Rituals of Orthodox Karelia

Rituals of Orthodox Karelia


Orthodox Karelia lies between two great cultures. On one side lies the western culture which has strongly been influenced by the Roman Catholic religion. On the other side there is the Eastern Orthodox Russia, the heir to the Byzantine Empire. Influences from these two great cultures has been absorbed by the Karelian people thus developing a unique form of folk religion full of mysticism, rituals and sacred elements. In this essay I will look at some of the basic elements associated with the folk religion and the rituals of Orthodox Karelia.

Folk religion is easily thought of as popular religion, religion as practiced. Folk religion in general refers to different forms of Christianity which are practiced by the people themselves, not by the clergy. Folk religion has a tendency to absorb elements which are connected in subtle ways to the Christian dogma, even though they are originally from outside the Christian belief system. Folk religion is the fusion of pre-Christian pagan beliefs and Christian faith.

Folk religion in orthodox Karelia

The mythical world view of the Orthodox Karelian people can roughly be traced back to a shamanistic world view. An ethnic belief system has developed based on these shamanistic beliefs. A strong belief in supernatural forces is one of the main elements of this religion. Many other similar elements can be found from both world views, such as the division between the world of the living and the supernatural world. Among other beliefs are the belief in the evil eye, curses and a strong belief in the power of the spoken word. Many of the Orthodox Karelian rituals are based on the duality between the normal and supernatural elements. The Karelian belief that through rituals one can influence the supernatural helps us understand the vast number of various rituals.

The concept of the sacred

Supernatural beings referred in this essay as sacred agents are those beings or entities which were in one way or another responsible for the communication between our world (the world of the living) and the other world which was full of nature spirits, Christian saints and the spirits of the dead. Stark points out that they are “supernatural agents in a reciprocal exchange relationship with humans, in which the exchange was guided by moral codes and obligations seen to be shared by both parties” (Stark, Laura. 2002: 52). These sacred elements are separated from non-sentient objects by a two-way communication through a ritual.

The other world

The belief in the other world is central in the Orthodox Karelian folk religion. Not only the deceased resided in the other world, but the other world included also a various amount of nature spirits, divine protectors and other kinds of supernatural agents. Often the magical harm imposed on humans was seen to come from this other world. It could be summoned, sent or invoked by a human being residing on the earthly plain, or it could be a vengeance placed upon an individual by a discontent deceased relative. Death was not the absolute end, therefore death and the dead were highly respected in the Karelian regions. They were worshipped as important sacred agents as the dead were considered as messengers between this world and the other world. They could do harm, but they could also help by speaking on behalf of the living relatives and protecting them from curses.

This other world (the world of the dead) was seen as a reflection of the world of the living. It was seen to have a social structure of its own. Stark refers to interviews that were made concerning the other world and points out that “the dead lived in the manner of the living (…) even holding weddings for those who had died young” (Stark, Laura. 2002: 45). This belief is reflected throughout the Orthodox Karelian folk religion. “The relationship between the humans and the supernatural were modeled on the relationships among persons” (Stark, Laura. 2002: 20). It can be seen in the way offerings are brought not only to the deceased, but also to various nature spirits and Christian saints.

Mostly the purpose of the plentiful rituals, such as food gifts on the graves of the recently departed were seen as a method of persuading the supernatural elements to protect the living from the wrath of the other world. The concrete sacrificial elements included in these rituals were very important, as Stark points out: “Sacred agents in Karelian folk religion were seen to be empirical beings, that is, rituals were an encounter with the supernatural” (Stark. 2002: 52). Physical sacrifices were needed as the general assumption was that the sacred agents were actually physically present at all times and therefore needed to be pleased and persuaded to cooperate by giving gifts. The communication worked both ways. A service was provided in exchange for a service.

The power residing in nature

Words would compel, persuade or command a supernatural agent to do the performers’ bidding. Usually this would mean the transfer of power into a healer during a healing ritual or the removal of an unwanted entity from the patient as a form of exorcism. The more powerful healers (performers of rituals) did not rely on outside sources of power since their own power was considered adequate. The less powerful healers would occasionally take extra power from the nature surrounding them. The power could be extracted from various sources by purchasing it with food or copper, or by simply commanding it to aid in the ritual.

