Saturday, September 5, 2020

A History of Finnish Shamanism: Part 2


A number of years ago, ancestors appeared in a dream and gave me the name “echo of the great shadow tradition”.  ‘Shadow-soul’ is a term appearing in the languages of various Finno-Ugric cultures, referring to the mobile or free soul that can travel between worlds.  For this reason, I took the ‘great shadow tradition’ to mean the shamanic institution of prehistory that is related to my ancestral heritage, that I call here the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution of Finland and Karelia. In its latter stages it is referred to as ‘Finnish shamanism’. 

In the current series of posts, A History of Finnish Shamanism, I follow the Uralic-Finnic institution from its roots in the hunting, fishing and gathering cultures of Russia and the Baltics in the Mesolithic Age, beginning with the Butovo and Kunda archaeological cultures, through to its end in Finland and Karelia during the Iron Age, as late as 1300 AD.  Its influence subsequently continued in the figure of the tietäjä, as well as in traditions such as the Kalevala metre runes, the practice of lamenting, and in folk healing. 

A fisher of the Butovo Mesolithic
culture of Central Russia

To be true to the challenge of ‘echoing’ the great shadow tradition, I do not approach it from the standpoint of the subject-object dualism inherent in the neo-Cartesian master narrative.  Instead, I am attempting to tell the story ‘from the inside’, as a shamanic practitioner.  In doing so I am drawing particularly from the writings of those archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and ethnographers who, while not sharing the animistic ontology of my ancestors and me, approach it in ways that Willerslev, quoted by Herva and Lahelma, calls “taking animism seriously”. (1) 

In A History of Finnish Shamanism, I am laying out evidence of the persistence over millennia of the core elements of the ontological frame of the Uralic-Finnic institution.  I argue that this ‘shamanic continuity’ did not depend upon corresponding continuity in genetics, culture, linguistics or ethnicity.

In Part 1, I concentrated on two of the three elements of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame: the form of spirit persons of the other world, and the sacred geography where contact with spirit persons is made.  I suggested that for the Uralic-Finnic institution, spirit persons are autonomous, free-ranging and unfixed in form. Bands contacted them at portals or gateways to the other world as identified in the evolving Blue Stone mythology, located at high lakeside cliffs; caves; anomalous boulders; holes and cracks in rock; trees identified with the World Tree and springs near them. 

In the photo above, a rock carving person appears to be falling into a diagonal crack in the shoreline bedrock of Lake Onega in Karelia.  (Click here for an animation.) The rock may be a Blue Stone, in that the carving is a sacred artwork of Baltic-Finnic tribes and the scene recalls the Finnish term for a trance state, langeta loveen, that literally means ‘to fall into a crack or a cleft’, i.e., to enter the other world. 

Social Relations with Spirit Persons

In this post, Part 2 of A History of Finnish Shamanism, I address the third element of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame, that of the social relations of members of the shamanic institution with spirit persons.  The sacred arts were critical for the conduct of those social relations, and they will be my focus.

Recall that I define sacred arts as those applications of creative skill—drumming, rock painting and carving, dance, sculpting, costume, chanting,  poetry, ceramics, and more—that generate objects or performances empowered with the agency to help establish and mediate communication with the other world, as part of appropriate shamanic rituals.

Speaking of prehistoric Finland, Unto Salo says, “Earlier cultural change was largely based on innovations adopted by kindred peoples in the East and passed on westwards”.  He refers to “strong impulses from east to west that continued over millennia”.  (2)  That is, beginning in the Mesolithic Age, successive waves of cultural influence from the shamanic institutions of Russia radiated west to Finland and Karelia. New sacred art mediums were part of these waves of influence, including sculpting of large wooden statues, crafting of items of clay such as pottery and figurines, and carving and painting of rock surfaces. 

As an example, the two pot shards pictured below from Finland (left) and Russia (right) have figures hugging what would have been pot rims. They are what are called ‘vessel guardians’, possibly embodied shaman spirit persons, who may have been protecting the pots and their contents from malign influences. (3) The similarity between the shards is evidence of the cultural influence of Central Russia on the sacred art medium of ceramic pottery in Finland. 

Over several upcoming posts I will survey the sacred art mediums, and their products, that arrived with the cultural waves of influence from the east.  However, in the present post I will travel to one of the original sources of the influences. 

Specifically, I will visit an early Mesolithic culture located in the in the Middle Ural Mountains of Russia that was a progenitor of a new sacred arts tradition.  I will explore in some depth the first known product of the tradition, the Shigir Idol.  In later posts I will show that the tradition went on to influence the sacred art of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic complex across Northern Eurasia for millennia.

Beyond Animal Ceremonialism

To fully explore the new sacred arts tradition, as well as the new mediums and products reaching Finland and Karelia that were influenced by it, I will expand my method of interpreting sacred art.  Currently I base it on the subset of three elements of animist ontology listed above.  (See a discussion of this method in my post titled The Process of the Sacred Artist of Finland and Karelia.) I chose the elements because they are central to animal ceremonialism, helping foragers to meet the challenge of developing a relationship with the spirit guardians of an area through ritual means to secure a continuing supply of game.

I will continue to make use of the three ontological elements but will also look beyond them—and the human-centric approach of animal ceremonialism that they represent—to a fourth element.  This is the network of interdependent beings of the animist world, including human persons, spirit persons, animals, plants, and natural forms. 

This inclusive approach accords with what I call the ‘classic animism’ of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution. It also accords with the process of the sacred artist as I have described it, in which human artists have co-equal roles with other-than-human persons, including guardian spirits of nature, in the rhizomic meshworks that reify, or animate objects and performances of sacred art

To achieve this inclusivity, I turn to the work of Timothy Ingold, who characterises the entirety or totality of the animist lifeworld as a “complex network of reciprocal interdependence”.  (4)

Animist Totality

Ingold focuses on northern hunting peoples for his profile of this network.  He sees the survival of these peoples as depending upon the circulation of what he calls “vital or soul force” between them and game animals. This supranormal force is embodied, for example, as the vital force of elk living in the wild.  It is passed on to foragers as they consume the proceeds of a successful hunt. Then, embodied as the soul force of the deceased elk, it transitions with them to the other world, under the care of the elk guardian.  It reappears again as the vital force of reincarnated elk, as the herd is replenished by the guardian, with the intercession of the shaman as part of the ritual of animal ceremonialism.  At this point, a fresh circuit begins.

