theory of how the world works”.   According to Layton, it is ontology that “generates” what he calls the “customs” or practices of the shamanic culture, including sacred arts.  In turn, it is essential for understanding and interpreting the products of those arts, including the design patterns of ceramic pottery, such as Sär 1.  (26)

I suggest that the creation of objects and performances of the sacred arts is just one of the customs of a shamanic culture that is generated by its underlying ontology.  In fact, as a set of fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality, ontology helps engender—as well as imparts meaning and significance to—the full range of its customs.   

This means that if we are to identify and understand the differences between the rituals and practices of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic institutions—what made their forms of shamanism distinct—we must first of all look at the ontologies underlying them. 

Relational Ontology

In Part 1, it was suggested that the broad ontology, or “theory of being”, underlying the shamanic cultures of northern foragers, including those of early Finland, was a relational one.  Let us briefly review what this means.

Siikala says of northern hunting cultures, “Animals and men are not the only ones to have spirits: inanimate natural objects were also thought to have some sort of soul, the ability to feel, wish and hate, etc.”  (23) These are qualities that we associate with being a ‘person’, a status that we reserve today only for humans. 

In an attempt to reflect the indigenous understanding, practitioners of what is called the ‘new animism’ in anthropology and archaeology have expanded the scope of the term, saying that people of indigenous cultures such as Sär 1 and Sperrings 1 interacted with a multiplicity of persons, both human and “other-than-human”, in their wilderness environment.  They included beings we normally consider to be animate, ones considered inanimate, as well as ones existing in the other world (e.g., the elk guardian person). 

‘Personhood’ did not apply to all of these objects and beings, only to the ones capable of communication, intention, and most significantly, of entering into relationships with other persons.  (This means for example that only some stones were considered persons.) 

Pohjola Building sculpture, 44 Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki

Being human did not serve as the ‘gold standard’ of personhood for members of the northern hunting cultures.  For example, they recognised the personhood of the bear--with whom they had a kin-like connection—on its own terms, as very different from, but equivalent to, that of humans.  This applied as well to the unique personhoods of the other members of their wilderness communities—such as fish persons, plant persons and the spirit guardian person of the elk—with whom they entered into respectful relations of exchange and reciprocity.  

According to Siikala, the relational ontology included the concept of a “a soul which can move freely outside the body”.  It “forms a background for animal ceremonialism and shamanistic rites.”  The shaman was the figure who led the reciprocal relations with the other-than-human persons of the wilderness environment.   According to Siikala, the ontological features of his role included “the shaman’s alliance with helper-spirits, his ability to shape-shift, and his journey to the other world while in a state of trance.”  (27)

Sub-Types of Relational Ontology

The relational ontology I have sketched above was shared by the shamanic institutions of  all northern hunting cultures, providing  a common foundation, or “background” in Siikala’s terminology, for them.  However, because it applied so generally,  it cannot help us distinguish between the unique ‘ontologies in practice’ of particular shamanic institutions, including those of the Suomusjärvi and the Late Komsa cultures and their post-Swiderian and post-Ahrensburg successor cultures.

For assistance here, let us recall  Post 1, in which I referred to ‘sub-types’ of ontology within the broadly relational ontology of early Finland.  I termed them animist and totemist-animist.  I believe that these sub-types applied to the post-Swiderian and post-Ahrensburg cultures respectively, and can help us understand the distinctness of their shamanic institutions.

In identifying ‘sub-types’ within relational ontology, I am building on the work of Timothy Ingold. (28)  He presents a typology that helps us analyse the commonalities and differences between ontologies that applies in a general way to early Finland. (I will note some limitations to its application to Finland in Post 4.)

In applying Ingold’s analysis to early Finland, in this and later posts, I rely on archaeological studies of early Finland in the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages, but also lean heavily on accounts from later Saami, Finnish and Finno-Ugric ethnography.  I attempt to ‘anchor’ these later accounts with evidence from the earlier wilderness period, establishing, insofar as possible, continuity from the earlier beliefs and practices.

Timothy Ingold

Ingold refers to ontologies as “orientations that are deeply embedded in everyday practice” in hunting and gathering societies, rather than as “coherent and explicitly articulated doctrinal systems”.  He focuses on two non-Western examples—what he terms “totemism” and “animism”. 

