Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A History of Finnish Shamanism: Part 1


According to Anna-Leena Siikala, “The origin of Finnish shamanism is indeed traceable to the ancient northern hunting cultures.”  (1)  In this multipart series of posts, I follow the prehistory of Finnish shamanism back to its origin in the hunting cultures of the Mesolithic Age, and then down to the time it ended in Finland and Karelia during the Iron Age, perhaps as late as 1300 AD.

I use the term ‘Uralic-Finnic’ to refer to the shamanic institutions of the ancient northern hunting cultures, indicating that they were Finno-Ugric and, in turn, formed part of the broader Uralic culture of Central Russia (also called European Russia). 

The Uralic-Finnic hunter-gatherer-fishers of Central Russia and Finland and Karelia depended for their survival on the rites of animal ceremonialism, centred on their reciprocal relationships with the spirit guardians of game of local areas.  The basis of the relationships is what I call the ‘ontological frame’ of each shamanic institution.  In my previous post I described the frame of the Arctic-Saami institution, and in the series of posts A History of Finnish Shamanism I will do the same for the Uralic-Finnic.  I suggest that the frames of both institutions were relatively stable across millennia, and that this ‘shamanic continuity’ makes it possible to trace the Uralic-Finnic institution from its inception to its conclusion.

Reconstructing the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame involves answering three questions from the standpoint of the foragers:  What ontological forms do spirit persons take? What is the nature of social relations between human persons and spirit persons? What is the nature of the ‘sacred geography’ of the worlds—of this world and the other world—where these social relations take place? 

We have no direct accounts from the historical period of Uralic-Finnic forager lifeways or rites to help us formulate the answers, as we did for the Arctic-Saami institution.  For this reason, I am primarily relying upon the evidence of Uralic mythology, Russian ethnology as based on the bylina tradition, archaeological finds and writings, and Finnish ethnography as based upon the Kalevala metre runes: the metrical folk poems of Finland and Karelia dating from the Bronze Age onward. 

 © Johannes Setälä

In the painting above by shaman-artist Johannes Setälä, the mythic figure of Väinämöinen points to the Kalevala metre runes—as popularised by Elias Lönnrot in his book, the Kalevala—as a key to understanding the shamanic past of Finland and Karelia. 

The World Tree and the Blue Stone Tradition

In the recent Spirit Boat post on the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution, we saw that the ontological form of the guardian of game of a local area was the sieidi, a deity of the otherworld who physically resides in ‘this world’ as a living stone person.  Into the historical period in Finland and Karelia, Saami directed worship, supplication and sacrifices to sieidis in order to achieve hunting and fishing success. 

Laestadius observes that unlike the Saami, “The Finns never had stone gods.” (2)  However, stones have also figured as key elements of Finnish spiritual traditions.  Various anomalous boulders, rock gorges, ‘cupstones’, ‘church stones’, holes or cracks in cliffs, and more across Finland and Karelia have since pre-Christian times been considered by Finns as holy, or sacred.  However, rather than indicating embodied deities, they have been points of access or portals where communication has been carried on with ancestors and spirit persons of the other world, and sometimes, like the Saami, to obtain hunting and fishing success. 

An example of a stone of this kind is the Kapeenmäki boulder, pictured below, near Kuopio.  There is a small cave beneath the boulder and the floor has a pool of water after rainy weather. According to Kesalainen and Kejonen, “the place reflects the world of shamans, with the sky of the spirits above; the side of the rock in front; and the pool below which is a gateway to Manala (mythological underworld and realm of the dead).”  (3)  This description evokes the liminal quality of the site: a meeting place of the physical and cosmological worlds.

Kapeenmäki boulder
“Kesalainen and Kejonen continue: “The boulder is among places used by one of Savo’s last great tietäjäs, Rotikko-Pekka (1855-1927), Christian name Petter Ruotsalainen, for his healing activities. It is protected by a strong haltija (mythological guardian spirit).” 

Can we discover a link, as the authors Kesalainen and Kejonen have suggested, between the sacred Kapeenmäki boulder and the much earlier shamanic rituals and practices of Uralic-Finnic hunter-gatherer-fishers of Finland and Karelia?  In this post I will suggest that stone landscape elements like this one, with connections to the Bronze and Iron Ages, are related to the much older mythic tradition of the “Blue Stone” and related ‘cult stones’ that originated as early as the Mesolithic Age in the Uralic heartland of Central Russia.  Ahlqvist calls it a “tradition of the fixed stone which provides access to the mythic world and finds manifestations in the immediate landscape.”  (4)  Siikala suggests that it is “a tradition whose roots lie in the shamanistic world of belief.” (5)

Ahlqvist contends that hunter-gatherer-fishers of Central Russia gathered at these fixed stones in order to communicate with spirit guardians of game.  I will suggest that this mythic tradition played a key part in the genesis of the original ontological frame of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic complex centred in the area of the interfluve of the Volga and Oka rivers. 

I will explore Ahlqvist’s view that the Blue Stone mythic tradition travelled from Central Russia to Finland and Karelia through successive waves of cultural influence.  I will suggest that the tradition was transformed in Finland and Karelia, going beyond the one in Central Russia.  Instead of solely centring on specific stones in the landscape, it became a generalised system of mythic themes and images that provided a flexible and evolving guide for Uralic-Finnic bands for locating rock formations— cliffs, boulders, rock clefts, and more—that were portals to the other world.  At these places communication could be carried on with guardians of game and healing rituals could be conducted.  I will suggest a rock painting site in Finland—Saraakallio—exhibits evidence of being such a portal.

While I consider the cultural model of the Blue Stone to be at the heart of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame in Finland and Karelia, I suggest that an equally potent force in shaping the frame were new technologies of sacred art.  They arrived with the same successive waves of cultural influence from the Volga-Oka region that brought the Blue Stone tradition.  The products of the new mediums became central to the rites of the local Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution, offering fresh avenues for attracting and communicating with spirit persons of game.  The technologies that I will consider here include sculpting of large wooden statues; crafting of items of clay; and carving and painting of rock surfaces. 

Finally, I will consider how the Blue Stone tradition of Finland and Karelia became transformed for a second time, in the Iron Age, when agriculture took its place alongside hunting and fishing as a means of subsistence and the institution of Finnish shamanism drew to a close.  At this time a new type of ritual practitioner, the tietäjä, began to take over from the shaman (noita) as the principal mediator between the community and the other world.  Sacrifices at landscape elements of stone continued to be made by hunters and fishers to ensure success. However, the stone landscape elements also began to be used in new ways, for example in healing rituals such as those of Rotikko-Pekka at the Kapeenmäki boulder, for appeals for abundant crops and for reciprocal contact with ancestors.

The Blue Stone of Creation

Before I address the above questions, I wish to point out ethnographic evidence of the presence of the ancient Blue Stone tradition in Finland and Karelia as late as the Iron Age.  This is contained in a Kalevala metre rune that, while influenced by later Germanic themes that were current then, also reflects themes that are altogether more ancient.  Frog says of the rune, “The depiction resonates with many of the broad international associations which have been brought to bear on the Blue Stone.” (6)

The rune was recorded by a collector in Karelia in 1845.  It tells of the creation of the world, in which a Blue Stone came to form the base of the ‘World Tree’, serving as a point of access to the other world.  (6)  In ancient Uralic mythology, the World Tree, also called the ‘Cosmic Tree’ or ‘Tree of Life’, extends from its roots in the lower world, up through the middle, or physical world, and finally to the heavens: the upper world.  By means of the tree, the shaman—in an ecstatic state—travels through and among these tripartite realms for purposes such as securing favourable conditions for subsistence for his band, for healing, and for responding to community-wide crises. 

