Category: Indigenous people
The Sami or Saami or Sámi are a group of people with their own history, beliefs, traditions, culture and language. The map shows the area of spread.
“The Sámi people inhabit a land they call Sápmi, stretching from the Norwegian coast in the north-west, across the northern parts of Sweden and Finland, to the Kola Peninsula in the north-east, a part of Russia.” (Jarving)
The principal means of survival of the people has been fishing and hunting to a lesser degree, and reindeer hunting, management and herding, by far the largest activity. They were and still are, to a certain extent, hunter gatherers on the move much of the time, following their herd of reindeer. Sami people do not have one language but a family of languages made up of nine different languages “between which mutual intelligibility may be difficult or non existent, however, all the Saami languages have preserved the ethnonym ‘Sápmi’” All the languages derive from Proto-Uralic a language from which Saami, Finnish, Hungarian and Samoyed derive. “It has been estimated that Proto Uralic came into being 6000 to 8000 years ago.” One source indicates there are shared words with the Basque language. Anthropologists believe that the Sami moved from central and eastern Europe northwards as the Ice Age ended around 9500BC.
The people were and probably still are a deeply spiritual people. They shared with all spiritually minded peoples the belief that everything was animated by Spirit. Subsequent academics have translated this to ‘soul’ but the overall belief was no dissimilar to that of the Hindu/Yoga, Shinto, Native American Indian, Aztec, Kahuna, and so on. That there is form and function and both are Spirit. The very word animist [now used rather disparagingly] means analogously hardware operated by software. The universe operates on software not hardware!
This view of the world logically leads to the desire for harmony with nature.
“According to the traditional Sámi beliefs, the world was inhabited by spirits. Human beings could only successfully make their living by cooperating with natural forces. It was essential not to damage nature, as that would interfere with the higher spirits. The religious practices were cyclical, respecting the pattern of seasonal migration and the cycle of nature.” (Lehtola 88)
Children were taught to understand the physical aspects of life through instruction, example, and careful constant observation. However, understanding the spiritual aspects of life required people capable of contacting the spiritual world.
“In the old culture, human relationships with the two realms of reality, the physical world (‘this side’) and the spiritual world (‘the other side’), were bridged by the activities of the special men and women – noaidi.” (Lehtola)
In other words, the Sámi shaman, the noaidi, became a way to tap into the spiritual side of nature.
Mechanisms of spiritual experience
Sacred sites - The Sami shamans came to recognise over time that there were certain specific spots on the landscape on which it was easier to obtain spiritual experience and these sites were called Sieidi, which is loosely translated as shrine. These spots could be springs, rocks, faults and so on. In effect, if we look at the section on sacred sites, it was probably a telluric hot spot. The word seidr meant the act of ‘ecstatic prophesy’ by a female seer and there is a Finnish word hiisi meaning a sacred grove, thus we have a number of related words connected to what is effectively a sacred geography – a sacred geography of places for spiritual experience.
For anyone living in this area this should be extremely exciting, as unlike the UK or other ‘developed’ countries, the landscape has not been battered to pieces by roads, buildings, mining, pipelines, power lines and so on thus altering the telluric currents. In effect a sacred spot is probably just as effective as it always was.
Drums and drumming - The other mechanism of spiritual experience was the drum and the drum became a mechanism of both obtaining experience and documenting what they had found during what was effectively out of body travel. Each drum was different as a result.
“The noaidi’s most important instrument was the noaidi drum. It was a tool to enter the ecstatic state as well as a ‘map’ the noaidi used for orientation in the other realm.” (Lehtola)
The Sámi drum used wood for the base and reindeer hide for the face. There are two types, the frame type, which has a frame consisting of a single strip of wood bent into a circle; and the bowl type, the ‘bowl type’ was more widely dispersed than the ‘frame’ one, probably because it was a more accurate representation of the Egg. The frame drums are typically larger than the bowl drums, but the bowl drums are decorated on the bowl as well as the surface of the drum, thus we have a complete map of the Egg, not just a cross section.
