Spirits of the Forest

“In ancient times, the land lay covered lay covered in forests. Where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony. But as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed…” — Princess Mononoke

Some have wondered where they Great Lakes came from… Long ago, there were Great Spirits of ice and snow. They were so old, and so powerful, that their very bodies lay upon the surface of the land. There was no land in those days, only the endless bodies of the Ice People.

Over long spans of time, the land slowly warmed. The Ice People hated the warmth, and started to migrate towards the north. But in anger of being displaced, they dug up the land, digging great furoughs in the land. But they stayed too long, and the warmth got to them. The Ice People that remained melted away, and the water from their bodies and tears filled the Great Lakes.

Okay, so that is my best attempt at some kind of glacier-inspired folklore for my homelands of Michigan. It’s a little bit science and a little bit animism, and tries to retell the history of how the Great Lakes came to be. The short answer, they were dug out by glaciers. Obviously.

In my last post, I made brief allusions to the fact that in Finnish folklore the spirits of the dead and the spirits of the land are deeply intertwined. This makes sense, from both a practical as well as a spiritual perspective. In the words of Mufasa, when we die our bodies become the grass. The vast majority of humans, animals, plants, and every other being on this planet return to the Earth when we die. We become part of the land, whether we are buried or burned.

The spirits and inhabitants of the land are often referred to as Mann haltija literally land spirits. The land itself and the spirits of the land are the oldest beings, and have been here long before humanity first crawled out of the evolutionary past.. The plants and animals have millions of generations of dead. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are often the protectors of the land. The dead are protectors of the living, and the forests were here before the people. In this way, ancestors, the dead, and the haltija in general is deeply connected to the land, and the Earth.

For example, we can still find the fossil remains of the first forms of life that appeared on Earth billions of years ago. The memory of the Earth is deep, and those dead are still remembered by the land beneath our feet. According to the folklore, those dead spirits can also watch over their living descendants, and the species that came from them. The First Oak, would be the haltija that watched over and guarded its kin, and helped to maintain the cycles of life and death for the species.

That is why the spirits of the dead and the land are deeply intertwined. My homeland of Michigan has a deep forested history, and even today the state is over 50% forests. This is interesting to consider when you figure that the Native Americans have been here for generations, and that the Forests were here long before them. And the lakes and waters before that, and the glaciers before that. That all that ecological history, is still with us. Still below our feet. Still part of Michigan’s animistic and physical being.

Spirits of dead wolves still watch over their living kin, along with spirits of birds, and trees and forests. These are the spirits of the forest, and of the land. The mann haltijas, and also the Spirits of the Forest.

The Spirits of the Forest

The metsän väki serve as guides and mentors to us all. Their roots go deep into the ground, to the waters of the dead, drinking of the wisdom and memory of the Earth and our ancestors. Their trunks exist upon the land, in our own world of humans, animals, and plants. Their branches stretch towards the heavens, towards the stars, the spirits, and the heavens.

In Finnish, the metsän väki are the people of the forest, the spirits of the place, and also the inherent ‘power’ of the place. The spirits, and the Spirit, of the Forest. They are the living beings of the forest; all the different species of trees, of animals, plants, fungus, bacteria, and all the others. They are also the ecology of the forest, the complex system that involves not just the biology, but also the air, water, and earth of the physical landform. The metsän väki are the cycles of matter and energy that maintain and regulate the entire system. From the acorn to the rotting trunk, these are the metsän väki.

Finland, like my own country of Michigan, is also a heavily forested land. It is no surprise at all that the forest played heavily into their folklore and their spiritual beliefs. However, in my own home, there is a deeply disturbing past when it comes to the forests. Historically, after the arrival of Europeans, Michigan was basically the source of lumber for a growing America.

The vast majority of our old growth trees were logged and taken away in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a great podcast series by Michigan Radio, if you care to listen that covers a lot of this history. Still, that history weighs on my mind. Those trees and habits were displaced, and in no small way our forests have not been the same since. Those old forests would have been something to see!

Yet, there is a deeper, more animistic connection here too. In the same way that the destruction of habitats can destabilize ecosystems, a similar idea is present in the Finnish concept of väki. Displaced spirits can become angry, or ‘insane’ if they are not treated properly. The dead can become enraged, just as in Princess Mononoke. They can make people sick, or become ill themselves. There is a real ecological and spiritual connection between the health of the metsän väki, and the physical health of the forest.

If you want to read more about my experience with forests spirits, you could start here.

Not only does that leave room for further investigation, but it also makes me deeply uncomfortable. Again, perhaps Jigo in Princess Mononoke said it best;

Hiisi

In goes another layer deeper as well, the connection between the dead, the living, and the land. In Finnish folk beliefs, there is also the concept of the hiisi. These were also spirits, or ghosts, that could help (or hinder) the living. Spirits of the dead were often honored in forest groves, natural land formations, and stones and rocks.

A forest where the spirit of the dead was honor was called a Hiisi forest, a spirit forest. A place where the spirits and ancestors dwell. By sacred trees, in sacred groves, or upon stone altars Finnish people would leave offerings, sacrifices, and honors for the dead. I’ve talked more about what that looks like here Reflections on the FFA. 

However, as Christianity swept into Finland, hiisi and the concepts around it actually became a profane idea. Hiisi were no longer spirits or ancestors, but devils and evil demons. As a result, it’s fallen from use; in the same way that a lot of old sacred sites were cut down, or had churches built over them. Still, I think the spirits still linger in those places, just as they still linger in the forests of Michigan.

Which is a great place to stop for the moment. There is a lot more that could be said, but I will save that for future posts. As always;

Thanks for reading!

About Nicholas Haney

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

2 responses to “Spirits of the Forest

  • Spirits of the Waters | The Thought Forge

    […] today I wanted to continue my series on the spirits. You can find the previous posts about forests here , and about the dead here. It was also inspired by the last fall’s trip to Michigan State […]

  • Spirits of Michigan | The Thought Forge

    […] In addition to this, I’ve noted before how as much as the waters, Michigan is defined by the forests. Our history is full of old growth hardwoods and rich mixed boreal forests as you moved farther to the north. So too, is our history full of exploitative logging and lumber industries. Forests are our greatest treasure, and also our greatest loss. Those old forests are not around anymore, but thankfully they are not all lost. Planting trees and regrowing forests is a vital step to tackling the climate crisis. Those are the metsän väki. […]

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