Tag Archives: Finnish Folklore Atlas

Finnish Folk Belief and Shinto

As I was writing some of my thoughts down on my previous post here, I was struck with some more thoughts when I started writing this section;

“Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in humans. The gods as a “guardian of humanity that has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and “the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

There is something there that resonates with me.” – Me

Something has been playing on my mind since I wrote that down, and that was the curious parallels between what I was writing, and my love of Hayao Miyazaki movies.

As I said, this has resonated with me, and in this post I am hoping to explore a little more of the reasons why. As I wrote the above quote, I kept thinking about characters from Princess Mononoke. As I wrote about haltias as “guardians” and “eldest of the species”, I kept thinking about Moro, the wolf god, and Nago the boar god, and others as well. In the movie, Moro is referred to both as a wolf god, and a member of the Wolf Clan/Tribe. There are also references to the Boar Clan, and the Ape Tribe/Clan.

And my mind kept turning and turning. In many of Miyazaki’s movies, you see forest gods, forests, spirits, and little stone altars, structures and statues. All of this kept running through my mind as I wrote about hiisi woods and stone altars and cups, and ancestral woods. Bridge lead to another bridge, as the connections fired across my mind.

I cannot help feeling there is something a lot more to this. I also realized that I don’t really know much about Shinto, which inspired Miyazaki to put many of those ideas in his movies. But at least superficially, I am starting to see a lot of parallels between Finnish folk belief, and some of the ideas of Shinto, which is often described as an animistic/polytheistic system.

Which makes the timing of this article even more convenient. The article is titled Pagan Temples and Shinto Shrines, by Megan Manson. Here I am going to quote from the beginning of the article;

… But there are differing opinions within the Pagan community when it comes to the idea of building temples. On the one hand, some love the idea of having a building where Pagans can all go to honour the deities safely and comfortably. On the other hand, there are Pagans who see their “temple” as being all around them – in the form of the forests, rivers, mountains and oceans – and so a man-made temple is not necessary.”

I have struggled with this question for some time, and I don’t think it is really an either/or question. For those that want to build temples, build temples. For those that want to be outside, go outside. There is not any superior position between these two things, but there are questions of upkeep to be sure. Can the community support a temple, or a smaller shrine? Obviously “natural temples” pretty much take care of upkeep on their own, but then it is on the human to make sure the place is properly respected.

But I digress a little bit, as it is a later statement in the article that really struck home for me;

When I read these debates, I think that Shinto has a good solution. Shinto does have shrines and other man-made constructions that serve as places of worship. But compared with churches, mosques, gurdwaras and the places of worship of many other religions, Shinto shrines are for the most part quite small and low-key. Some are tiny hokora, “spirit houses” that range from the size of a bird house to the size of a small shed and are often found tucked away at the wayside or deep in forests. Then there are larger ones, jinja”.

As I mentioned Miyazaki movies earlier, when I think of the hokora, I think of My Neighbor Totoro. There are several hokora pictured throughout the movie. More importantly to the overall story, there is a giant tree that is pictured as surrounded by hokora, as well as what may be part of a larger structure. Notably, this tree is also the home of Totoro, who is a spirit of the forest and of nature.

Finnish folklore and folk beliefs are embedded with very similar objects, which I have talked about in other posts. The Finnish Folklore Atlas is full of maps that show the sites of hundreds if not thousands of stone altars, stone cups, and hiisi trees.

At the end of the Manson article; there is something that kind of stuck with me;

But even within the forest, there are continual small reminders that you are in a sacred place – stone altars, shimenawa ropes tied around trees or by waterfalls, the tunnels of red torii gates, and of course, thousands of fox statues, the guardians of Inari. But these objects never overwhelm their natural surroundings – instead, they are designed to be harmonious with the environment.

This is what I think Pagan places of worship could be like. Rather than being enormous, grand monuments of human architecture in which dozens, if not hundreds, of Pagans can gather under a roof and away from nature, I believe they could be small and understated, serving merely as an indicator and reminder of the sacred significance of a particular place without seeking to dominate it.”

This is not to say, as Manson points out, that things like the Valheim Hof are not truly amazing and wonderful. Nor it is to say that they are wrong, or that we should avoid doing things like that. What I am saying is things like Shinto and Finnish folk belief gives us models that we can use as inspiration, without excluding things like the Hof of course.

There is more I would like to say here, because recently John Halstead brought up an idea that has been incorporated into my own practice, and serves as a great compliment and supplement to the idea of haltia shrines.