In the rune, the ‘Blue Stone of Creation’ appears as part of the first ground raised in the primal sea.  Väinämöinen, a mythic hero figure in the runic tradition, comes upon the stone and breaks it open.  This allows a snake, or adder, to emerge from the other world, reflecting ancient Finno-Ugric mythic traditions of how spirits entered the world through a stone broken at the world’s creation.  (6)

The stone split into two
The boulder into three parts.
There an adder was drinking beer,
A snake was sipping maltwort
Inside the blue stone…

Väinämöinen tears off the head of the snake, creating a river of blood. The World Tree, in Finnish tradition called Iso Tammi, ‘the Great Oak’, grows from it. The tree subsequently grows so large that it blocks the sun and moon and must be cut down.  (6)

Above is a depiction of Väinämöinen sitting at the base of the World Tree, playing a mytho-magical kantele.

Below is a Neolithic Age rock painting located on a cliff at the Saraakallio rock painting site near Laukaa, Finland. It  can be interpreted as reflecting the mythic themes of the rune that we have examined. 

Photo: Leppä
In the early Kalevala metre runes, ‘adder’ commonly appears as a synonym for ‘seer’ or ‘shaman’.  (7) The painting can be seen as showing a shaman—in the form of a snake—emerging from the otherworld through a cleft in a Blue Stone cliff, recalling a spirit entering the world through a stone that has been broken open. 

Mythology as Evidence

The ‘World Tree’; ‘The Blue Stone of Creation’; and the ‘snake as traveler between the worlds’ are what Siikala calls “mythic images”: discrete motifs of mythology.  (5)  They are part of larger interconnected complexes of images that together form the mythology of the ancient Uralic, predominantly Finno-Ugric, shamanic cultures of Northern Eurasia.  This includes those of Finland and Karelia, and the images are embedded in their ancient cosmologies.

In laying out the story of the Finno-Ugric ontological frame, I will rely on mythology as a primary form of evidence.  Siikala observes that, “Myth deals with the problems of existence and the conditions for guaranteeing it.”  (8)  I would add that as the nature of the problems of existence of foragers of prehistory changed over time, myth grew and evolved. 

Commenting on the truth value of myth, Finnish folklore scholar Juoko Hautala says that for early peoples, myths “are not just considered true stories but rather as living reality (that) continued to influence the world and the destinies of people.” (9)  Myth is “a powerful active force” that lives through ritual and through sacred art, as exemplified by in the interpretation that I put forward of the rock painting at Saraakallio.  For animists of both prehistory and today, like myself, myth is an avenue to deeper understanding of—and engagement with—the nature of non-dual reality. 
The Blue Stones of Northern Eurasia

Siikala says “the Finns’ early forefathers belonged to those cultures where shamanism was a common practice.” (1)  However, she points out that a major challenge in reconstructing the nature of the shamanic cultures of Central Russia is that the early establishment of agriculture there “masked” or “overshadowed” evidence of their shamanic rituals and practices. (8)   In this regard, the Blue Stone mythic tradition is particularly valuable as a surviving element of the shamanic past of northern Eurasia, including Central Russia, and later of Finland and Karelia. 

According to Arya Ahlqvist, “Across the millennia following the Ice Age, peoples of the northern strip of Eurasia were developing their own traditions of ‘the cult of the stone’—and above all, the archaic category addressed here as the Blue Stone.”  She says the blue stone provided access to the “mythic or supernatural world”.  She likens it in its significance to the other major “cult of the stone”, the sieidi tradition of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution. (4)

Based on her field research, Ahlqvist points to a “massive phenomenon of cult stones referred to as ‘Blue Stones’ found across a vast expanse of Northern Eurasia”.  (4)  She charts the extent of toponyms carrying the name Blue Stone as identified through maps, ethnographic records, and the testimony of local informants.

The Blue Stone tradition originated among Finno-Ugrian tribes centred in the Volga-Oka region of Central Russia, as part of Uralic culture.  The map above shows that from its original home, the tradition radiated outward across Northern Eurasia, including to Finland, Karelia and Estonia.  Regarding the age of the tradition, Ahlqvist says, “I consider it obvious that the cultural-historical phenomenon itself already underwent its main distribution in the period of ancient hunting and fishing cultures of the Stone Age.”  (4)

The Russian term for Blue Stone Sinij kamen, a translation of the Finno-Permian term ‘black stone’, was incorporated into Russian in the early Middle Ages.  (It is thought that whether called blue or black, the reference was to stones on the dark end of the spectrum.)  The Finnish folklorist known as Mr. Frog says, “if this argument is correct, it shows a history of the blue stone as a point of access to the supernatural world going back several thousand years.” (6)

The timing of several thousand years seems too conservative:  as Mr. Frog himself suggests, it is not known how long before the term for ‘black stone’ was incorporated in Russian that it existed in Finno-Permian, or in that language’s parent, Finno-Ugric.  The origin of the tradition could be as early as 8,000 BC, for as Ahlqvist says in reference to the oldest known and perhaps original Blue Stone at Lake Pleščeevo, “archaeologists date the treatment of the legendary Blue Stone as a cult object from the Mesolithic period.” (4)

The Blue Stone of Lake Pleščeevo (above) is located near Novgorod, in the area of the interfluve of the Volga and Oka rivers.  The stone, made of metamorphic biotite-quartz rock, appears grayish in dry form, but after rain the wet surface becomes dark blue.  One possible indication of the antiquity of the stone is the discovery nearby of ceramics of the Neolithic Pit-Comb Culture of the Volga-Oka area (5000-3650 BC).  (4)

Animal Ceremonialism

Mr. Frog says, “Although the tradition of the Blue Stone may have ancient roots, it is unclear what the original significance of this image was.”  (6)  However, Ahlqvist, based on her extensive study of the Blue Stone tradition in Russia, takes a different stand.  She says, The archaic features underlying the essence of Blue Stones enable the conclusion that the original roots of this cultural-historical phenomenon are the religious concepts of earlier hunters, gatherers and fishermen across the northern strip of Eurasia.”  (4)

What were the religious concepts?  Ahlqvist says there is a “probable historical mystical connection of the Blue Stone with forest spirits.”  As well, the Blue stone was sometimes seen as a “locus-emblem of the water spirit.”  She concludes that in Central Russia, “Most likely, hunting and fishing luck was requested specifically at the Blue Stone.” Even into the historical period, “Blue Stones were gathering places for hunters and at some, fisherman would gather, such as at the Blue Stone of Lake Pleščeevo, which marked fishing grounds.” (4)

I suggest that the Blue Stone provided for the shamanic Finno-Ugrian peoples of Northern Eurasia a point of access to the spirit persons of the forest and waters who governed success in hunting and fishing, and in doing so, formed a primary focus of rites of animal ceremonialism.  As such, it would have been central to the initial ‘ontological frame’ of the emerging shamanic institution of the foragers of Central Russia, that I call Uralic-Finnic.  It can be stated as follows:

I will continue to update the three elements of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame with new information as we move forward.

