Spirits of the Dead

 

I once asked the woods what the afterlife looks like.

A rotting skeleton nearby, 
Fluids leaking out into the earth
Water to be absorbed by the roots
To grow new leaves in spring
To fall as dead leaves in autumn
Dead leaves for the worms
For the roots
Minerals for new seeds in summer
And naked saplings in the snow
Death comes after life
And new life after death

Hope you all had a good holiday season, and Happy New Years!

I am excited to be starting a new project here on the blog. In many ways, this project will be more folklore/fieldwork based. It will be both an attempt to “flesh” out some details of my own cosmology, as well as an opportunity to share more of my spiritual thoughts and ideas.

In many ways, I’m very much a contemporary animist. Sure, I take inspiration and ideas from the past and from my ancestors, but the animism I practice is very much grounded in the here and now. It’s about where I stand right now, and not the places where my ancestors once stood, but the living land and spirits around me in the present time and space.

This brings a lot of baggage with it to be sure. That’s one of the reasons I like to call myself an animist. It makes me look square at the historical colonialism, imperialism, and genocide that brought my ancestors to the shores of the US. It has elements of both the past, and the present. It gives me roots in the past, and the ancestral baggage I have inherited. But it also has a root in the present, and the acknowledgment that I know longer live in the world my ancestors knew, nor any of my ancestral lands. There is a distance, in time and space, from the world they knew.

Yet, all this talk about ancestors and the past, inevitably leads to conversations about the dead. In fact, I was part of one recently at a local gathering. We got into topics about death and burial, and what that would look like in a pagan context. It was one of those topics where it is difficult to explain burial without an understanding of where I am coming from. In other words, my ideas of burial are hard to discuss without exploring my spiritual understanding of the nature of the dead.

So, that’s what I’m going to talk about today.

There are two important concepts that I draw from Finnish folklore that are going to be important going forward. These concepts are the haltijas (spirits), and väki, which is the Finnish concept of both people/folk, and of energy/power of a place. It has a great deal of overlap with my conception of animism, in which the world is filled with persons (most of which are non-human), and that life is lived in relation to others. Väki and haltijas give me the means to work with a full enpeopled natural world. The deer in forest are haltijas, deer people. They belong to the deer väki, and also the greater väki of the forest. This means more than just the physical living components of the forest, but also the dead, the trees, the rocks, and the Earth eventually as a totality.

Obviously the dead are where I am going to focus today. The phrase for these spirits in Finnish is kalman väki, the dead folk. The spirits of the dead.

I’ll say more on the other topics in future posts. What about the dead? What is, for lack of better questions, the nature of the dead in my animistic practice? Well, through the lens of complex systems, the Earth is the most influential complex system that we belong to. Yes, I could extend this to the solar system at large, but that might be too big of view for what I want to talk about. The Sun of course matters to all life on Earth, but ultimately the Earth is our home. It is where all humans living today were born, and were most of us will die. (Excepting people like James Doohan). The Earth is the complex system we are closest too, and has the most influence over our lives. Our relationship to the Earth is the most intimate.

In this way, the Earth is THE complex system that defines our lives, and ultimately our deaths. The spirit of the Earth is our ancestor, and the mind and memory in which the history of the Earth resides. This goes deep into astronomy, and the planet’s origins from the Sun, as well as deep geology and ecology. Also archaeology, because all these sciences are ways of learning about the memories of the Earth spirit. Through archaeology especially, we are literally digging into the memories of the Earth and the land.

Ultimately, this is where the dead and the ancestors come to rest. Whether the ashes are cast into the ocean, or buried on the family farm, ultimately all dead come to rest as part of the Planetary Earth System. The dead are kept, in this sense, as part of the memory of the Earth and the land. This can be framed in a global sense, as the planet is all one system, or in a very local sense; ie, the dead are buried in a specific place at a specific time, in some cases.

An example of this could be a cemetery plot in which many dead are buried. In many ways, they are very local spirits, and memories of the land in that particular place. The spirits of the dead are spirits of place in that example. But they are also still part of the Earth system, and part of the memory of the planet.

This is also true of the non-human dead. The forest floor is littered with the dead of past seasons, whether plant, animals, or something else entirely. The bones of the dead animals rest upon the forest floor, along with the fallen leaves, and in time are reclaimed as part of the forest. The soil itself, is the memory of generations of dead spirits.

Digging Deeper

If you dug a hole into the forest floor, or most any landform, you’d be digging into layers of physical and spiritual memory of the forest itself. The spirit, mind, and memory of the forest.

The same can also be said of human cities, and human burials. Some of the oldest cities on the planet are over 7,000 years old. Digging under these cities is digging into the mind and memory of the cities, and the dead that are remembered (and forgotten), there in the mind of the earth.

So what about ghosts, spirits, and other strange haunting that are so often called paranormal? To me, such ghosts would be the memories of the land and place. Like memories, ghosts can be incomplete. They can be fragmented over time, or sometimes forgotten completely. While the memories of the land and the Earth are much greater and deeper than any human memory, the Earth’s memory is not perfect. Like archaeology, sometimes the remains of the dead and the buried are fragmented, and incomplete.

Ghosts are the memories of those that were once living, in the way that the land remembers them. They might have inhabited buildings that no longer exist, or places long since past. But yet, the memories remain in that place. Sometimes archaeologists find them, and sometimes spiritual people. The memories of the place can still exist, even if those that had those memories no longer do. The dead are the memories in the mind (systems) of the land.

The Dead as Land Spirits

But more than this, I also think the spirits of the dead are still with us as more than memories. Death is not the end of life, but a kind of breaking. A fragmenting. As part of the land, the dead continue to live on as the agents of a place. The very real cycles of matter and energy that move through ecosystems and the planet as a whole. That is why väki is such a useful concept. It is the people (human and non-human) of place, but also the energy of a place. The real physical part of a complex ecosystem.

I got to thinking about this as I was standing on the land around my house. I started to wonder, what dead might lie beneath my feet? What would I find if I just started digging, even if in only a hypothetical sense. (Digging deep holes without heavy equipment sucks.)

At the top layer, I;d find my recently deceased dog Mia. She passed away this year. Her bones are pretty near the top. I’d also find some recently discarded trash, and other debris that has found it’s way into my yard. Future archaeologists might find the same bits of plastic in a few thousands years. That is a troubling thought.

Going deeper, I might find the remains of the Native people that my ancestors displaced. I was part of the team that found a Native American firepit on the campus of MSU, so it’s not impossible. That would mean coming face to face with my colonial-settler past. I was born in Michigan, but I’m not Native American. In my area, that would most likely be the Pottawatomie, and perhaps the Ottawa and Ojibwe too.

There might be Native bones under my feet, and I would literally be standing upon the dead of displaced and colonized people. Like the political and social systems the ‘founders’ of the US set up, the Native people would physically ‘beneath me’, just like the social structure I benefit from. That too, is troubling.

What might I find deeper than Native dead? Deeper still would be the memories and spirits of the land of Michigan, the biologic and geologic history. The history of glaciers, mammoths, and eventually the first forms of life that formed billions of years ago. The remains of the dead that evolved into the whole of life on the planet. The soil itself in that way, is the remains of the dead. As well as the nourishment for the living.

We’ve come full circle, starting with the the Earth, and ending with the Earth. Ultimately, that is the cycle of the living and the dead. Until we start inhabiting other planets, the planet is the end and the beginning. This asks us to really reevaluate our relationships to the spirits of the dead. Our relationships to fossil fuels, to Native peoples, to the land, to our own ancestors, and to the Earth.

Thanks for reading!

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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