To the startpage
På svenskaLinksSiteMapContact
Advanced search »
Home About Sápmi History Trades Language Culture Religion Politics


Pre-Christian time
The mission
Laestadianism

© Samiskt Informationscentrum
Sametinget
Box 582
SE-831 27 ÖSTERSUND
tel: +46 63 15 08 74
info@samer.se
Editor-in-chief:
Nils Gustav Labba


Questions & answers Skicka till en vänSkriv ut
Tillbaka
What religion do the Sami practise?

What is Laestadianism?

What religion did the Sami practise before Christianity?

Who is a noaidi/nåejtie?

What equipment did a shaman have?

What duties did a shaman have?

Where there any female shamans?

What is a sieidi?

Animal ceremonies - what are they?

Is there a Sami world of gods?

Where were the goddesses?

What religion do the Sami practise?
Like the rest of the population, the Sami are Christians. The Sami in Scandinavia mainly belong to the Lutheran Church, while the Sami in Russia and part of Finland belong to the Greek Orthodox Church. A small number of Sami have converted to Catholicism, but to the best of our knowledge, none have converted to Judaism or Islam. For today's Sami, religion is just as multi-faceted as it is for the rest of the population in the various countries, which means that the various Christian denominations also recruit members from among the Sami. The religious intensification within the Lutheran Church that is offered by Laestadianism has left its mark on the faith of a large group of Sami.
What is Laestadianism?
Lars Levi Laestadius (1800 - 1861), botanist and priest, was a pastor, first in Karesuando and later in Pajala. He reinvigorated what he considered to be stagnated services, and adapted the Lutheran religious preaching to the pietistic belief with its ecstatic elements, which he felt were closer to the people. His preaching left a clear mark on religious worship, primarily in the Northern Sami and Finnish cultural environment, and this form of service has spread across the whole of the North Calotte area. It also has followers in other parts of the world, including in North America. This teaching bears his name - Laestadianism.
Upp
What religion did the Sami practise before Christianity?
The early history of the Sami is shrouded in mystery, and there is no collective picture of how they perceived the world. The written sources describing the pre-Christian beliefs of the Sami are relatively recent, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, and were written by the Church's people. It was these people's charge and duty to refute and abolish anything that was considered to be `heathenism', which was defined as general `superstition' and `witchcraft'. The notion of Sami as practising `magicians' was a commonly held belief among non-Sami people long before the introduction of Christianity, and this image has survived into modern times.
Judging from archaeological finds and through linguistic studies, it can be seen that the Sami met other Nordic peoples over time, with whom they exchanged knowledge and skills, both on a material and a spiritual level. The Catholic doctrine that existed as long ago as the 12th century, and which was conveyed by monks, was also studied by some Sami religious specialists. Traces of this can be seen in the view of creation and death, i.e. important existential questions. This can be seen above all from 18th century mission accounts.
The Sami's religious history has been written by non-Sami people and from a particular perspective. In most cases, these historical writers have based the history on second-hand information and not on their own observations, which is why it is necessary to employ a certain amount of caution when interpreting the testimony. The accounts have also been written on the basis of the writers' own field of activity, in their work as priests or missionaries. As a result, they cannot be said to give a comprehensive picture of the actual situation as it was viewed by the Sami. However, there are certain phenomena that recur in all historical writings and that relate to the whole of Sápmi, irrespective of area, financial base or language, which can therefore be viewed as universal. The traditions of noaidi/nåejtie (shamans), sieidi (cult images) and animal ceremonies all belong here.
We also meet a pantheon of goddess and god names, each with functions that are important to people, but these names have been forgotten over the centuries. However, the phenomena mentioned above have lived on in Sami folklore, in the yoik and in people's memories. The accounts of noaidi/nåejtie or shamans give us a picture of the people's relationship with the spiritual dimension in their environment and their place in the cosmos. The accounts of sieidi reflect people's relationship with nature, and the ceremonies associated with the killing of animals show the people's close relationship with the animal world. The animal ceremonies have lived on into recent times in the rites that were carried out when a bear was killed. Bear hunts were reportedly carried out according to the traditional method right up to the end of the 19th century.
Who is a noaidi/nåejtie?
A noaidi (Northern Sami) or nåejtie (Southern Sami) is a shaman, a person who perceives himself to have been called by supernatural forces to become his fellow man's religious guarantor, in this case to work as a mediator between people and the spirit world. In his early teens, a young man (sources describe the shaman as male) was `called' to enter a period of spiritual learning, during which he shut himself off from his social environment. During this period, the future shaman was initiated in the secrets of the supernatural and established personal contact with the helpful spirits who would assist him in his work. The prototypes for these spirits were to be found in the animal kingdom: a bird, a fish/snake and a reindeer bull. The reindeer bull was his alter ego and appeared to its master on three occasions: firstly at the time of his calling, secondly when he was at the height of his abilities, and thirdly when the shaman was about to die. In a state of ecstasy, which was a precondition for his role as a mediator, the shaman crossed over into the other reality, the world of the dead or the gods, in order to meet the power that could solve his problem. In Sami tradition, he was therefore occasionally given the epithet ``the wanderer in two worlds''. The shaman's retinue of spirits were known as the noaide-gázzi in Northern Sami, and were linked with the word saajvoe in Southern Sami, in other words something that belongs to the supernatural, or sacred, if you prefer. The word noaidi/nåejtie was supposed to allude to esoteric (secret) knowledge.
