Sunday, April 15, 2018

Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland: The Arctic-Saami Complex - Part 1


Beginning in Palaeolithic times, a group of closely related Arctic cultures with their own shamanic institutions were arrayed across Northern Fennoscandia, including what are present-day Norway, Sweden, Finland, Karelia and the Kola Peninsula of Russia (see map below).  Zachrisson says that today there is “general agreement” that continuity exists from these shamanic northern hunter-gatherer-fisher cultures to later traditional Saami cultures.  (1)  For this reason I will refer to the Arctic-Saami shamanic complex.  (I previously termed it the Post-Ahrensburg complex, referencing the Palaeolithic culture from which it originated.)

The shamanic complex to the south is what Siikala calls the “shamanic complex of the sub-Arctic coniferous zone”, based primarily upon the Uralic culture. The complex extended from its creative centre in the Volga-Oka region of present-day Russia (see map above) to shamanic institutions on the east, as far as the Urals and beyond, and on the west to the shamanic institutions of Finland and Karelia. Siikala says that “many features of Finnish shamanism” point to this complex. I will refer to it here as the Uralic-Finnish shamanic complex.  (2)  (I previously called it the post-Swiderian complex, based on the Palaeolithic culture from which it originated.)

Siikala writes that although both the Arctic-Saami and the Uralic-Finnish shamanistic complexes were peopled by hunter-gatherer-fishers who were animist in orientation, they “differ markedly”. (2)

Anna-Leena Siikala, the late pre-eminent scholar of
Finnish shamanism
Finnish archaeologist Christian Carpelan is even more emphatic, calling the differences between the two complexes “fundamental in nature”.  (3) 

Christian Carpelan, Finnish Archaeologist
Carpelan says that the Arctic tradition, centred in Northern Fennoscandia, “had significantly differentiated from the underlying background of the Uralic heritage.” He suggests that “One possible explanation is that when spreading into the north the Saami incorporated some unknown non-Uralic people and culture.” On the other hand, the “Finnish heritage largely preserved the core conceptions of the Uralic proto-culture.” (3)

There is overlap of the mythologies of the two shamanic complexes, enough that Napolskikh reconstructed a mythological and cosmological ‘world picture’ that incorporated features from both.  (7) However, I have argued that the complexes fundamentally differed from one another in terms of their ontologies—Layton’s “indigenous theories of how the world works”—that lie below the level of mythology. (4)  In Part 4 of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland I explained this as a case of different ‘ontological frames’, and will now review the argument I presented there.

Ontological Frames

To review, I argued that the hunter-gatherer-fisher bands of each complex were not alone in the wilderness; they lived among a host of other-than-human beings.  Central among these beings were the spirit persons who were the guardians of the land and of the game of a region.  Developing a relationship with them through the rites of animal ceremonialism was essential to secure the continuing supply of game upon which survival depended.  I identified three core elements of animist ontology that are central to meeting this challenge, phrased here as questions about the relationship of ‘this world’ (Finnish, ‘this side’: tämänpuoleinen) to the ‘other world’ (‘that side’: tuonpuoleinen).  They are: 

(1)  What ontological forms do spirit persons take? 
(2)  What is the nature of social relations between human persons and spirit persons?
(3)  What is the nature of the ‘sacred geography’ of the worlds—of this world and the other world—where these social relations take place? 

I used term ‘ontological frame’ to refer to the set of answers that a shamanic complex gives to the questions.  I pointed out that an ontological frame did not make up a formal thought system, but rather existed, in Ingold’s terms, as an “orientation that (was) deeply embedded in everyday practice”.  (5) Specifically, it framed and guided the work of a shaman (Finnish: noita, Saami: noaidi) in contacting spirit persons of the other world as part of the rites of animal ceremonialism, and the work of sacred artists in fashioning objects and performances that helped make this communication and these rites possible.  These objects and performances are, in Wallis’s terms, “’artworks’ (that) perform as animate ‘persons’ with their own social intentionality and agentive contribution to community life”.  (6) 

Neolithic elk head carving, National Museum of Finland
(photo: Leppä)
As I said above, the ontologies of the Arctic-Saami and Uralic-Finnish complexes differed from one another in fundamental ways, and this is captured in the contrast of their ontological frames.  The contrast is epitomized in their respective answers to question #1 above, concerning the ontological forms taken by guardians of the game of local areas.  That is, while the local guardian spirits persons of the Arctic-Saami complex were visible in the landscape as stone sieidis,  those of the Uralic-Finnish complex, haltijat, were normally invisible and without a home in ‘this world’. 