Here Ingold is not using the term “totemism” in the traditional sense, that of clan descent from an original animal ancestor, e.g., a ‘bear clan’.  Instead, he is basing it on particular land-based beliefs and practices of Australian Aboriginal people. On the other hand, his conception of “animism” is based on his reading of the ethnography of the forager peoples of the circumpolar North, who he sees as possessing a quite different way of understanding “the relationships between human beings, animals and the land” from that of totemism.

For Ingold, the primary difference between totemism and animism is in the form taken in each ontology by the “sacred powers” upon which the survival of hunter-gatherer-fishers depended. In totemist ontology, the powers are “petrified” or resident in the land, while in the animist ontology, they are in flux, transitory in form and circulating freely.  For Ingold, these differences have far-reaching consequences for the lives of hunter-gatherer-fishers, particularly for the nature of their sacred art.

We can identify two primary “sacred powers” upon which the survival of the post-Swiderian and post-Ahrensburg peoples of early Finland depended:  1. the keepers or guardians of the local hunting areas—haltijat (Finnish), halder (Saami)—who they contacted as part of the rites of animal ceremonialism, and 2. the souls of animals of the hunt circulating through these rites.  

Both the post-Swiderian and post-Ahrensburg ontologies were animist in terms of the second type of sacred power.  Their practices of animal ceremonialism depended upon the continual circulation of the souls of animals, with a portion returned  to the guardian after the hunt, who in turn provided a new supply of game.  It was a process enabled by shamans engaging in soul journeys. 

However, the two ontological traditions fundamentally differed in the first type of sacred power:  the nature of the keepers or guardians of local hunting areas. 

In the ontology of post-Swiderian peoples of early Finland, the haltijat or guardians of local hunting areas, (who Ingold calls the “spirit masters, who control the disposition of animals”), were free-ranging and fluid in form—in the words of one writer, always “in the course of formation”.  (36) They resided in the other world, tuonpuoleinen (“the other side”) and rarely showed themselves to humans.  By this description of the guardian of the hunting area, the post-Swiderian ontology would seem to be fully animist in Ingold’s typology.

A Finnish 'nature spirit of the marsh', as imagined
by an American artist who studied in Finland

For the indigenous peoples of Australia—upon whom Ingold bases his totemism--powerful ancestor beings “metamorphosed” or “congealed” in the land during the ‘Dreamtime’ as natural phenomena, such as rocks and trees.  Their deposits and traces became land-based power sources that made life possible.

Similarly, for post-Ahrensburg peoples, the spirit keepers or guardians of local hunting areas incarnated at some primordial time as sieidis, a type of deity, as natural objects of stone or wood.  Most often it was as a boulder or rock cliff in the shape of an animal, bird, or human. (29) When encountered and recognised by bands, sieidis became the focus of worship and sacrifice as part of the rites of animal ceremonialism. 

In view of the resemblance between the guardian in the post-Ahrensburg shamanic tradition and that of the Australian tradition, I would use Ingold’s term totemist to describe it.

An embodied sieidi near Ruokalahti. 
The deity’s face is on the right.
(photo: Lëppa)
We have seen that the post-Ahrensburg sub-type of relational ontology has features of both of Ingold’s categories, totemism and animism.  For this reason, I would apply the hybrid term—totemist-animist

Rites of Animal Ceremonialism

The shamanic practices of animal ceremonialism were key to the survival of both the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian peoples, as well as to reaffirming their roles in the “cosmic system of sharing”.  Therefore, it is not surprising that the nature of the practices intimately shaped the ways of life of the two peoples:  in each case they were the central ‘organising principle’. 

The ontological  form that the guardian took in the shamanism of the two peoples—free-ranging or embodied in the landscape—strongly influenced the nature of these practices.  In fact, the differences in animal ceremonialism between the animist post-Swiderian peoples and the totemist-animist post-Ahrensburg peoples were so great that we can refer two distinct ‘sets’ of practices, and on their basis the two peoples developed different ways of living, within the spectrum of hunter-gatherer-fishers. 

Let us consider an example of differences based on an observation from an upcoming post, that the ontological form of guardian spirit persons was important in determining where, and how, they were accessed by shamans as part of rites of animal ceremonialism. 

To illustrate these differences, let us look at brief portraits of the practices of post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian cultures.  The practices of each will be examined in more depth in the next two posts of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland.