This network is at the core of Uralic-Finnic ontology, that I have termed ‘classic animist’.  We can see indications of it in the content of Finno-Ugric mythology. One example is the Finno-Karelian epic rune Skiing down the Hiisi Elk, that retains themes of the shamanic wilderness period. 

In the rune, Lemminkäinen, the primary shaman figure of the Kalevala metre runes, chases an elk who is traveling at supernatural speed.  This recalls the Northern Eurasian Orion myth, in some versions of which the hunted elk returns to an existence in the upper world.  This myth places the hunting of elk in the cosmic context suggested by Ingold. 

Based on Ingold’s work, I identify four key processes that drive the animic network. (4)

1. Free circulation of vital or soul force:  Ingold says, “In an animic system…hunting effects the circulation of vital force between humans and animals and thus contributes directly to the regeneration of the lifeworld of which both are part”.  The continuity of the living world depends on vital or soul force remaining in uninterrupted circulation, remaining “free flowing like the wind”.

 2.  Drawing upon and surrendering of vital or soul force:  Beings depend for life on constantly drawing on the “vital or soul force” of other beings or, on the other hand, surrendering it to them. “In the animic ontology, the killing and eating of game is far more than mere provisioning; it is world-renewing.”

3. Beings in transformation: In the reciprocal animist network, no form remains permanent: “Beings meet, merge and split apart again, each taking with them something of the other.”  “The transience or ephemerality of form is necessary if the current of life is to keep on flowing.” “All of existence is suspended in this flow.” In this way, the animist world is constantly unfolding, “forever on the verge of the actual”.

4.  Dialogue across boundaries between the worlds: “Spirit masters, who control the disposition of animals” on the “other side”, negotiate with the shaman who has made an “arduous journey” while “held aloft” by his spirit helpers. 

How should we understand the nature of the ‘vital or soul force’ that circulates continuously in the animic network?  In academic views shaped by the currently dominant neo-Cartesian dualist ontology, the force would be characterised as merely a ‘belief’, a product of the ‘philosophical error’ of projecting a spiritually based energetic principle onto material form. 

However, in the view of Ingold, “The animacy of the lifeworld…is not the result of an infusion of spirit into substance, or of agency into materiality, but is rather ontologically prior to their differentiation”.  (4) That is, before the artificial separation of the spiritual from the material by the Cartesian ontological ‘master narrative’—for example during the time of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic institution—foragers knew that they are one.  Vital or soul force was a living reality for them. 

The circulation of vital or soul force is evident in the rituals of Uralic-Finnic bear ceremonialism.

Bear Ceremonialism

Anttonen says, “Along with shamanism, bear ceremonialism represents the oldest layer in the prehistoric religion of Finland.” (5)  In addition to Finns/Karelians, it was practiced by the Saami, the Siberian Ket and the Ob-Ugrian peoples of Russia, the Khanty and Mansi. (6)

A European bear cub and what may be a bear cub
rock painting person at the Ukonvouri site in Finland.

As the most powerful animal of the forest, the bear was considered sacred, with a personhood equivalent to that of humans.  Bear ceremonialism encompassed the killing of the bear, followed by a bear feast, and then by special ritual treatment of the bones and skull. (5)

The earliest written description of the nature of the post-hunt feast is to be found in the statement of a Lutheran bishop in Turku in 1640, who was decrying the practice: “It is said that having killed a bear, they hold a feast and drink from the skull of the bear and make sounds resembling its growling, in this way wishing to secure themselves successful hunting and rich game for the future”. (5)

Shepherd says that while the hunters aimed through the rituals to satisfy the animal and forest spirits, so as to secure prey for the future, “The actual purpose of the ritual of the bear slaying was to allow the hunter, through the ritual, to procure the bear’s power for himself as well as its status in the natural world.” (7) 

Shepherd continues, “by eating the contents of the skull and keeping the teeth and claws, the hunters gained possession of the bear’s keen senses and physical strength.  This idea may provide a clue to the explanation for the presence of single animal teeth or claws in burials”.  (7) We may add that the bear teeth were also worn as objects of power.

Bear teeth amulets, left, and bear claws, right, as ‘power
  National Museum of Finland (Photos:  Leppä)

A feature of the bear feast was a wedding ritual in which an unmarried female member of the hunters’ kin group dressed in a bridal gown and was wed to the bear.  Shepherd says, “The use of wedding ritual in the bear cult feast is integral to the hunter’s assimilation of the bear’s special powers. The ceremony brought the bear as kin into the family. To hold a wedding feast for the killed bear was to merge its soul directly into the family as one of the family’s dead kin”. (7)

 According to Anttonen, following the feast, “The ‘soul’ of the bear regained its former status after the skull had been transported back to the forest and propped up on the twigs of a specific pine tree”. (5)

This description of bear ceremonialism suggests that it is a phase, or a ‘moment’ in Hegelian terminology, of the flow of vital or soul force in the animist network. Upon being killed in the hunt, the bear person surrenders his/her vital or soul force to the hunters, who draw upon it in the form of the meat that is consumed at the feast, the body parts that are worn as power objects, and the kinship forged through the ritual marriage.  Finally, through ritual handling of the skull, the force is returned to the bear and to free circulation in the larger animic network.


Ingold bases his picture of the animist network on humans interacting with game animals and their guardian spirits. However, he makes clear that the network encompasses the “whole living world” and that the four processes that underlay it and apply to all animate beings and the full range of their activities. The network “extends throughout the cosmos, linking human, animal and all other forms of life”.  (4)

From this standpoint, the focus on animal ceremonialism can be called a ‘human-centric’ view of the animic network, only one part in the circuit of vital or soul force.  Ingold could have also isolated an ‘elk-centric’ view, involving the society of elk inhabiting the forest, or an ‘elk guardian-centric’ view centring on the realm of the guardian in the other world.   

Rock carving at Lake Onega, Karelia

Moreover, it could apply to any form of animate life beyond just game animals, for example a ‘tree centric’ view that focused on the cycles of their birth, death and regeneration.  We can call this a form of ‘perspectivism’, focusing on the ‘eyes’ through which the multitude of animate beings view and experience each other and the whole of animic reality.

