A World of Spirits: Finnic Shamanism

Michael Halila 5 minute read

Earlier on the blog, I talked about Finnic paganism, that is, the culture of the people whose descendants would later become the Finns. Researchers believe that like so many other peoples of northern Europe and Siberia, the Finnic pagans practiced shamanism. Because Finnic paganism is an important inspiration for our game, Goblin Camp will include shamanism. However, we’re very aware that this is a controversial subject, and I want to be fully transparent about what we’re doing.

Shamanism is generally used to mean a practice where a ritual specialist, called a shaman, uses some form of ritual-induced ecstasy to access the spirit world and fix problems in this world, for example to cure a disease. In practice, there are many different kinds of shamanism and shamanism-like practices around the world, and they don’t all exactly fit this definition.

What makes shamanism controversial is that it’s been the subject of so much cultural appropriation by people with no shamanistic heritage of their own. For example, the New Age movement that started in the Western countries in the 1970s wanted to find more “authentic” forms of spirituality, which often meant appropriating traditions and practices from other people, especially indigenous people, and then marketing them as their own. Cultural appropriation is often a very simple question: who gets the money and credit? Far too often, indigenous practices like shamanism have been commodified and sold by people totally unconnected to those traditions, who also kept all the money they made.

This is made worse when the people whose culture is being appropriated are also oppressed. Like indigenous people everywhere, the peoples of the Arctic have suffered from forced conversion and other attempts to destroy their cultures and ways of life. There were widespread anti-shamanism campaigns in the Soviet Union, and for a long time, the Finnish state tried to eradicate Sámi culture. To this day, Finland refuses to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. These are facts we need to recognize when we’re dealing with this subject.

It’s this combination that makes cultural appropriation so toxic: for example, the Sámi have been oppressed for centuries and are still denied fundamental rights to their lands and culture, while the majority population that denies them these rights is at the same time perfectly happy to use their culture for profit.

The last thing we want to do is appropriate anyone else’s culture. On the contrary, our aim is to create something based on our own Finnish heritage. The problem is that that heritage has been almost completely destroyed by centuries of compulsory Christianization. It’s worth remembering that with very few exceptions, it was literally illegal for a Finnish citizen to not belong to a Christian church until 1924. Very little of the pre-Christian culture of our ancestors survives.

This hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to reconstruct those cultures. They’ve used a variety of methods, and a prominent one has been comparative study of other northern peoples, especially those related to Finns by language. This is based on the idea that since the Finno-Ugric peoples are related to each other, and live or used to live in the same areas as the other Siberian people, their cultures are probably very similar. Of course, a reconstruction like this can also run into problems of appropriation! We don’t have any right to claim another culture as our own because we’ve lost our own past.

Some of the strongest evidence of a shamanic Finnish past is both in the persistence of the ecstatic tietäjä (“sage”) institution, which I mentioned in the earlier blog post, but also in the Kalevala. The Kalevala is a work of poetry composed by Elias Lönnrot in the 19th century, based on Finnish and Karelian oral traditions. I’ll have more to say about it later!

The Kalevala contains many elements that researchers consider clearly shamanistic. The heroes of the epic are wizards who can travel to the land of the dead in search of knowledge, and change their shape into various animals. One of the most prominent examples is in poems 16-17: the wizard Väinämöinen is building a boat, but realizes he doesn’t have the words he needs to finish the job. He first looks for the missing words in the land of the dead, but eventually finds them inside the body of an ancient giant. Väinämöinen’s travels are very similar to the spirit journeys undertaken by Siberian shamans.

Sometimes the parallels between the Kalevala and Siberian traditions are striking. For example, the Samoyed people of Siberia have shamanic initiation stories where the shaman travels to the underworld, and there his body is cut into pieces, thrown into a vat or a river, and then fished out and put together again. This is what happens to Lemminkäinen in poems 14 and 15 of the Kalevala: he travels to the underworld, is killed and dismembered, and his mother finds him and reassembles his body. Does the story of Lemminkäinen’s resurrection preserve a memory of ancient shamanic practices?

The consensus of scholars is that Finnic cultures very likely practiced shamanism. Based on this, we believe that incorporating shamanism in Goblin Camp is not an act of cultural appropriation, but a celebration of our lost cultural heritage. However, because that heritage has been lost, there would be no way to try to create a reconstruction of ancient Finnic shamanism. The information simply does not exist.

So in creating our take on shamanism, we’ve chiefly drawn inspiration from Finnish folk culture, the Kalevala and academic research into Finnic paganism. We’re doing our best to make sure that we’re not appropriating anyone else’s culture, that we’re being respectful, and at the end of the day, remembering that we’re making a video game starring little blue goblins. But it matters to us that we’re creating something based on an almost forgotten part of our past, of a culture that our ancestors lived. That even if that culture is lost to us, we can at least do something to preserve its memory. This is the spirit in which we are incorporating shamanism into Goblin Camp.