Recently, Halstead published the article here, and I wanted to spend a little bit of time with it because the idea of eco/spirit shrines is an important one. I am not going to go into all the details here, so you should give the article itself a read.

As I already said I have already incorporated this idea into my own practice. I cannot remember where I was first exposed to the idea, only that I thought it was a good one. I now regularly leave eco-shrines behind when I hike and explore new grounds and get to know my natural neighbors there. In addition, I have also taught this idea to my small working group, and it is something we have done together as a group activity.

Halstead adds this to the conversation;

At first, at least, we would have to expect that these shrines would be removed by landscaping or maintenance staff or desecrated by ne’er-do-wells or iconoclasts. But one of the advantages of the eco-shrine is that it is relatively easy to rebuild. Some people are bound to be creeped out by public shrines. But I imagine that, if we kept returning to the same spot, rebuilding our natural shrines, that one day we would find that someone else had followed suit and built an eco-shrine before us. And after years, the place might indeed become a holy place in the mind of the non-Pagan public as well.” – Halstead

There is something very important here too. While most eco-shrines are natural and biodegradable (as they should be), there is something to the idea of semi-permanent or otherwise “marked” locations. I have my own habit of mapping where I leave my shrines, because they are often places that “call” to me, and place I might return to. Arrangements of stones, a particular tree, a body of water, that kind of thing. The point being that the trees, stones, and lakes are not going anywhere (generally). They are much more permanent sites. And maybe after years as Halstead points out, these might be regular pagan shrine locations, something like we see in Shinto or the FFA.

I think there is plenty more here to consider, and I might come back to this in future pieces.

But as always; thanks for reading!


Manson “Pagan Temples and Shinto Shrines”

My recent FFA Reflections

Halstead “Eco Shrines”

More Reflections on the FFA

Recently, a few of my posts on the Finnish Folklore Atlas have been getting some attention. I myself have also been revisiting my posts as well as the source itself. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I have been in “exploration” mode for a few months now as far as my spirituality is concerned.

I have spent time studying a lot of different traditions and paths, and along the way I have picked up many different “pieces” of my spiritual path. But at the same time, I don’t belong to any one “tradition” or even one path. My way has been long and winding. And at each with each step, I have learned something new.

What matters to me is that what I learn and discover, works. It has to work, and what works for me may not work for everyone. That is one of my core criteria in most of my spiritual explorations. Does it work? If not, I move on.

In addition to this, in many of the traditions I have explored, I have been lead there by my ancestors. When my Celtic ancestors said “look at this”, I looked. I took what worked and moved on. When my Norse ancestors said “look at this”, again I looked. I found many things that worked, and moved on. Same too with my Finnish ancestors.

Which is what lead me in many ways to things like the Kalevala, and the Finnish Folklore Atlas. And there too I found a great many things that worked. Which is what I would like to revisit for a moment if I may.

Let’s start with part 7 of my series about the Finnish Folklore Atlas. In this part of the series, I talked about haltias, or haltia spirits. Here is a brief recap from the FFA;

“Haltias are supernatural inhabitants of a certain place and guardians of living creatures, living in an invisible environment but capable of showing themselves to humans and appearing in the world on this side. In Finnish interpretations, the haltia has been the supranormal original inhabitant or guardian of a place, albeit also the female progenitor, the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal. A haltia may also be a human being after death, one who was the first to inhabit a place and was buried in his dwelling-place; on the other hand, a person can also have his own haltia, a guardian.” – Sarmela

I have been sitting with this since I first wrote that piece, and I find that this really resonates with me and my animism, as well as intersecting with ideas of totemism and polytheism as well. For example of something that may be totemic, a haltia can be “ the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal”. In some of my interactions I have found this to be the case. I work with individual spirits on a fairly regular basis.

As my relations with these spirits have developed, I have come to understand that no spirit stands in isolation, just as no man is an island. We are all embedded in webs of connections of relationship to one another. So just as I work with individual wolf spirits at home, they too share in connection with representatives of their species, and possibly even the first ancestor of their species. Those that might be considered the “totemic” Wolf, considered from an animistic perspective in this case.

This has important implications for my work with my spirits, as well as a hunter. Here is another quote from Part 7;

“Haltia belief is closely related to belief in ancestors and earth folk, inhabitants of an inverse world. However, the supernatural guardian of a place is always a solitary being who guards its domain, its natural environment and peace. A supernatural guardian of animals has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered animals back to life on earth. Haltias are in their own sphere and among their own kind guardians of the invisible boundaries between man and nature, with human survival and prosperity also dependent on their benevolence.” – Sarmela

I do not think this can be understated. The deer I hunt might be under the care of representatives or some ancestral “Deer.” I have had to create connections with this Deer, because those I hunt are under its (singular or plural) care. So too is Deer in this case; “in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered animals back to life on earth.”