Additional substantiation for this picture of the ontological frame of the early Uralic-Finnic foragers of Central Russia—and the role of the Blue Stone in it—is to be found in a mythological folklore account from Russia called ‘Sadko and the Sea Tsar’.  We will now turn to it.

Sadko and the Sea Tsar

Byliny are epic stories in the Russian oral tradition that take the form of poems presented as song.  ‘Sadko and the Sea Tsar’ is a series of three byliny that are usually combined into a single bylina.  Byliny originated as early as the 10th century among the rural people living around Lake Onega in the northwest of European Russia. ‘Sadko and the Sea Tsar’ is thought by Ahlqvist to have been composed in the late Iron Age or early Medieval period, and was recorded from the singer A.P. Sorokin, a fisherman, in Olonets Province in 1860.  (4)

The bylina features a character named Sadko who is expertly playing a gusli—an early type of stringed instrument similar to the kantele of Finland—while sitting on a ‘blue-burning stone’ (Blue Stone) on the shore of Lake Ilmen near Novgorod.  The initial lines are as follows:

A, i, Sadko went to Lake Il’men’
A, i, and he sat down on the blue-burning stone at the lake,
And began playing the gusli.
So in the lake water became agitated,
The Tsar of the Water appeared. (4)

 Sadko, 1919. V. Vasnetsov, Memorial Museum, Moscow
The ‘Sea Tsar’—the spirit guardian of the sea and its creatures—so enjoyed Sadko’s music that he made possible for him to have a rich catch of fish.  Sadko did not reciprocate the gift, and while at sea during a storm, the Sea Tsar required him to offer himself as a sacrifice by diving into the water.  

The Hermitage - I.Repin: Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom (1876)

Sadko entered the underwater realm and played again for the Sea Tsar.  This was accepted as repayment, and Sadko was allowed to safely resume his life on land.  (10)

Ancient Magic Rites

Smirnov and Smolitskii find a link between the Sadko bylina and hunting rituals that recall animal ceremonialism.  They say, “One cannot exclude as an hypothesis that the version of A.P. Sorokin is a residual evolutionary trace of those folkloric works in which there are reflected ancient magic rites of telling stories or more rarely singing songs during a hunt for the purpose of gaining the favour of spirits of the forest or the water in order to receive from them as a reward the desired quantity of game.” (11)

How can we establish the antiquity of the “ancient magic rites” at a Blue Stone to which the bylina refers?   Ahlqvist says, “The premise of the preservation of the incredibly powerful cult of the Blue Stone up to the present day is, of course, its transmission from one culture to the next.”  That is, prior to the arrival of Slavic populations in the 5th century AD, the area where the Sadko bylina was sung had been occupied by a succession of Finno-Ugric cultures occupying the same geographical area.  These included the shamanistic Neolithic Age Upper Volga, Lyalovo, and Volosovo cultures.  Later cultures included the Bronze Age Textile, or Netted Ware, and Djakovo cultures, and finally cultures of the early Middle Ages—the Merya, Muroma. and Meshchera.  (4)

Ahlqvist argues that while the Finno-Ugric cultures that followed the Volosovo were primarily agricultural, they also continued to hunt, fish and gather, and in this way preserved ancient hunting rites. She says,  “It can be proposed that the preservation of archaic traditions and rituals, which were related primarily to hunting, gathering and fishing cultures, was to some extent made possible because of the fact that these original means of livelihood continued to play a significant role in subsequent early agricultural societies, such as the societies of the Djakovo and Merja.” (4)  The Sadko bylina was likely composed during the early Middle Ages, in the area of the Merja culture.  This may help explain how the Sadko bylina could well represent an “residual evolutionary trace” of the “ancient magic rites” of the earlier shamanistic Upper Volga, Lyalovo and Volosovo cultures of Central Russia.

Shamanic Elements of the Sadko Bylina

According to Propp, “The bylina about Sadko occupies an exceptional place in Russian epic poetry and is unlike any other bylina.”  (12)  One way in which the Sadko bylina is exceptional is in its distinctly shamanistic elements, possibly referring back to the animal ceremonialism of Finno-Ugric cultures of the Volga-Oka region. 

Pertinent for us here is the “blue-burning stone”, or Blue Stone, upon which Sadko sang and played the gusli.  It is in Ahlqvist’s words, “marking the borders between two worlds”.  (4)  It is the place of contact between the shaman figure, Sadko, who is a resident of this world, and the Sea Tsar, who is the guardian of sea creatures and resident of the other world.  Linking the bylina to animal ceremonialism are the themes of a gift of fish on the part of the guardian of sea creatures, and the theme of reciprocity through sacrifice offered by the human.  

In common with shamanism, the bylina point to a conception of the cosmos that includes an otherworld underwater realm.  Propp says, “The three songs about Sadko are remarkable because they represent the only Russian epic in which the main character makes a journey to the otherworld.”  He continues, “We know that such a method of traveling to ‘the other world’, in this case an underwater one, goes back to prehistoric times.”  (12)

The music of the gusli induced an ‘adjusted style of communication’ (ASC) on the part of Sadko, the shaman figure, that successfully engaged the Sea Tsar and the other spirit persons.  The gusli is a ‘song-sled’, the term used by several shamanic cultures to describe the zither-like instrument that, like the drum of a shaman, is able to transport him to the other world and put him in communication with residents there.  As well, Sadko used ‘animate speech’, language that was jointly understood by both himself and the Sea Tsar, that was part of the adjusted style of communication.

The Sadko bylina contains other clearly animistic elements.  According to Belinsky, speaking of the inhabitants of the underwater realm, “These are not dry allegorical and rhetorical personifications. They are the living images of ideas. They represent the poetic personification of the water gods.”  As well, "All these seas, lakes and rivers are personified in the narrative poem, and they are poetic characters. This gives the poem a certain fantastic character, which is in general quite alien to Russian poetry and therefore all the more striking in this poem." (12)

Some have conjectured that the bylinaSadko and the Sea Tsar’ simply borrows from the Finnish rune of ‘Väinämöinen and the Kantele’, since the mythic figures—Sadko and Väinämöinen—were playing similar ancient musical instruments—the gusli and the kantele—and both attracted nature spirit persons.  Smirnov and Smolitskii reject this analysis: In genuine runes the motif of playing is not developed in a relation between Väinämöinen and the mistress of the water.”  (11)  That is, the Väinämöinen rune involves attraction of nature spirit persons to his playing of the kantele, but unlike the Sadko bylina does not include interaction with a spirit guardian who confers a generous catch of fish.  In this way, it is not directly connected in the same way with the ritual of animal ceremonialism.  


As we have seen, the Blue Stone tradition survived from ancient times, and together with the Sadko bylina it gives us important clues as to the possible ontological frame of the shamanic cultures of the Volga-Oka region.  The enlarged ontological frame, with additions to the original one marked in bold, is as follows:

The Blue Stone and Healing in Russia

In addition to playing an important part in hunting and fishing ceremonialism, there is evidence that Blue Stones also played a role in healing rituals in Northern and Central Russia.  Ahlqvist puts forward examples of this role that she refers to as “echoes of their former sacredness”.   In one, she writes that “in the Archangel Oblast, healing properties were attributed to a particular Blue or Grey Stone”.  

In another, Ahlqvist says, “informants pointed out that old people went to the Blue Stone of Trjaslovo to pray if someone became ill.”  These examples suggest a longstanding involvement of Blue Stones in healing in Central Russia.  We will later see that the tradition continued into Finland and Karelia.