Upp
What equipment did a shaman have?
The shaman's equipment primarily included a ceremonial drum known as goavddis in Northern Sami and gievrie in Southern Sami (see pictures), but he did not have a ceremonial dress. He probably employed yoiking in the important ceremonies. The drum has been referred to as a magic drum or fortune-telling drum by the Sami's neighbours, and the shaman was consequently considered to be a `magician'. This shows that the shaman was considered to belong to the forces of chaos, and was therefore a threat to the social order. In other words, he was dangerous. The drum was originally an instrument for the shaman when he was going to undertake an ecstatic journey to the supernatural world, but eventually became an instrument of prophecy for ordinary people. This can be seen from folklore accounts, as well as in court records from the 17th and 18th centuries. The Church wanted to eliminate what it considered to be `heathenism' and `superstition', and men who owned drums were therefore dragged before the courts and sentenced to various punishments: fines, imprisonment, flogging and even death if they did not stop using drum ceremonies in accordance with their tradition. The Sami tried to defend themselves by stating that the drum was used as a `compass', and even as a `calendar', but the judges were not to be moved. A larger number of drums were burned during the 17th and 18th centuries, although some 70 are still preserved.
The ceremonial drum, linked to the shaman and later to the fortune-teller, was used right across the region in which the Sami lived. There are several different types of drum, however, made in different ways and with regional variations as regards the paintings on the membrane. The fortune-telling drum has a wealth of pictures, which are a source of inspiration for Sami artists, but which are difficult to interpret. Judging from certain sources, it appears that the shaman's exaltation instrument, i.e. a drum for achieving a state of ecstasy, only had a few figures painted on it, representing his aids in reaching other worlds.
What duties did a shaman have?
In addition to being a mediator between people and the gods, the shaman was also the preserver and renewer of the religious tradition, a diagnostician, a doctor and healer, a herbalist, a prophet and at times a moral guardian. In addition to the shaman, who united all of this in his person, there were also others who acted as healers or prophets. These could own a drum, but did not have helpful spirits and did not undertake ecstatic journeys. It is uncertain whether these people can be referred to as shamans. There are numerous accounts of such remarkable people from modern times, which can indicate that the role of the shaman as a mediator and religious guarantor was no longer relevant - the Christian priest had taken over this role. However, some people retained their supernatural knowledge and passed it on in secret. These were known as `fortune-tellers', or sometimes `magic lapps'.
Upp
Where there any female shamans?
While a man lost his power as his teeth fell out, a woman who had passed her fertile period could acquire supernatural knowledge, although without being ascribed all the skills of a shaman. According to documents from the 17th century onwards, such a woman was called a guaps, kweppckas, gåbeskied or similar, and worked as a healer or prophet. She could often act as a midwife.
What is a sieidi?
Sieidi is a Northern Sami word meaning `cult images', and referred to objects such as rocks, cliffs or entire mountains situated at strategic locations for the hunter, fisherman or reindeer herder. People made offerings from their hunting or fishing haul at sieidi, either collectively or individually, particularly at the beginning of the hunting and fishing season. When Sami passed a sieidi with their reindeer herd, they would make an offering in the form of a coin or some other object of value. In Southern Sami, such objects were called viero- or sjiele-gierkie, which translates as a tribute or gift stone, meaning an offering. Our information indicates that the cult of sieidi places was a common Sami phenomenon. A sieidi should be viewed as a symbol of the divine spirit believed to watch over an area's flora and fauna, and as such marked a primitive shrine. Wooden figures that had been made and left at offering places, dedicated to other deities, are also referred to as sieidi in the literature. In Southern Sami, such a wooden image was called a viero-moere, or wooden offering. The term sieidi has become a general term for `Sami gods'.
The sieidi tradition appears to have lived on longest in the northernmost Sami region. While there are very few stories of holy places in the southern Lapp counties, there is a wealth of them in areas such as Finnmark in Norway and in northern Finland. The practice of giving a gift when passing a sieidi is also said to be still alive; coins and reindeer antlers were found at a sieidi in the Finnmark wilds as recently as 1994. It is open to debate whether this bears witness to an offering or simply tradition.
Some lakes, waterfalls, cold wells and calm waterways could also be viewed as sacred, where offerings would be made.
Upp
Animal ceremonies - what are they?