The last part is important to keep in mind as well, and is at the core of conservation and ecological concerns; “ Haltias are in their own sphere and among their own kind guardians of the invisible boundaries between man and nature, with human survival and prosperity also dependent on their benevolence”

As is the case with Deer, or Lettuce, or Cow, or any of the assorted things that we eat, we are dependent on the lives of others for survival. At the heart of this is being on good terms with our food, because at the end of the day they are much more than food. They are people that gave their lives so we could eat.

I mentioned earlier, this also overlaps with my understanding of polytheism. Consider for a moment what was said above about haltias being “the eldest of the species or the first representative of some species of animal.” I think too applies to humans, and offers more of the overlap with ancestor reverence and polytheism. Humans too have haltia-spirits, and maybe this conceptual understanding might apply to the gods as well. Perhaps a form of revered ancestors or spiritual guardians of humanity.

I have to admit I have always had a problem with the “Creator” concept. Taking the Norse Creation myth for a moment, I doubt there is any “literal” truth to humanity being formed from some driftwood. Metaphoric truth maybe, but hardly literal. I think the case for evolution is strong and that kind of goes in the face of the whole “man and woman formed from driftwood” context.

Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in The gods as a “guardian of humanity has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and ““the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

There is something there that resonates with me.

Now I want to turn the attention to Part 4 of my series on the Finnish Folklore Atlas, because I have been incorporating parts of some of what I have read into my practice. In the piece, I quoted this from the FFA;

” 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.” – Sarmela

I went on to detail how all kinds of things were associated with both the ancestors as well as the hatlias of a place

“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” – Me

Trees, stones, stone altars, the amount of animism here is staggering. But that is not what I want to talk about here. I want to talk how I have been applying some of this knowledge into my own practice. I find that it clicks very nicely with me, and the results have been good so far.


This is a picture of a stone altar I have put up in our yard. There is a second in the works. You may noticed I cheated and used a plastic cup. It is just a stand in for now until I find something more stoney and permanent. I for one have qualms about using plastic as a form of spirit worship, but sometimes you have to work with what you have. So far the spirits have not complained too much, as long as it doesn’t stay too long. We put this one in in front of our new berry patch, which we just planted this year.

I currently have plans to set up a second one, as there is a small pond insert in our yard we are hoping to find a pump for this year. I think a place with some water will be a fantastic place for another stone altar.

On the topic of hiisi woods, my family has had several acres of land for many years. I have hunted, camped and generally spent a fair bit of time out there. Part of it use to belong to my paternal grandmother, who just recently passed away. Now all of the family land belongs to my father and my uncle. There are several non-human family members buried in the family woods, and from what I understand grandma’s ashes will be spread out there as well. The family woods have become in many ways our “ancestor’s woods”, our hiisi woods. I hope to set up some stone altars to trees as well as to ancestors out there as soon as I can.

And yet, it makes me wonder. Those woods have belonged to three generations of my family now, and yet I have to wonder whose ancestors once called those woods home? It is true of all immigrants, that the bones of the dead have been here a lot longer than I have.

Well, that is all I have at the moment.

As always, thank you for reading!


Finnish Folklore Atlas, By Matti Sarmela


Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 8

My blogging has taken a back seat at the moment, so I have not been making as regular as posts. I am writing on another project between 5k and 10k words a week, and its gets priority. That means I have been putting off posts here. You have my apologies, but it will probably be that way for the next couple of months as I work through another manuscript. Sometimes it hard to find time for blog writing.

Today, as I continue to work my way through the FFA, we will be talking about the different types of “soul” according to Sarmela. Here we pick up, as Sarmela says;

” Many soul types, each with a specific function, have been identified in the folk belief system of northern peoples. In accordance with Wilhelm Wundt’s categories, Finnish scholars have usually distinguished two main classes of soul concept: a man’s body contains a life-sustaining ‘breathing soul’ (spirit, body soul), as well as a ’ghost soul’ or ‘shadow soul’ capable of detaching itself from the body. The ghost soul has also been called the ‘free soul’, and in phenomenological terms, it is possible to distinguish a number of classes of soul concepts.”

