Thursday, June 29, 2017

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland - Part 4

The Finnish Forest

Beginning in the Mesolithic Age, early wilderness Finland was the meeting ground for two distinct shamanic institutions.  According to cultural anthropologist Matti Sarmela, Finns (Suomalaiset) and Karelians on one hand, and Saami on the other, are the direct descendants of the “aboriginal Europeans” who peopled these institutions. (1)

 Finnish forest: Nuuksio, 2010 Sarah Alden
Sarmela observes that these modern cultures of Finland “have retained information about the world of the ancient fisher-hunter-gatherers of the continent, not revealed from archaeological finds in the rest of Europe.” (2) One evidence of this is the international renown that Finland has achieved for the love and concern for nature expressed in its culture(s) and by many of its citizens.  I see this in part as a modern reflection of the ontological bonds established by the shamanic institutions of prehistory with the haltias (Suomalaiset and Karelians) and háldis (Saami)—the masters and protectors of local landscapes that I have also called ‘guardians of nature’. 

Sarmela, specifically referring to Finns and Karelians, believes that the tradition of the haltia persisted for them into early modern times:  “Man (sic) would come into contact with haltias of the natural environment when spending the night in the forest or in hunting or fishing huts, when clearing swidden or building a house on the haltia’s land.  These legends reflect a real belief that every place has its own haltia.” (3) Laura Stark adds that, “Particularly in Eastern Finland, folk ritual practices regarding haltias included magic and offerings made to appease the place spirits or ensure success in economic efforts such as hunting, fishing, grain cultivation, and cattle husbandry.” (4)

This tradition continues to be honoured in a national park in Espoo, the city to the immediate west of the capital, Helsinki. 

In Nuuksio National Park, on Lake Pitkäjärvi, there is an innovative forest centre called Haltia.  Its architecture and some of its programming represent attempts to engage with the ancient sacred worldviews of Finland. 

A Painting on the Cliff

South of the nature centre on Lake Pitkäjärvi is the Jäniskallio cliff.  Near the water’s edge, there is a rock painting of what appears to be an elk, created by Neolithic hunter-gatherer-fishers. 

The Jäniskallio elk painting is near water level, and is 47 cm (18.5 in) wide and 28 cm (11 in) high. This rock painting site is one of about 125 that have been discovered in Finland. (5)

The elk rock painting is possibly related to the haltia (Finnish) or hálti (Saami) of the area, portrayed as the guardian of the elk.

Which of the two shamanic institutions of hunter-gatherer-fishers of early Finland was responsible for the Jäniskallio elk painting—the post-Ahrensburg institution, to which later Saami shamanism is heir, or the post-Swiderian institution, that is ancestral to later Finnish shamanism?  The answer to this question matters because rock painting is a form of sacred art that, because of its graphic and expressive nature, offers a privileged window on Neolithic Finland.  When we are able to match a painting with the shamanic institution that created it, we deepen our understanding of the lifeways and worldviews of that particular institution. 

There is broad agreement that both shamanic institutions participated in the rock painting tradition of early Finland, and there are indications that bands associated with each one lived at various times in the area around Helsinki and Espoo.  Even though their respective rituals of animal ceremonialism differed greatly, both were known to have included stone cliffs such as those of Jäniskallio (see photo below) as central ritual elements. 

However, at present there is not sufficient archaeological evidence to definitively establish the shamanic institution that was the source of the red ochre elk of Pitkäjärvi.  The same applies to most, if not all, rock painting sites of Finland.

The issue of lack of definitive material evidence is not confined to rock paintings; the origin of many sacred art artifacts of early Finland is similarly uncertain.  Fortunately, there is an additional form of evidence available to assist us:  the ‘ontological frames’ of the sacred artists of the two institutions. 

Two Shamanic Institutions, Two Ontologies

A critical difference that I identified in Post 3 between the two shamanic institutions of early Finland, post-Ahrensburg and post-Swiderian, was in terms of the ontology—the basic assumptions about the nature of reality, or Layton’s terms, the “theory of being”—that guided each. I termed them totemist-animist and animist respectively.  Each set the ‘ontological frame’ within which sacred artists of the institution worked, which in turn today provides us with an important key for differentiating and interpreting their products of sacred art.  (Let us recall Layton’s statement in Post 3 that “art which is the product of shamanism…can only be understood in terms of the theory of being that generates such customs.” (6)) 

In practical terms, how do we make use of this important key?  A method has been developed by a Finnish archaeologist, Antti Lahelma, who researches the rock art of Finland.  In A Touch of Red, he uses ethnographic accounts of the pre-Christian Finns and Saami to derive what I am calling the ‘ontological frames’ of each.  (While he does not explicitly use this term, he works within the ‘new animism’ and at the heart of his analysis are the ontologies of the two groups.)  He then employs them in close coordination with archaeological evidence to identify the probable institutional belongingness of rock paintings across Finland and to interpret their meaning. (7) 

Lahelma (photo above) focuses his analysis specifically on rock paintings.  However, I believe his pioneering method—using ontological frames derived from ethnology and archaeology to address questions of authorship and interpretation where archaeological materials alone are not sufficient—can be extended to all forms of sacred art of early Finland.  I will use it in this expanded way in the present and coming posts. 