Above is a painting of a scene above from the early 20th century, in which Roma people are celebrating a wedding around the stone, with the village of Trjaslovo and Lake Nero in the distance.  

The Uralic-Finnic Ontological Frame in Finland

To this point I have identified what I consider to be ethnographic evidence of the genesis of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame in the Volga-Oka area of Central Russia, with the Blue Stone tradition as a core element.  We will now turn to Finland and Karelia to explore how the frame arrived there and how it was elaborated.  

Christian Carpelan says that over a period of four millennia, from 6000 BC to 1900 BC, the Volga-Oka area “generated a surplus of population and cultural creativity.”  (13)  Successive waves of cultural influence—accompanied by population movements—radiated outward from this area, reaching Finland and Karelia.  Unto Salo refers to “strong impulses from east to west that continued over millennia.”  (14)

What was the impact of the impulses?  In Salo’s view, it was considerable: “Earlier cultural change (in Finland) was largely based on innovations adopted by kindred peoples in the East and passed on westwards.”  (14)  There is evidence that the core attributes of shamanism were among these innovations. 

Siikala says, “Many features of Finnish shamanism point to the shamanistic complex of subarctic forested regions.” (15)  A hub or centre of this complex—that I term here the Uralic-Finnic—was located in the Volga-Oka region.  According to Parpola, the successive cultures inhabiting this region across 4000 years —including the Upper Volga, Lyalovo, and Volosovo cultures—represented essentially one and the same population. (16)  It is likely that this remarkable continuity of the population of the Volga-Oka area led as well to continuity in the shamanic complex located there, and by extension the shamanic institution in Finland that was periodically renewed through the waves of influence emanating from the area.

According to Ahlqvist, one of the cultural elements that arrived with the successive waves of cultural influence from the Volga-Oka area was the Blue Stone tradition.  She says, referring to Carpelan’s analysis, “Precisely some of these waves of migration could be attributable with the spread of this powerful image from central Russia to the north and northwest.”  She continues, “the cult of the Blue Stone did not take root (in Finland) in any single period, but rather was brought in different times with multiple waves of migration.” (4)

If, as Ahlqvist suggests, the Blue Stone tradition appeared in Central Russia in the Mesolithic Age, it is possible that it was brought by migrants into Finland of the Mesolithic Butovo culture.  If so, I suggest that on its arrival, the Blue Stone tradition would have been a major factor in shaping the founding Uralic-Finnic ontological frame in Finland and Karelia, as it had been in Central Russia. As well, over succeeding waves of influence, the tradition in Finland would have continued to be reinforced.

Another powerful force in shaping the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame in Finland and Karelia were new mediums of sacred art based on technologies that had been developed in the east and then passed on with the successive waves of influence.  One that will be considered here is the sculpting of large wooden statues.  Pictured below is the head and shoulders of such a sculpture, discovered at Pohjankuru in southern Finland and perhaps dating to the end of the Mesolithic Age. 

National Museum of Finland (photo: Leppä)
Other new sacred arts mediums were the crafting of items of clay and the carving and painting of rock surfaces.  The products became central to the rites of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution in Finland and Karelia, offering fresh avenues for establishing communication with spirit persons of nature. 

Waves of Cultural Influence

We can count four major waves of cultural influence, and population movement, from the Volga-Oka area to Finland and Karelia, as identified in the work of Carpelan and adapted here (13) (17):
  1. 8000 BC:  Migrants of the Butovo Culture from the Volga-Oka entered Finland and joined with migrants from the Kunda Culture of the Baltic region.  Together they formed the Mesolithic Suomusjärvi Culture, that possessed the first Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution in Finland.
  2. 6000 BC:  Cultural influences—and in Meinander’s view, migrants as well—entered Finland from the Upper Volga Culture, carrying the sacred arts of ceramic pottery and of clay figurines, and initiated the Sperrings or Early Comb Ware Culture.
  3. 4000 BC:  Population groups from the Volga-Oka moved to Finland and Karelia, bringing the Comb-Pit Ware style of ceramics and the sacred arts of rock carving to Karelia and rock painting to Finland. 
  4. 1900 BC:  Members of the Textile or Netted Ware Culture, who had incorporated the earlier Volosovo and Fatyanovo Cultures, brought to Finland/Karelia the distinctive textile imprinted style of ceramics (Sarsa-Tomitsa), the beginnings of agriculture, as well as the first articles of bronze.
Between the periodic waves of influence, there were also on-going contacts between Finland and the Volga-Oka area through what archaeologist Oula Seitsonen calls “socio-economic contact networks reaching eastwards from Finland.” (email communication: 12/3/2013).  It is likely that these networks were based on family relationships.  Salo says, “Within hunting society, probable exogamy created family and language ties between families, both near and far.”  (14)

The ties were strengthened through ongoing movement of population from Russia to Finland.  Salo writes, speaking of Russia: “Hunting communities were used to nomadic life; places of habitation could be found great distances away, even Finland, where it is probably the high density of fish that attracted people to move.”  He says that with its extensive lakes and sea coastlines, “Finland must have been a paradise for Stone Age fishermen.”  (14)

I will now explore a scenario of the arrival of the Blue Stone tradition in Finland with the first wave of cultural influence from the Volga-Oka region.  We will see that even if the Volga-Oka region was a major influence on the ontological frame of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution in Finland/Karelia, this does not mean that the Finnish/Karelian frame was simply a carbon copy of the one to the east. 

The Butovo Culture

As the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet receded beginning about 10,000 BC, regional Mesolithic cultures began to emerge across northern Russia and eastern Fennoscandia, including in Finland.  The Volga-Oka area was in Carpelan’s words the “creative core of the cultural development” of this large region.  (18)

As we saw above, the first wave of cultural influence flowing from the Volga-Oka area was in 8000 BC, bringing members of the Mesolithic Butovo Culture to eastern Finland.  As well, members of the Kunda Culture—who had affinities to the cultures of Volga-Oka—arrived from the Baltic area in the south.  Together they created the new regional Mesolithic Suomusjärvi Culture. 

It is possible that the Butovo Culture was the initial bearer of the Blue Stone tradition to Finland, and that tradition formed a core element of the founding ontological frame of the new Suomusjärvi Culture.  This frame might have resembled the one summarised earlier, as derived from analysis of the Sadko bylina.

Blue Stone, Janakkala, Finland
Ahlqvist has found evidence of Blue Stones in Finland’s landscape in the National Land Survey Online Mapsite.  In a replication of her search of the database, I found nine instances of either a ‘blue stone’ or a ‘blue cliff’.  Almost all are in Eastern Finland, as shown in the map at the left, below. 

 Go to Mapsite here 
In the map at right, above, there are related types of stones, including 66 instances of ‘black stone’ or ‘black cliff’; 14 instances of ‘grey stone’ or ‘grey cliff’; 29 instances of ‘white stone’ or ‘white cliff’; and 21 instances of ‘red stone’ or ‘red cliff’.  These are other ‘cult stones’ in Finland that are related to the Blue Stone mythological tradition, and that according Ahlqvist exhibit some of the same functions.  She calls them “parallel categories of cult stones.”  She suggests that the most ancient of the complex are Blue Stones, but later they “intermingle with images of some other types of cult stones in the northern and western territories (e.g. Finland) of the distribution of this broad cultural-historical phenomenon.”  (4)

A System of Mythic Images

The many examples in Finland of actual stones related to the Blue Stone tradition, as identified in the Mapsite queries, make it clear that the tradition has been active in Finland.  However, as it moved into Finland and Karelia from the centre of the distribution zone in Central Russia, the Blue Stone tradition was transformed, taking on a broader character than of single stones or cliffs.  Ahlqvist says, speaking of Finland and Karelia and other areas: “The farther the Blue Stone progressed from Central Russia, the more it emerges not as necessarily connected to a concrete geographic object or location but rather manifests as a purely imaginary mythic image.”  (4) 

In this regard, Mr. Frog explains that in Finland and Karelia, a full network, or system, of mythic images developed, with a variety of meanings and ways in which they were applied.  (6) The images identify anomalous landscape features that are entrances or portals to the other world, where exchanges with spirit persons is possible. 

