Posted On January 23, 2010

Filed under history, ritual

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One of the words that I have always found particularly interesting is hiisi. The word has taken on a number of meanings throughout the years, starting off as positive and leading to negative. It is much like the word perkele, which was once the name of a thunder god, then it became a word for the devil by Christians, and now it is used as a curse word. In the present day, I have often heard hiisi as referring to a haunted or foreboding place, and I just typed it in on google translate to see what would happen, and the definitions given were “hell” and “devil”. In pagan times, however, hiisi was not seen as a bad thing, but a place where sacrifices to the ancestors were made. The word was used in both Estonia and Finland. It was also thought that the dead were buried at these sites, though that was not always the case in some findings. In Estonia, however, it was definite that the site meant a place of sacrifice. According to Mauno Koski, sacrifices at these sites were continued even until the nineteenth century, just as many traditions in Karelia had remained. It is also worth noting that Estonian and Finnish traditions share a number of similarities. There were a variety of objects sacrificed at these sites, some being the typical offerings that pagans today now give such as food and alcohol, but also money and clothing were given. Other events such as healing, bonfires, and dances took place at hiisi sites (Koski 411).

In Finland, similar practices of a bonfire and dancing happened, but here it was also typical that burial mounds were in the area. Hiisi sites were most often signified by a rocky area. One aspect that is interesting about those in Finland, was that the ones found from pre-Christian times were set in the middle of villages, whereas those dated after the rise of Christianity were far out in the countryside (Koski 415). It goes to show how traditions were able to remain as long as it stayed out of the eyes of civilization. The way that these sites typically looked were of a few different varieties. One was a grove or deciduous wood located on a small hill. Another type was from a small marshy valley; these ones particularly occurring in Estonia. The last type was a site of elevation characterized as having a large rock or a cluster of stones. The latter, of the stony elevated landscape, was perhaps the most common feature of a hiisi site. It is also interesting to note that within Saami culture, sacrifices were made at particular awe-inspiring rock formations, called seid.

Now I will discuss the other meanings of hiisi that have sprung up throughout the ages. It was also referred to the dead or the place of the dead, which explains why ancestors were honored at sites by that name. However, considering that there were already two names for the abode of the dead, Tuonela and Manala, it does not seem quite right. Later hiisi was referred to as an evil supernatural being, likely another changing of meaning brought out as a result of Christianity. As I talked about in a previous entry, I refer to the ritual that I do to honor my ancestors in specific spots in nature as a “hiisi ritual”. Many times since I started following this path, I seem to have unconsciously started performing rituals as they were in the past. In the article that I have cited on this entry, I was particularly surprised to see that the pictures shown of hiisi sites looked exactly like the places where I was pulled to honor my ancestors. Sadly I don’t have a scanner, so I will not be able to share. The areas where I honored them were always in a more elevated location, with either one large rock, or a cluster about. Another thing that is interesting to note, is that a typical way to trance was by sitting on a rock, and in the incantation that I wrote about two entries ago, the haltija is commanded to come out from underneath a rock. This clearly shows the magical significance of stones.

And there you have it, a brief history of just one word. I think that for the next entry I will get into the history and current practice of trance(or rather my current practice since I haven’t really talked with anyone about it before), since I have now given the background on the tietäjä and sacrificial sites.

Works Cited

Koski, Mauno. “A Finnic Holy Word and its Subsequent History.” Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place Names. Ed. Tore Ahlbäck. Åbo, Finland: The Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History, 1990. 404-440. Print.


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