Honoring Ancestors

Posted On December 31, 2009

Filed under ancestors, ritual

Comments Dropped 7 responses

In the Finnish tradition, one of the most important practices is the honoring of your ancestors. In the past, dead relatives were considered to be an integral part of the community, and continued to look after their family line and household. They were honored at either their grave sites, shrines in their homes, or in particular sites in nature known as hiisi. In a book I found about Finno-Ugric poetry called The Great Bear, the authors describe that in these areas of the world, “the power of the ancestors was believed to exceed that of the lesser gods and was equalled only by the power of the sky god” (Honko 567). I have noticed that most of the Finnish gods feel distant, whereas my ancestors and the land spirits take a much more prominent role in my life. This is in contrast to my experiences with the Norse tradition, where it was much easier to connect with the gods than ancestors. One thing that I’ve found interesting though, is how much our ancestors are tied to the land they lived in. When I was in America, I was only able to contact the relatives that had lived and died there. Here in Finland, I only have encounters with my ancestors that lived and died here, and it’s particularly strong whenever I visit Vaasa, which is where most of my family came from. Something else that I’ve noticed is that my ancestors that died in Finland have taken a much more active role in my life than any of those in America. For me, this is one thing that has really validated the quote that I mentioned above. As one of my friends says, “Finland is the land of ancestors.”

From here I am going to talk about a particular ritual to my ancestors that has always brought out a great connection. This is what I call my “hiisi ritual”. I go out into a forest and walk around until I feel powerful spots, known as väki. Whenever I run into spots like these, I tend to get a buzzing in my fingers and can feel a heavy energy. It’s kind of difficult to explain, but if you’re sensitive at all to spiritual activity, I think that you will be able to figure it out for yourself. If you aren’t, I think that many people still have the ability to find a spot that feels “right” without even knowing it. Whenever I’ve done this, the places that they usually end up being in are around rocks with a prominent tree right in front of it. Here’s a picture of one that I did a ritual in:

Before I visit these spots, I buy food and drink that I know my ancestors would like. Typically I take bread and cheese, cider or beer, and some sort of dessert like chocolate or salmiakki. I also bring along my kantele to play for them. When I find the right spot in the forest, I sit down and invite the ancestors to join me. When I feel their presence, I set out food and drink for them, and some for myself too. Basically, we have a meal together. I also make a point to give some to the land spirits as well, afterall, we are using their space. After I have eaten my share, then I bring out my kantele and play for awhile. This tends to please the spirits and ancestors very well, and it’s a good way to round out the ritual. When it’s over, I say my parting words, thank the land spirits, and leave the offerings behind. Quite easy, right! Your own ancestors will likely have different preferences, so all you really need to do is ask. Hopefully this template will help you get some ideas flowing.

And an amusing story I will end with that has to do with a time when I was trying to figure out my ancestor’s preferences with offerings. I was on my way to an island known as Hirvensalo, which was where the above picture was taken. I stopped by a store to buy drinks for the offerings. I assumed that my ancestors would want milk, because I was going off of stereotypes that Finns love to drink milk with meals(I do myself). I picked up the milk, and started walking to the front to purchase it. I passed by the alcohol aisle on the way, and all of a sudden, it felt like a sledgehammer went to my head. Then my head went back to normal. I stopped and stared back, thinking, “Okay, I’m going to walk by there one more time, and if I get this feeling again, then I’ll know they want alcohol.” Sure enough, I walked by the alcohol aisle, and the sledgehammer went to the head. So I put the milk back and bought ciders. I had forgotten the other stereotype of how much Finns love to drink.

Works Cited

Honko, Lauri, Senni Timonen, Michael Branch, and Keith Bosley. The Great Bear: A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages. New York: Oxford University Press for the Finnish Literature Society, 1994.


7 Responses to “Honoring Ancestors”

  1. Nik

    That book looks pricy, but sooo tempting!

  2. Christine

    Yeah I noticed one on Amazon for $300! I borrowed it from the library here. I think there’s almost 700 pages in it, and it’s packed full of quality information. The only thing I have to complain about it is that sometimes the authors generalize too much for all the regions.

  3. conduitofjoy

    Oh my gosh! This post makes me want to go to Finland more than ever – I’d love to “feel” what my Finnish ancestors have to say to me.

    You’ve inspired me to make contact with them.

    Soooo interesting!


    • Christine

      *Nods* I would encourage you to do so if you’re really interested. It’s a special feeling to be able to make such a stronger contact with the ancestors.

  4. Miika Vanhapiha

    Hi! “The Great Bear” can be purchased from SKS for 79 euros (109 dollars). Go to http://kirjat.finlit.fi/index.php?showitem=739 .

    SKS stands for ´Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura´ or Finnish Literary Society. They have functional online store with complete catalogue, search functionality etc.

    Additonal info:

    Delivery Address

    The delivery and invoice address will generally be the address provided by you on the order form. If the delivery and invoice addresses are different, this should be stated in the field provided. The price of goods sent and postage and packaging charges will be shown in the statement which accompanies any delivery.

    Invoice and Statement

    A statement will accompany any goods when they are delivered. Companies ordering will be sent a separate invoice after the goods have been delivered.

    When paying from abroad we strongly recommend using Visa or MasterCard. Finnish Literature Society reserves the right to collect a 10 euros fee from any other type of payment when it is made outside of EU.

    Order Confirmation
    An order made on the internet will only be confirmed, i.e. will become a bonding agreement, once SKS Online Bookshop has sent confirmation of the order. Confirmation will be sent to you as an e-mail after the order has been placed.

    When paying from abroad, especially outside of EU, the usage of Visa or MasterCard is highly recommended. (See “Invoice and Statement”) Orders placed by individual customers will be sent within Finland by postal delivery. Schools, universities and other institutions will be sent a separate invoice, as will SKS members.

    Methods of Delivery
    Orders will be delivered (within Finland) as a package to the nearest post office.

    Delivery Times and Charges
    Within Finland delivery should take 5 working days, assuming that all items ordered are available. The publication date for new works will be listed amongst a given product’s detailed information online.
    While the Bookshop is shut during public holidays (July and Christmas), the Online Bookshop will continue to be open. However, deliveries will not be sent until after the holiday has finished. Holiday closing dates are posted well in advance on the front page of the Online Bookshop’s website.

    Postage and packaging charges within Finland for private customers:
    Taxable: 6 € / order (incl. VAT à 8%)

    Schools, universities, companies etc, will be charged for the actual postage costs.

    Delivery Abroad
    Orders abroad are sent as postal packages. The customer will pay any customs or other such charges incurred.

  5. Kate

    I really loved this post. I am learning so much from your blog, and so appreciate you sharing your experience. I have always felt such a strong tie to my Finnish ancestry and have been wanting to learn about the traditional religion, as I feel such a strong pull towards it (and probably always have) but it has been difficult finding information in English. So, thank you!
    I really resonated with what you mentioned about connecting with the ancestors who lived near you ~ I grew up a couple miles from where my Finnish immigrant great-grandparents homesteaded, and I always felt close to them growing up, feeling as if I knew them and they were present in my life, and identifying strongly with my Finn-ness, while my other ancestors seemed quite distant. Perhaps, someday, if I travel to where they were from, I’ll know them better, too. 🙂

    Thanks, and happy spring to you!


    • Christine

      Thank you for your kind comment. I haven’t looked at this post in awhile, and now it’s bringing back all sorts of memories. It’s good to try and get to know all of your ancestors, but indeed, some will always feel closer than others. I’m the same way with my Finnish ancestors.

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