“Central to their shamanism is the runebom, their drum, a relatively small drum, often oval, very light and hand held, used with a drumstick carved out of a reindeer bone. The drum may be decorated with various symbols of the divine and the mundane, in a certain pattern for each shaman, and as a part of its use they put a ring of brass or silver on the skin, drum, and do divination from how the ring moves over the skin. But the primary use of the drum is for the shaman to go into trance and travel in the spirit world.” (Jarving)
The symbolism of the Drum
All drums were Egg shaped, but each had a record of what the noaidi had seen. Interestingly, academics do not appear to understand the symbolism used, which is actually much the same as the symbolism used in all the cultures I have on this site.
There is a common misconception that the Sami incorporated Christian symbols into their system and placed them on their drums. But I do not believe this to be correct. The Cross, the St Andrew’s cross, the triangle and so on, the five pointed star, all had meanings and still have meanings which have nothing to do with institutionalised Christianity. A glance at the symbol section on this site will show that all these symbols were in place long before Christianity ever got a hold. The frequency and placement of the Sun symbol reflects the central nature of the Sun and the Moon in Sámi tradition, Many symbols represent animals familiar to the Sámi.
“The animal that seems most appropriate to begin with is the reindeer, which is the commonest species of animal on the southern Saami drums.” (Ahlbäck and Bergman)
But the reindeer was equivalent to the horse in other cultures – it was a means of transport sharing some of the symbolism of the Stag and deer; and many noaidi ‘became’ reindeer in their trance states. If they did not become reindeer they became bears, wolves, and birds.
“Innumerable tales relating to obtaining a livelihood and epic poems tell that a trance noaidi was able to control the movements of a whole reindeer herd." (Lehtola )
They could also meet up with fellow shamans from all over the world:
“Some people were capable of foretelling future events….. A person with this special gift could be ‘called’ and accepted by the community as a noaidi….. For more demanding longer “trips” a noaidi sometimes used a “magic drum”, much in the similar way as the northern Siberian shamans". (Yli-Kahu)
Beliefs, gods and maps
Depending on how well travelled the noaidi was the drum either showed a T-O style map or was more advanced and was tending towards the World map picture. But there are also examples of drums where an almost complete mapping is present, meaning that they had mapped out large portions of the Egg.
In order to understand these drums it is important to know that the Sami used the symbolism of the Sun and the Moon. The Moon [Mannu] was an important concept and linked to all forms of birth and death. The Sami used a lunar year of 13 months in which the monthly periods were counted from the new moon [mannocalbmi] to the next new moon, in effect helping to preserve the symbolism inherent in the Moon. The Sun [Beaivi] is regarded as the principle deity in Saami mythology.
In the more advanced shamanic drums, the centre of the drum shows the Sun and the Moon. Academics, being academics, have of course said the view was a heliocentric view of the world. But they are totally wrong. This is the unmoving mover of Hindu thought, the empty centre of the jade discs of Taoism.
The Sami also recognised the concept of the symbolic Mother and Father and the Trinity in its[correct] non Christian sense – Mother/Moon and Father/Sun, along with the Son/World soul. On one illustration for a drum we even see a shaman with his crown ascending a ladder to meet the Intelligences at this level.
“According to the vertical picture of the world depicted in the segments of shamans’ drum skins, the pre Christian gods of the Saami can be divided into those that lived above the sky, those that dwelt in the sky, the gods of the earth and the gods of the underworld” [The Saami cultural Encyclopaedia]”
Needless to say, because there is a god for each function or system, and the Sami were excellent observers of system, there are in their Intelligence hierarchy a lot of Intelligences. Rather intriguingly, Intelligences for plants, animals, minerals, diseases and illnesses [in the underworld – the God of Pestilence Ruto], and the weather [storms, wind, etc] all existed.
Bieggagallis was the god of the wind and the weather as a whole and of course was regarded as an extremely important Intelligence given that the main sources of livelihood of the Saami – hunting and reindeer herding – depended on the weather. The direction of the wind affected the movements of the herds of reindeer because the animals tend to travel into the wind especially in the season when the midges are swarming.
