Interview with Kaarina Aitamurto on Russian Paganism

Kaarina Aitamurto, Univ. of Helsinki
Kaarina Aitamurto, University of Helsinki, Finland

Prof. Kaarina Aitamurto, University of Helsinki, is interviewed here for the World Religions and Spirituality Project about her research on Paganisms in Russia. She has published on Russian Paganism in The Pomegranate (here and here) and co-edited the important collection Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe with Scott Simpson.

This interview was conducted by Ethan Doyle White. It also deals with her work on other minority religions in contemporary Russia.

I started my research through esoteric bookstores and stalls as well as inquiring if my Russian colleagues knew any Wiccan groups in Russia. Every way I turned there were hardly any signs of Wicca and questions about the topic usually led to ethnic Slavic Paganism. To be honest, I was initially a bit reluctant to change the topic of my research because it was the feminist aspect of Wicca that had appealed to me. In contrast, contemporary Slavic Paganism seemed emphatically patriarchal and conservative. Moreover, infrequently it was linked to intolerant nationalism. In many respects, this ethnic Paganism with its emphasis on warrior spirit and admiration of masculinity seemed to represent an opposite to the kind of feminist spirituality that had originally drawn me to Paganism. However, gradually I became captivated by Slavic Paganism. First, I have always loved Russian culture and folklore so, of course, being able to gain a new perspective on it was fascinating. Secondly, it was intriguing to notice that Rodnoverie contained many similar features to the forms of Paganism I had encountered previously and which had initially drawn me to it: the emphasis on independent thinking and individual freedom, a connection to nature, the central role of aesthetics and play in religious practice.

Download the whole interview as a PDF file here.or read it on Doyle White’s blog Albion Calling here.

How the Ancestors Danced

“Adult male from grave 76a in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov drawn as if he were alive during a dance session: 140 elk teeth on the chest, waist, pelvis, and thighs rattle rhythmically and loudly.” (University of Helsinki)

I feel obligated for my North American readers to note that in Scandinavia “elk” means “moose” (Alces alces).((Like a Norwegian elkhound is a dog you take moose-hunting, just to locate the moose is all.)) I suppose the Finns use that word “elk”  in English because Finland was ruled by Sweden for a time.((From the Middle Ages until 1809.)) More about the naming issue here. Meanwhile we use a borrowed Algonquian term.

Many elk/moose tooth ornaments have been found Stone Age graves (8,000 years before present) in Karelia, according to a news release from the University of Helsinki.

Analysis of the teeth showed they had been used as ornaments, sewn to clothing, and their rattling against each other left disctinctive patterns of wear.

“Ornaments composed of elk teeth suspended from or sown on to clothing emit a loud rattling noise when moving,” says auditory archaeologist and Academy of Finland Research Fellow Riitta Rainio from the University of Helsinki. “Wearing such rattlers while dancing makes it easier to immerse yourself in the soundscape, eventually letting the sound and rhythm take control of your movements. It is as if the dancer is led in the dance by someone. . . . ”

Associate Professor of Archaeology Kristiina Mannermaa from the University of Helsinki is excited by the research findings.

“Elk tooth rattlers are fascinating, since they transport modern people to a soundscape that is thousands of years old and to its emotional rhythms that guide the body. You can close your eyes, listen to the sound of the rattlers and drift on the soundwaves to a lakeside campfire in the world of Stone Age hunter-gatherers.”

In case you are wondering if I have Finnish or Karelian ancestry, I do not that I know of. And there is complicated story of groups of people here — Neanderthals, perhaps, then Stone Age hunters, Neolithic farmers/herders, and then Indo-European-speaking Bronze Age people. But go back far enough and one might have some of each. So I use “ancestors” in the broadest sense.

Tree Beings, New Age Bodies, and Censored Folklore

Here is the table of contents of the latest Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics ( vol. 7, no. 1 ), published in Finland, “a multidisciplinary forum for scholars. Addressed to an international scholarly audience, JEF is open to contributions from researchers all over the world. JEF publishes articles in the research areas of ethnology, folkloristics, museology, cultural and social anthropology.”

Links go to PDFs of the articles.

Full Issue

View or download the full issue PDF

Table of Contents


Folk Religion in Discourse and Practice PDF
James Alexander Kapaló 3-18
Tree Beings in Tibet: Contemporary Popular Concepts of klu and gnyan as a Result of Ecological Change PDF
Jakub Kocurek 19-30
Sowing the Seeds of Faith: A Case Study of an American Missionary in the Russian North PDF
Piret Koosa 31-48
The Body in New Age from the Perspective of the Subtle Body: The Example of the Source Breathwork Community PDF
Katre Koppel 49-64
Immoral Obscenity: Censorship of Folklore Manuscript Collections in Late Stalinist Estonia PDF
Kaisa Kulasalu 65-81
Anthropological Interpretation of the Meaning of Ritual Objects in the Contemporary Urban Wedding in Bulgaria PDF
Rozaliya Guigova 83-104
Places Revisited: Transnational Families and Stories of Belonging PDF
Pihla Maria Siim 105-124
Official Status As a Tool of Language Revival? A Study of the Language Laws in Russia’s Finno-Ugric Republics PDF
Konstantin Zamyatin 125-153

Gendered Rural Spaces PDF
Piret Koosa

Gallimaufry with Bones

• I like animal skulls—I have a wall of them. At Crooked & Hidden Bones, read about the revival of a technique for “reddening the bones.” Talk about going back  to very old ways of treating special or sacred bones. This is what the family did with your great x 150 grandfather.

• Here is a Google translation about an ethnic Finnish Pagan group trying to get official recognition as a religion in that predominately Lutheran country. Because Finnish is a non-Indo-European language, the translation is a little rough:

Christianity wiped the old faith of the Finnish culture quite well off, so it would be time for work such as digging for some holy book.  The Kalevala, it can not be, because it is one man’s collection of poems, and even clean up such Muukka says.

• Hecate talks about the magical character—or the “telluric intelligence”— of cities, sounding a little bit like Charles de Lint but with a nod to David Abram, whose latest book—the one that she quotes from—I have on order.

When I want to do magic to influence the airy business of laws, I have a number of high places from which to scatter birdseed. When I want to get deep into the roots of the power structure, I can choose between the rotunda of the Capitol or the tidal basin off of the Potomac.


Quick Review: ‘Pagan Metal’

M. and I watched Pagan Metal: A Documentary (dir. Bill Zebub, 2009) Saturday night. It was flaccid. We gave up on it midway through. (Netflix has it.)

What we saw was primarily rambling interviews with members of three bands: Alan Averill of Primordial (Ireland), and musicians from Korpiklaani and Finntroll, both Finnish groups.

From these we gathered that what makes this latest subdivision of heavy metal music “Pagan” is that it incorporates (sometimes) folk tunes and folk instruments, although the interviewer seemed uninterested in discussing instrumentation or in discussing any folkish origins of the music in any detail.  (A menber of Korpiklaani is quoted on Wikipedia as saying that they play “old people’s music with heavy metal guitars.”)

The term “Pagan metal” was also left unexamined as to any religious or political connotations that it might carry.

A person might think that a metal band augmented with a skin drum or bagpipes and some fur on the stage costumes was therefore performing “Pagan metal.”

Nor did Pagan Metal function well as a concert film, as much of it as we saw, as it provided only brief clips of live performances without much context.

This video is only for hardcore fans who want everything about Primordial, for instance.