Sami Religion

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SAMI RELIGION . The term Sami is an ethnonym used by the Sami people to describe themselves. They are also known by the term Lapp, which refers to their nomadic way of life, not to ethnicity, in accordance with the Swedish phrase "leva som lapp," which translates as "to live in the Lapp (i.e., nomadic) way," but the Sami find this expression to be pejorative. The Sami are popularly called "the people with four countries" because they make up an ethnic unit inside the borders and under the jurisdiction of four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. From the Greek and Roman historians of antiquity to scholars of the present day, the Sami (also called Fenni and Finner) have excited the interest of historians (from the Greeks and Romans of antiquity to scholars of the present day), by virtue of the Old Norse sagas and as the people of Ultima Thule, occupying most northern territories of Northern Europe.

Within the Uralic language family, the Sami belong to the Finno-Ugric group, and are thus linguistically related to many of the peoples who live on the southern and eastern borders of their territories (e.g., the Baltic Finns: Finns, Karelians, and Estonians). Anthropologically, however, they are quite distinct from all but the Ob Ugric peoples (the Khanty and Mansi) and the Samoyed speakers who live at approximately the same latitude on either side of the Uralic Mountains in Russia. This kind of linguistic and anthropological diversity has given rise to a lively but as yet inconclusive scholarly debate as to the location of their original homeland. Present theories based on interdisciplinary research in archaeology, philology, anthropology, ethnography, and comparative religion suggest that the ancestors of contemporary Sami people probably came from diverse backgrounds and they spoke several different languages. Some of these ancestral languages must have died out without ever having been written down, so that now their cultures can only be hypothesized from archaeological evidence and their oral traditions, as well as through genetic analysis of blood types and other molecular research.

Today there remain about nine distinct Sami languages. These may be classified into two main groups. The Eastern group includes Inari, Skolt, Akkala, Kildin, and Ter; the Western group includes Mountain or Norwegian Sami, and includes the languages of Lule, Pite, and southern Sami dialects. The Sami languages share the same basic structure but are otherwise quite distinct; so much so that Sami speakersmany of whom are not only bilingual but rather tri- or even quin-lingualmust often resort to Finnish, Swedish, or Russian to understand each other. The linguistic situation is further complicated by the fact that a variety of competing orthographies have been employed to render the languages in written form.

Since the medieval era, from the twelfth century onwards, the Sami-occupied territories have been the most northerly point at which the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity meet. Beginning at that time and continuing until the seventeenth century, missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church made converts among the Skolt, Akkala, Kildin, and Ter Sami of Kola peninsula and neighboring areas in North Russia. The Sami peoples in the West, on the other hand, had their earliest contacts with the Roman Catholic Church, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries most of these were baptized into the Evangelical Lutheran Churches supported by the states in which they lived: Denmark (including Norway), and Sweden (including Finland). The earliest written document, the Historia Norwegiae from the twelfth century, describes an early encounter between Kristiani (Christians) and the "heathen" Sami noaiddi.

Most written texts that deal with non-Christian Sami religion date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These texts concentrate primarily on the beliefs of the nomadic reindeer breeders of Finland and Scandinavia (other Sami groups are less well represented). Many of the texts were written by clergy and missionaries, and often take the form of "confessions of heathenism" that were held in front of ecclesiastical courts. From the Sami of the east we have only ethnographic and linguistic notes dating to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By this time, the native religion had already been relegated to "the old custom" or "memories," and belief in the old gods had fallen away. However, there are good reasons to suppose that there existed, and still exists, a set of shared structures of belief, common to the whole Sami area, in which shamanism and ritual sacrifice are the dominant characteristics.

Relations between Humans and Animals

As is common among many of the peoples of the arctic and sub-arctic regions, the earliest Sami economies were based on hunting and fishing. Consequently, their most important rituals revolved around the hunting, killing, and burial of animals. They developed an elaborate conceptual, mythical, and ritual world in which animal spirits and divinities, that is supernatural beings whose zoomorphic forms and features have been taken from the animal kingdom, figure prominently.

