Cultural geography and ‘hiisi’-territoriality…

Cultural geographies can be full of imagination. Finland’s geography shares attributes of ice and snow, whereas some other places are filled with sand and heat. North, cold, south, warm, masculine, feminine, are ideas that we unconsciously relate to our cultural geographies. Then, ‘space’ when attached to cultural geographies is partially ‘virtual’. Interesting is, how our imagination creates space as ‘absolute’, ‘relative’, and ‘relational’ (as David Harvey challenges it).

What I am thinking in relation to my new work-in-progress research project within arts, is a questions of imagination; how do we as cultural beings and citizens of the global world, create meaning from our cultural origins, or from our cultural geographies. My current research is not about Finland, but I like to reflect one particular attribute, which so often defines Finland’s geographical imaginary. That is the forest, and forest has a meaningful and long prehistory in Finland.

Folk traditions in Finland’s territory never considered forest as pure wilderness. From the prehistoric times, people utilized its resources leaving marks on a terrain. Originally, forest metsä in Finnish language did not mean the totality of space where trees are a dominant feature of the landscape, but the term pointed to the sacred. Metsä was an edge where inhabited regions of the people ends. It was a borderline for the everyday social life (tämänpuoleinen) and it was a route to the other world (tuonpuoleinen) (Anttonen 2003, 299-301).

In the thirteenth century, early Baltic-Finnic population covered over 230 local villages in Finland’s territory. An old custom was that ritualized spaces were separated apart from the living areas. Certain trees in metsä had hiisi-inhabitants (hiidenväki) were the dead beings were put to rest at hiisi-sites. These hiisi-inhabitants were the supernatural people of the post-mortal world. When Christianity was brought into the country, the hacking of trees that had hiisi-inhabitants started, and churches were built on those spots. What then happened was, that folklore also converted hiisi –term and its ontological referent to signify ‘Hell’, as a borrowed duality from the Christian theology. The forest started to signify borders between the ‘civilized’ world and the ‘pagan’ world (Anttonen 2003, 299-301).

How does this imagination enter our current ideas of the forest, is intriguing. How do we see the forest, how do we process it, occupy it, harness it, and so on?

Reference: Anttonen, Veikko 2003: “Sacred Sites as Markers of Difference-Exploring Cognitive Foundations of Territoriality”. In Lotte Tarkka (ed.): Dynamics of Tradition. Perspectives on Oral Poetry and Folk Beliefs. (Essays in honour of Anna-Leena Siikala on her 60th Birthday, January 1st 2003). Finnish Literature Society: Helsinki, pp. 291-305.

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