At the same time, I take issue with Lahelma’s portrayals of the ontological frames of the two shamanic institutions of early Finland.  I feel his account of that of the post-Ahrensburg shamanic institution is incomplete in important respects, and that he misunderstands the ontology of the post-Swiderian institution, seeing it as little more than a variation on the post-Ahrensburg one.  For this reason, over the next two posts I will develop my own accounts of the respective ontological frames of the two shamanic institutions, pointing out where I depart from Lahelma’s characterisations of them.  (Based on my own accounts of the two ontological frames, I reach different conclusions regarding the authorship and interpretation of rock paintings than does Lahelma, a topic I will explore in a later post focussing specifically on rock painting.)

In coming posts I will put the reformulated ontological frames to work in conjunction with archaeological evidence, using the method developed by Lahelma. I will trace the nature and separate evolution of the two shamanic institutions of Finland of prehistory by means of their sacred arts, including rock paintings, ceramic designs, ceramic figurines, wooden sculptures, and ritual instruments.

As a preliminary step, I will now briefly explain what I mean by the ‘ontological frame’ within which a sacred artist works. 

Defining ‘Ontological Frame’

In Post 1 I defined sacred art objects or performances as those “empowered with the agency to help establish and mediate communication with the other world, as part of appropriate shamanic rituals.”  How was this ‘empowered agency’ imparted to objects and performances? 

I suggest it was imparted through the action of artists when, in conversation with spirit, they created forms, designs, patterns, and/or ornamentation that were fully guided by the ontology, or “indigenous theory of how the world works” of their shamanic institution.  (I will address the nature of this ‘conversation with spirit’ in later posts.)

There are three elements that I consider to be at the heart or core of the ontologies of the two shamanic institutions. I present them here as questions for which each institution had answers, not as part of a formal thought system, but implicitly, in Ingold’s words, as “orientations that are deeply embedded in everyday practice”.  (8) 

I believe that the respective sets of answers by the two institutions to the three ‘core questions’ (a) can be considered as constituting the ‘ontological frames’ of the work of their sacred artists, and in turn, (b) can help us to distinguish and interpret the products and performances of each.  (Note: I borrow the term “sacred geography” from Tiina Äikäs.  See reference 14 below.)

I will now give a preliminary sense of how the answers to the above core questions might have framed the work of a sacred artist, specifically through the example of a shaman’s drum. 

A Shaman’s Drum

As part of their ontological form, spirit persons may have the capacity to ‘hear’ human sounds and to positively respond to sonic driving.  If this is the case, then drums skillfully created by the sacred artist, and played as part of an appropriate shamanic drumming ‘performance’, have the potential to help a shaman establish an ‘adjusted state of communication’ with the spirit persons.    

Since both of the shamanic institutions of early Finland used drums as part of shamanic rituals, it is it apparent that both also recognised the power of ‘hearing’ of spirit persons. Helskog says of the Saami, “drums were used to establish contact between man (sic) and the supernatural powers, to secure a good outcome in any type of undertaking.” (9)  Similarly, Siikala says, “The means utilised by the Finnish noita in order to achieve an ecstatic state was song.  It seems that noitas also used various kinds of musical instruments (and) in the earliest periods, such instruments were doubtless the drum, which typified Northern Eurasian hunting cultures.” (10)

Because drums were a common Northern animist heritage, their use was not a basis for differentiation of the sacred arts of the two shamanic institutions.  However, while it is not known what designs the drums of noitas might have had (none are known to exist), some drums of Saami noaidis have survived from early modern Finland and the decorative designs on the heads are considered to have particular shamanic significance. 

Above is an Saami drum from the early modern period, residing at the National Museum of Finland.  The markings on the animal hide drum face are quite faded, but a portion of them are traced and enhanced in the graphic below. In 1950, Ernst Manker interpreted the figures, indicated by the numbers placed next to them. (11)

There is evidence that the Saami saw sacred drums as animated beings.  For example, Lund says, “The concept of animated, personified objects is a well-known element of Sami tradition with the drum as the most conspicuous example.” (12)  For this reason, we may consider the ontological form of the old drum residing at the National Museum to be that of a ‘drum person’.