Mr. Frog says this system “retained the basic conceptual associations as well as several features of the motif system” growing out of what he calls the “ancient roots” of the tradition.  One set of conceptual associations is “the first stone raised from the sea of creation and also beliefs that spirits entered the world through a stone split or broken by a blow.”  These associations “are represented among a number of Finno-Ugric cultures and beyond.”  The other set of conceptual associations relates to healing: a hole in a stone into which sickness, pains and injuries are banished to the other world.  Banishment rituals of this kind are found in many ancient shamanic cultures of Northern Eurasia and Siberia. (6)

 Mr. Frog at the Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (SKS) Library, Helsinki

Mr. Frog has identified in the Kalevala metre runes, and the incantations of the ritual practitioners known as tietäjäs, many images that are related to these two conceptual associations and that identify entrances or portals to the other world.  The images that identify entrances include, in addition to a Blue Stone, the topographical anomalies of a stone fixed in the earth; a crack or hole in a stone; a hill, cliff or mountain; the World Tree; and a supernatural river or spring growing out of the World Tree.  The images also include combinations of motifs, including “a stone and a tree; a stone in the course of rapids; a stone with a hole; or two stones, cliffs or mountains with a narrow space between them.” (6)

Mr. Frog’s list is mirrored, in part, in Satu Apo’s account of the views of residents in the peripheral areas of Eastern Finland and Karelia of the 18th and 19th centuries.  There, she says, “ancient ethnic religious concepts and practices still thrived; most of these were animistic, dynamistic and shamanistic.”  It was accepted that the world was divided into three levels.  “It was possible to move from one world to the other only through certain passageways.”  (19)

Apo continues, “In the world of humans, these included for example shore cliffs which descended deep into the water and rose high into the heavens or high trees with caves beneath their roots; ravines and canyons, whirlpools and deep springs were ways into the lower world.”  Apo links the portals to shamanism: “In addition to supranormal beings, only certain animals and shamans were capable of moving back and forth between worlds or going to the other world and returning.”  (19)

How confident can we be that the above accounts, largely derived from Finnish-Karelian folklore, can illuminate the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution of the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages?  I believe there is evidence that the elaboration of Blue Stone images reflects a tradition that was received from shamanic times and was, in turn, reflected in the Kalevala metre runes.

Sources of Evidence

The Finnic-Uralic shamanic institution, based upon hunting, fishing and gathering in wilderness settings, persisted in Finland and Karelia perhaps as late as 1300 AD in its final form, known as Finnish shamanism.  The noita was the ritual practitioner, a shaman in the classical sense of the shamanism of Central Russia and Siberia, with roots in Finno-Ugric cultures. 

A shaman journeying © Johannes Setälä
Perhaps as early as 1000 BC, a new institution of ritual practitioners known as tietäjäs began to form in the emerging agricultural communities of Finland and Karelia.  Over time, during the Iron Age, members of local agricultural communities increasingly consulted tietäjäs to meet their needs, and the role of the wilderness-based noitas was overshadowed. Christianisation was an important factor in this change, as the church was in the words of Mr. Frog, “inclined to aggressively oppose shamanic soul journeys in public rituals.” (20)

Mr. Frog says, “there may have been long periods of interface between…the tietäjä-institution and the vernacular shaman-institution.”  (21)   In fact, they may have existed in parallel for centuries. During this time, the tietäjä institution assimilated elements of shamanism. 

Mr. Frog says, “The noita appears to have used song both in rite performance and in poetic epic as a means of communicating knowledge of the mythic world. It is probable that noita epic genres were communicated in kalevalaic poetry and the emerging institution of the tietäjä drew on these traditions as it rose to dominance.” (22)  (I explored this transition from the noita to the tietäjä in an earlier post, available here.)   Siikala calls the tietäjä “the heir to the role played by the shaman in ancient communities” who “preserved shamanic models of thought”.  (5)  However, as we will see, the preservation of the elements of shamanism on the part of the tietäjä institution was selective.

Renowned tietäjä, Miines “Miina” Huovinen, 1837-1913
Mr. Frog calls the transformation of the inherited shamanic mythology and practice by the tietäjä institution “a fundamental restructuring” that he likens to a religious conversion.  (20)  Germanic models, inherited through the influence of migrants to Finland from Scandinavia of the Nordic Bronze Age, were a dominant factor in the development of new expressions of mythology and folklore of the ascendent tietäjä institution.  (5)  While some of the previous shamanic elements were retained, others were omitted, replaced or modified. 

A major change in the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame was in the social relations with spirit persons of nature.  Here the role of soul journeys to the spirit persons of the other world was largely replaced by the performance of verbal incantations, a form of animate speech, based on the Kalevala metre runes.  The incantations, as delivered by practitioners who were in an altered state, made possible direct contact with spirit persons without the necessity of travelling to the other world.  (5)

Mr. Frog says “the earlier shamanic institution did not survive per se, (but) elements of it became established and were maintained where they found relevance.”  (21)   While the nature of social relations with spirit persons changed in the way that has been suggested, the other two elements of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame remained largely intact. One element was the nature of the ‘sacred geography’ of the other world, including its topography. The other element, (that I will consider later) was the ontological form of spirit persons, whom Siikala calls “denizens” of the other world. 

Regarding the ‘sacred geography’ of the other world, Siikala describes the extensive learning that was required of the tietäjä of the otherworld locations and characteristics as part of the incantation rites.  She says the tietäjäinternalized and organized knowledge concerning the other world, its denizens and topography as an organic part of his world view.”  The ancient Blue Stone mythic images figured prominently in this internalised topography, pointing to gateways between the worlds.  Siikala refers to them as “cultural models for describing the other world” and identifies shamanism as their deep source.  (5)

The tietäjä institution had no vested interest in reinventing the vision of the topography of the other world that was received from the earlier shamanic institution.  I would argue that the shamanic topographic vision had proven its value over millennia.  As well, retaining the shamanic topography inspired trust on the part of the community.  That is, during the early part of the time of interface between the institutions of the noita and the tietäjä, noitas continued to remain respected ritual practitioners in Bronze and Iron Age communities.  Mr. Frog says that, “tietäjäs gained ‘rhetorical authority’ through being trained by noitas in their “powerful magic knowledge”.  (22)  I suggest that one tangible form of this knowledge was in terms of the locations of ritual sites—gateways to the other world—that noitas frequented.  Tietäjäs would have benefited from adopting the same sites for their own rituals.

