For the ancient Finns, nature was full of sacred places: stones, hills, trees, lakes and springs. Offerings to ancestral spirits were made at sacrificial sites near the house, such as cup stones, sacred trees located in the yard (pitämyspuu, karsikko) or at the local graveyard. Offerings to nature spirits were made in natural places, for example, people sacrificed to the anthill or to certain trees for the forest spirits, or to the watery places for the water spirits. When offering to the guardian spirits of buildings, offerings were placed inside these buildings or at nearby trees or stones.
Ancient sacred places can be identified relatively easily from old place names. Over one hundred Finnish place names, mostly lakes, include the word ‘pyhä’ (sacred). In other words, these places were at one point considered to be taboo places with very strong väki. Another possible sign of the ancient sanctity of a place is the word ‘hiisi’, meaning ‘sacred place’ or ‘sacred grove’.
In ancient Finland and Estonia, sacred sites were called ‘hiisi’. In folk religion though, Hiisi is also an evil spirit, a demon of sorts, and the prevailing theory has it that hiisi originally meant ‘sacred place’ but later became the name of a demon due to Christian influence. In Finland, hiisi as a place is associated with ancient graveyards and sacred groves. Hiisi was a place for prayer, sacrifice, and healing. The sacred place was separated from the profane human world. No tree was cut there nor was cattle grazed or the earth dug. In general, the human impact on the place was kept to a bare minimum. Disturbing a sacred site destroyed the luck of the violator, and the luck of his descendants. People would only gather at these sacred sites for religious reasons during certain holidays. Food, coins, and jewel offerings were left there; as a further sign of respect, ribbons were tied to the trees.
The sacred places of the Finno-Ugric peoples are usually located on top of hills. High and naturally beautiful locations were valued, as were places with close proximity to natural water. In Finland there are no great mountains, but there is some evidence that the highest hill near the village (often known as ‘Ukonvuori’ or ‘Ukko’s mountain’) was the location for sacrificial feasts in honour of Ukko; this involved leaving food offerings overnight.
Sacrificial stones have been either unshaped, natural stones, or so-called ‘cup stones’, which have one or more small, man-made ‘cups’ on the surface (the actual technique used to make these cups is debated among scholars). Cup stones are known from all over Finland, except in Northern Ostrobothnia, and are most commonly located in areas that had major Iron Age settlements, as well as some parts of Savonia and Central Finland.
The Finns also regarded springs as sacred, and money, or silver, among other things, were sacrificed into the springs. Midsummer night was considered to be an especially good time to make offerings to the guardian spirit of a spring. Water was ‘bought’ from springs and used in healing and folk magic.
The creation of the ‘karsikko’, or literally ‘one who has been pruned’, was a tradition that was predominantly found in Savonia. This pruned tree could be dedicated to a deceased person, but was often shared by the ancestors of a certain house or family. Details about the dead were carved on the tree, most often the initials and the dates of birth and death of the deceased. The word ‘karsikko’ could mean either a group of karsikko trees, one single tree, or even piece of wood collected from a Karsikko tree which had fallen down. Karsikko trees were often located along the road between the house and the graveyard, this was believed to prevent the return of the souls of the dead from the graveyard.
The scholar Hornborg suggested that in pre-Christian times each family had their own karsikko. When a new house was built, one of the first things that was done was to choose a place for the karsikko. Usually this meant that a section of the forest near the house was left standing, and this plot became the karsikko as the years went by and trees prepared for each person to die in the household . This kind of karsikko forest was a sacred grove of sorts where the offerings were made to the ancestors. The ancestral spirits were given the first share of the crops, the milk, the game, and the fish. It was especially important to remember the ancestors during family celebrations; As with other spirits, it was thought crucial that the offerings were made before anyone else had tasted the foods, or drank the beverages. Money was also given as an offering to the karsikko. Whenever people made a successful trade, they gave a little offering of the money before it was spent on anything else.
Hornborg also mentions the so called memorial karsikko. This kind of karsikko was made in the same way as the usual karsikko, but instead of the life of a person, it marked the memory of certain significant events or disasters. The tree was trimmed at the scene of the event, and the year of the event was carved on it; this memorial could also be a rock. It’s worth mentioning that several karsikko trees were created at the places where people were murdered during the bloody Finnish civil war in 1918.
Every self-respecting hunter and fisherman had his own sacrifice tree, at the foot of which he would bury his offerings to the spirits. This tree was also regarded as sacred, and cutting it down brought bad luck. There were also beliefs about the other trees in the forest; the oldest tree in the forest was venerated and called the elder of the forest. Juniper was known to have an especially strong and beautiful guardian spirit, and it was this that gave juniper smoke the power to fend off evil spirits. The rowan tree was also sacred, as previously mentioned, and it was used extensively in folk magic. Alder was associated with the forest spirits and also used in folk magic.
In every yard a special tree was grown called ‘pitämyspuu’ , or ‘the tree that is cared for’. This tree was associated with the land spirits, and has counterparts in Scandinavian countries. When a house was first built, a small tree sprout was also planted in the yard to be tended to by the new owners, since it was believed that the tree spirit wouldn’t serve anyone younger than itself. The pitämyspuu was promised that it would be left to grow in peace and that not a single twig would be harmed. In addition, the inhabitants of the house pledged that they would offer to the tree the same foods they were having at each feast; libations were also poured for the tree. The tree spirit was said to protect the house, cattle, and crops. However, if the master of house was not pleased with the protection the tree was offering, he could cut it down.