The hunting quarry that was given to the sieidi can be viewed as an animal sacrifice. This act, which used to apply to all animals, has changed over the course of history and now only covers one animal, the bear, which is seen as a representative for all the different species. The bear has become a type of Lord of the Animals, and the killing of the bear developed into meticulous ceremonies. The bear was viewed as bissie vaejsjie, the sacred quarry/animal, and hunting for the bear in winter was carried out according to a ritual pattern, where every member of the hunting team knew his job. Once the bear had been killed, the meat was prepared for a meal, which could last for a couple of days and which finished with the burying of the bear's bones. These were interred in the order they had been in the bear's body. From start to finish, the hunt and the preparation of the meal were a matter for the men. The women participated actively in the actual festivities, after they had welcomed the bear as their `distinguished guest'. The treatment of the bear demonstrates both the reverence they felt for the animal as well as the fear they had for the danger that the bear could represent. A similar relationship with the bear can be found among other peoples in northern Eurasia, for example among Finns, Karelians, Shanti and Mansi, as well as among the Ainu on Hokkaido and the Nivkh by the Amur River, etc.
Liejb-ålma, the Hunting God, was above all the bear's protector, but is also thought to have had the rank of Lord of the Animals, even though there are no records of offerings to this god.
Is there a Sami world of gods?
The shaman is still a fascinating figure in popular accounts, and there is a great deal of information about him. The sieidi are still alive in people's consciousness, but the names of the gods have been forgotten. The bear can also still be viewed as a remarkable animal that, if not sacred, does command respect. The names of a great many gods and goddesses are mentioned in writings from the 17th and 18th centuries, but Sami religion can be said to have been woven into everyday social conduct, where observation of certain codes of behaviour was of the greatest importance. They share this view with many other hunting peoples: the `supernatural' is part of the `natural'.
However, there is information about gods to whom offerings were made on certain occasions, primarily animals. One source from Lule Lappmark reports that the most distinguished of the gods was Thor, the God of Thunder, who had power over health and life among people and animals. The second important deity was Stoorjunckaren, known as God's Representative, who is described as a Lord of Places/Animals with power over hunting and fishing, and who is symbolised with a sieidi out in the countryside. The third important god was the Sun, which was viewed as the Mother of all life. These three are also found in 18th century sources in other Sami areas, although under different names.
The most detailed descriptions of a Sami pantheon can be found in missionary accounts from 18th century Norwegian writers, from which we can see that the cosmos was not chaos, but divided into different `worlds'. According to the sources, there were three or more worlds: the `upper', `middle' and `under' worlds, which could be divided up into further layers. In the upper world there was the Almighty, Dierpmes, who was manifested in thunder but who was also viewed as the Man of the World, called Vearalden Ålma or Raedie, the Advisor. He is also known as Mailbmen Raedie in the Northern Sami language area, which translates as Advisor of the World. This deity was the most senior god and linked to the order in the cosmos, to fertility and to creation. In some areas Raedienkjedde was by his side (can be read as giedtie, meaning reindeer corral, or giete, meaning hand in Southern Sami), the son of the senior God, but the meaning of his name is uncertain. In the myth of the creation of man, however, he is the god who implement's the Advisor's decisions.
Natural phenomena were also divine, with their own names:
The God of Thunder, as well as being called Thor or Dierpmes, was also known as Ajja, the old, Bajjan, the Almighty, Juhtte, he who moves, Hora-gaelles, Thor-gubben, etc., and the Sun was called Baeivi/Bjiejjie. The God of Wind was called Bjiegk-ålma. Offerings were made to the moon, called Mano or Aske, for good weather.
The sieidi cult has existed throughout history, and it is possible that offerings were made at such shrines to both Liejb-ålma, the God of Hunting, and Tjaetsieålma, the Water Man, the protector of fish.
Upp
Where were the goddesses?
There is no doubt that the cult of the male gods was centred outside the home and was largely a matter for the men. The goddesses had a more intimate relationship with the people, and their cult was practised in connection with the home. From a mythical perspective, they were found in the middle world and lived at certain places in the home.
Mattaráhkká, the Ancestress, mythical equivalent of the Mother Goddess, lives in the home by the bottom of the wall, and she has three daughters.
Sáráhkká, who lives in the fireplace. She is the protector of the family and the home, and is said to have been the best loved of them all. She is given offerings of food and drink in the fireplace everyday by both men and women. From a mythical perspective, she corresponds to the archaic Fire Mother, who can be found right across the northern Siberian region and who is viewed as the Protector of Life. In Catholic times, Sáráhkká's name was replaced by Maria, the Mother of God, which indicates that this Goddess of the Fireplace had an important function with responsibility for the protection of the home. It is also the only divine name that his preserved in the popular memory. The meaning of her name is disputed, but it is most probable that the prefix `sár' comes from to split, part or separate. When a child is born, she separates the child from the mother.
Juoksáhkká, the Arch Mother, also lives in the home, but the precise location is not specified. These three goddesses participate actively in a person's creation and help the woman in childbirth.
Oksáhkká, the Door Mother, lives by the door. Her job is to guard the small child and protect it from evil spirits. She is Máttáráhkká's third daughter.
The realm of the dead, Jábmi-aibmo, was ruled by Jábmi-áhkká, the Death Mother, who can be viewed as an aspect of the Mother Goddess. This goddess, who watched over the budding greenery in the mountain meadows, bears the name Rana-nieida, the Green Virgin. Her name is uncertain, however, but she received offerings in the autumn for the future verdancy of the world.