Late Komsa Animal Ceremonialism

For the ‘totemist-animist’ Late Komsa, the local landscape was, according to Svestad, “alive with sacred powers and forces” that were embodied in its physical features. (30)  As we have seen, the most important power was the sieidi, the spirit guardian of animal species of a local area, most often embodied in stone and with the image of an animal, bird or human.  In the words of Mulk, the embodied sieidis were “both image and incarnation”: i.e., in their presence, one literally gazed upon the face of the incarnated spirit guardian.  (31)  In his study of rock paintings of the late Neolithic, Finnish archaeologist Antti Lahelma refers to them as “living stone persons”. (32)

Hultkrantz says, “The seite cult most certainly belongs to the oldest religious heritage of the Saamis.”  (33) The root of the word sieidi , s’ejt, , means ‘deity’ and dates from before the time of the appearance of Finno-Ugric languages, suggesting that the tradition is at least as old as the early Mesolithic proto-language of the early Komsa culture.  (34)  In what Sarmela calls the “most original” or earliest role of sieidis, “fishermen and hunters were in contact with the other-worldly owners of the hunting or fishing site or the entire surrounding nature” in a “reciprocal relationship”, i.e., through the rites of animal ceremonialism.  (9)

The sieidis possessed what can be called a rich and commanding personhood.  Ethnographic accounts suggest that they were held in great reverence, even awe, and practices of worship and sacrifice to them were characterised by hierarchy and formality. 

One accounts says, “When the Lapp goes to perform his sacrifice, when he has advanced so far that he sees the place where the god lives, he takes off his cap, bends his body an bows repeatedly, and when he comes nearer he starts to crawl on all fours until he arrives at the stone where he deposits his offerings.”  (35)

Worship of a sieidi with the face of a bird. Drawing by 
Johannes Scheffer from his book Laponia, 1673.

As part of rites of animal ceremonialism, shamans led ceremonies of sacrifice to her of the souls of game animals and fish as ‘food’ in order to ensure her ongoing ontological power to bestow a continuing supply of game.  (35)

The post-Ahrensburg band was not without its own resources in its reciprocal relationship with the powerful sieidi.  For example, if the sieidi did not continue to provide a supply of game or fish or confer other benefits, the band had the option—that according to ethnographic accounts was occasionally exercised—to sever the ontological bond with the sieidi through abandoning or even destroying her physical incarnation.  (35)

At the same time, the Saami are known to have lessened their ‘spiritual distance’ from the sieidi from time to time by cooking and sharing  sacrificial food with her as part of ceremonial feasts.  (29) (32) This suggests that the normally very formal relationship could also become one that was more ‘personal’, based on familiarity between these two sorts of persons—one embodied in flesh and the other in stone—living within a limited geographical area, in on-going reciprocal interaction.

Post-Swiderian Animal Ceremonialism

The orientation of post-Swiderian hunter-gatherer-fishers to the physical landscape, and relations with local guardian haltijat, were quite different from those of the post-Ahrensburg institution.  As noted above, in ontological form, the haltijat were normally invisible and were autonomous and free-ranging—not found at specific locations in the landscape.

The personhood of the haltijat can be called powerful, yet spare and unfixed, or ‘emergent’. (36) (37) (38) (9)  It was necessary for hunter-gatherer-fishers to invite, as well as attract or entice them for ritual encounters at particular places with through products of the sacred arts, including poem persons, song persons and various ritual object persons such as animal head turus(39)

Bear turu person from the Neolithic, National
Museum of Finland (drawing: Sarah Alden)

The specific locations for ritual encounters were chosen through what I would call a transactional process—i.e., by means of reciprocal communication between haltijat and the hunter-gatherers—involving ‘liminal’ places where the gap between the worlds (tämänpuoleinen and tuonpuoleinen) was the smallest, such as at anomalous rocks and cliffs, rapids in streams, and particular trees, groves or springs.  (40) (41)

When contact was made at a specific location, it became for the post-Swiderian  people a portal or point of access to the beings of the other world.  For example, at a stone that had become a portal—what is called a sininen kivi, or ‘Blue Stone’—a shaman was able to offer a portion of fish or game and to engage in dialogic communication with the haltijat of local fishing and hunting areas, particularly to request the ‘humans’ share’ of the future catch or hunt.  (42) (43) (44) (39)

The designs, patterns, and ornamentation of the objects and performances of the sacred arts of post-Swiderian were keyed to enabling the particular ‘adjusted styles of communication’ required by shamans, i.e., invitation and attraction of spirit persons and dialogic communication with them.  (39) (45)

Genichiro Inokkuma, Väinämöinen
Plays the Kantele (1937)

This is exemplified in the graphic above, in which a bird as a symbol of spirit persons of nature is attracted by the singing of a mythic shaman/sage figure— Väinämöinen—and the music of a pike bone kantele person. 