Eriunan seita, a sieidi near Enontekiö, Finland (16)
Following from the differences in the ontological form of local guardian spirit persons of the complexes—one visible and embodied in ‘this world’, and the other invisible and residing in ‘that world’—the two complexes and their associated institutions also differed in the locations for engaging with the guardians and the means of doing so.  All of this had significant implications for the respective lifeways of the two complexes, the most important here being the nature of their sacred arts.

A fanciful modern depiction of a forest 
haltija (at left) with a household haltija

In view of the considerable differences between their ontological frames, I consider the complexes to have displayed two distinct subtypes of animist ontology.  In the case of the Arctic-Saami complex, I call the subtype totemist-animist, and in that of the Uralic-Finnish complex I apply the term ‘classic’ animist.  I have adapted the work of Timothy Ingold in making this distinction.  (5) I will return to my reasoning here in a later post.

In Part 4 of Shamanism and Sacred Arts in Finland, I suggested that by applying ontological frames to the analysis of a work of sacred art, in coordination with archaeological and ethnographic knowledge, we are better able to trace its origin to a particular shamanic complex and to interpret its meaning.  As an example of this method, I used an abbreviated version of the Arctic-Saami ontological frame to analyse a Saami noaidi’s drum that currently resides in the National Museum of Finland. 

At that time I promised to consider the two frames in greater depth, as this is required to realise their full potential as part of an interpretive method for sacred art.  I begin this in the present post with a brief picture of Arctic-Saami shamanism in prehistory, and then move to a consideration of the nature of documentary sources of evidence for it. I will continue my exploration of the Arctic-Saami frame across a total of three posts.  I will then move on to explore that of the Uralic-Finnish shamanic complex. 

Let us begin by considering what is called the “crucial importance” of the landscape for Arctic-Saami spirituality.

Significance of Landscape for the Arctic-Saami Shamanic Complex

Mulk and Bayliss-Smith explain that “the Sami religion is classified as a north Eurasian hunting religion, but it developed its own form during the post-glacial period when the Sami people lived as hunters, gatherers and fishers in relative isolation from other Finno-Ugrian groups.”  An original fundamental feature of what the authors call “Sami religion” was the far-reaching quality of “aliveness”, or animacy, of the physical landscape.  (8)  

In turn, Svestad says the orientation of the early Saami to the physical landscape is of “crucial importance” for understanding their spiritual concepts and practices.  What might have seemed to be random elements of a particular local landscape where band lived, e.g., a lake, a cliff, a stand of trees—what Svestad calls “nature at hand”—had significance for how they constructed their graves, the rituals they conducted, and the beliefs they held.  (9) 

Kalkuvaaran Akku, a Saami sacred place near Inari (16)
This was because, as Skandfer says of the Saami of Finnmark, Norway, they held the view that “nature is filled with spirituality...this implies that specific rocks, mountains or lakes represent spiritual beings that you may come into contact with through suitable offerings.”  (10) 

According to Rydving it was these spiritual beings who were “bound to the landscape and to certain natural formations” who were “important in daily life” for the Saamis, rather than “the beings that missionaries (and scholars) have called divinities”.  (11)


Foremost among the spirit persons who were ‘bound to the landscape’ were the sieidis.  According to Koski, who is a linguist, a ‘sieidi’ is “a kind of deity”, a “personified ‘god or spirit’ residing at a place”.  (12) The most common forms of personification of the sieidi deity were large anomalous stone boulders or rock cliffs, generally unaltered by human hands.  The term sieidi was also sometimes applied to mountains, sacred fells’ (high barren plateaus), oddly-shaped trees and stumps, carved poles, caves, and rocky clefts.  However, the stone sieidis were considered to be the most sacred. (17)  For this reason I will concentrate on them here.