Pentikäinen says of Saami sacred drums, “It is evident that the construction of the drum demanded a specialised knowledge of shamanic rituals and mythology.  This is especially true in the case of the symbolic figures on the face of the drum, which were carved into the surface of its skin and afterward outlined in blood.”  Pentikäinen suggests that to have had this level of knowledge, the sacred artists “presumably” were “religious specialists”, and “most likely shamans themselves”.  (13)

Pentikäinen characterises what he calls the “drawings” on the drum as “symbols” related to Saami “religion” and “mythology”.  However, if their ontological form had been simply as ‘symbols’, the drawings would not have had the capacity to define their own contributions to the power of the animated drum.  

Instead, I believe it is likely that the “drawing” figures were considered animated, just like the drum.  I would call them ‘drum drawing persons’, who contributed to the overall animacy of the drum.  That is, a sacred artist would have assisted spirit persons to take ontological form, in the middle world, as drawings on the drum head—in addition to their ontological forms in the upper or lower world.  In turn, the drawing persons would have assisted a noaidi to better achieve adjusted communication with the other worlds during his shamanic drum performances.  When ‘enlivened’ as part of a shamanic ritual, they would have lent their ‘voices’ to the sounds of the drumming, and when ‘seen’ on the drum head by spirit persons, they would have appeared as familiar and trusted.


Above are three ‘drum drawing persons’ selected from the face of the shaman’s drum at the National Museum, each representing one of the tripartite ‘worlds’ of the Saami: upper, middle and lower.  Based on the interpretation by Manker, at left is the Radien-trinity of the upper world, with halos above their heads. In the centre is a beaver, of the middle world.  From the lower world, at the right, is Jabmeaimo, the realm of the dead, and standing beside it is a person from the realm of the dead. 

Owing to the co-presence of beings from each of the three worlds, during a shamanic ritual the animal skin drum head would have become—in ontological terms—an ‘animated island’, located within what Aikas calls the “sacred geography” of the Saami. (14) It would have been a living microcosm of the topography of their tripartite worlds.  The residents of the ‘animated island’ would have included the array of spirit persons who were considered by the band to be essential for their survival.  From this array, the noaidi would have called forth the assistance of an individual drum drawing person, or an ensemble of them, to help intercede with the particular spirit persons of the tripartite worlds who were most important for the success of the shamanic ritual.

The noaidi was the mediator of the tripartite worlds, residing in the middle world but journeying to the other two, the upper and the lower, carrying on reciprocal social relations with spirit persons there.  Above, on the left, is a graphic by Picart, depicting a noaidi lying on the ground in shamanic trance, with his drum on his back. The drum drawing person on the right is interpreted by Manker as a noaidi, holding his drum.

Hellander-Renvall says that, “Sami subsistence people perceive lands, and animals and spirits dwelling on those lands as persons and acting subjects.” (15)  The foremost spirit persons dwelling on the lands were the sieidis and saivosSieidis were deities who had often taken the ontological form of stone boulders or cliffs.  They were the háldis, masters of the game of local areas.

Manker identified the drum figure above as possibly a sieidi deity ( a “stone idol seita”).  Next to it is the Tatsi Seita located near Kittilä, Finland.  (16)  The bleached antlers of an elk, offered as a sacrifice, are visible near the top. 

According to Manker’s interpretation, the drum drawing person pictured above is a saivo, specifically ”Noidekörmai, the shaman’s snake”.  Saivos were guardian spirit persons of the noaidi who accompanied or led him on shamanic journeys, and who inhabited stone cliffs, hills and mountains. 

The principal form of social relations between Saami and spirit persons was animal ceremonialism, involving the stone sieidi deity.  It was a reciprocal relationship, in which the band provided a sacrifice to the sieidi, usually of elk or elk body parts where hunting was the main means of subsistence.  

The figure from the drum above was interpreted by Manker as an “offering and two elks on an offering place”. 

The above figure is interpreted by Manker as “Elks in a forest”, suggesting the plentiful game that the sieidi would make available to the Saami in exchange for a sacrifice.  Their presence on the drum would have represented success in the interchange between the Saami band and the sieidi deity, living ‘products’ of reciprocal social relations.


On one level, the array of drawings on the Saami noaidi drum in the National Museum can be seen as presenting something of a guide to Saami ‘mythology’ and ritual life.  This would seem to be how Pentikäinen approaches it.  However, I have argued that as part of the Saami “theory of how the world works”, the drawings are more than mere symbols or depictions of belief, or inspirations for the noaidi in ritual settings. 

Instead, I have argued, the inhabitants of the face of the ‘drum person’ (as Lund and others would term it) are themselves living ‘actors’ or ‘subjects’, assisting in shamanic journeys to those places where the spirit persons who govern the welfare of the Saami band reside, and in the rituals calling forth their help.  In creating the noaidi’s drum, the sacred artist would have negotiated—with the sieidi deity, the elk persons, ”Noidekörmai, the shaman’s snake”, and the others—for their living presence on the drum face.

