For the Sámi, as with many indigenous people unaffected by Medieval Christianity’s spread across Europe in the past, life was revered as a truly beautiful, transcendent, vivacious thing. Holding both elements of pantheism and polytheism, they regarded everything in nature as serving a purpose and having divinity whilst recognizing a small plethora of deities. The details of creation stories and roles each god plays in the pantheon of the Sámi varies slightly with the region from which they hail.
1. The Nine Worlds
Regions of Sápmi
There are nine recognized regions that the Sámi have historically inhabited, sometimes ten like what is shown on the map to the left. The contact and classifications of language and beliefs are not so well defined in the seventh-tenth regions, so sometimes only nine are sited. These regions, spanning vertically from the middle of Norway and Sweden (from South to North), up and across north Finland, and into northwestern Russia, are mostly designated based on the dialects of the Sámi language spoken within them. I personally find it interesting that it is divided into nine. We were in the fifth region of the “North Sámi”. Each region has its own language and these languages could, in the past, vary so much that if you were a Sámi from the south trying to speak to, say, a Lule Sámi it is unlikely you would understand one another. Of course, today, everyone in each region speaks the official language of the country they mainly inhabit (be it Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, or Russian), so these issues of communication are a thing of the past.
Within these regions, a given group would migrate depending on their reindeer’s natural movements that took them to more fertile grazing areas or based on season. The reindeer were and still are a key part of Sámi identity and life. Thousands of years ago, without this animal, they could not have survived the harsh northern winters. In terms of food source, the nutritional benefits of the meat of the reindeer were very important for their survival in this area of the world as the high protein helped in the building of muscle which sustained a stalwart metabolic rate that was continually burning through the fat content ingested in their diet, thereby warming the body more efficiently. Fish and other animals served as a food source as well. In terms of clothing and shelter, their hides served as excellent resources for conserving additional heat as the thick layering of the fur is ideal for not only staying dry but retaining small pockets of warm air within the thick, wiry strands; a key attribute in staying warm. Today, only 10% or so of Sámi practice what is termed Reindeer Husbandry, but it remains a strong aspect of cultural identity for them regardless.
2. Nature is Supreme
Gods of the Sámi
Depending on region or even family group, core deities could vary in prominence of veneration. Leaibolmmái received quite a bit of respect due to the fact that he was the “Alder God” or “God of Blood”. He ruled over the hunt and the alder tree’s bark, which, when mixed with saliva, produced a blood red pigment that was used on the Runebomme (Rune Drum used in ceremony) to paint deities or symbols which were to be invoked by its usage. Also popular were the Thunder God - Dierpmis, the God of Wind - Bieggolmmái, The Moon - Mánnu, and popularly the God of Water - Áhcolmmái due to his transformative capabilities for one’s health.
There were also some interesting key Goddesses. Of fate, there were Sarakka, Uksakka and Juksakka who are postulated to be alike to the Nornir of Norse Mythology, that is Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld. Reigning in the Underworld as the “Old Woman of the Dead”, there was Jabme-akka who was in this sense much like Hel or even, as has been posited by Freya Aswynn and others (regarding Hel), like Mother Holle from old Germanic fairy tales. Children and the spirits of babies were protected by Jabme-akka, but the other dead were said to dwell in woe. For the Sámi, the Underworld was like a negative reflection of the living realm.
Among others, these beings were believed to have descended from the rays of the Sun which was not so much anthropomorphic like a god or goddess, but regarded as a cosmic source upon whose energy everyone relied. There is a story of the Son of the Sundescending to earth and courting a female giant after sailing for a year and reaching her land. This story is told in the form of a very interesting poemtranscribed from verbal storytelling throughout generations. They also have in their stories tales of ghosts, elves, trolls, sea serpents, enchanted birds, lucky feathers, etc, all which existed on the borderline of worlds.
Speculation has suggested that much of the Northern Tradition, which is based on the teachings within the Norse Mysteries (Norse Mythology), draws much of its roots from what the Sámi have taught and experienced in the past. Perhaps, as cultures began to intermingle, they shared their knowledge and it came to form something “new” and unique for that time which persists in little whispers today and are growing more and more as knowledge is made more available. Personally, I have wondered if perhaps the less deleterious and aggressive frost Jötunns (mostly equivalent to “Giants”) encountered in the Norse Mysteries who eventually became close to the Æsir and Vanir were, in actuality, early forms of historical accounts of contact with the Sámi.