Perspectivism is key to helping us understand the interchange between beings of the animist lifeworld. Ingold writes that the shaman is able to dissolve the boundaries between humans and animals, for example when he “walks as a bear”, taking up the “point of view of the other” and becoming “temporarily other to his or her own people”.  In the same way, the bear sees through eyes of the shaman and temporarily becomes ‘other’ to “his or her own people” as well.  (4)

To “walk as a bear” the shaman takes on what Wallis calls an ‘adjusted style of communication’, that in his definition is to become familiar with the communicative “style” of an other-than-human person, in this case the bear, to “see as they do”, and then to adapt one’s own style in order to carry on communication. (8)  And to ‘walk as a human’, the bear must do the same. 

Viveiros de Castro suggests that among humans, only the shaman is capable of this perspectivism. (9) However, I would argue that the sacred artist is capable of it as well, as a member of her rhizomic meshwork. That is, in the dialogue within a meshwork, the ‘voices’ of non-human persons such as animal guardians or tree spirit persons are on an equal footing with that of the human person, the sacred artist.  As part of her participation in the meshwork, the artist must be able to enter into dialogue with them, and then, as the only partner among them with the unique human physical capabilities to do so, fashion a work of sacred art on behalf of the meshwork, such as a sacred drum painting person. 

The objects and performances of sacred art made possible by this perspectivism allow us to, literally, hear these other-than-human persons in shamanic drum rituals and see from their perspectives in rock art. In a later post we will later encounter a truly remarkable instance of this: the Neolithic Uralic-Finnic rock carvings on the shores of Lake Onega in Karelia that suggest a broad trans-species/trans-worlds dialogue spanning more than two millennia.

Uralic-Finnic Ontological Frame

I will now add the network of reciprocal interdependence as an element of the Uralic-Finnic ontological frame, which assists in the interpretation of sacred art. 

Let us now go on to visit one of the earliest examples of a cultural impulse from Russia that reached Finland and Karelia. It was a new sacred art tradition that developed in the early Mesolithic in the Middle Ural Mountains of Russia.  In later posts I will show that it went on to influence much of the sacred art of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic complex across Northern Eurasia for millennia.

Sacred Arts in the Mesolithic Age

The centre of the Blue Stone tradition was in the Volga-Oka area of Russia.  However, a sub-centre was on the eastern slope of the Middle Ural Mountains area, also in Russia, as shown in Ahlqvist’s map (below). (10) It was part of the Volga-Kama province, the easternmost of the three prehistoric heartlands of Finno-Ugric cultures. (The other two were the Central Russian, with its northern extension, and the Baltic-Finnic provinces.)  (11)

During the early Mesolithic Age, The Uralic Shigir culture of hunters and fishers inhabited this area. They were predecessors of later Finno-Ugric tribes, first the Neolithic Permian culture and later two of its offshoots, the Ob-Ugrian Khanty and Mansi cultures. Chairkina believes there was considerable continuity in cultural features from the Mesolithic Shigirs down to these latter cultures. (12)

The Shigir culture may have been among the early progenitors of the Blue Stone mythic tradition, a possibility that I will explore further below.  However, at this point I wish to focus on the role of the culture as the pioneer of a sacred art tradition that emerged in the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic Ages.  S.N. Savchenko calls it an “impressive, elaborate tradition of art” and “a new system of mythological representations”.  (13) Koksharov refers to it as “a new iconographic canon”. (14)

The earlier sacred arts tradition of the Palaeolithic Age had consisted largely of zoomorphic carvings, engravings and rock paintings that were naturalistic in style, i.e., closely resembling their animal subjects.  In contrast, the Shigir artwork of the early Mesolithic featured non-representational views of anthropomorphs and other design features that have been termed complex and sophisticated.  For example, Zhilin et al say, “Early Holocene hunter-gatherers clearly possessed a symbolic world with richer and more complex forms of artistic expression than was previously believed”.  (15)

I call the new tradition ‘three worlds naturalism’.  I will argue that the new tradition enabled sacred artists and their rhizomic meshworks to develop in new ways the social relationships of hunter-gatherer-fisher peoples with spirit persons of nature, who were part of the “complex network of reciprocal interdependence” that Ingold describes.

According to Koksharov the new canon may have originated in several other cultures of Northern Eurasia at the same time, in addition to that of the Shigirs.  He says these populations “were never isolated from each other, keeping constant or occasional contacts”.  However, sacred art artefacts of the Shigir culture are the only examples of the new tradition that have been preserved.  (14)

I argue that the influence of the tradition spread during the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages across a wide geographical area of Northern Eurasia over millennia.  I will suggest that it is evident in objects of sacred art of the entire Uralic-Finnic shamanic complex, from the Urals to the Volga-Oka area of Central Russia to the western hinterland of Finland and Karelia.

To introduce the new sacred arts tradition, we will focus on the most dramatic archaeological manifestation of it, the Shigir Idol.  Thomas Terberger says that the sculpture “changes, dramatically, our views about the birth of ritual art.” (16)

The Shigir Idol

Chairkina says, “The Big Shigir idol is the largest and oldest wooden anthropomorphic sculpture in the world, the analogies of which are not found in archaeological materials from other eras”. (12).  This wooden sculpture, originally an imposing 5.3 metres [17 feet] tall was found in the Shigir peat bog near Ekaterinburg, on the eastern slopes of the middle Ural Mountains in Russia. It dates to the early Mesolithic Age, 9600 B.C.  (15)  Some sections of it have been lost.  The remaining sculpture is currently 2.5 metres tall, and presently on display in a museum in Ekaterinburg, as shown below.

The Shigir Idol was carved from a single larch tree.  

An imagining of the tools and the
process of crafting the Shigir Idol

The larch tree from which the Shigir Idol was fashioned was initially split in half by the carvers.  One half was crafted into a plank comprising the body, with a three-dimensional sculptured head at the top.

The anthropomorphic face on the rounded head is crafted on two planes, with a protruding nose.

The plank making up the body is only about 3-4 inches thick.

What appear to be the bones of the ribcage and spine of the armless figure are exposed on the front and rear of the sculpture, in transparent or x-ray style. 

There is a deeply engraved pattern of zig-zag lines on the front, back and sides of the sculpture.