The Neolithic post-Swiderian wilderness shaman would—as  the Bronze Age Väinämöinen figure did—‘send’ a song person who was able to be ‘heard’ across the gap between tämänpuoleinen and tuonpuoleinen, potentially attracting a freely-circulating haltija for dialogue, offerings, and a request on behalf of a band for a continuing supply of game. (9) (45)

Distinctive Ways of Life

In the above descriptions, we saw that the rites used by each people for accessing the power of a guardian conformed to her ‘ontological form’, either embodied in the landscape or free-ranging.  This led to distinct practices of animal ceremonialism as part of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic institutions.

How did the different practices of the two shamanic institutions affect the ways of life of the two peoples?  Let us look at just one such impact:  on their respective relationships to the land.

Regarding where the guardians were accessed, we saw that for the post-Ahrensburg, the guardians of the local hunting areas were encountered by bands as visible forms in the landscape during travels of the band.  Today, sieidis have been identified in large numbers across the northern parts of Finland and northern Fennoscandia.  More than 100 confirmed sieidis have been identified in Finland and there are probably many more to be discovered.  As well, the helping spirits of shamans, called saivo, lived in landforms such as hills and cliffs, that were also numerous across early Finland.  (46)

Sieidi sites that have been identified 
in Finland and beyond

The place where the sieidi stood and its surroundings were ‘holy’ (passe) to the Saami, as were dwelling places of saivo.  Cumulatively, these sacred boundaries demarcated a large geographical expanse within early Finland and across the remainder of northern Fennoscandia to which post-Ahrensburg peoples were intimately tied through ‘sacred partnerships’ with the materially inscribed owners of the land and with the spirit helpers who also resided there.

Australian Aboriginal peoples considered their strong relationship to the land—occupied by the material evidence of the presence of their Hero ancestors of the Dreamtime—as “timeless and inextinguishable”. (47)  I suggest that the same would have been true of the post-Ahrensburg peoples with regard to the areas that were dense with embodied sieidis and the cliff and fell abodes of saivo

As we saw above, Meinander believes that the hunter-gatherer-fisher cultures of Northern Europe, including Finland, were very open to other peoples and cultures. In light of this, I suggest that the post-Swiderian peoples adjoining the sacred lands would have been accepting of the customs of their post-Ahrensburg neighbours, respecting their boundaries and avoiding these areas in their travel, hunting and ceremonial practices. This flexibility was possible for the post-Swiderian cultures as they possessed what I would call a more ‘fluid’ relationship to the land, oriented to the places where free-ranging spirit guardians could be attracted, rather than to fixed, predetermined locations. 

At the same time, by avoiding the areas, post-Swiderian bands would have limited their opportunities for physical encounters with members of post-Ahrensburg bands, and therefore also possibilities for reciprocal sharing with them.  In turn, this would have contributed to the social and geographical differentiation of the two peoples.  

The reasoning I use to reach this conclusion is consistent with the work of archaeologist Marcie Madden, who studied the spatial patterns of interaction among the post-Ahrensburg hunter-gatherer-fishers of southern Norway.  (48)  Normally, archaeologists rely on ecological, economic or political factors to explain why hunter-gatherer-fisher groups either came together or stayed apart geographically in prehistory, but Madden argues that social factors, including  what she terms “religion”, were just as important.  Like the other factors, social factors had the potential to either facilitate or limit the social interaction among groups across large regions. This sometimes led to the geographical differentiation of populations from one another, as I am proposing happened with those of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian cultures.  

It is important to note that this possible source of differentiation of populations—respect for, and avoidance of, sacred boundaries—does not stem from divisions between them of an ‘ethnic’ nature, ‘us vs. others’ sentiments, such as proposed by Torvinen and Huurre.   On the contrary, it arises precisely from the openness of the peoples to one another and from the commonality between them as “children of the forest”, forging sacred partnerships with the spirit guardians of the land. 

Openness and respect between the post-Swiderian and post-Ahrensburg peoples of the Mesolithic and Neolithic appears to have been mirrored in a later stage of prehistory.  In his reading of Kalevala metre runic poems of the Iron Age and early Middle Ages, Vladimir Šumkin identifies what he considers a theme of respect on the part of Finnish people—inhabitants of ‘Kaleva’—for the inhabitants of ‘Pohjola’: ‘Laplanders’, i.e. Saami peoples—who had continued their wilderness way of life.  