Any restructuring related to otherworld topography was ways in which the new ritual practitioners made use of gateway sites.  While the tietäjä primarily relied on his personal power, his “hard luonto”, to reach his goals, the noita had acted as  a ‘hollow bone’, i.e., relied on facilitating the application of powers by his spirit helpers, rather than his own.  In order to shield and conserve his powers, the tietäjä conducted his personal power-gathering rituals at gateways to the other world while alone, and when engaging in healing rites he did so with only the patient present.  In contrast, noita would have conducted his healing or animal ceremonial rituals at these sites in a way that involved the whole band, with the ‘audience’ taking an active role in support of the ritual drama as it unfolded.

 Professors Anna-Leena Siikala and Veikko Anttonen
The above considerations suggest that it was during the period of shamanism that the elaborated mythic model of Blue Stone otherworld portals was developed and that it was later assimilated by the new tietäjä institution.  Consistent with this conclusion, Finnish folklore expert Veikko Anttonen links topographical elements—that I consider to be suggestive of the Blue Stone tradition—with shamanism.  He observes that, “In the ethnographic literature on shamanism, we find that the places which shamans employ to exit and then re-enter the profane world of men are holes and openings in the ground, cracks between rocks, and caves, that is to say, the topographically anomalous sites of the terrain.”  (23)

I will later argue that there is even more direct evidence that the elaborated Blue Stone mythic images were developed during shamanic times.  That is, we will see that sacred artists positioned some carvings of animals disappearing into, or emerging from, cracks in the rock faces on the shores of Lake Onega in Karelia, suggesting that the artists recognised them as entrances to the other world. I will suggest that this is among the first material substantiation of the the elaborated Blue Stone mythic tradition in the archaeological record of the Neolithic Age of Finland and Karelia.


In the Introduction I presented information on the Kapeenmäki boulder near Kuopio as an anomalous landscape element that was recognised as a portal to the other world, and used by the tietäjä Rotikko-Pekka (1855-1927) for his healing rituals.  I am now suggesting that based on the information we have considered, its status as a portal may well be much older, from the time of shamanism.  Tietäjäs might have been aware that it was frequented by noitas during the period of overlap between the two institutions, and began to use it as well.  In this light, I will present several other similar examples of portals. 

Pirunkirkko (Devil's Church) is a 33-metre-long boulder cave, in the shape of a Z, located at Koli National Park.

Tietäjäs came here to increase their strength and knowledge.  Among the most famous tietäjäs to do so were Vaara-Jaska Eronen, who lived in the 17th century and was sentenced to death for witchcraft but escaped from his imprisonment and lived in the Juuka fells; and Ukko Eskelinen who is known as the ‘Noita of Höljäkkä’.  (3)

Pirunpesä / Devil's Nest or Den (Hollola, Finland), is a geological formation of rock cliffs, part of the Salpausselkä Ridge near Lahti.  The photo on the right (below) suggests the Blue Stone image of cliffs with a narrow space between them.

In pre-Christian times and into the Christian era it has been a place where people have gone to make contact with spirit persons of the other world, particularly ancestors.  It is believed the name of the Devil was given to this rock formation by the Lutheran Church to ensure that ‘Christian souls’ would not visit there, on pain of rejection by their communities.

Hunting and Fishing Success

What led to the expansion in Finland and Karelia of the types of portals, beyond the model of the Blue Stone in the landscape that was inherited from Central Russia? 

It appears that the places where the foragers of Finland of prehistory repeatedly encountered success in hunting or fishing—i.e., where game or fish ‘gave themselves’ in large numbers—subsequently became enduring sites of animal ceremonialism.  Anna-Leena Kuusi says, “The spirits of the forest or the water received their share partly on the spot where the game was killed, or the catch made.  The sites of these permanent rites survived for a long time, particularly in Eastern Finland.”  (24)

In the view of Pentikäinen, these sites—where he says game was “most easily accessible”—were near “sacred places at which it was possible to contact the keeper of a game species and to request success in the hunting of this species.”  (25)  That is, hunting or fishing success was greater at sites that were in close proximity to points of access or entrances to the other world, where the shaman had direct access to the guardians and could negotiate for ongoing hunting or fishing success through the rites of animal ceremonialism.  For this reason, the foragers would have become accustomed to seeking out gateways near productive hunting spots. 

The transformed Blue Stone tradition, as it developed in Finland and Karelia, identified gateways as anomalous landscape elements, particularly boulders, caves and cliffs.  These elements were uncommon in Central Russia where the Blue Stone tradition originally emerged.  Ahlqvist says, “compared to the northern territories (e.g. Finland or Karelia), large stones in Central Russia are quite a rare phenomenon.”  (4)  However, when the tradition reached eastern Finland, with its varied terrain of shield rock and glacial erratic boulders, hunters and fishers would have encountered a wide array of anomalous landscape elements near successful hunting and fishing sites. 

 Nurmijarvin-hiidenkivi, a possible Blue Stone
This suggests that the expansion of types of portals occurred when the foragers in Finland and Karelia, in the course of their search for productive hunting spots, discovered points of access to the other world in new types of landscape forms beyond that of the original Blue Stone.  Later these new portals became incorporated in the elaborated Blue Stone mythic tradition. 

Väki Energy

Given the sheer volume of anomalous landscape elements near successful hunting or fishing sites in Finland and Karelia, how did the Uralic-Finnic shaman recognise any one of them as a portal?  Apo identifies a distinguishing feature.  She says, “in the ancient mythico-magical thought of Finland/Karelia, all passageways connecting the world’s separate levels: middle, upper and lower, were loci of force, charged with large amounts of dangerous energy.”  (19)  This energy is termed väki.  It surrounded the portal and would have had the effect of repelling intruders.

Väki is what Stark calls “a supranormal ‘mana’-like force”, a power charge possessed by various entities of the world, including persons, objects and natural elements.  (26)   As it is currently used, the Finnish term väki generally refers to ‘people’ or ‘crowd’, but Vilkuna says the older, and original meaning of the word was as a magical force, and this usage “can be traced back to the Palaeolithic period, a time when primeval Finno-Ugric people existed.”  (27)  Stark says the väki concept “can most likely be traced back to a shamanistic world view”.  (26)

Some entities had a more powerful väki charge, including the ability to do harm, and required special treatment. Kallion (rock) väki’ was considered as particularly dangerous in the period of the tietäjä institution, and these ritual practitioners had special powers to deal with it.  (26)  It is possible that these powers were learned from noitas, who were equipped to manage the dangerous väki force at a portal to the other world. 

Recall Apo’s statement, “In addition to supranormal beings, only certain animals and shamans were capable of moving back and forth between worlds or going to the other world and returning.”  This suggests that in addition to the shaman, the two other participants in the ritual of animal ceremonialism could navigate the dangerous forces of a portal:  first, the spirit guardian of the game, and second, the souls of elk—both of those who had been killed in the hunt and were exiting this world, and of those who were returning to inhabit new bodies. 

Returning to the question of how a shaman was able to identify a portal in the landscape, I am proposing that the shaman would locate near a successful hunting or fishing spot an anomalous landscape element—such as a boulder, cliff, cleft, hill, or mountain—that radiated a strong väki force.  To do so, the shaman would have had to walk, ski, or paddle a canoe close to landscape elements because, as Stark says, transference of a väki charge requires “close proximity and a clear, unobstructed path to its target, if not actual physical contact”.  To confirm that the landscape element was in fact a portal, the Uralic-Finnic shaman would likely have had to stage a ritual of animal ceremonialism there, exercising his extraordinary powers to manage the väki of the gateway and traveling through the portal in order to contact the guardian, offer sacrifices, and negotiate for hunting success. 