It is important to remember that there are “many soul types”, and thus the dichotomy between “body soul” and “free soul” is arbitrary, and more a means for clarification and discussing, as opposed to being a definitive “soul guide”. For scholarly purposes, the framework is meant to help make sense of the large amount of, potentially conflicting, source material. Sarmela lays out a simple framework as follows;

” 1. The life soul (breath soul) is the life force initiating life and sustaining it, leaving as the body dies, perhaps with the final breath. The presence of the life soul may be felt as the heartbeat or rushing blood, and the terms for it in Finno-Ugrian languages have meant e.g. ‘breath’, ‘vapor’ and ‘spirit’ and ‘life’ itself. This kind of soul concept has been used to explain the beginning and end of life, but also conception, transmission of life from mother to child. The breath soul distinguishes living, breathing beings from the dead, those who do not breathe.”

As was pointed out earlier, this is one part of soul/spirit that dwells in the body, that animates the body. It is often equated with the breath, and the breathing of living things. It is the vital life force, the biochemical metabolic energy that keeps the physical body going. Once this spirit leaves the body, the physical body dies and begins to decay. It is contrasted against the next piece of the soul/spirit. The persona soul, often called the free soul. Sarmela says;

“2. The persona soul (ghost soul) is an immortal, personal substance residing in all living things, a psyche or ’genetic memory’ into which a person’s individual spiritual experience is collected. The persona soul resides in the innermost recesses of a person, but during dreaming it may travel outside the body or leave the body when the person becomes ill and dies, and after death it may continue wandering independently in a new form.”

I am not sure I agree with the “immortal” part, as I believe even spirits can “die”. I guess this warrants a discussion of how I conceive of “death.” To me, death implies a change in form, a fracturing, a kind of entropy. When I die, I feel pieces of my spirit will separate and take on new forms. My body will be cremated, other parts of “me” will live on, through the memories of others that knew me, through my children, and of course I believe some form of “free soul” will continue after my body ceases to function. Sarmela speaks more to this point:

” In Finno-Ugrian languages, the term for this ghost or shadow soul has corresponded to the word ‘self’ in modern Finnish. This self- or I-soul is what makes a newborn baby human, gives him his own consciousness and personality. After death, the persona soul moves over to the realm of the dead, living as a ghost in the form of its ‘owner’, resembling the deceased person in outward appearance.”

Curious too, that a similar concept amongst the Norse is the hugr, the “self” soul/spirit. I will be talking more about this in another post.

Lastly, we have the haltia soul;

” 3. The folklore of the Finns, in common with that of other northern peoples, also includes man’s supernatural guardian, haltia. A person’s haltia might appear as an external double or doppelgänger (Sw. dubbelgångare), called etiäinen in Finland; it has been seen to walk ahead of the person and to arrive before he has arrived himself (narrative type Si A 1-100). The haltia-soul has been used to explain the variety of human fates, man’s luck and success, the mental abilities of strong personalities such as shamans and sorcerers; a strong person had a strong haltia. The concept of soul has also helped express the reason behind the individual strength of each living being, the strong or weak psyche, and the distinguishing features of his personality.”

My last post covered a lot about haltias, so I will not talk too much about this one. The interesting bits here is the overlap with the Norse concepts of fylgja and vordr, which I have also written about before. Also of interest, is that a person haltia can reflect their personality, and individuals strengths, and by implication, also their weaknesses. Really digging into this will require more space and more time. I plan on digging into this.

Lastly, an important point to remember is this is a scholarly framework designed to organize a diversity of experiences and stories, stories that have changed and shifted over time. As Sarmela says;

” As the cosmic view changed, interpretations of the soul have also emphasized different areas or acquired
new features. With many northern peoples, the number of soul categories has increased, and man
was believed to possess many different souls….”

That is where I am going to leave this post for the time being. As I mentioned several time in this post, I currently plan on starting a new, more in depth series on the various bits of the spirit. It has been dwelling in my head for some time, ever since a friend asked me about the hugr. I want to write more about these ideas.

So, plenty of new writings in the future, and of course I will continue to work my way through the FFA and the Kalevala.

Thanks for reading!


The Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela Pgs 326 – 327

Finnish Folklore Atlas Part 5

It has been a slow year so far. Some weeks I feel I am making progress, others I feel I am terribly behind. I am now realizing it is March, and I am behind by more own standards. I think I might switch to another project so I get be a little more productive. I am quite done with being in this rut. Maybe I will just focus my efforts on the blog for the time being, just to keep writing.

