The Finnish tietäjä was an important and respected person in his community; a healer and a sage, he had a special connection to the spirit world. The tietäjä was always an abnormal person who was both respected and feared, and he was the spiritual leader of his community. When the normal, everyday life of his community was disturbed, he was approached to give his counsel. The wisdom and knowledge of the tietäjä were highly valued, and they often had the gift of clairvoyance. People asked for the tietäjä’s help with many different issues, from marrying to negotiating land sales.
A tietäjä usually learned his or her skills from an older tietäjä. Often the inherent capability to be a tietäjä was inherited in the family and the older sage would teach his skills to a younger relative he had chosen to continue the craft. According to one belief, a child born with a tooth in his mouth was particularly adept to learn these skills since he carried with him the soul of a tietäjä. People could, however, come to meet the tietäjä and learn his skills even though they were not kin; these skills could also be sold. The sages of the Sami people, the ‘noaidi’, were considered highly powerful and people traveled long distances to meet them.
The scholar Matti Varonen argues that the power of tietäjä was believed to come from the ancestors. As the ancestor spirit made its home inside the person, he was thought to possess higher wisdom. The ancestors had dramatic ways to instill their knowledge in the shaman-to-be. They might, for instance, cause the person to fall ill, and during this sickness, transfer the ancestral soul into the person. This gruesome sickness brought the person closer to the spirit world, and prepared him for life as a shaman. The belief that spiritual power is received from the dead is very apparent in the Finnish tradition. A tietäjä, for example, might drink from a human skull in order to gain excellent memory, or use other rituals related to the dead to gain the increased mental powers which would help him in his work. Most importantly, the tietäjä always drew his power from the underworld before doing healing.
A Tietäjä’s instrument was the kantele, which the first healer and tietäjä Väinämöinen played at the beginning of time. The kantele was believed to be of mythical origin, and to possess magical qualities, but it was also part of everyday life for ordinary people. Several scholars have discussed the possible link between the kantele and the shaman drum. For instance, one of those scholars, Anna-Leena Siikala, suggested that the kantele is an evolved Baltio-Finnic version of the shaman’s drum.