I am suggesting that beginning in the Mesolithic Age, it was through these means that foragers of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution discovered many new forms of anomalous landscape elements in Finland and Karelia that were gateways to the other world, and successfully used them to communicate with spirit guardians of fish and game.  In turn, their empirical experience would have been a driver of the transformation of the regional Blue Stone mythic tradition in Finland and Karelia. 

That is, as hunters discovered new gateways in the varied terrain—at cliffs, clefts, boulders, gorges, hills, mountains and other landscape forms—the mythic tradition would have expanded to incorporate them.  In this way the Blue Stone tradition became a flexible and evolving guide to, and explanation of, the nature of non-dual reality as manifested in the wilderness environment.

Two Gateways

Two prominent landscape elements in Finland have the name of portti, or gateway:  ‘Hiidenporti’ and Porttilouhi .  Their names make them particularly interesting for our examination here.

‘Hiidenporti’, near Sotkamo, Finland, consists of a steep gorge with two dark water ponds between its cliffs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
Long known in local folklore as a gathering place of spirit persons, the gorge is now the centrepiece of a national park.  Speaking of the gorge, Veikko Anttonen says, “the proper nouns called Hiidenportti are based on appellative meanings of hiisi, whereby a social group has seen a relatively large crack between two rocks as sacred (i.e. as ‘hiisi’). The understanding of it being sacred is based on the observation that the space between two rocks is interpreted as a gateway (portti) on a border separating the realm where people live from the imaginary realm that exists ‘beyond’ the borders and surfaces of lived areas.”  (28)  In other words, it is possible that the Hiidenportti of Sotkamo was originally a “gateway of the spirits’ for the foragers of prehistory, reflecting a mythic image based on the Blue Stone tradition. 

The term hiisi is a term of relatively recent derivation, dated to the Iron Age.  However, as we saw above, Anttonen explains that such anamolous landscape elements are fundamental to shamanism, suggesting that the cultural recognition of their sacredness is much older than the Iron Age. 

Porttilouhi is a 700-meter gorge near Juuka. 

The name Porttilouhi can be translated as the ‘Gateway of Louhi’.  In Finnish-Karelian mythology, Louhi is the ruler of Pohjola, the otherworld land of the dead located in the extreme north. 

According to Kesalainen and Kejonen, “A boulder in a crack in the side of the gorge forms a gate, after which the whole place has been named. The local tietäjäs used Porttilouhi in their rites – especially its gateway leading to another world. Patients were also transported through the gate as it was believed that through performing some particular magic the disease would remain in the gate. It could not follow the patient.”  (3)

The above landscape elements are identified as portals to the other world based as based on the mythico-magical tradition of Finland and Karelia of the 18th and 19th centuries.  While archaeological evidence is lacking, it is possible that the Hiidenporti and Porttilouhi sites began to be recognised as portals to the other world much earlier, as part of the Blue Stone tradition that accompanied the introduction of Uralic-Finnic shamanism to Finland and Karelia.

Ontological Visions

How did Uralic-Finnic shamans make use of Blue Stone portals to the other world?  We find an indication in the Kalevala-metre rune, ‘Väinämöinen and the Kantele’ how they might have done so.  A 19th century painting by Johan Kortman, below, illustrates the rune. 


In the rune, the ‘archetypal shaman’ Väinämöinen sits on a ‘song rock’ while singing and playing on the kantele, a type of zither that was the successor to the shaman’s drum as his primary sacred instrument.  ‘Song rock’ is an image associated with the Blue Stone tradition, also referred to in the runes as a ‘joy stone’, ‘music-boulder’ or ‘song-boulder’.  According to Frog, a boulder of this kind is “a point of access to or amplification of the supernatural”, or what we are calling here a gateway or portal to the other world.  (29)

Through his performance on the Blue Stone, Väinämöinen attracts spirit persons: 

In the woods there was not one…
that did not come to listen
to Väinämöinen’s playing…
Even the mistress of the woods…

In the sea there was not one…
that did not come to listen…
Even the mistress of the waters… (30)

In the rune, Väinämöinen employs an ‘adjusted style of communication’—involving sacred string music and ecstatic chant or song—and spirit persons respond to it.  The narrative can be taken as instructions for how to conduct social relations with the other world as part of shamanic ontology.  

The presence of the two spirit persons of nature—the mistress of the woods and the mistress of the waters—recalls  Ahlqvist’s statements about the “probable historical mystical connection of the Blue Stone with forest spirits”, and the Blue Stone being a “locus-emblem of the water spirit.”  It also recalls the reference of Smirnov and Smolitskii to the Sadko bylina, in which he sits on a “blue-burning stone” singing and playing on a Gusli, as a “residual evolutionary trace” of “ancient magic rites of telling stories or more rarely singing songs during a hunt for the purpose of gaining the favour of spirits of the forest or the water….”

In these ways, the rune ‘Väinämöinen and the Kantele’ suggests a scene in northern Eurasia, perhaps as distant in time as the Mesolithic Age, of a shaman summoning the spirits of game to the Blue Stone as a point of access to the other world. 
Ahlqvist observes that, “Most likely, hunting and fishing luck was requested specifically at the Blue Stone.”  The rune ‘Väinämöinen and the Kantele’ does not involve the two-way communication with the spirit guardians of fish and game at the Blue Stone that would connect it with animal ceremonialism.  However, it is notable here that ‘Väinämöinen and the Kantele’ was recited as an incantation by fishers of the early modern period to attract a favourable catch. (30)  

Implicit in the Väinämöinen rune, as well as in the references from Russia quoted above, are several ontological characteristics of spirit persons of fish and game.  That is, the spirit persons are portrayed as separate from the Blue Stone—neither embodied in the stone nor living in it—and as freely circulating.

Carta Marina

An illustration by Olaus Magnus from 1539 echoes themes of the Väinämöinen rune.  It is from a sea chart, “Carta Marina”, depicting the northwest coast of Iceland.  Haavio says of the figure pictured in the illustration, “What catches our attention is that towards him there swim swans and a fish, and at his feet there runs a fox-like animal, and from a nearby hole in the earth a mouse or a lemming pokes his head out.” (30)

 Carta Marina, Olaus Magnus, 1539
The source of the picture is not known, but according to Haavio, it suggests a parallel with Väinämöinen’s playing a string instrument and the manner in which all of nature responded.  However, lacking an explicit cultural reference to proto-Finland and to the Kalevala metre runes, it may suggest something more than just a borrowed visual motif.  That is, it may indicate that there existed in pre-Christian times a regional ontological vision, more general than just in Finland and Karelia, of the relationship of humans to the spirit beings of nature.  The vision consists of the following:

  • A shaman-like figure has chosen a (song) boulder to sit upon at a sacred (pyhä) ‘boundary’, where water meets the rocky land,
  • The figure is employing sacred music as an ‘adjusted style of communication’, and
  • Local, free-ranging nature spirit persons, who appear in animal form, are enticed by the music.
Like the Väinämöinen rune, the illustration by Olaus Magnus is suggestive of the mythic themes and rites from the wilderness period of Uralic-Finnic shamanism.  In particular, his conception of the spirit persons of nature includes their manifestation as animals and birds.  As in the Väinämöinen rune, they are able to move about freely ‘in the wild’ and to be attracted to the song boulder by sacred music.