Plus, winter can end anytime now. Normally, I don’t mind the snow, and am pretty tolerant of cold. But I am done.

Moving forward in the FFA, we revisit the idea of shamanism in Sarmela’s work. Now, I don’t really want to rehash what the author has already said on this topic, so this time around my focus will be a little different.

Let us look at some of the roles the shaman played in the North;

” The shaman of northern peoples was originally the spiritual and social leader of small hunting communities, acting as intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead, providing answers to vital questions for the individual and community on subjects such as illness and death, the movements of quarry animals or reasons for unexpected

Then, as Sarmela says, we can say that the shaman was a leader, negotiator, diplomat, teacher and healer. This does not apply only to the realm of humanity, but extends to animals, plants and spirits as well. In short, the roles of the shaman extended well beyond the needs of the human community, and was interconnected and interwoven with non-human communities as well.

To add to these roles, Sarmela adds:

“The shaman was a religious interpreter operating in the environment of souls. On his soul journey, the shaman was capable of contacting the souls of ancestors or the supernatural guardians of nature and influencing the basic issues of living. He might get a newborn child its soul, restore the soul of a sick person or animal in his body, guide the soul of a deceased person to the realm of the ancestors, as well as the soul of a bear killed in a hunting rite back to its original home, and also entice quarry animals to the hunting grounds of his community. The innermost essence of animate beings was controlled via the soul, and through the soul technique, the shaman of hunting communities was able to obtain information on matters significant to them, on nature and the future, which were controlled by the inhabitants of the world in the hereafter, the souls of the deceased and the supernatural guardians of animals, ‘gods’. The shaman of hunting communities took care of the constantly reincarnating soul, the continuity of life, the future.”

The tasks of the shaman are immense, and far ranging. In my own experience, working with spirits is an almost constant state of negotiation and diplomacy. It is not a stretch to call spirit work very political. You build alliances, shape friends, negotiate touch contracts, and make enemies in the process. It is difficult to express the diverse range of potential interactions with spirits. They can range from ‘just business’, to long term friendships. Also, each spirit is in no small way the center of their own social network. If you work with spirit X, the enemies of spirit X may now consider you an enemy. Their allies may now consider you an ally. Some won’t have anything to do with you.

The hunting aspects of this really speak a lot to my own practice. In my own work, I have tried to entice animals to my hunting grounds, as well as guided the spirits of the dead to the keeping of their ancestors. Reincarnation and the continuity of life are a big deal.

Now, let’s talk about the technique of the shaman. Sarmela says;

“The rite technique of northern shamans has been characterized by entering a state of trance or altered consciousness, which has been deemed to be an identifying sign of shamanism. In a state of trance, the shaman was able to go off on a soul journey, to detach his soul from his body and to guide it in different forms, usually of some animal or among some Arctic peoples of various ancillary spirits, to the invisible world on the other side, to the dimensions of the dead and supernatural guardians.”

There is so much here, in so few words. The trance state is notable, and of course has many different methods, ranging from drumming and dancing, to chant and song, to hallucinogenics and other mind altering substances. The focus of course, is not the means to trance, but the revelations found in that ecstasy. The shaman was expected to answer questions the people might ask, and so the trance was only the technique to find those answers, not the answer in an of itself. The soul, or the spirit if you prefer, was sent out in various forms. Sometimes other spirits acted as guides. The shaman would send his spirit to the otherworld in search of whatever was sought, healing, answers, guidance, or negotiation. This was done often on the behalf of others in the community. The soul flight leads nicely into the next point;

” Perhaps the essence of shamanistic thinking is the belief in the soul, the idea that all living things have an inner substance that makes it living and is constantly reborn. Different peoples have many different interpretations of the soul, but particularly in shamanism, the soul has had a kind of a separate form that is independent of the body. It might leave the body when a person became sick or died, or take on different forms and wander around the world of souls or dreams, outside visible reality.”

Here, Sarmela comments on some of the reasons the shaman may journey. Sometimes spirits may get lost, and have to be found. Other times, foreign spirits may enter the body and make a person sick. However, the are certainly not the only interpretations, but many cultures see some sicknesses in terms of spiritual intrusion or spiritual loss. Spiritual intrusion is interesting when considered against our modern ideas concerning disease. Some diseases are the results of living beings, such as bacteria or viruses entering the body. In an animistic view, these too have spirits. So it would in fact be a spiritual intrusion, albeit with a very physical counterpart.

Still, there is more to say on this. So thanks for reading!


The Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela. Pg 309 – 310