Seeing as many of the Jötunns were known to be an older race as well as have a stronger connection with and understanding of nature, it could very well be plausible. Imagine if you lived long ago in the past before 300 AD, were unfamiliar with a foreign land and had never before seen these people so different from you, but obviously well acquainted with the land, their animals, and ways of survival… what conclusions could you draw? How could you possibly describe them? Without much at your disposal in the way of information, it might be very difficult and they may indeed turn out to sound like the harsh, wise, distant Jötunns of old.
Whether the above postulation is correct or not, considering how much our species shares with one another as we move down through history is absolutely fascinating and should tell many people how connected we all truly are. The only thing that separates us and defines our characteristic differences is time.
3. Speaking with the Gods
Struggles to Maintain Identity in a Changing World
The Sámi showed their respect to their favored deities through the form of various offerings at unique land formations such as protruding rocks and so forth. Often, these were small gifts such as pieces of bone, antler, food, etc. However, sometimes Dierpmis required a full male reindeer be given him from the herd. If this was the case, it’s body would be buried at the site with only its opulent antlers left above ground.
During times of celebration throughout the year, sightings of the Northern Lights, seeking to contact those between worlds, or just feeling it in the moment, the order of the day was holding communal ceremonies in which a shaman of the group, called a Noaide or Noaidi, would beat rhythmically upon the runebomme. The runebomme, or ritual symbol and rune-inscribed drum, was made of reindeer skin that was treated with fish fat and then stretched over an oval wooden bowl. When the Noaide would strike his drum in trance-like ecstasy, he would allow nature’s very essence around him to inspire a great song to arise from his being which was supposed to effectively open a communicative gateway with the land and spirits. The manner in which the Noiade sings is called the Joik, or Yoik alternatively.
This Joik has a very unique and different form than most singing has had elsewhere in the world in that it utilizes uncommon scales and constrictions of the throat in order to properly vocalize.
When Christianity sought to spread it’s religious and political influence across Scandinavia in the eleventh century, the Sámi were still safe in their north lands that not many men would venture to in those times. When the eighteenth century came around, however, this beautiful, traditional ritual and song was admonished as evil and the Noaide were regarded as possessed by the devil during this time. Joiking was strictly forbidden and anyone caught or known to do it suffered severe punishment. Eventually, stubborn Sámi moved further north and away from this problem, but the ones that stayed behind were eventually converted and successfully assimilated. As a result, much of the Sámi are officially Christian or more specifically, Lutheran, today. For some, perhaps they feel truly grateful to have been saved from their apparent “evil” ways of the past, but for others old tradition still holds true and the great amnesia that is the conquest of Medieval Christianity has not entirely succeeded in destroying a fascinating culture and its teachings.
4. Origins and Genetics
As a people, the Sámi were isolated for a very long time before their definitive migration during the end of the last ice age. Evidence supports that they shared a home with what have now become the Finnish, hence their common Finno-Ugric linguistic roots. Due to this isolation, they are a very heavily studied genetic group which were believed, until recently, to have origins in Mongolia. The significant studies as of late have shown that the Sámi are unique and separate from the Mongolian line of descendants, raising more questions about their origins.
Aesthetically, most Sámi people can tend to have light hair and light eyes with fair skin whereas others more near to Northwestern Russia commonly share this more Mongolian appearance in that they have on average more protruding high cheekbones, sometimes darker hair, and a more Eurasian structure all around.
I have personally seen some photos of Sámi people that look no different than other Norwegian or Swedish people, and some, perhaps older generations, that look like Native Americans (in their facial structure) but with light hair and/or light eyes, so appearances vary but always manifest beautifully. It is posited that some of these differences in appearance are partially adaptive and not solely genetic. For instance, among other traits, the height of the cheekbones tends to be determined based on how much the muscles in the front of the face get used and they tend to be larger (more powerful) if your diet consists of food which is harder to chew.
Research has lent that the population in the Mesolithic period likely experienced a dwindling of their population at some point during isolation due to the “founding effect” present in their Y-chromosomal polymorphisms, tracing back to two male lineages. Other than this, their genetics are not that much different from most Northern Europeans and only about one-third of their current population holds this unique genetic link today. It is posited that the modern Finnish were within the same group as the Sámi before they split off and mixed with more Indo-European and Baltic groups coming up from the south, establishing the difference, now, therein. Later, this too eventually happened to many of the Sámi when Christianity was increasingly enforced upon those that didn’t go further north to escape persecution and they began to integrate more and more into southern Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish society. Regardless, studies continue to this day to trace the exact origin of these ancient peoples and I imagine, in the coming years, we will hear many amazing things about the ancient history of Sápmi and perhaps from even further East.
Written by my wife, Alexa Renée Smothers