In addition to the face on the rounded anthropomorphic head of the topmost figure of the sculpture, there are seven other anthropomorphic faces, appearing at intervals on its front and back. 

Each of the individualised faces includes a body depicted in the same x-ray style, with exposed ribs.  In total six faces appear on the front side of the sculpture’s body and two appear on the back side.  The face pictured above is on the front side.

Interpretation of the Shigir Idol

Russian archaeologists Ekaterina Devlet and Natalia Chairkina present perhaps the two leading interpretations of the Shigir Idol. I will begin with Devlet, who sees in the sculpture evidence of shamanism. (17)

Devlet bases much of her interpretation of the Shigir Idol on the anthropomorphs on the sculpture, whose bones are captured in the so-called x-ray or transparent style.  She identifies the figures as shamans.  She says, “The design of the Shigir idol features seven anthropomorphic figures with depicted ribs.  Such figures can be connected to Shamanistic beliefs and in particular to the "legends surrounding the acceptance of the shaman's gift." (17) (Note:  Since Devlet presented her interpretation, a possible eighth figure has been identified on the sculpture.)

 In many of the shamanistic cultures of Siberia and Northern Eurasian, the ‘shaman’s gift’ was received through a ceremony of ritual dismemberment.  It consisted of the opening of the body of a prospective shaman by spirit persons who were in search of a particular bone that indicated the candidate’s suitability for the vocation.  The harrowing nature of this initiation ritual is suggested in this painting of the dismemberment by spirit persons of a Siberian Buryat shaman.  

In the above scene spirit persons are holding the shaman’s head separate from his body, forcing him to watch the progress of his own dismemberment.  Afterward, new flesh is put onto his bones. Devlet says, “Survival of the experience of death-rebirth was the essential condition for the acquisition of the shamanic Gift”.  (17)

Devlet compares the ribs and bones exposed in x-ray style on the Shigir Idol to costumes worn by shamans of Siberia and Northern Eurasia.  The costumes frequently had ornaments in this style, signalling attainment of the ‘shaman’s gift’.

The above depiction is of a part of the costume of a Siberian shaman.  The rib bones in this case were made of metal, while earlier they had been constructed of bone.

In the shamanic cultures of Northern Eurasia, powerful shamans could, upon their death, attain the status of spirits.  Devlet suggests that the seven shaman figures on the Shigir Idol may be a “succession of shaman-ancestors, who give their successor special powers”.  (17) For this reason, the topmost figure may be seen as a Primordial Shaman, the foremost of the lineage, upon whom the six shaman-ancestors situated below him are collectively concentrating their powers.

Referring to the dismemberment ceremony, Devlet says, “After the test, the shaman reaches a level where he acquires a helper spirit”.  One kind of helper spirit acquired by the shaman is a snake.  According to Devlet, the zigzags on the Shigir Idol, “can be interpreted as snakes, which are associated with representations of overcoming the limits between various spheres of the universe”.  (17)

That is, in shamanic cultures snakes were widely held to have the ability to easily cross the boundaries between the worlds, assisting the shaman.  Also, the shaman was also able to transform into a snake to make these journeys.

What was the significance of the Shigir Idol for the foragers?  Regarding the prominence of the exposed bones on the Shigir Idol, Devlet says, in words that recall those of Ingold, “Semantically, such depictions may be reflective of concepts surrounding hunting, where the vital force of the hunted animal is associated with the skeleton or certain parts of it. The skeleton and bones, as parts of the skeleton, contain the ‘quintessence of life.’ They are the key to its constant renewal as well as the source and reservoir of life”.  Recalling for us the significance of the skull in bear ceremonialism, she continues, “This understanding of the skeleton was based on everyday experience. Hunters returned the bones of the animals they hunted to nature so that the creatures could be reborn”. (17)

In Devlet’s view, the prominence of the exposed bones suggests that the place where the sculpture was erected may have marked a site for presenting sacrifices of the bones from the hunt in order to procure future good fortune from guardian spirits of game. 

Leaning against a cliff

The Shigir Idol was found in a peat bog that formerly was a paleo-lake, suggesting the sculpture was originally sited on its shore.  The sculpture was not crafted as a round pole that could be planted free-standing in the ground, like the totem poles of indigenous peoples of the northwest coast of the U.S. and Canada.  Instead, because of its monumental height, narrow width and modest three- to four-inch depth—making it essentially a narrow board or plank—it was designed to rest or lean against a high and relatively uniform surface. It is thought that while the sculpture might have been attached to a tree, it probably rested against a cliff on the shore of the lake. (18)

The cliff would have been chosen before carving began and it is reasonable to suppose that it would have already been considered sacred, a place of rituals.  In fact, Devlet points to a tradition of prehistoric cultures of the Urals and Siberia considering certain rocks as sacred objects.  They were “‘zones of activity’ of ancestors or spirits”, the same as what I call ‘portals to the other world’. (19)  Ahlqvist observes that the Ugric Khanty and Mansi, offshoots of the Neolithic Permian culture of the Middle Urals, worshiped sacred stones, as did Uralic peoples more generally. (10)  According to Chairkina, the Khanty and Mansi preserved elements in their myths and legends of the worldviews of cultures in their area from as far back as the Mesolithic Age, meaning that the tradition of sacred stones may have been a cultural element retained from as early as the Shigir culture. (20)

Devlet suggests that because they were periodically flooded, rocks on the shores of rivers and lakes had “special mythic and ritual significance”.  She refers to a study by V.N. Shirokov, who, based on archaeological and ethnographic evidence, observed that sacred rocks were often located near lakes and rivers because water was seen as “responsible for creating a passage between the spheres of the universe”. (19)

A painting of the Shigir Idol as it might have looked,
and a ‘leaning’ view of the side of the actual sculpture.

If the rock cliff that was chosen to support the Shigir Idol was already considered sacred and was located in the liminal zone of the shoreline of the paleo-lake, I suggest that the sculpture was expressly created to complement it.  As such, it would have greatly enhanced the site as a sacred sanctuary and place of rituals.  Together, the rock face and the wooden sculpture leaning against it would have represented a new medium of rock art—the application of carved wood to rock—in addition to the mediums of carving and painting of rock surfaces.  

