Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 4

For this post, I want to touch a little upon what Sarmela has to say about the ‘ancestor cult’. In the author’s own words.

” The religion of Iron Age hunter-cultivators and Savo-Karelian swidden culture consisted of the ancestral cult and sorcery. In the emerging agrarian communities of the Gulf of Finland coastal circle, the dead were buried in hiisi woods near dwellings or on stony islets in the middle of field clearings. The deceased guarded their living environment even after death, and their cult sites gave his surviving family the right to cultivated land; the land belonged to the ancestors. The oldest marks of cultivated land possession are perhaps cup stones; hiisi woods were probably followed by the village burial grounds of Karelia and the sacrificial trees of Lutheran eastern Finland.”

The amount of data presented in the FFA is immense. Maps show the locations of cup stones, stone altars, and sacred trees that in some way or another were all associated with ancestor worship. The finds of stone cups include both single cups, as well as clusters of cups. They have been found near houses, near field clearings, and near burial sites. Sarmela suggests the cups were built as needed for the ancestors.

Like the cups, finds also included stone altars, which were natural rocks and boulders. These sites were used as offering places for ancestors, but also for the supernatural guardian of the place, that may or not be an ancestor.

The sacred trees filled a similar function, and would serve as locations for offerings, either for the ancestors, or for the guardian of the place. Sarmela has this to say;

“Trees used in rites have been called in Finnish dialects e.g. aljo- (<Germanic origin), elätti-, lyylitys-, palvonta- and pitämys-trees. The terms indicate that the tree belonged to an individual kinship group or house and it was ‘kept’ like a kept snake, a guardian creature . Other known terms include hiisipuu which derives from the pre-Christian meaning of the word hiisi, ‘ancestors’ wood, ancestors’ tree’. Of the terms, lyylityspuu may be of Finno-Ugrian origin; lyylitä, ‘make an offering at a tree,
pray, appease’, occurs in old poetry and has been retained in the Karelian language; lyyli also means ‘fortune’ or man’s (ancestor’s/supernatural guardian’s) ‘share’ (of the catch). Guardian spirit trees may be older than the cultivating form of subsistence, possibly belonging to the early catch rites of hunting communities.” (pg 115)

Therefore, trees, similar to the stone cups and altars, may be associated with the ancestors as well as local spirit guardians. Concerning the offerings for the ancestors and the spirits, Sarmela says;

” A primogenic offering, the first share of everything yielded by cultivated land, forest and water, belonged to the ancestors. The
hiisi woods and sacred trees may have been visited on specific occasions by kinship groups to share a meal with their ancestors, as is still customary in Orthodox Karelia today, a couple of thousand years later. The ancestors influenced the life of the kinship group, new family members, babies born and spouses, were introduced to them, as they were to the supernatural guardians of the homestead, and possibly in Finland, too, the dead have been presumed to be reborn into their own kin.”

In many ways, the ancestors are still with us, and we would do well to honor them with offerings. My wife and I keep several altars up in our house, one of which is specifically dedicated to the ancestors. Regular offerings of food and drink are given at these altars. As Sarmela points out, the ancestors especially have a lot of influence on the living. Their blood runs in our veins, and our hearts beat just as theirs did. The dead are concerned with our welfare, perhaps more so than any other kind of spirit. They want to see us succeed, and that is the reason why ancestor work is fundamental to my own path.

When spring finally comes again, I think I will find some stones, maybe a few cup shaped ones, and make a place for offerings for my ancestors and the spirits around my home.


The Finnish Folkore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela, Pgs 37 – 39, 115


About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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