Friday, June 23, 2017
 

The Finnish Tradition: An Introduction

IX. Ancestors

For the ancient Finns, there was no real barrier that separated the living from the dead. When people died, they went to the land of dead which was thought to be located at the graveyard. Even after death, the dead were in contact with the living, receiving their offerings, and hearing their prayers. The family was thought as a single whole, consisting of both living and deceased members[116]. The ancestors were the upholders of the family’s moral values, traditional ways, and societal structures. The individual person and the family asked guidance from the ancestors in all major decisions. Hence the ancestors can be said to have had a greater influence on people’s lives then the higher gods[117].

If the living fulfilled their responsibilities to their ancestors in a proper way, the spirits continued to protect and support them. If, however, the ancestors were neglected or insulted in any way, problems would ensue. The ancestors might appear as ghosts in their former homes, and in the worst case, take the soul of a living person to the underworld with them. The danger was at its highest during the first 30-40 days following a death, for this was when the soul was not yet fully located in the underworld. Visiting ancestors might appear in human or in animal form[118]. Meeting dead relatives again could also be a positive experience full of joy. The dead soul was thought to appear as a bird, or a butterfly, or as a flower, among other things. In Karelia, belief in this kind of reincarnation and the soul was widespread, and children were advised not to harm the birds, since they might the carrying the souls of their ancestors. If a butterfly flew inside the house, it was not  touched, and certainly not killed[119].

The relationship between the living and the dead seems to have been curiously twofold. On the one hand, the spirits of the dead were thought to reside in the land of the dead, where they could only be reached by the soul-traveling tietäjä. On the other hand, people also had a more personal relationship with the dead and would visit their graves, talk to them, and give them offerings. During certain yearly feasts, the spirits of the dead were thought visit their living relatives. The difference between these two approaches can probably be explained through the status of the deceased. One’s own ancestors were regarded as somewhat closer and more familiar (albeit still with the element of fear and horror that is always present when the living approach the dead), but the souls of the powerful tietäjä, and of other powerful people, were regarded with fear[120].

Finnish spells and folk songs also represent two ideas about the location of the souls of the dead. The first idea is that the dead simply live in their graves. However, the second idea is that the souls reside in an underworld called ‘Tuonela’ or ‘Manala’. But as Kaarle Krohn has shown, these two concepts do not contradict each other[121]. The god of death, ‘Tuoni’, did not originally mean the personification of death but the dead corpse itself. From there, it evolved into a general term for death, and finally became the name for the ruler of the land of the dead. Yet in many folk poems, the “house of Tuoni” simply refers to the grave. So it would not be unreasonable to say that the ancient Finns probably thought that they continued to live in their graves, and formed a community of the dead in the graveyard. In later times, however, ‘Tuonela’ and ‘Manala’ became more abstract concepts[122]. This explains practices such as memorial feasts in the graveyards and the need to lay the dead person at rest in the graveyard of his own community.