The locations where this source of power could be found are plentiful; it could be taken from large cliffs or rocks, water, earth itself, extracted from a forest, or a fire. Even the dead themselves were seen to possess a great amount of supernatural powers which could be harnessed to do good as well as bad. These examples of the locations are not the only ones, but they are the most commonly known.

Nature spirits were rarely seen even when in their natural surroundings. They could reveal themselves to humans in many different forms, choosing usually a human or an animal figure. Karelian nature spirits tend to live alone on the place of their own power. A forest spirit would never leave the forest, water spirit would never be encountered on dry land. Dozens of folktales of an encounter between a spirit and a human exist in the Finnish and Karelian mythology.

These kind of supernatural agents represent nature, an untamed primitive power which is not quite under the control of man. But not only nature spirits were called to help. Also some Christian saints fall under the same category. During the course of time certain saints have become mundane and were transformed into Christian nature spirits in the eyes of the congregation. Or a pagan nature spirit assimilates the elements of a Christian saint, thus becoming a mixture of the two religions. For example, Saint George had transformed into the “forest master”, a title that used to belong to a benevolent forest spirit Tapio. The roles of these two supernatural agents were the same, to rule the forest and its animals. These christianized spirits were easier to approach when in need of supernatural assistance. Even the Church could not oppose calling the saints to aid.

The nature and purpose of ritual

A ritual is a way of controlling and maintaining the unstable barrier between the world of mortals and the world of the supernatural beings. The performance of a ritual usually requires a certain formula, for example a spell in the guise of a poem, and possibly certain objects which would ensure the positive outcome of the ritual.

People believed they could influence the supernatural beings directly through the usage of rituals, thus causing any given event to proceed the way the individual desired. Many of the rituals were performed in secret or witnessed only by a small number of people, partly because a large audience might distract the performer. The presence of a small audience ensured that the ritual is learnt by the next generation so that the maintenance of the sacred barriers could continue. Secrecy was important because of the fear of disapproval from the church or the clergy.

Rituals contained elements which would draw the attention of the viewers. These elements such as dancing, singing, and poetic spells distinguish the ritual from any given day-to-day routine. One of the most well known ways to distinguish a ritual from everyday living was to use the Kalevala-meter poetry. This gives the audience the signal to quiet down, look and listen as something peculiar was about to happen.

We must consider the psychological effect of the ritual on the audience and on the person performing the ritual. Stark feels, that the ritual performance is “more than the performance of symbols – that its message operates at the level of the mind while the body functions as an instrument of expression (…) rituals basically work to alter individuals’ perceptions”(Stark, Laura. 2002: 26). A clear distinction from the mundane life was needed to ensure the spirit world and the surrounding society that this was indeed a ritual.

The ritual

The main purpose of rituals was to build and maintain boundaries against disorder coming from outside the community. Rituals in the Orthodox Karelian regions are roughly based on the axle of purity – impurity. The self and community are associated with the pure whereas the other world represent the impure. The invisible sacred boundaries between these two worlds were upheld by nature spirits, saints and the dead as well as the living. The rituals were made to strengthen the invisible borders and therefore they actually to maintain cultural order in the society. Rituals tend to represent ideologies and moral orientations towards the issue.

Mostly rituals were used to contact, control and persuade a certain supernatural element into doing the bidding of the performer. Both Christian and pagan elements were called upon for help. This kind of a dialogue could not be held with a major deity, such as the Christian God, but was restricted to the nature spirits and some christianized spirits as said above.

Most widely used rituals were the prayer rituals used to ask for forgiveness. The most common way for any spirit to manifest itself is through anger which was usually the result of offending human behavior. An apology was a wise course of action. The person would feel a sense of personal responsibility for transgressions against the supernatural agent. The anger could thus be relieved by apologizing to the spirit. Also authority was needed to perform any ritual. Anyone could recite a spell or perform a ritual, but only if the authority of the performer was strong enough would the supernatural agent submit. When the farmer could not drive away an illness or other malady he would turn to a healer who already had proven his or her authority over the supernatural.