Various interpretations of the Shigir Idol have been put forward, for example the one by Devlet.  However, to my knowledge no one has considered the Shigir Idol sculpture, and the sacred cliff which supported it, as a single integral work of sacred art.  I will undertake to do so here.  I feel that it opens new interpretive avenues for an artwork that I argue was seminal for the later Uralic-Finnic sacred arts tradition.

Cyclical Renewal

As we saw above, Devlet believes that site of the Shigir sculpture might have been a place for sacrifices by foragers as part of the rites of renewal of game in their hunting rounds. (17)  This interpretation suggests only a local, human-centric influence for the Shigir Idol, revolving around the livelihood of a single band or clan.  However, the presence of seven powerful shaman lineage holders who were pooling the regenerative capacity of their exposed ribs as part of a sculpture of monumental size, that was resting against a sacred cliff located on a lakeshore, suggests a broader mythic vision, one that was cosmic in scope. 

Savchenko and Zhilin, leading researchers of the Shigir Idol, suggest that it may embody a myth of creation. (14)  Another leading researcher, Terberger, believes that the sheer complexity of the Shigir sculpture suggests a broad vision.  He views it as one of the most outstanding Eurasian cultural masterpieces of the Stone Age, classing it with the monuments of later farming societies of the Neolithic Age such as Stonehenge in Britain and the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney.  Terberger also says, “I am struck by the similarity of the idol with the totem poles of native Americans in the north-west Pacific region”.  Referring to the Shigir foragers, he says, “We have to accept that (the) hunter-gatherers had complex rituals and were capable of very sophisticated expression of ideas and art”.  (16)

Devlet observes that the most significant rites conducted at petroglyphs of the Urals and Siberia focused on two categories of rites.  One was “human and animal fertility-magic”, that I call animal ceremonialism.  The second category of rites concerns what she calls “the cult of the reproductive forces of nature”. (19) This category suggests the nature of the possible cosmic vision that underlay the Shigir Idol. 

That is, the Shigir Idol may have been aimed at the renewal of not just the local elk herd, but of the whole broad network of beings of nature who are in reciprocal interdependence, as outlined by Ingold.  This is the network that “extends throughout the cosmos, linking human, animal and all other forms of life”.  (4)  This vision would have been consistent with animist cultures of foragers in general, for whom, according to Brenneman and Brenneman, there is an “impetus to cyclic regeneration of the world”.  (21)

In the view of Savchenko, the decorative elements of the Shigir sculpture reflect a new system of mythological representations. (13)  In creating this system, I suggest that the Shigirs would have drawn from myths of regeneration that were part of the heritage of the Uralic area.  A myth of this type that relates specifically to wood is that of the World or Universal Tree.  One that relates to sacred stones is the Blue Stone myth. Finally, a myth of cosmic scale that combines both wood and sacred stones is the ‘Blue Stone of the creation’, that we encountered in the introduction to the first post of A History of Finnish Shamanism

I will consider each of these three myths in turn for their possible influence on the creation of the Shigir Idol.  Let us first consider Chairkina’s interpretation of the sculpture in terms of the myth of the World Tree.

The World Tree

In her study of the Shigir Idol (20) Chairkina argues that the vertical alignment of seven anthropomorphic figures on the sculpture follows the tripartite structure of the lower, middle and upper worlds, that  she calls “the world order inherent in the Mesolithic population of the Trans-Urals”.  (Note:  Since Chairkina presented her interpretation, a possible eighth figure has been identified on the sculpture.)

In her graphic, Chairkina identifies anthropomorphic figures one through three as beings of the lower world.  Figure four is of the middle world, and figures five through seven are of the upper world.  Figure seven is what she calls the “supreme” figure, with a three-dimensional human-like head. 

Chairkina identifies two figures as female, located on the back of the sculpture.  She calls them “transitional” between the worlds.  Figure five connects the upper and middle worlds, and figure three connects the middle and lower worlds.

In view of the tripartite vertical alignment of the figures, Chairkina considers the Shigir Idol as a possible replica of the World or Universal Tree.  She says, “The vertical model of the Universe is most often presented as the image of the Universal Tree, the invisible (root) part of which symbolizes the Lower World, the visible one, the Middle World, and the peak hidden from sight, the Upper World.” (12)

In Chairkina’s view, there are several indications that the carvers of the sculpture in fact intended the Shigir Idol to be a tree.  For example, the carvers left the sculpture rough-hewn with many knots and irregularities.  Also, Chairkina considers the figure three, located near the bottom where the roots of a tree would be located, to resemble a woman in labour, with widespread legs and ‘falling’ dots beneath, suggesting a birth in progress. 

For Chairkina, this recalls the custom recorded in later ethnographic sources of women giving birth at the foot of a tree, that she calls “the motif of the generating force of the earth-tree”. (12)

Chairkina identifies the figure as a female because of its similarity of its appearance to a drawing in Ignatievskaya cave located about 300 km southwest of the Shigir site, that is the second largest cave with Paleolithic drawings in the Southern Urals. The drawing (above) is an anthropomorphic image that has both breasts and numerous dots between the legs. The Paleolithic cave figure is considerably older than the Mesolithic Shigir figure, but they are thought to be related. (14)

Chairkina concludes, “It is hard to say whether the sculpture of the Big Shigir Idol, created in the Mesolithic Period, is a stylized model of the Universal Tree, but the imitation of it is plausible: its huge size; its almost untreated knotty trunk; its pointed tip, clearly intended for entering the ground. The multilevel nature and structuredness of its ‘inhabitants’ are also obvious”. (20)

Chairkina does not identify the nature of the anthropomorphic beings who delineate the three worlds of the Universal Tree beyond calling them “figures” and “creatures”.  However, as we saw above, Devlet considers them to be shamans, and I believe this identification is a necessary complement to Chairkina’s analysis.  That is, in ancient Uralic mythology, it was by climbing the Universal Tree that shamans in an ecstatic state were able to travel through the tripartite realms for purposes such as securing favourable conditions for subsistence for their band, for healing, and for responding to community-wide crises.  Therefore, it is reasonable that it was shaman spirit persons who populated the sculpture.