Competition between the two peoples also plays a role, but it does not make the theme of respect what Šumkin calls a “fairy-tale motif” in the runes.  In fact, “overall”, Finnish people of the time—many of whom were now practicing a wilderness-oriented form of agriculture called swiddening—“understood…the inhabitants of North Fennoscandia who, instead of moving along the main historical path, chose…their own system of values which enabled them to preserve their identity under the extreme environmental conditions.” (4) 

Differing relationships to the land is only one of the ways that divergent practices of animal ceremonialism contributed to the distinctiveness of post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian populations.  We will explore additional examples in coming posts. 


In this post, I have argued that Finland has been home since the early Mesolithic of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic institutions, which in turn formed part of shamanic lineages stretching back to the Palaeolithic Iberian and Ukrainian Ice Age refuges. 

Further, I have argued that the two institutions played a role in the social and geographic differentiation of populations in early Finland.  The differentiation was signalled in the archaeological record by divergence in the designs of Sär 1 and  Sperrings 1 ceramics.  I proposed the following as an explanation: 

  • Underlying the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian shamanic institutions were distinct ontologies—what Ingold calls “orientations deeply embedded in everyday practice”—that I have termed animist and totemist-animist.
  • I suggested that the two ontologies engendered quite different rites of animal ceremonialism in the two shamanic institutions, rites that were key to survival and to the “cosmic system of sharing” in the wilderness setting of early Finland. 
  • In turn, differences in ways of life associated with these divergent sets of rites help explain the social and geographic differentiation that existed between the cultures that were the ‘bearers’ of the institutions.
  • The core practices and ontologies of the post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian institutions were periodically renewed and stabilised through influences emanating from larger shamanic complexes beyond Finland, the ‘keepers’ of the respective forms of shamanism.
  • In this way, the two institutions—and the differentiation of populations—continued down through prehistory to the proto-Saami, proto-Finnish, and proto-Karelian cultures of the Bronze Age. 
Speaking just of the post-Swiderian tradition, I believe that this analysis supports Martti Haavio’s view, referred to earlier, that modern Finns are heir to an ancient shamanistic institution that drew upon the shamanistic practices of northern Eurasia and represents an ancient tradition that stretches back to the Palaeolithic. 

Martti Haavio, 1960

Moreover, it illuminates the background to Siikala’s observation that in the view of some scholars of Finnish folklore and archaeology, including Haavio, shamanism is the “oldest cultural legacy of Finnishness.”  (23)  This legacy is evident in the present day, not least in the sense in Finnish culture of continuing ontological bonds with the guardians of nature.

Looking Ahead

In Post 4 I will explore in more detail the distinct practices and ontologies of the two institutions, post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian.  I will not attempt to fully describe the two institutions in all their complexity.  Rather, I will continue to concentrate on what I consider to be the ‘heart’ of their practices and ontologies:  the rites of animal ceremonialism.  At the same time, I will describe the nature of the two shamanic complexes, one centred in northern Fennoscandia and the other in Russia, and their influences on the shamanic institutions of early Finland.

Then in subsequent posts I will use the above explanatory principle of distinct shamanic institutions to explore important questions concerning the prehistory of Finland.  For example, I will suggest that the explanatory principle provides us with a tool for interpreting objects and performances of the sacred arts.  Layton says, “art which is the product of shamanism…can only be understood in terms of the theory of being that generates such customs.”

Put another way, through identifying the specific ‘ontological frame’ of  the artists of the two institutions, we are able to make more valid interpretations of, and comparisons between, the creations of the sacred artists associated with each.  I will focus on selected examples including ceramic designs, ceramic figurines, wooden sculptures, ritual instruments, and contributions to the late Neolithic rock painting tradition in the Lake Saimaa region.

Later, I will employ the principle to address what is the central question of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland, the nature of the transition of Finnish peoples from the wilderness noita to the later tietäjä.  I will argue that the post-Swiderian shamanic lineage did not end in the Bronze Age with the emergence of the tietäjä tradition, but rather continued on into the modern period in a unique form that challenges conventional definitions of shamanism. 


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  1. This provides good answers to some very essential questions. The resistance to an absolute agricultural mode of living leads me to remark that the famous Finnish stubbornness is an ancient aspect of the culture.