Each Intelligence had its own symbol. Thus for example, the Wind god looks similar to the Thunder God, but has “objects that look like shovels with which he moves the air to create wind’ [Saami Encyclopaedia].
Spirit beings were subdivided up into different categories much as they were in England in Shakespeare’s day with gnomes [gufihtar], goblins, fairies and so on. Goblins were the Spirit beings of viruses. Although no Sami knew of the existence of viruses and bacteria when the beings were recognised, their effects were well known. The Sami believed that they lived underground which of course bacteria do – tons and tons of bacteria live underground.
“The Saami people thought that a human being had several spiritual dimensions, the part maintaining the bodily functions [autonomic system], a freely moving part – the free soul and a companion farrosas [template], which appeared as a vision predicting a person’s arrival [ovdasas]. The Sami also believed there was a kind of life principle [Higher spirit] which allowed a person to receive a new body in the realm of death and be reincarnated in this life. Another word which has a related meaning is heagga which means spirit”.[Saami Encyclopaedia]
The Sami also believed that the Higher Spirit resided in one’s bones – the marrow - and I suspect that this is because they too had kundalini experiences and knew that when the energy of the experience went surging up to the head to open the crown chakra, you could feel it in your marrow, and as a consequence, it was the marrow that ‘contained’ the Higher spirit which was ‘released’ by the experience.
It was recognised that it was the Higher spirit that left the body on death, during sleep, during the noaidi’s trance states and when the person went into a coma.
There was also a belief in 'lost souls'. The word Ravga was used by both the Norwegian and Finnish Sami to refer to a wandering dead soul, a disembodied soul. A disembodied soul by definition does not rise in the vibrational levels, and a such is envisaged in most spiritually based cultures hovering at the Water level above the Earth. This led the Sami to term the soul 'drowned', which later historians have taken literally. The Norwegian use the word draug, but among the Kvens who are Finnish speakers the word used is Meriraukka meaning a wraith or ghost of the Water
Red route and blue route
There is nothing in the texts I could find about spiritual paths per se, but the Sami’s culture and beliefs were so severely decimated by the Lutheran movement that it is hardly surprising. There was what the Saami Encyclopaedia calls linguistic genocide which “prohibited the use of the language of the group in daily intercourse or in schools or the printing and circulation of publications in the language of the group”.
But there are other ways of preserving beliefs – jewellery, ornaments, drums and clothes and I think that the Sami’s clothes are an almost direct indication that the Four seasons and the hours was a recognised spiritual path along with the red route and the blue route.
The Sami flag, designed by Astrid Behl from Ivgubahta/Skibotn in Norway incorporates the symbols of the Sun and the Moon - the sun ring is red and the moon ring blue.
The Sami and Christianity
The Reformation of the 16th century spread Lutheranism outward from Germany to the Scandinavian countries. Soon the religious fervour of Christianity overcame the Sámi. The Sámi became included in the church’s witch hunts.
“In Arctic Norway over 175 people were prosecuted for the crime of witchcraft from 1593 to 1695. The witch trials of the far north are distinctive in a European context because of the elements of Sámi magic. About 20% of the witch trials are known to have affected the Sámi.” (Hagen)
The Sámi were initially accepting of the Christian faith and incorporated Christianity into their other beliefs. However, the Church required the rejection of anything other than Christianity, and persecuted the Sámi mercilessly.
"The image of noaidi-ism was changed because of Christian belief. During the era of the witch hunts the word noaidi clearly took on a negative meaning. All people who practiced the old religion were held to be people who had given themselves to immortality or the Devil – they were believed to have sold their own souls, their relatives’ and even their children’s souls. This belief persisted even into the 1900s.” (Lehtola)."
From the end of the 17th to the middle of the 18th century much of the confrontation between indigenous Saami religion and Christianity focused on the drums.
“As a powerful and very visible part of the Sámi religion, the drum was one of the main focuses of the Christian attempts to eradicate their religion, so most of the older Sámi drums have been crushed or burnt by Christian missionaries and their armed escorts.” (Jarving)
The Sámi gave up many of the drums to avoid persecution. Persecution took on many forms, from being questioned and forced to deny the Sámi religion, to being put to death as a heretic.