Chairkina identifies two females on the Shigir Idol, whom Devlet would classify as shamans.  Female shamans were known in the Urals and in Siberia.  For example, above is the recreation of the costume and appearance of the “Shaman woman” from Burial No. 3 at the Ust Ude site of western Siberia. Her culture was closely related to that of the Evenki, from whose language the term ‘shaman’ derives. (22)

The Universal Tree (the ‘World Tree’, ‘Cosmic Tree’, ‘Tree of Life’) is a central feature of the mythology of Uralic cultures and beyond.  Chairkina says “The Universal Tree is considered as the world axis connecting the worlds of the Universe, as well as the embodiment of life, under which the life cycle happens”.  (20)  Similarly, Eliade says it “represents the universe in continual regeneration, the inexhaustible spring of cosmic life.”  (23) This suggests that by embodying the myth of the Universal Tree in the Shigir Idol, the sacred artist and her meshwork would have transformed it into a powerful support for the renewal of the complex network of reciprocal interdependence upon which life depends. 

The Mythical Blue Stone

I have already suggested that the cliff against which the Shigir Idol sculpture rested may have already been considered sacred, what Devlet refers to as a “zone of activity’ of ancestors or spirits”.  However, was the sacred cliff seen specifically in terms of the Blue Stone mythic tradition?

The Blue Stone tradition originated among the settler cultures of Northern Eurasia after the Ice Age and became what Ahlqvist calls a “massive phenomenon” across this vast area.  He says, “in the religious concepts of earlier hunters, gatherers and fishermen the Blue Stone was associated with “an entrance to the other world, with magic and power.” Many of the settler cultures were proto-Finno-Ugrian and the tradition has been closely identified with Finno-Ugric cultures since that time. (10)  

As we saw above, the Middle Ural Mountains area where the Shigir culture was located was a sub-centre of the Blue Stone tradition. According to Ahlqvist, “stones in cliffs” with the name “Sinij kamen”, or Blue Stone, have been found in the valley of the Chusovskoy river in the Sverdlovsk region, near the Shigir peat bog. (10)  As well, a small mountain (actually, a large stone hill) with the name Sinij kamen is to be found on the same river 210 km to the south, in the Chelyabinsk region.

 ‘Blue Stone Mountain’, in the Ural Mountains near Chelyabinsk

The term “Sinij kamen”, Blue Stone, is a Russian term that originally was the translation of a concept of the Permian culture of the Middle Urals area.  The translation is dated as early as 2500 BC.  It is not known how long this the concept may have existed in the area before the translation was made. (24)

The above suggests that the sacred stone against which the Shigir Idol rested may have been venerated as a mythical Blue Stone, perhaps an early prototype of it.  As such, it would have brought a powerful otherworld connection to the site of the Shigir Idol.

The Blue Stone of the Creation

The third archetypal myth that may have been part of the creation of the Shigir Idol is an elaboration of the basic Blue Stone tradition.  This is ‘the Blue Stone of the creation’, a myth that was widespread in the Uralic area.

Frog points out that the Blue Stone is not a single, unified mythic image, but rather represents a pattern or network of images, not all of which are present in any single mythic representation. It revolves around two complex images.  One image relates to healing, that I will consider in an upcoming post.  The other image is in the words of Frog, that of “a prime stone at the beginning of the world which provides a base for the World Tree or world axis.”  (24)

There are various versions or representations of the myth of the prime stone of creation spanning different cultural traditions. For example, in a Slavic version a rock in the sea combines with a Cosmic Tree growing in the centre of the sea.  In medieval Christian literature there is a primeval rock in a primeval sea at the centre of the earth and the Tree of Life, with streams flowing from it. (25)

As we saw in the introduction to the first post of A History of Finnish Shamanism, a version or representation of this myth is found in the Kalevala-metre folk poem, or rune, used as an incantation, the ‘Blue Stone of Creation’.  The poem was recorded by a collector in Karelia in 1845.  

In the poem, Väinämöinen, the archetypal Primordial Shaman, comes upon the Blue Stone appearing as part of the first ground raised in the sea of creation, 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. 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.  (24)

Aleksi Gallen-Kallela: The Great Oak

According to Siikala, the Väinämöinen poem drew from the same original version of the myth as did the medieval Christian cosmographic narrative.  (25)

Frog says regarding the Väinämöinen poem, “The depiction resonates with many of the broad international associations which have been brought to bear on the Blue Stone.” (24)  The rune represents ancient mythic images from across the Uralic area, and beyond, that may have been present in the trans-Urals during the Mesolithic.

Although far removed in geography from the Baltic area, the Shigir Idol and its allied sacred stone share mythic images that are similar to those of the Finnish-Karelian poem.  They include what is apparently a Primordial Shaman, a tree-like sculpture that has been interpreted as the Universal Tree, snake-like carvings on the sculpture, a sacred stone against which the sculpture rests that may be a Blue Stone, and a watery shore for its location. 

I suggest that the phenomenological similarities of the Shigir sacred artwork to the Blue Stone of the creation myth are too great to ignore.  They may indicate that the Blue Stone of the creation myth was part of what Hautala calls the “living reality” of the Shigir culture, and that their sacred artwork may have embodied some of its of mythic elements.  If so, the myth would have provided a powerful support for the Shigir artwork in the cyclic renewal of the animist lifeworld. 

Of course, there are also clear differences between the Shigir artwork and the Baltic folk poem.  The Shigir artwork includes six additional shaman figures, both male and female.  Perhaps most significantly, it lacks evidence of the breaking open of the sacred stone, a key feature of the Väinämöinen poem.  At the same time, it presents what might have been an equivalent means by which the stone was opened. 

The graphic above shows how a deep groove was carved in the back of the Shigir sculpture, from the top to the bottom.  This was the spine to which the ribs of the anthropomorphic shaman figures were attached.  Speaking of the significance of this feature of the sculpture, Devlet says, “The shaman's spine is an instrument of his religious powers and appointment as a shaman, and his bones symbolize his gift and embody his abilities. The spine is the building material that is used to link together worlds and maintain harmony between them.”  (17)

The spine of the Primordial Shaman, in x-ray style, rested against the Blue Stone cliff and I suggest it would have merged or fused with it.  This represents an alternative means of linking the worlds together, in contrast with the breaking open of the Blue Stone in the Väinämöinen poem.  In this way, I suggest that the Shigir artwork may have embodied a novel variant of the myth. 

I will present in a coming post what appears to be another example of this variant of the merging of a shaman’s spine with a Blue Stone.  This is the rock carving on the shore of Lake Onega, called the Triad that Devlet argues is typologically similar to the Shigir artwork. (17)  It also represents the rock art technique of application of wood to stone.