The Näkkälä sieidi (photograph by Anssi Malinen) (16)
Although the oldest written source that mentions sieidi worship is from the 16th century, the sieidi is one of the original aspects of pre-Christian religion of Saamis.  Various authors date it back to the Stone Age.  One indication of its age is the fact that the root of the word sieidi , s’ejt, dates from before the time of the appearance of Finno-Ugric languages, suggesting at least an early Mesolithic origin. (13) 

Karsten explains the nature of the sieidi tradition, saying, “The so-called seidi, whether of stone or wood, was not worshipped in itself, i.e., merely as a material object, but because of the belief that the stone or wooden idol was inhabited by a spiritual being which was the local tutelary spirit not only of this particular material object, but of the whole place surrounding it.” (14) This place included the land and the animals on it.

Carpelan says that while the Saami were powerless before the highest and lowest deities of the tripartite worlds, in the middle were the “seita stones on the fells and lakeshores”, the deities who were the “local patrons of means of livelihood”.  They were “known to operate ultimately on the same conditions as the Saami”, i.e., they were approachable and amenable to negotiation for a continuing supply of game and fish through the rites of animal ceremonialism. (3)

Sieidis: A Pan-Arctic Phenomenon

Sieidis and sieidi-like stones were common across the Arctic-Saami shamanic complex of Northern Fennoscandia.  Karsten says, “Sieidi fetishes…existed all over the Lapp (Saami) territory from the Kola peninsula in the east to the Norwegian Arctic Ocean in the west.”  Among them were the Sight or sight-kades of the Kola Lapps, the junkevarre of Norwegian Lapps, the storjunkars of the Saami of northern Sweden, and the sieidis of the Saami of Finland.  (14)

The tradition of embodied stone deities extends even beyond Fennoscandia, forming a pan-Arctic phenomenon. That is, living to the east of Fennoscandia were Samoyed-speaking peoples with related shamanic institutions.  They included the Nanets, Enets, Selkup, as noted on the map above.  According to Karsten, “the Samoyeds…who are culturally closely related to the Lapps, worship idols similar to the Lapp sieidis, which they call schandai.”  (14)


The saivo—a type of nature spirit—was the other important spiritual being of the Arctic-Saami shamanic complex who was ‘bound to the landscape’.  The ‘homes’ of saivos were inside sacred mountains and fells (high barren plateaus).  These abodes of the nature spirits were also referred to as saivos.  (15)

An example of a saivo is the sacred Saana Fell, near Kilpisjärvi in Lapland, Finland, pictured below.

The Saana Fell, a sacred abode of saivo.  A white reindeer, that was 
prized as a sacrificial animal, grazes in the foreground. (photo: Sarah Alden)

Certain lakes were saivas, serving as the homes of water saivos.  The tradition of saiva lakes was especially strong in Sweden and Finland.  These sacred lakes had no apparent inflows or outflows, and were seen by the Arctic-Saamis as having ‘two bottoms’.  That is, beyond a hole at the bottom of the lake, there was another identical lake, upside down, where the water saivos lived in a world like our own.  (16)

Pakasaivo, a saiva lake, near Muonio, northern Finland

Inside these places in the landscape—sacred mountains, fells and lakes—the saivo nature spirits carried on lives, with houses, families and possessions.  Hultkrantz says, “Several of our old source authors have described the delightful life that the saivo people lead inside the sacred mountains.”  They would occasionally be visited by noaidi, who would speak and share with them.  (17)

According to Hultkrantz, quoting Backman, saivo nature spirits were of two main types: helping spirits and guardian spirits.  Helping spirits were the property of the shaman, the noaidi , and they helped him in a variety of ways, such as accompanying him on soul journeys.  They were the bird, fish or snake, and the reindeer bull.  Hultkrantz says, “Of these three, the wild reindeer (sa´iva sarva) was most important. The deer of the noaidi was a manifestation of his power, his alter ego. In his ecstatic journeys, the noaidi could  assume its shape, or send it out to fight the deer of another shaman.”  (15)   