"During the witch trials in Finnmark, two Sámi drums were confiscated. One of the owners had to answer questions about the use of the drum, and about the meaning of all the figures and symbols on his drum....These records date from one of the last but most momentous witch-trials in 1692. An old Sámi shaman, Anders Poulsen, told the court about the symbols and the use of his magic drum. He also stood up and demonstrated the instrument for the people being present in the courthouse of a small fishing village called Vadsø. The assessment of the court case upholds the findings which criticize ecstasy and trance.” (Hagen)
From which we can deduce that the Lutherans were trying to stamp out spiritual experience as a means of understanding the spiritual world, as it both conflicted with the view they wished to promote and was in direct competition with their authority.
“The role of the drums as symbols of Saami resistance is well attested in the sources from the 17th and 18th centuries. For the Saami, the drums represented their threatened culture, the resistance against the Christian claim to exclusiveness, and a striving to preserve traditional values – i.e. ‘the good’ that had to be saved. For the Church authorities, on the other hand, the drums symbolized the explicit nucleus of the elusive Saami ‘paganism’ – i.e. ‘the evil’ that had to be annihilated.” (Ahlbäck and Bergman).
And so we have a pattern that has repeated itself in almost every spiritually rich culture on this site – the eradication of a spiritually rich culture by a religious political one. Communism, Lutherism, Catholicism, Fascism, Socialism, Islamicism - all the same – political movements aimed at obtaining power by the ruthless removal of competing systems.
“Under the stern Christianization, the great noaidi – those who had the power of ecstasy – appear to have disappeared by the 1800s.” (Lehtola)
Sámi Drums - Ken Emerson Jr.
The 73 remaining Sámi drums represent a moment in Sámi culture preserved in wood and skin. Therefore, we should once again see the drums as a way to bridge, a way to connect the old and the new. They remind us to reflect on the plight of the Sámi people, and to ponder the price of progress. By being reminded of these things, perhaps we can even look at the drums as a symbol of hope for the future of the Sámi people.
- The Saami - 19 OCTOBER 2006 - This film is quite interesting - LINK
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - edited by Ulla Maija Kulonen, Irja Seurujarvi-Kari and Risto Pulkkinen
- Sámi Drums - Ken Emerson Jr.
- Ahlbäck, Tore and Bergman, Jan. eds. The Saami Shaman Drum . Abo, Finland: The Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History, 1991.
- Gaup, Ailo. and Sjordal, Bente Kjos Sjordal., trans. In Search of the Drum. Fort Yates, ND: Muse Publications. 1988:1992
- Gaup, Ailo, and Weinstock, Joavnna. trans. The Night Between Days. 1992:2003
- Hagen, Runes. “The Shaman of ALTA.” The University of Tromsø. 2 May 2004
- Jarving, Stein. “Sámi Shamanism.” Eutopia Adventure.16 June 2004
- Lehtola, Veli Pekka - The Sámi People, Traditions in Transition. Aanaar-Inari: Kustannus-Punsti, 2002
- Yli-Kuha, Kari. “Sámi Mythology.” The Sámi. 12 June 1998
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.
- Ailo Gaup - The Night Between Days - The Sámi noaides
- Engel C - Sami shamanic drums and bells
- Ken Emerson - Noaidi uses of the Sámi Drums
- Lehtola, Veli Pekka - The Sámi People
- Mircea Eliade - Sami out of body flight
- Misc. source - A Sami drum map
- Misc. source - Sami - The Drum
- Misc. source - The story of Lars Nilsson
- Sami - Yoik of the Wind - Sofia Jannock
- Sámi artist Berit Margrethe Oskal yoiking "Eamifámut"
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - 'les-Pieti'
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - Lihkadusat
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - The Ovdasas
- The Saami - A Cultural Encyclopaedia - The Power of the Drum
- Thomas Keightley - Sami and Finnish Rune