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The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - The Power of the Drum



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - edited by Ulla Maija Kulonen, Irja Seurujarvi-Kari and Risto Pulkkinen

The drum was the most important musical instrument at the time the old Saami religion was still alive. The hollow drum sound was used to accompany certain ritual activities of the noaidi and the figures painted on the drumhead with red alder bark paint were used in divination.

The Christian missionaries disapproved of the use of drums; at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, the Saami were forced to abandon their drums, and several hundreds of them were burned. Others ended up in chambers of curiosities, which were the predecessors of present-day museums. It is there that we now find most of the approximately seventy drums that have been preserved.

The largest collection, 35 drums, is in Nordiska museet in Stockholm. Many Saami people would like to see the drums and other Saami cultural items returned to Sapmi and the Saami museums.

The drum was beaten with a Y-shaped hammer or stick made of reindeer antler. When the drum figures were used for divination, a piece of bone or a metal ring ('pointer') was placed on the drumhead, and the answers to the questions were found by interpreting its movements over the figures.

Experiments with drum models have shown that the pointer makes jumps of varying length on the drumhead. This may explain why the written sources sometimes call it a "frog".

The handling of the drum was regulated by precise rules. In the southern Saami area every family had a drum which was handled by the father, whereas in the northern areas it was used only by the noaidi. As it was believed that the drum could be harmful to women [sic], they were forbidden to come near it.

With the help of a drum one could find out what was happening elsewhere, whether the future would bring good or bad luck, how illnesses should be cured, or which spirit it would be wise to make offerings to. Those Saami people who at the end of the seventeenth century wanted the drums to be legalized (without evoking any response from the authorities) claimed that the drum was the Saami equivalent of the compass, and that it was necessary for navigation.

Before the drum could be used, the drumhead was stretched by warming it by the fire. After that, the drummer kneeled or sat cross-legged on the ground and held the drum in his left hand and the hammer in his right hand. The signs of wear on the preserved drums show us that sometimes the drum was beaten with either end of the hammer, and sometimes with the flat side, and that the lower right field of the drumhead was beaten more often than the other parts.

The  drum markings offer the means for understanding the intellectual and spiritual worlds of the drum owners, but are extremely difficult to decipher.

They have been interpreted for example as adaptations of Scandinavian Bronze Age engravings or runes, as a star chart and as individual compendiums of the old Saami religion. Since there are only a couple of drums with their owners' explanations available, the interpretations proposed are for the most part very uncertain.

The drums were constructed and painted in different ways depending on the area. The South Saami drums are so-called frame drums.  In these drums, the skin is stretched over an oval wooden frame, stiffened by a crossbar, which also functioned as a handle, and the figures are placed along the edges and around the central cross, interpreted as a symbol of the sun. Inside the drum the owner hung spirals, rings and small pieces of metal, woollen threads of diverse colours, the penile bones of bears, etc. Many South Saami drums have a number of pewter studs fixed on the frame; each stud represents a bear caught with the help of the drum. In the central Saami (Ume, Arjeplog and Lule Saami) drums, the skin was stretched over a bowl with a few holes made in it. A strip of wood between two parallel oblong holes in the bottom served as a handle. The surface was divided into two fields by a horizontal line in the upper part of the drum. In this field there are some figures probably representing deities. The lower field was sectioned in various ways.

Ume Saami drums are dominated by a central cross, Arjeplog drums have a vertical line dividing the lower field into two parts, and Lule Saami drums are characterized by a circle, probably representing the sun. The North Saami drums (sg. goavddis) are bowl drums as well, but the drum head was divided into three (in one case five) fields, and the figures were placed in relation to the two (or four) continuous division lines.

Kemi Saami drums are frame drums like the South Saami ones, but the frame is constructed differently. As in North Saami drums, the skin was divided into three fields, but the two lines defining the fields are not continuous, having an opening in the middle. No Kola Saami drums have been preserved, but the written source material indicates that the Saami people of the Kola Peninsula also had drums.

In recent years, the drums have had a renaissance as symbols of the Saami culture, and the Church's negative attitude has (particularly in the South Saami area) changed to such a degree that replicas of ancient drums have even been used in church services. As a genuine expression of a Saami aesthetic tradition, the drums also serve as an important source of inspiration in the present-day Saami visual arts. Many artists make replicas of the old drums or create works of art or installations containing elements inspired by the drums.

Drum figures have been eagerly copied in non-Saami contexts as well and used both as illustrations and logo-types for companies and municipalities.

This recent phenomenon has raised the question of whether the figures could be made the copyright of the Saami. HRg

Ahlbiick T & Bergman J (eds.) 1991, Bergsland K 1969, Manker E 1938, 1950, Westman A (ed.)

The source of the experience


Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Listening to beating sounds


Music therapy