Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reconstructing Finnish Shamanism for Today

Native American academic Dr. Apela Colorado says that each people on earth was given a “sacred circle or original instruction to live by”, what she identifies as the “earth-based knowledge of their ancestors”. (Colorado: 1994)

Native American writer, Gabriel Horn, refers to the original instruction as “words about purpose, words rooted in our creation, words that allow the human being an identity beyond the illusion of civilization.” (Horn: 1996)

For Finns, at the heart of the instruction from their prehistoric ancestors is what archeologist Dr. Deborah Shepherd calls, “a very strong sense of spiritual kinship with an animate Nature.” Early Finns “lived a life focused on maintaining harmony with nature and moving with the cyclical events of the year.” Their shamanism was “a medium of communication with the ancestors as well as with other universal forces.” (Shepherd: 1999)

Photo by Jouni Jussila, Oulu, Finland

However, from the 11th century onward the Catholic and then the Lutheran church waged an implacable struggle against the shamanistic tradition in Finland. For example, in 1229 Pope Gregory IX issued a Bull granting the church the right to seize and cut down the sacred hiisi groves of the Finns. The struggle is suggested in an 1879 illustration by Akseli Gallen-Kallela for an edition of the Kalevala (below).

In the painting the primordial shaman Väinämöinen has gone and his campfire is nearly out. He left behind the kantele he used to accompany his singing of runes and making of ecstatic journeys (suggesting he may return?). His sacred tree has been felled—recalling the on-going destruction of sacred groves by Lutheran ministers in the 1800’s. His shaman’s dwelling is empty while a church is being constructed nearby by a Finnish Christian Everyman. The church is placed on the site toward the direction of the rising sun, flanked by a towering crucifix. The cumulative effect is a proclamation of the defeat of the shamanic tradition in Finland.

Clearly, this announcement was premature: the shamanic tietäjä tradition continued well into the 20th century. And currently work is underway in Finland to reclaim, reconstruct, and practice within, the indigenous shaman/noita/tietäjä tradition. For example, Johannes Setälä is a shaman and well-known Finnish artist, musician, and writer. In 1996, at an international conference, Mr. Setälä received the mission of Fireguardian of Finland, the carrier of tradition, from the representatives of indigenous peoples. He teaches through the Center for Finno-Ugric Shamanism in Helsinki.

Photo from website of Centre for Finno-Ugric Shamanism

However, the developments in Finland often seem distant and are not well understood by 2nd and 3rd generation Finnish-Canadians and Finnish-Americans, as well as other North Americans who identify with the tradition but who do not have a Finnish ancestral link. (We must avoid essentializing genetic relationships.) While not residing in Finland, they share with Finns a critical stake in what Jurgen Kremer calls, in a high-flown way, “a concursive construction of indigeneity for today and the future (not a folkloristic or retroromantic reenactment of things past).” (Kremer: 2000)

It is hoped that Spirit Boat will be seen as a resource and bridge for these Canadians and other North Americans who identify with the work of reconstruction of Finnish shamanism that is centred in Finland. It is intended to inform its readers throughout all phases of the process of reclaiming the “original instructions” of the ancient Finns.

It would be extremely helpful for North Americans if the reconstruction of Finnish shamanism resulted in practices as specific and developed as are the products of the recent reconstructions of the Scandinavian pagan/shamanistic traditions of Ásatrú and Seidr. The level of structure and specificity achieved by these recovered traditions allows for individual and group identity, training and practice, beyond the mere use of documents and symbols as generalized spiritual resources.

In addition, the reconstruction of Finnish shamanism needs to include what Kremer calls ceremonies “that help each of the peoples take their responsibility for the original instructions and to live them within the cycles of the seasons and the larger astronomical cycles”.

Pictured below is one of the very old stone labyrinths in Finland, which were used for ritual purposes as early as 500 A.D.

Stone labyrinth, Finland from Labyrinths, by Virginia Westbury

It is true that the work of recovery of the “original instructions” of Finnish shamanism has to rely on evidence that is limited and fragmentary. However, this is equally the case for Ásatrú and Seidr. In fact, these two prior examples of reconstruction we can provide examples, guidelines, and cautions for working with incomplete information.

Among the sources of evidence and inspiration for Finnish shamanism tradition include, among others, the Finnish folk-based rune tradition (represented in the Kalevala), documents from 15th and 16th century witchcraft trials, the more than 100 sites in Finland with Neolithic and Bronze Age rock paintings, and the historical accounts of the tietäjä tradition.

The photo below is an 1879 illustration of the Finnish Great Oak by Gallen-Kallela for the Kalevala, reminiscent of the World Tree of Eurasian and Scandinavian shamanism.

Where there are gaps in the evidence for Finnish shamanism, analogies from closely related traditions are being consulted. The sources include the model of Saami shamanism, from which Finnish shamanism is known to have borrowed elements; the shamanic traditions of Northern Eurasia, alongside which Finnish shamanism originally emerged; and the example of other Finno-Ugric peoples such as Hungarians, who had their own shamanic traditions.

Below is a photograph from 1980 of Hungarian táltos Joska Soós. The táltos is analogous to the Finnish tietäjä. (Mihály Hoppál: 2007)

The reconstruction process has various phases. One of these is a scholarly phase that draws information and inspiration from history, anthropology, archeology, folklore studies, enthnography, philology and related disciplines.

Below is a picture of Anna-Leena Siikala, Professor of Folklore Studies at the University of Helsinki. She is a foremost expert on Finnish shamanism and author of the classic Mythic Images and Shamanism: A Perspective on Kalevala Poetry, 2002.

Photo from website of University of Helsinki

Of equal importance to the scholarly phase of the reconstruction process is the aspect of a personal and collective spiritual journey. When we begin to reclaim our indigenous heritage we are increasingly able to:

  • Join in a healing process, both personal and collective,

  • Explore the spiritual knowledge that the "original instructions" convey, including in Horn’s evocative phrase, going “beyond the illusion of civilization”, and

  • Meet other peoples in “shamanic concourse” or the “nurturing conversation”: to address the contemporary harm inflicted by neocolonialism on indigenous peoples, as well as other common problems of humanity, a foremost one being the worldwide ecological crisis.

The impact of the journey is suggested in this passage from Kremer, in which he draws from his own experience in connecting with his personal indigenous past:

“People who have been out of their indigenous minds, maybe even for centuries or millennia (like most Euro-Americans), have to begin as individuals, based on the assumption that the lost tribe will gather in some form and the ancestral spirits will help out…Once the process of re-tribalization has begun, their world and the world will become different.” (Kremer: 1994)

1 comment:

  1. im recently starting to work with runes but can only find Norse oriented symbols are there any more related to the finnish shamans