An Active Cultural Agent

Chairkina says of the Shigir Idol, “This sculpture may be a kind of mythical text, a narrative of the world as it was seen by the Mesolithic population of the Trans-Ural Region.”  (12)  This interpretation is consistent with a trend in academic discourse in archaeology, in which the meaning of a work of prehistoric art is seen mainly or only in terms of representing mythological beliefs.  Accordingly, we could limit our interpretation of the Shigir sacred artwork to the way in which it represents the Blue Stone of the creation myth. 

However, Zhilin says, “Our ancestors from the Stone Age did not separate themselves from the ‘otherworldly’ forces, they lived with them. And this idol is most likely part of their daily environment, its direct participant.”  What are the implications of considering the Shigir sacred artwork in this way, as both an active cultural agent as well as an embodiment of mythology? 

As quoted above, Brenneman and Brenneman observe that there is an “impetus to cyclic regeneration of the world” in animist cultures of foragers such as the Shigirs. (21) Ingold holds that the major way in which this is accomplished is through hunting and killing of game. He says, “In an animic system…hunting effects the circulation of vital force between humans and animals and thus contributes directly to the regeneration of the lifeworld of which both are part.” (4)

Another means available to foragers of effecting the cyclic regeneration of the animist lifeworld was through ritual.  One form was the rites of animal ceremonialism.  However, according to the Brennemans, the most powerful rituals are those that they refer to as “repetition of the same events that occurred at the beginning of the world.” (21)The Blue Stone of the creation is a myth that repeated such events. I propose that as an active cultural agent, the Shigir artwork did not simply represent this myth, but was a living enactment of it.

This proposal accords with my definition of sacred artworks as endowed by rhizomic meshworks with personhood and agency.  However, I recognise that the Shigir artwork is exceptional among the objects of sacred art we have encountered in Spirit Boat to this point. This is both in terms of form—involving multiple persons and elements—and in terms of subject matter—encompassing multifaceted ritual processes.

These characteristics lead several researchers to assert that the Shigir artwork was the product of a new tradition of sacred art.  For example, Koksharov refers to “a new iconographic canon” the elements of which “testify to the complexity of the worldview system” of the “fishermen and hunters who lived on the shores of the Shigir paleo-lake”.  (14)

I will now explore the new sacred art canon that I believe is exemplified in the Shigir artwork, that I call ‘three worlds naturalism’.  Following that, I will apply the new canon to the interpretation of it.

A New Sacred Art Tradition

The sacred art of the Palaeolithic Age was mostly focused on animal subjects, zoomorphs.  Artworks tended to resemble their ‘natural’ appearance in the middle, material world, i.e., they were recognisable as the animals to which they referred.  For this reason, I use the term ‘middle world naturalism’ to describe this tradition.

A mammoth, rock painting person from Kapova Cave, an
Paleolithic rock art site in the southern Ural
Mountains of Russia. 

A new sacred arts tradition appeared in the Uralic area in the Mesolithic Age, as exemplified by the Shigir Idol.  Peter Vang Petersen, an archaeologist at The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen characterises the shift: “Figurative art in the Paleolithic and naturalistic animals painted in caves and carved in rock all stop at the end of the ice age. From then on, you have very stylized patterns that are hard to interpret.” In the early Mesolithic, “They’re still hunters, but they had another view of the world.”  (26)

I apply the term ‘three worlds naturalism’ to the fresh tradition of sacred art.  I suggest that the tradition was not actually new; sporadic examples of it were to be found in the Palaeolithic Age.  However, in the Mesolithic it became extensive across the Uralic culture area, commencing with the ground-breaking Shigir Idol artwork.

Why did it spread at this time?  Petersen believes that after the Ice Age, as forests propagated across the warmer Eurasian landscape, the new sacred art tradition may have provided a way for foragers to respond to what were unfamiliar forest environments. (26)  Building on this analysis, I suggest that three worlds naturalism made it possible for foragers to have a deeper level of dialogical engagement with the persons and processes of their new and more complex animist lifeworld. I will argue in coming posts that this tradition went on to be a central sacred arts canon of the Uralic-Finnic shamanic complex, continuing alongside middle world naturalism, that did not end in the Mesolithic.

I present here my own picture of the new tradition, building upon the work of Robert J. Wallis and Timothy Ingold and my recent post on the process of the sacred artist in Finland and Karelia.  At the heart of the tradition is what I call ‘persons in process’. 

We are familiar with the process of sacred art that I previously laid out in which human artists and other-than-human persons, including guardian spirits of nature, join in rhizomic meshworks that endow objects and performances of sacred art with agency and personhood.  In the new tradition, at the same time as the meshworks confer this personhood, they also reify the particular processes of animic reality in which the persons are taking part.  I call the resulting works of sacred art ‘persons in process’. 

Recall the four key processes that drive the animic network that I drew from Ingold: (4)

  1. Free circulation of vital or soul force
  2. Drawing upon and surrendering of vital or soul force
  3. Beings in transformation in a world that is constantly unfolding
  4. Dialogue across boundaries between the worlds

Let us consider an example involving the animist process of ‘drawing upon and surrendering vital or soul force’. The shaman spirit persons embodied on the Shigir Idol have exposed ribs, indicating that they are undergoing ritual dismemberment.  After surrendering their vital force to spirit persons, they are able to draw upon it anew and become reborn with the ‘shaman’s gift’.  They are ‘persons in process’, reifications of spirit persons engaged in an animist process. 

The reification of ‘persons in process’ required that rhizomic meshworks, with sacred artists as their executors, enter into broader and deeper levels of engagement with the beings and processes of the animist network than was the case with middle world naturalism.  In doing so, the meshworks were able to confer greater powers to objects or performances of the sacred arts.

For Petersen, the designs of the Shigir Idol are not naturalistic and are “hard to interpret”, based on another view of the world.  Its features appear as ‘stylized’ to him, seeming to suggest the design was the product of aesthetic choice. (26)  However, I argue that their appearance is still ‘naturalistic’, but only if we take into account both the person and the animist process of which they are a part. 