The Sami in Finland called these spirits haldi (from the Finnish haltija, derived from an old Germanic word meaning "to own, to control, to protect"). They believed that all animals, as well as certain important geographical locales such as lakes, had their own protective haldi, and that people were obliged to show their respect for these spirits through such tokens as sacrificial offerings.

Of all the animals of the sub-polar region, the bear was regarded as the most sacred animal, and the rites connected with the bear hunt clearly reflect the reverence people felt for these special animals and for all other living creatures. Pehr Fjellström (writing in 1755) and Lars Levi Laestadius (a clergyman writing in the mid-1800s) provide detailed descriptions of the ceremonies performed at the start of a bear hunt. When someone found a hibernating bear, he led the rest of his group in a procession to the den. A ritually important person known as "the drummer" followed immediately behind him, after whom came the hunters, arrayed in a predetermined order. Once the animal had been killed, the hunters sang songs of thanks both to the bear and to the Leibolmai (alder-tree man), who is described as the god of the hunt or the lord of the animals. This divinity may be described by the German concept "Herr der Tiere," since his most important role was as the lord of the species of the bears and the largest representative of the zoomorphic world, with control and guardianship over all prey animals.

In their songs the hunters assured the bear that they had not intended to cause him any suffering. Indeed, they sometimes tried to shift the blame from themselves to others. In some of their songs they sang that "men from Sweden, Germany, England, and all foreign lands" had caused the bear's death, and when they returned home from the hunt their waiting women welcomed them as "men from all foreign lands." The meat was prepared by the men in a special place and brought into the kota ("tent" or "hut") through a special door. This was the boassio-raikie, the holy back door situated opposite the ordinary door. Arrayed in festive dress, the women sat waiting inside and spit chewed alder bark at the men as the meat was carried in. This custom of spitting should probably be regarded as a purification rite. Once the meat was eaten, all the bones were collected and buried in the order in which they are found in the body. The bear was thus given a proper funeral so that it could migrate to its celestial domain as the Great Bear (Ursa major ). In accordance with Arctic astral mythology, the individual bear was regarded as the representative of its entire species, with the primordial mother of the clan as his spouse; by showing it due respect, the hunters hoped to secure the good will of all bears. This good will would work to their advantage during the next hunt.

The skeletons of other animals were occasionally treated with the same reverence. At certain times of the year, for example, all the bones of a reindeer were placed before a holy image at the place of sacrifice after the assembled men had eaten the meat (women were permitted to participate in the holy meal only on special occasions). The idol was smeared with the blood and grease of the sacrificial animal. It was believed that the god to whom the reindeer was offered would then resurrect the animal in his kingdom and derive benefit from it there.

Idols and Holy Sites

The word seite, or siei'di (also spelled sieidi ), identifies a central phenomenon in Sami religion. In scholarly usage it has become a standard term for designating a phenomenon defining a particular type of sacred landscape found throughout the Sami area. A seite was a naturally formed stone found on a place that was regarded as passe ("sacred," "holy") and to which sacrifices were made by a clan, a reindeer herding community called siida, or a family. An unusual cliff could have the same function, and a whole mountain, called Ailigas, of which there are several throughout the Laplands (from Scandinavian helig, meaning holy), may have been regarded as a seite. Although we do not know their exact symbolism, we do know that seite -places were situated at certain points along Sami migration routes between different territories and that, as they passed such markers, people laid sacrificial offerings to bring them luck with their reindeer. There were also seite -stones or wooden idols with anthropomorphic forms at the good fishing spots on the shores of many lakes, and presumably sacrifices were made there to ensure good fishing.

Soul Conceptions and Lapp Noaiddi; Sami Expressions on Shamanism

The Sami notion that animals have guardian beings that must be respected by humans is based on the idea that every living being has at least two souls: a corporeal soul and a "free" soul. The free soul can manifest itself outside the body, and is regarded as a guardian spirit and a manifestation of a dual personality. Animals are regarded as the equal of humans and are treated as such. In dreams or in trancelike states such as ecstasy, the human free soul can leave the body and assume a concrete form.