The Transition Between Institutions

I suggest that the tietäjä institution assimilated the basic shamanic conception of the ontological form of spirit persons, in the same way that it did with the shamanic conception of sacred geography.  This is the case even though additional spirit entities came to the fore as the institution advanced, such as guardians of slash-and-burn or swidden cultivation plots, and guardians of farm households.  These new local guardians, who reflected the economic and social aspects of the new practice of agriculture, resembled the earlier local guardian spirit persons of fish and game of the wilderness period.  

The Finnish word for a local guardian spirit person is ‘haltija’.  It is of Scandinavian Germanic origin, dating to the Nordic Bronze Age. (5)  The local guardians of fish and game were central to earlier wilderness shamanism, even if the original term used for it by the Uralic-Finnic institution has been lost.  The loan word haltija clearly subsumes the earlier shamanic usage.  This is shown in Laura Stark’s observation 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.”  (31)

While the basic ontological form of spirit persons was retained by the tietäjä institution, some changes were made regarding certain otherworld figures of the shamanic period.  Notably, Mr. Frog presents evidence that the tietäjä institution, in the development of the Kalevala metre runes, ‘demoted’ Ilmarinen, the central upper world figure of the shamanic institution, to the status of a heavenly smith.  Into his place the institution ‘promoted’ Ukko, a figure borrowed from the east whose powers better matched the emerging world of agriculture and the institution of the tietäjä.  As well, Väinämöinen, a figure who first made his first appearance in the Kalevala metre runes, was given a role in the creation of the world.  (20)

ln spite of the changes made to these figures, I argue that the ontological nature of the spirits of nature itself remained substantially the same in the transition from the institution of the shaman to that of the tietäjä.  What was this nature? 

The Ontological Form of Spirit Persons of Nature

Rafael Karsten says that although the “local spirits of the pre-Christian Saami and Finns” were of the same category of beings, they differed the way they presented themselves.  That is, while the “local spirits” of the “Lappish” (Saami) had “the shape of visible idols above the ground” (sieidis), in the case of the “ancient Finns” the “local spirits” were “invisible”.  (32)  Similarly, Matti Sarmela says that the haltijas of the Finns of the wilderness period were “living in an invisible environment”, i.e. were residents of the other world, tuonpuoleinen (“the other side”).  At the same time, they were “capable of showing themselves to humans and appearing in the world on this side,” i.e. tämänpuoleinen.  (33)

The guardian of game of the Uralic-Finnic foragers was not in Ingold’s term “petrified”—literally, ‘converted to stone’—as a “land-based ‘power source”, as was the sieidi of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution.  (34)  The nature spirit persons of the Uralic-Finnic foragers were not tied to specific locations in the landscape; they were what Shepherd calls “autonomous, free-ranging and pervasive.”  (35)  The regeneration of the souls of elk by guardian spirit persons as part of the ritual of animal ceremonialism proceeded without interruption.  Consistent with Ingold’s “animistic ontology”, the power of vital or soul force—the regenerated souls—that brought forth life was “free-flowing like the wind.”

According to Shepherd, in the cosmology of the pre-Christian Finns, the “animated spirits of sea, air and forest” were “nearly formless”.  She says that pre-Christian Finns did not personify an animated spirit much beyond giving a name to it, such as Tapio for the animated forest, or Ahti for the water or the fish.  That is, their conception of the spirit person of nature added little beyond personifying the element or being itself, whether of the forest or the water.  (35)  Comparetti concurs with this view, saying that the spirit persons of the ancient Finns “are not formed with distinctness.” “Much in them is undetermined.”  They are “creatures in the course of formation, they appear rather passive than active; they (only) have power within the sphere of the phenomenon or thing they represent.” (36)

Shepherd says, “The common viewpoint among scholars is that the forest spirits were not originally anthropomorphic. However, “19th and early 20th century folklore studies mention various “forest-mother” spirits and, among the Finns, Tapio, a masculine forest spirit.  The anthropomorphic character of these spirits is considered to have developed under later, foreign influences.”  (35)

There was ambiguity of gender, or genderlessness, in the “animated forces of nature”.  According to Shepherd, “Sexual distinctions were never so strong in wilderness culture society as are the distinctions met with in other, more complex societal forms.  Much sexual differentiation of roles was probably not introduced into Finnish society until its contact with Christian Europe.”  She says, “Such ambiguity of gender, or genderlessness, is entirely appropriate to the animated forces of nature belonging to wilderness culture and pre-dating the Indo-European tradition.” (35)

In contrast to the formalised ritual relationships of foragers to spirit persons found in the sieidi tradition, animistic ontology is characterised by what Ingold calls “reciprocal interdependence” of beings based on the give and take of “substance, care and vital force”.  He says, “Beings of both human and non-human kinds engaged in ongoing mutual interaction” that Ingold terms “dialogic”.  This implies non-formalised, non-hierarchical relations of human and other-than-human persons.  (34)  In this respect, there was no pantheon or hierarchical array of deities as we found in the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution and no tradition of worship of them. 

Comparetti says, “In all this mythological world of the Finns reigns the most complete individualism.  There is no systematic organisation, no genealogical arrangement, no idea of government.”  “The spirits are never individualised enough to count as deities in the same sense that Western culture attaches to the word.  (36)  Kussi says that, “In Finnic folklore, no borderline can be drawn between concepts of spirits and deity.” (35) 

Unto Salo says, “Finnish society was likely too egalitarian to comprehend let alone formulate any hierarchy of deities.  This ideological limitation to a pre-hierarchic state might also produce a distrust of any centralisation of supernatural powers into a single kind of being as well.” (35)

In summary, we can say that the spirit persons of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution of proto-Finland were, as beings, non-hierarchical, non-anthropomorphic, largely genderless, and nearly formless.  This recalls Ingold’s observation that in an “animic ontology”, life takes place in a “world that is not pre-ordained but incipient, forever on the verge of the actual.”  In view of the congruence of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame with Ingold’s analysis of “animistic ontology”, I term it ‘classic animist’.  I contrast it with the ‘totemist-animist’ subtype of animist ontology of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution.


In the series of posts A History of Finnish Shamanism, of which the present is Part 1, I am tracing the prehistory of Finnish shamanism, backward from its Mesolithic roots in the hunting cultures of Central Russia, and forward to its final expression in Iron Age Finland and Karelia.  The tool that I am using to explore the ‘shamanic continuity’ over this span is the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame.

We saw how after the arrival of the Blue Stone tradition from Russia in Finland and Karelia, it transformed into a network or system of mythic images of entrances or gateways to the other world.  The new gateways expanded the scope of sacred geography of the local Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution of Finland and Karelia, the third element of its ontological frame.  We have just inquired into the ontological nature of the spirit persons of nature, the first element of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame of Finland and Karelia. 

Below is an update of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame, from the previous one based on the Sadko byliny of Russia, based upon what we have learned about its first and third elements.  The new elements are bolded.

Looking Ahead

Part 2 of A History of Finnish Shamanism will focus on the second element of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame, that of the social relations of members of the shamanic institution with guardian spirit persons of game.  We will see that the products of each of the sacred art ‘technologies’ arriving in Finland and Karelia from the Volga-Oka region, in successive waves of influence, assisted those who Zvelebil calls “innovating hunter-gatherers” to expand their dialogue and influence with spirit persons of nature.  They included the sculpting of large wooden statues, crafting of items of clay, and carving and painting rock surfaces. 

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