Treatment of illness

Illness and maladies are basically a disorder in the human body. Unexplained illness was caused by an outside force usually seen to come from outside the community. To begin the healing process a diagnose was needed. Diseases were a direct result of a bodily penetration of powerful elements. The cause was looked from forest, water, earth, dead people etc. Walking by a cemetery after midnight could cause a severe rash as the spirits residing in the cemetery did not appreciate the late night disturbance. First step was to try to requests forgiveness by giving gifts. If this would not be efficient, stronger methods were used.

The main purpose of the healer was to restore the balance to the body by driving out the spirit causing the disorder. This could be performed with or without an audience. Usually only the healer and the patient were present during the healing process. The first thing to do was to find the source of the disease and to find out if the patient had angered the offending spirit in any way. In naming the cause of the illness the healer “turned the ambiguous experience of bodily disorder into a controlled relationship with a specified, controllable illness agent” (Stark, Laura. 2002: 94). Even nowadays the psychological effect of knowing the reason of an illness – be it an ache or a rash – helps to ease the patients mind and aids in the recovery process.

If pleading and giving gifts would not help, the healer would perform an exorcism. The naming of the illness-source would then lead to naming the origins of the spirit. This would be recited into a ritual spell by using Kalevala-meter poetry. This would force the spirit under the command of the healer. During the spell the healer would invoke his or her own power or pray for some other powerful entity to come and help, as discussed above. Finally the spirit would be driven out of the patient by using commanding words.

Maintaining the border

Maintaining the mythical borders was important on any community or farm located on the edge of such a place. A concept of a border exist between the farm and the forest. The humans must pay rent or purchase the land they use to cultivate from the earth spirit so as not to anger it. This could be done by ritual greetings, small food gifts or even with precious silver. The farmland was not the only place where rent was paid. Copper coins thrown into a grave would buy the earth from the spirits for the deceased.

The territorial rights of the spirit world was taken very seriously. On certain days of the year the dead were seen to reside on this plain and were accordingly remembered by bringing food gifts to the cemeteries. At certain times people would also avoid any territory of a sacred agent believed to be easily angered. For example one must never chip ice from a well after sundown because it would anger the water-spirit. If the spirit is insulted its wrath could be avoided by giving it something precious in return, such as coffee or sugar.

The supernatural agents control the world outside the farm and community and demand respect and cautiousness from visitors. At certain times of the year a truce was made between the forest spirit and the farm. In the summer cattle could graze outside the farm limits, but if the spirit was in some way angered, it could take vengeance by taking some of the cattle. The cattle could be regained by apologizing the offended spirit. Occasionally the spirit would prove to be malicious and more drastic methods were used: the forest would be ritually bound by tying small trees together which was believed to cause the forest spirit discomfort. If the cattle still could not be regained no more actions would be taken against the forest. The lost cattle was thought to be forever lost to the spirit due to severe transgressions by the humans. Any further attempts to gain the cattle back would only anger the spirit more.


The goal of this essay has been to understand the ways in which the rituals function in the Orthodox Karelian culture. Many of these elements apply even to the Lutheran Finland, although some of the sacred elements vary from one culture to another. Clearly the duality between human and nature exists in many cultures. As I have pointed out, impurity and disorder came from nature. It represents a nameless threat to a farmer who is trying to scrape a living while living amongst the beasts of the forest. The supernatural elements competed with humans for resources, and the threat was controlled by erecting borders which kept the supernatural at bay.

It might seem that those living in this world were forced to be continuously cautious so as not to anger any supernormal elements. But the borders were seldom crossed by either of the opposing sides. Humans, as well as spirits tend prefer to remain in their own realms of existence taking action only when disturbed.

Not really more than a belief in a supernatural wall between the community and nature, the sacred border brought a comforting idea of control. The though that man could have effect on the unknown was strong enough to live on to these modern times. Occasionally one can still find a person who believes that giving the house spirit food on a regular basis keeps the spirit happy and the house safe from harm.


Apo, Satu, Aili Nenola and Laura Stark-Arola (eds). 1998. Gender and folklore: Perspectives on Finnish and Karelian Culture. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.
Stark, Laura. 2002. Peasants, Pilgrims and Sacred Promises: Ritual and the Supernatural in Orthodox Karelian Folk Religion.
Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.

Artikkeli on julkaistu Lehto – Suomen Luonnonuskontojen yhdistys
ry:n Seita-lehden numerossa 2/2006.

Published in Seita-newsletter 2/2006, please do not copy without a permission from the writer.