Occasionally, a malicious being captures a soul, posing a mortal threat to the bearer. It was believed, for example, that serious illness occurred when someone, perhaps a dead relative, wanted to summon the ailing person to the realm of the dead, and had therefore captured the soul of the afflicted. In such cases the noaiddi (shaman) intervened. Shamans underwent a long and painful period of apprenticeship, and were believed to possess extraordinary psychic powers. As a result, the noaiddi could enter a state of ecstasy and, under this trance, send his soul to the home of the dead (Jabme-aimo ), to negotiate with the dead or the goddess of the dead (called Jabme-akka in certain places) about the return of the soul. Sometimes the soul could be recovered through the promise of a sacrifice, in which case the sick person got well. One finds similar beliefs that the dead influence the well-being of the living among other peoples of the sub-polar region, with the shaman cast in a similar redemptive role.

The main role of the noaiddi is that of a mediator. However, he could not undertake his journeys to Jabme-aimo unassisted. During his apprenticeship he acquired relationships with supernatural beings who could aid him when necessary. Paramount among these helpers were the sacred animals: birds, fish (or snakes), and bull reindeer. The noaiddi recruited his assistants from Sájva-ájmuo, the dwelling place of the holy spirits. (Sájva-ájmuo corresponds to Bâsse-Passevare, the sacred mountains in the northern Sami territory.) Other spirits could also help the noaddi in the performance of his office. Legends tell of deceased noaiddi who provide a new noaiddi advice or provide other assistance.

The noaiddi' s ability to go into an ecstatic trance made him a general intermediary between human beings, who lived in the middle world, and the supernatural beings of the other (upper and nether) worlds. This belief in the triadic division of the universe has been shared with many peoples of northern Siberia who practiced shamanism. In addition to regulating relations between the middle world and the divinities and spirits of the other worlds, the noaddi also regulated the relationship between people and the powers of nature.


The Sami were not only aware of their dependence upon the rulers of places and animals; they also worshipped heavenly and atmospheric divinities. These superterrestrial beings had no part in immediate, everyday concerns, but rather they were powers to be reckoned with and were given sacrifices on special occasions. Among the eastern Sami, there was the popular divinity, Tiermes, who manifested himself in thunder and has been linked to the Ob-Ugric god of the sky, Num-Turem, and to the Samoyed god of the sky, Num. Among the western Sami, Radien (or Rariet : the ruler) was chief of the gods. In some places he was also called vearalden Olmai (man of the world, or cosmos) and Mailman Radien (the ruler of the world). The cult dedicated to him was primarily concerned with furthering reindeer breeding, but he was also the god who sustained the world. This was symbolized by a pillar, known among some of the Sami as the world's stytto, which was erected beside the ruler's idol at the sacrificial site. It was believed that the North Star was attached to the uppermost point of the pillar.

The mighty thunder god Horagalles, also known as Attjie (father), and Bajjan (he who is above), could demolish the mountains with his hammer and scatter and injure the reindeer. Sacrifices were offered to him in appeasement. The sun, Beivie, was vital to plant life, and sacrifices were made to him to ensure good grazing for the reindeer and rich vegetation in general. One observer writes that offerings to Beivie were burned to symbolize the heat of the sun. Beivie was also believed to help in curing mental illness. The moon, Aske or Manno, also received sacrifices, particularly during midwinter. Bjiegg-Olmai (wind man), also known as Ilmaris, controlled the winds and weather and was worshipped throughout the Sami region. The Sami celestial sphere, which was painted on drums, was centered around the Sun and the Moon, the Polar Star, the Great Bear and its Hunter (Orion) as well as the horned elk or reindeer (Perseus constellation) on their route to the Milky Way.

In traditional Sami beliefs and practice, women were under the special protection of the goddess Madder-Akka ("old woman of the tribe") and her three daughters, Sarakka, Ugsakka, and Juksakka. These goddesses were considered to be intimately connected with the household and domestic life.

