Religious Traditions in the Scandinavian Arctic
The indigenous people of Scandinavia, the Sami, have had a long history of syncretism with the Scandinavian Norse people. While the culture and religion differ between the two groups, they have each loaned some traditions regarding magic, ritual, and mythological elements. Hakan Rydving said in his Scandinavian Religions article that “everything in Sami religion has been taken over from the Scandinavians (Norse) and explained…” (Rydving, 2014, 359). This suggests that we do not know the origins of some myths and religious loans between the Sami and the Norse, we just know that they happened. These following paragraphs will describe religious traditions that have cross-sectioned both the indigenous populations and those who colonized the Arctic region of Europe.
Magic and Myth:
There are Norse accounts that reference the Sami to be akin to both giants and dwarves. In Norse tradition, magical objects favored by the gods came from the world of the giants and dwarves. It is possible that calling the Sami by these other-worldly creatures instituted categorizing the indigenous people as the “other” and used it to explain the presence of the Sami. Although it would seem that putting the Sami in the “other” category, this does not seem to have been intended as insulting or dehumanizing in a way we might expect, but rather to invoke mythic patterns (Mundal, 348). The mythic reputation the Sami had to the Norse may also indicate the lack of co-habitation and the mystery the hunter-gatherers gave.
There is a story where a Norse hero is given magic arrows from a Sami King. According to Old Norse myths the gods’ most precious possessions had their origin in the world of giants or dwarfs. When a precious thing with magic power belonging to a hero in an Old Norse text is said to be a gift from a Sami, this is typically in connection to the idea that the Sami had reputations as great sorcerers.
So,in some cases where a precious thing has its origin in the Sami world the indigenous people are often considered giants, or at least related to them, in the Old Norse text. This is for instance the case with Ketill hœngr’s magic arrows which he got from the Sami King Gusir, the brother of the giant Brúni (Mundal, 349). These intermingling of Sami and giants in myth reiterate the categorization that the Sami were the “other” to the Scandinavians.
These stories of intermarriage and magical elements give evidence that the Norse and the Sami were not close people, but potentially held each other in high enough regard to make marriage alliances for possible survival purposes.
Ritual and Shamanism:
While magic, witchcraft, and shamanism are related, they are separate and especially within the Sami and the Norse religions. After Christianity the Norse kept their beliefs by writing them off as folktales and myth, but the Sami remained loyal, albeit shakily, to their ancient traditions of shamanism until the 18th century.
Around the 14th century when the Black Death took Europe, the Sami were still more hunter-gatherers than they were reindeer herders. In this time the practice of shamanism was widely accepted. Humans and nature were equal in their eyes, rather than the Judeo-Christian view that humans have dominion over the animals. They have a belief system that is similar to that
of animism and practice shamanism. The shamans are called “noaidi” Like many shamanic religions, the noaidi were those that were healers and travelled to other-worldly realms when needed (Hund, 2014, 632-33).
In the situation of the Black Death, noaidi were unable to heal the sick and believed that the plague came from an additional realm of the dead that was inaccessible to the shaman. They called this place Rota-ajmuo, the domain of the demon of pestilence Rota, who was paralleled to the Norse god Odin (Hoppal,1989, 115-24). In order to attempt to control this disease, the Sami ceremonially buried a horse to complete a transference rite. This was an idea that was loaned through the Scandinavians that I will cover further when discussing shared beliefs between Saami and Norse culture.
The idea of Rota comes from the Norse god Odin who is believed to be the parallel of the demon of pestilence (Rydving, 362). This syncretism between the Sami shamanic view with the pagan Norse beliefs suggest that the Sami are less affected by the Christianized Scandinavia during the time of the Black Death and relied on other gods to make sense of a bad situation, It may also suggest that the faith in shamanism was wavering and the Sami were more prone to practice individual and Norse-influenced magic to heal each other.
Politics and Religion:
After Christianization, most of the cultural and religious aspects between Norse and Sami were reflected in politics. While the nomads and the Vikings had co-existed for a long time, they remained ambiguous in how to make sense of each other.
To reference back to the section where magical items were mentioned to be received by the Norse hero from the Sami King, I would like to elaborate a small bit more about how those types of legends effected the politics in terms of religion. Before Christianization it seems as
though the Sami were seen to be people who came from the land of the giants and were considered magical.
After Christianization of the Scandinavians, there were laws set in place that segregated the now Christian people from having any contact with the pagan Sami (Mundal, 347). These laws were called Eidsivathings law and the Borgarthings law issued between 1100-1250 to aid the Christian laws affecting Scandinavia that established different provincial punishments regarding marriage, sexuality, and seeking help from pagan religions. The laws forbid Christians to have contact with “finnar”, to go to them to ask for prophecies or for medical help (Mundal, 347).
The 1600s marked an era of witch-hunting all throughout Europe and had devastating effects in the small population of the northern folk. Many Sami noaidi were accused, stood trial, and convicted for witchcraft and the use of magic (Hagen, 2002, 36). The video below gives a short view into the conversion of the Sami to Christianity.
Below is a video of a photographer who lived with the Sami people and has presented her work in a way much like an anthropologist might:
Interesting articles to check out:
POINT, SAMI SHAMANISM FROM A. DIACHRONIC. “First published in Shamanism Past and Present, edited by M. Hoppál and O. vonSadovsky 1989, 115–24. Budapest/Los Angeles: Istor—Electronic edition for www. siberian-studies. org.”
Hund, Andrew. “Sami.” In Antarctica and the Arctic Circle: A Geographic Encyclopedia of the Earth’s Polar Regions [2 Volumes], 632-633. Vol. 1&2. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
Rydving, Håkan. “Scandinavian-Saami religious connections in the history of research.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 13 (2014): 358-373
Mundal, Else. “Coexistence of Saami and Norse Culture—Reflected in and Interpreted By Old Norse Myths.” In Old Norse Myths, Literature & Society: Papers of the 11th International Saga Conference, pp. 346-55. 2000.