I call the new tradition ‘three worlds naturalism’ to indicate that when viewed through it, the dynamic animist processes that link the three worlds—the flow, loss, and gain of vital force; transformation of form; and dialogue across boundaries of the worlds—appear ‘visible’ and ‘natural’, along with the persons engaging in them.  The perspective is ‘trans-worlds’ and ‘trans-species’, reflecting rhizomic meshworks in which no participant, including the sacred artist, has a privileged position. 

It is true that for three worlds naturalism, the creation of a sacred art object was human-mediated, in that the artist would have brought to the task of executing the directions of the rhizomic meshwork her own skills, creativity and inspiration, as well as design conventions of her culture. However, the ultimate design was negotiated within the rhizomic meshwork and thus cannot be interpreted through a human-centric lens alone.

Objects of sacred art such as the Shigir Idol are often considered to have multiple layers of meaning.  For example, Chairkina says, “Its huge size, unique décor, and structuring of the images obviously suggest the multiplicity of its semantic texts”.  (12)  However, I suggest that the key to interpreting sacred art persons in process is not only in their possible meanings, but as importantly in the multiple ‘powers’ they bring as cultural agents, as endowed by their rhizomic meshworks.   

Here I propose the concept of ‘layering’, another aspect of three worlds naturalism. That is, in creating a complex sacred artwork like the Shigir Idol, the artist and her rhizomic meshwork endow multiple persons in process with individual powers that they then layer one upon the other. For example, each of the separate persons in process of the Shigir sacred environmental artwork would have added a new power, or an overlapping, reinforcing one, to the process of rebirth and renewal on a cosmic scale.  They included the larch sculpture, the Primordial Shaman, the male and female ancestral shamans, and the snakes inscribed on the sculpture. 

Also, because the Shigir environmental artwork was site-specific, it crucially included two elements of sacred geography:  a Blue Stone cliff and a sacred lake.  The sacred artist and her rhizomic meshwork would have incorporated them and their powers as integral elements of the artwork.   

Let us now view the Shigir sacred artwork through the eyes of three worlds naturalism, with its layering of the powers of multiple persons in process and elements of sacred geography.

Ceremony of Regeneration

Let us imagine a ceremony dedicated to the regeneration of the lifeworld, being held by the Shigir band near their dwelling site in the Ural Mountains in 9,600 B.C.  The ceremony takes place as winter turns to spring, the time of the rebirth of nature.

The ceremony is in the sacred sanctuary where the Shigir Idol stands, a liminal zone where the three cosmological realms of earth, water and sky come together.  The monumental size of the sculpture and the height of the cliff against which it rests compel participants in the ceremony to look high into the realm of the sky.  The waves lapping on the shore of the adjacent sacred lake provide to the site “a passage between the spheres of the universe”. (19) The exposed bones of the shaman spirit persons on the Shigir Idol evoke, in Devlet’s words, “the cycle of eternal rebirth—of dying in one sense to be reborn in another”, empowering the site as a location for today’s ritual of rebirth and regeneration. (17)

The spine of the Primordial Shaman rests against, and merges with, the Blue Stone portal to the other world.

This female shaman spirit person, referred to as ‘figure three’ by Chairkina, lives on the back of the sculpture, at its base at the edge of the lower world.  She is not visible to participants but will soon play a primary role in the ceremony.

The shaman who will conduct the ceremony wears a costume that features a spine and ribs as prominent decorations, demonstrating he has been chosen for his role by spirits.

The shaman begins the ceremony with drumming.  He and the participants enter a journey state. The shaman adjusts his style of communication and begins ‘walking as a spirit’, welcoming spirits of the place, the four directions, the elements, and the Shigir Idol. 

The shaman invites the Primordial Shaman of the Shigir Idol, empowered by the five male and two female shaman ancestors positioned below him, to unlock the creative power of the Blue Stone.  As the Primordial Shaman does this, the portal to the other world opens and spirit beings in the form of snakes stream into the middle world and onto the sculpture, renewing the unity of the spiritual and the material. 

Snake persons entering the world on the Shigir Idol
in the Middle Ural Mountains 
of Russia and on the
cliff of the Saraakallio rock painting site, Finland

The female ancestral shaman at the base of the sculpture, at the boundary of the lower world, generates the life force of the World Tree. The sculpture transforms into the tree, and watered by the sacred lake, grows from the lower world through the middle world to the heights of the upper world. 

A larch tree, named Tuuru in the Tungus
language of Siberia, meaning “World Tree”.

The branches and foliage of the World Tree billow out, creating the cosmic pathway for the circulation of vital or soul force. The force surges along the pathway and renews the animist lifeworld.  At this, members of the assembled band, and the guardian spirits of the birds, plants and animals with whom they are reciprocally interdependent, experience a deep oneness. 

The shaman invites the persons and elements of the sacred artwork to become as they were before the ceremony, and they do so.  

The shaman begins drumming and he and the participants return from their journey states. He offers profound thanks to all the beings who have taken part in the ceremony and brings it to a close.

A Living Whole

As we have experienced it in this imagined scene, the Shigir sacred environmental artwork combined and concentrated the powers of multiple persons in process and of site-specific elements. I suggest that in this way the artwork—constructed and empowered by a rhizomic meshwork and activated in a shamanic ceremony—would have been a living, interconnected whole, an ‘engine’ for the cyclic renewal of the network of reciprocal interdependence on which life depends. 

The imagined ceremony above also illustrates that myths may exist as material embodiments, products of the sacred arts.  I suggest that while the animation of the Shigir artwork is very different in scope from a ceremonial performance of the Väinämöinen incantation poem, they are not different in kind in terms of their embodiment of the ‘Blue Stone of the creation’ myth as part of a living person in process.  This lends support to the viewpoint of Finnish folklore scholar Juoko Hautala, who says that for early peoples, myths were “not just considered true stories but rather as living reality (that) continued to influence the world and the destinies of people.” (27)  The Shigir sacred artwork, in enacting the events of the Blue Stone of the creation, may even have been an (the?) original living source of the myth. 

Speaking of his work with the Shigir Idol, Thomas Terberger says, “Based on our studies, one can boldly assert that the development of Eurasian culture was driven not only from the Middle East but from other equally developed centers, in particular, from the Urals”.  (28)  Accordingly, in upcoming posts, I will follow the progress of the spread across Eurasia of the new sacred arts tradition of three worlds naturalism, from its origin in the Urals in the east to Finland and Karelia in the west.

Works Cited

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