In terms of my formal definition of sacred arts, we can say that the noaidi’s drum of the National Museum was “empowered with the agency to help establish and mediate communication with the tripartite worlds, as part of a shamanic ritual”.   This empowerment was made possible because the sacred artist who created the drum—probably a noaidi—was guided by the Saami/post-Ahrensburg ontological frame in his design of the drum head.  This was in terms of 1) the ontological forms of spirit persons, e.g. their presence on the drum head as drawing persons, 2) the nature of social relations with spirit persons, e.g., the presence of the sieidi as háldi and of the elk as sacrifices, and 3) the sacred geography of these social relations, e.g., the creation of an ‘island’ of the Saami tripartite worlds on the drum head.

In this preliminary example, Lahelma’s method of using ontological frames derived from ethnology and archaeology assisted us in interpreting the meaning of the Saami drum. It suggests that the method can apply beyond rock paintings to other forms of sacred art of early Finland.  However, because we have no examples of drums used by Finnish shamans, or noitas, we cannot use drum head figures to differentiate between the work of the two shamanic institutions. 

A fuller application of Lahelma’s method awaits more extensive exploration of the ontological frames of the two shamanic institutions.  I provided above only an abbreviated version of the post-Ahrensburg shamanic ontological frame. In the next post, I will consider this frame in greater depth, based its answers to the three core questions above. 

Following the post on the post-Ahrensburg institution, I will present another that explores the ontological frame of the post-Swiderian shamanic institution, ancestral to Finnish shamanism.  Anticipating this post, I present below the cover of the 2015 album of the Finnish folk metal band Korpiklanni, titled Noita.  It reflects, I believe, further evidence for Sarmela’s view that the cultures of Finland—even the popular cultures—“have retained information about the world of the ancient fisher-hunter-gatherers”. 

Kalle “Cane” Savijärvi, a guitarist of Korpiklanni, said in an interview, “The translation of ‘Noita’ is a witch – lots of people though associate it with Black Sabbath, dark rituals or an evil woman with broom flying. It’s nothing like that! The traditional Finnish meaning is a healer or shaman, and it could be a man or a woman.”  (17)


1.    Sarmela, Matti. Finnish Folklore Atlas: Ethnic Culture of Finland 2. SKS, The Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2009.
2.    Ibid.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Stark-Arola, Laura. Magic, Body and Social Order. SKS, The Finnish Literary Society, Helsinki, 1998
5.    Lahelma, Antti. A Touch of Red: Archaeological and Ethnographic Approaches to Interpreting Finnish Rock Paintings. Iskos . Finnish Antiquarian Society, Helsinki 2008
6.    Layton, Robert. Shamanism, Totemism and Rock Art: Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire in the Context of Rock Art Research. Cambridge Archaeological Journal . Vol. 10, 1, 2000.
7.    Lahelma, Antti. A Touch of Red: Archaeological and Ethnographic Approaches to Interpreting Finnish Rock Paintings. Iskos . Finnish Antiquarian Society, Helsinki 2008
8.    Ingold, Tim. Totemism, animism and the depiction of animals. In The Perception of the Environment. : Routledge, London and New York , 2000.
9.    Helskog, Knut. Selective depictions.  A study of 3,500 years of rock carvings from Arctic Norway and their relationship to the Sami drums.  Archaeology as Long-Term History, Ian Hodder (ed) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, London, New York, 2009
10. Siikala, Anna-Leena. Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry. Academia Sientiarum Fennica, Helsinki,  2002.
11. Manker, Ernst. The Figures of the Shaman Drum, 1950.  Display materials of the National Museum of Finland, no date.
12. Lund, Julie. Living Places or Animated Objects? Sámi Sacrificial Places with Metal Objects and Their South Scandinavian Parallels.  Acta Borealia, 2015 Vol. 32, No. 1, 20-39
13. Pentikäinen, Juha. The Sámi shaman – mediator between man and universe, in Mihály Hoppál (ed.) Shamanism in Eurasia, Part 1.  : Edition Herodot, Gottingen, 1984
14. Äikäs, Tiina. From Boulders to Fells: Sacred Places in the Sámi Ritual Landscape. Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 5, Helsinki, 2015
15. Helander-Remvall, Elina.  Animism, personhood and the nature of reality: Sami perspectives. Polar Record 46 (236): 44-56 (2010)
16. Äikäs, Tiina. From Boulders to Fells: Sacred Places in the Sámi Ritual Landscape. Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 5, Helsinki, 2015
17. The Metalist, “An Interview with Korpiklanni”, April 2015 (accessed on the web June 28, 2017)

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