The guardian spirits could serve the shaman, but also any Saami person. Through owning  the mountain in which they dwelled, one or more guardian saivos could be owned.   A single family could count a number of mountains and their saivos as property, that could be inherited, sold, or passed on at death. (15)

Hultkrantz says the guardian saivo spirits contracted with their owner to bestow reindeer luck, fishing and hunting luck, save his life when in danger, to scout for him and to exact revenge when he was injured by another person. “In compensation they demanded their tribute, that is, sacrifices.” (15) In this way the saivos were like sieidis.

A particular class of guardian spirits mainly helped the shaman, called passevare olmai, “Holy Mountain Men”.  Anthropomorphic in form, they helped prepare a person to enter the calling of shaman and gave advice and counsel to the shaman as needed after that. (15)

Sieidis in the Context of Subsistence

Speaking of the nature of hunting in early northern forager cultures, Lauri Honko says “The hunter … is conscious of being an interloper on another’s territory.” That is, “It is not enough for the hunter to know the location of the best fishing or hunting places or the phasing of the best seasons for catching a particular quarry, he must also know about the spiritual being—the master or mistress—who rules over the forests and waters and all their inhabitants.”  (18) From the viewpoint of the Khanty, one of the northern forager cultures, success in hunting is as much about relationships with these spiritual beings as it is about an individual’s technical hunting ability. (18)

Honko says that for the Saami, “the supranormal forces governing a particular section of hunting territory or stretch of fishing water were thought to inhabit a sieidi.” (18)  Karsten states that “Any success in hunting or reindeer-breeding, and luck in fishing—in case the seidi was situated at the shore of a lake—depended on the favour of the ‘haldo’ of the place, materialised in the seidi.”  (14)  (Note here that the terms ‘haldo’ and ‘haldi’ refer to the deity in her aspect as guardian of the local land and animals.) 

Above is the photo of a ‘fish sieidi’, the Lake Säytsjärvi sieidi,
said to be the zoomorphic image of a fish’s nose. (16)

Accordingly, one of the first priorities of a band of the Arctic-Saami complex when entering a new hunting or fishing area, was to locate the sieidi within what Svestad calls “nature at hand”.  Itkonen, as quoted by Aikas, says that when the Saami came “to the shore of a lake where they had not yet fished, they chose as a fish sieidi a large stone in an island or in the water near the shore.”  (16) Similarly, Fellman wrote that, in the words of Aikas, “When people came to a new hunting place, they chose a sieidi stone there.” (16)

In northern Sweden, the Saami bands searching for the local guardian deity would have been alert for a stone with anthropomorphic (human-like) or zoomorphic (animal-like) physical features.  Where one was encountered, it would be recognised as the háldi that they called a storjunker, the name given in Sweden to the sacred stone.  According to Schefferus, the “Storjunkar is represented with a stone: the form of which they imagine to bear some resemblance to a bird, sometimes to a man, and sometimes to some other creature; and so strong is their fancy, that they really believe it represents their storjunkar, and worship it accordingly.”  (19)

Aikas says that anthropomorphic shape is a frequent characteristic of sieidis across Fennoscandia, including in northern Finland.  (16)  Above are photos of three figurative sieidis, out of the 100 sieidis in Finland that have been have been identified where there is some certainty about their location.  Sieidis in human form—like the one at the left in the photo above, from Haukkasaari—were considered the most sacred.  Nearly as important were those in the form of a bird, such as the sieidi from Kivijarvi, at the right. 

While figurative, i.e. anthropomorphic and zoomorphic, sieidis are common in Finland, this was only one of the distinguishing features of stones that guided bands of the Arctic-Saami shamanic institution of early Finland in identifying local sieidis.  In fact, most sieidi stones in Finland are non-figurative.  While a non-figurative stone was called by a different name in Sweden, saite, according to Aikas, “In the area of Finland…both figurative and non-figurative offering stones have been called sieidis.”  (16)

Sieiddakeädgi in Utsjoki, Finland (16)

Above is a photo of a non-figurative sieidi, Sieiddakeädgi . The hole in the stone, large enough for a person to crawl into it, made it distinctive. The hole is considered to have sacred significance of its own, perhaps as an entrance to the lower world. 

