All About Death

Posted On January 10, 2011

Filed under ancestors, cosmology, history

Comments Dropped 3 responses

There are a number of ways that Finns have honored the dead in ancient times until the early twentieth century. I will start off talking about the lament tradition, which was a song in remembrance of the dead. These songs were only sung by women; characterized by loud shrieking in an absolute portrayal of grief. The reason why only women sung these was because women were thought to have more of a connection to the spirit world, since they give birth, and in taking care of children and the elderly, they help relieve suffering. Typical themes sung at the funeral were asking why the person has left them, and how the family will go on without them afterward. Not only were these sung for the dead, but other occasions such as weddings (since women left their parents behind), men going off to war or a long journey, and reflecting on a miserable life (Nenola 74).

Laments were collected by compilers in the 19th and early 20th centuries (Elias Lönnrot being one of these people). The areas collected were in Karelia and Ingria, but in the case of Western Finland, there still is little information, since that area was kept closer to the eyes of the church. Aili Nenola mentions Mikael Agricola’s preface to the Psalms of David, where he describes the gods of Häme, and then says “They took food to the graves of the dead/there they lamented/howled and wept.” (Nenola 81) Thus, we have this proof here that it did indeed happen in that area, but died out much earlier. The Orthodox church, which was dominant in the East, let this tradition go on in rural areas (though not within the upper class and urban dwellers), but in the areas where the Lutheran church had a strong hold, it was completely banned in favor of solemn rites. Loud crying was not seen as appropriate, both in the church and in the modern context. While gradually dying out before, the tradition was seen as completely lost once the Karelians were made to move in 1944 when the Soviets took over, and were scattered to various parts of Finland.

Since I have never been to a funeral of a believer of the old Finnish religion, or have even heard of one in recent times, I do not know if anyone has tried to revive this tradition of lamenting. Interestingly enough, I have been to an Asatru funeral where this went on. At first it was really bothersome to hear someone crying out that loud; I had never seen adults do that before. I eventually felt inspired to join in though, and I have to say that I felt a much more close connection to the dead.

Now moving onto another area, I will speak of general ancestor worship rites in Finland. Before Christianity arrived, the body was typically cremated with their ashes scattered into fields of stone, and the tools they used in life were buried underneath. In Tuonela, humans were said to carry out their lives as they did while they were living, so tools were always buried with the body so they could continue to be used. One such of these old cemeteries exists not too far from where I live. Cremation was forbidden when Christianity arrived, and it was believed that this started from around 1000 AD. While there are some instances of grave burial before this, cremation was the main form. Cemeteries were visited frequently, and ancestors were asked for help and given honor with food and drink. The line between this world and Tuonela was thin, and ancestors were considered to maintain a direct role in the lives of their living family members (Shepherd 123).

Life and death was of a cyclical nature, and in it existed three forms of souls–itse, löyly, and henki. Itse means “self” and is inherited from one’s ancestor and travels to each generation. Löyly (the same word used for the steam in the sauna) is the spirit that a person has during their physical life. This spirit lasts from the first breath to the last. Thus, löyly lasts only in one specific person’s life, whereas itse continues for generations. It’s basically the character of your family. Henki is a spirit or power not part of a person (Pentikäinen 134-135). I’m assuming this is a haltija, but I am not sure. As a result of this cyclical view of the world and focus on ancestors and spirits of nature rather than gods, Finland was the most difficult to convert to Christianity, because there was little to compare it to.

I have noticed that in modern paganism in general, there is a tendency for people to want to honor the gods more than ancestors and spirits of the land. While the gods in other religions, historically and in the present, may take a more active role in the lives of their followers, this has never been the case in Finnish religion. One of the reasons why it is so important for suomenusko to become a government-recognized religion is for this subject of ancestors and burial for them. The way the system is here, a grave marker is bought by the family for a fixed period of time and if the payment stops at the end of that period, then the spot will be given to someone else. Since suomenusko is so focused on honoring the dead and visiting grave sites, this is quite offensive. Currently there is a group here that is working on making a letter to appeal to the government, so hopefully sometime in the near future suomenusko will be recognized here and can properly go back to this old system.

Whew! I promised an epic entry on this subject, so I hope you have enjoyed it or learned something new from it!

Works Cited

Nenola, Aili. Ingrian Laments. Helsinki: The Finnish Literature Society, 2002.

Pentikäinen, Juha. “The Human Life Cycle and Annual Rhythm of Nature in Finnish Folklore.” Temenos 21: 127-43.

Shepherd, Deborah Jeanne. Funerary Ritual and Symbolism: An Interdisciplinary Interpretation of Burial Practices in Late Iron Age Finland. Diss. University of Minnesota, 1996.

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3 Responses to “All About Death”

  1. SLK

    Did ant of the books you read explian why some swords and knives were curled up and bows broken, while the weapons in other graves were left untouched?

    • SLK

      oops, that should be “any” not “ant”.

    • Christine

      Sorry I haven’t come across any information of that sort.

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