Susanna Aarnio is a comparative religionist and shaman, who teaches the making of traditional drums and the singing of laments. She cannot, however, stand New Age "crackpottery". The authentic shamanic tradition is something quite different.
Death did not startle Susnanna Aarnio. In the 1990s, she had studied to be a geriatric nurse in the Netherlands and worked in municipal home care providing hospice care.
She had sat next to frail cancer and dementia patients, listened to their broken breathing and caressed their wrinkled foreheads.
Aarnio's task was to make death as painless and peaceful as possible, and she felt her work was important.
But when in 2010 Aarnio had to say goodbye within a few months to both her father, who had become seriously ill, and her grandmother, she was almost crushed by grief.
Fortunately, laments existed. When staying up beside her father's bed had become too hard, Aarnio had started studying to become a teacher of the Viena Karelian lament tradition and modern laments.
During the course, Aarnio and the other participants sang Karelian laments in which men were taken to war and dead children and lost loves were mourned. When she was able to put her grief into words, it felt easier to cope with.
"Long ago, laments were a way for women to survive everyday life. It was a communal form of care, which allowed people to cleanse themselves, to let go of the sorrow," Aarnio says in her house in Nuuksio.
The 34-volume Ancient Poems of the Finnish People sticks out on the bookshelf. Reindeer skins, which Aarnio has soaked in alder bark water, are drying in the bathroom. They are meant for the making of the kannus drums, the Finno-Ugric traditional drums.
"My children have sometimes been bitter when the skins have been soaking in the bathtub, and they have been unable to take a bath," says Aarnio and laughs.
Of many talents
Aarnio is a 47-year-old comparative religionist, shaman, lament singer, nature photographer and artist.
She teaches Finno-Ugric shamanism and the Kalevala sage tradition and leads courses on the making of traditional drums and the singing of laments.
Aarnio has organised many exhibitions on Finno-Ugric folklore together with Professor Emeritus Juha Pentikäinen. In addition, she attends various events and educational institutions to lecture and perform Kalevala poems and laments.
Aarnio feels that she has always had shaman abilities. Traditionally, it has been thought that shamans were able to leave their bodies and wander in the spiritual world solving various problems. Aarnio believes she can do just this.
She knows that most people judge the spiritual world and premonitions to be nonsense. Aarnio contemplates her response to the criticism for a while.
"My own experience of the invisible world is the only thing I can lean on."
Cooperation with comparative scientists has heartened Aarnio. They have encouraged her to talk about her own experiences. That is, you see, living folklore.
• Susanna Aarnio, 47, is a shaman, comparative religionist, lament singer, nature photographer and artist. Lives in Nuuksio.
• Aarnio arranges workshops, lectures and courses on Finnish spiritual heritage and nature photography. In the summers, she organises similar retreats to old sacred Finnish places.
• Studied comparative religion and biology at the University of Helsinki, and is a founding member of the Society for Northern Ethnography.
• Member of the Finnish Professional Photographers’ Association and Äänellä itkijät ry.
• Mother of four. Has healer roots in her Savonian-Karelian family tree.
Move towards shamanism
A change took place in Aarnio's life when she was living in the Netherlands in the 1990s. Aarnio had moved into the country to study homeopathy and veterinary medicine.
Once when she was in a bookstore, a book from the shelf fell on Aarnio's toes. It was a book on Finno-Ugric shamanism written by a Dutch shaman. Aarnio read the book straight through in the store. She understood she had found something significant.
"Peace descended on me. I realised that now I'd found the answer that I'd been looking for my entire life."
Already as a child Aarnio enjoyed wandering in the forests in her home region of Haukivuori. "There I saw gnomes and other inhabitants of nature and the forest. I had conversations with animals, trees and rocks and kept an animal cemetery in my home yard."
The town had a home for the elderly, whose residents thought Aarnio's talks were natural. The same folklore had been everyday life for them as children.
Right after reading the book she had found in a Dutch bookstore, Aarnio traveled to Amsterdam to meet the author of the work. The person knew the Finnish shaman Johannes Setälä and talked about his work as a representative of the Finnish shaman tradition.
Aarnio shuddered at the thought that she had to travel all the way to the Netherlands to find her country's history. "We are one of the few Finno-Ugric peoples who are missing the connection to the old folklore."
A significant change
In 2000, Aarnio returned to Finland from the Netherlands and continued the biology studies she had started earlier at the University of Helsinki. When she had met Professor Pentikäinen, who had studied shamanism, Aarnio decided to change her major to comparative religion.
She learned that in their communities, shamans were respected members who acted as the contact persons between the spiritual world and people. They led the souls of the dead away from earth and asked the spirits and fairies for answers to questions of everyday life.
Aarnio felt it was necessary to study the tradition also in practice and in 2003 traveled to see Johannes Setälä, who lived in Lohjansaari. He had practiced traditional shamanism for decades already and took Aarnio as his student. She began building shaman drums and learning old rituals and incantations.
In 2006, they founded the Center for Finno-Ugric Shamanism, and three years later, Setälä enthroned Aarnio as the continuer of his work.
In recent years, spirituality has again started to interest people. Unexpectedly, Aarnio says that she cannot stand "crackpottery" and deplores that especially New Age neo-shamanism is in fashion.
"Many want to frantically experience spirituality, but today it's mostly mere ego-tripping. It's certainly fun to drum in candlelight, but the authentic shaman tradition is the complete opposite of that."
Firstly, according to Aarnio, it has been survival learning in the midst of nature. The most important thing was knowledge of nature and a respectful interaction with nature. Shamans knew the healing herbs, knew the routes of animals and weather developments. Everything in nature was thought to have its own spirit, also rocks and plants.
If good relationships with nature fairies were not maintained, the situation was believed to lead to imbalance.
And Aarnio believes that exactly that has happened, as man has abandoned his sacred relationship with nature that he cherished for thousands of years.
Climate change becomes worse, oceans have become polluted, and many species have become extinct.
"The rape of nature is hard for me to take. Sometimes it seems useless to do anything anymore – we are already so deep in the consumption society. But as I have children myself, I cannot give up hope."
A natural cause
Aarnio believes that one reason for depression, for example, is man's nonexistent relationship with nature. Indeed, science has already admitted the importance of nature for the mental health of man. In one study, ADHD children were noted to benefit as much from a thirty-minute daily outing in the park as from their medicines.
Aarnio is also saddened by the individualisation of man's self-image.
"In the past, we thought that we are merely links in the chain of generations. The modern man, instead, is curled up around his own ego, ruminating on his problems and thinking about his own desires and well-being. Previously, it was completely impossible."
A year ago, the comparative religionist who had lived in Helsinki for a long time moved to Nuuksio with her husband and three school-aged children.
Around the new home, there is a lot of forest in which to breathe and animals to observe.
Together with her husband, Aarnio has founded the Finnish Wildlife and Nature Photography Institute, and Aarnio uses photographs also as material for teaching shamanism.
On the computer, she shows her photos, with which one can try to understand the shamanistic worldview. Lichen stretches out from the ground like a fist. A snag looks like a creature galloping in the moonlight. One can see faces and stooped figures in a fern or a dried-up, curved tree leaf.
Aarnio is satisfied. The shaman tradition is alive and acquires new forms in the digital age.
Venla Pystynen – HS
Meri Rantama – HT
Image: Heidi Piiroinen