See Also

Finno-Ugric Religions.


Source materials on Lapland and the Sami traditions begin to accumulate as early as the mid-seventeenth century, when Christian priests and missionaries reported to their superiors on all aspects of Sami culture, including religion and folklore. Some of these materials, focusing exclusively on Swedish Lapland, were published by Johannes Scheffer in his Lapponia (Frankfurt, 1673). Scheffer, a scholar from Elsass, was appointed Professor of Rhetorics in Uppsala by the kingdom of Sweden to counter prevailing rumors that the Sami used witchcraft on behalf of Sweden during its wars throughout Europe. The work was immediately translated into other European languages, including English (The History of Lapland, Oxford, 1694). Another translation appeared in 1736.

Eighteenth-century missionary reports contain greater details on the religious beliefs of the Scandinavian Saami, but few of them are available in a major language. Exceptions are Pehr Högström's Beschreibung des der crone Schwweden gehörenden Lapplanders (Copenhagen and Leipzig, 1748) and translations of Knud Leem's Beskrivelse over Finmarkens Lapper, deres tungemaal, Leve-maade og firrige Afgudsdyrkelse (A Description of the Finnmark Lapps, Their Language, Customs, and Former Idolatry ; Copenhagen, 1767).

Lars Levi Laestadius published a valuable manuscript Fragmenter i lappska Mythologien that provides an ethnographical survey on Sami mythology. Written in five parts from 1840 to 1845, it was published by Juha Pentikäinen in Swedish in 1997, Finnish in 2000, and in English in 2002.

More recent and valuable sources dealing with the Sami of Finland and Russia include Arvid Genetz's Wörterbuch der Kola-lappischen Dialekte nebst Sprachproben (Helsinki, 1891), a survey of traditional religion among the Russian Sami. Also important is Toivo Immanuel Itkonen's Heidnische Religion und späterer Aberglaube bei den finnischen Lappen (Helsinki, 1946), a collection of accounts of earlier beliefs among the Sami of Finland. Nickolai Kharuzin's Russkie Lopari (Moscow, 1890) contains extensive materials on myths, but the cult he describes derives largely from the materials of Scheffer and Högströmthat is, from Scandinavia.

The Sami religion has mainly attracted Scandinavian scholars, and the first surveys were published in one or another of the Nordic languages. Such scholars as Uno Holmberg (Harva after 1927) in Lappalaisten uskonto (Porvoo, Finland, 1915), and Rafael Karsten, in The Religion of the Samek (Leiden, Netherlands, 1955), were strongly influenced by the evolutionism popular at the time, which they supplemented with theories on cultural borrowings. Holmberg's later survey of Finno-Ugric and Siberian mythology in The Mythology of All Races, vol. 4 (Boston, 1927), is methodologically much more modern. The most recent survey is Ǻke Hultkrantz's "Die Religion der Lappen," in Die Religionen Nordeurasiens und der amerikanischen Arktis, edited by Ivar Paulson et al. (Stuttgart, Germany, 1962). Among more recent scholars on Sami religion and mythology may be mentioned Louise Bäckman, Hans Mebius, Juha Pentikäinen and Håkan Rydving. Sami Folkloristics (2000) is an example of cooperation between Sami and non-Sami scholars and a model of a new approach to Sami studies that seeks to understand and interpret the oral and written sources on Sami folklore and folk belief.

There are some eighty preserved shaman drums in the museums around Europe, the oldest dating from the mid-seventeenth century. These have been described in detail by Ernst Mauritz Manker in Die lappische Zaubertrommel, vols. 1-2 (Stockholm, 19381950).

Various aspects of Sami religion, such as the bear ceremony, sacrifices, the shaman, rites of the dead, conceptions of the soul, the sun cult, the notion of the lord of animals, and the origin of the Saami, have also received extensive scholarly treatment.

Louise BÄckman (1987)

Juha PentikÄinen (2005)