According to Samuli Paulaharju, quoted in Aikas, it was “unusual stones that were larger or in some way different from others (that) caught his [the offerer’s] attention.”  (16) This could be anthropomorphic or zoomorphic characteristics, but included as well other conspicuous features. Huggert explain that, “An unusual geographical formation could indicate the presence of the divinity.”  (20)

The features could be their shape, size, or colour. Lahelma says, “Many of the sieidi are large erratic boulders that command the surrounding landscape.”  (21) Other characteristics that have been mentioned by writers include unusual cracks or grooves in the stone surface, the stone standing alone in the landscape, or having broad sight lines. 

In addition to a conspicuous physical character, there were additional means identified in the  ethnographic literature that were used for initially locating the stone which was the embodiment of the sieidi deity.  One of these was when there had been a direct experience of the deity.  Huggert, speaking of a sieidi in Sweden, says “The stone setting marks the place where the Saami had experienced the deity or spiritual being where they would later return when necessary in order to come into contact with the divine power, in front of the seite and directly under the open sky.” (20)  As well, Manker suggests that a flash of lightening could reveal it.  (22) It could also be confirmed by the testimony of a shaman who slept overnight next to a stone. (16)

When a stone was chosen as the likely embodiment of the sieidi deity, sacrificial offerings were made, in Sarmela’s terms, to “win over” the sieidi. (32) This is part of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘cult of sacrifice’, led by the noaidi, the shaman. 

Archaeological remains of sacrifices of reindeer bones at
sieidi at the mouth of the River Koskikaltiojoki. (16)

Sacrifices reflected the subsistence activity of the area over which the sieidi was guardian.  If it was a fishing sieidi, the stone might be brushed with fish fat.  When it was a hunting sieidi, it could be brushed with the blood of game animals, such as a wild reindeer, and antlers and bones could be offered to the sieidi once the meat was eaten. (14) Another type of offering was a sacrificial meal of ‘human food’ eaten at the foot of the sieidi stone, because, according to Aikas, “It was believed that the gods also became nourished when people ate at the offering place.” (16)

After a band had made offerings to the stone or cliff, evidence was sought that it was indeed a sieidi, confirming the rightness of their choice.  The most important form of evidence was the subsequent experience of good fortune of the band in hunting or fishing—a reciprocal gift from the sieidi as based on their offerings. J.A. Friis says, “the Sámi considered sacred a place where they had had success hunting or fishing.”  (16)

Where the stone was confirmed as a sieidi, the band—led by the noaidi and with the assistance of his personal saivos—would go on to develop a reciprocal relationship with her.  A ‘contract’ would be formed involving the promise of ongoing worship and sacrifices from the band in exchange for continued success in hunting and fishing, as well as assistance in maintaining the health and well-being of band members.  However, where the band did not experience good fortune in hunting or fishing, the stone would be abandoned.  According to Karsten, “A seidi which in spite of cult (of sacrifice) did not bring help evidently was no god at all, and it was of no use to go on honouring a worthless natural object with costly animal sacrifices.” (14)

Holmberg reports a cautionary tale that was passed among the Saami.  He says, “According to an inherited tradition, the Lapps near the Sompio Lake were so modest and easily satisfied in the choice of their gods, that they worshipped that which first met their glance on going out from the tent — a stone, or the stump of a tree. The next morning the Lapp would have a new god should his first glance in the morning happen to fall on some other object."  (23) Perhaps the point of this story is that carelessness in identification of sieidis had consequences for survival in the wilderness, diverting precious time and resources to fruitless activity.  It highlights the substantial element of risk inherent in the subsistence activities in early wilderness Finland, and the critical nature of the reciprocal relationship between Saami bands and the sieidi.

Documentary Evidence

To this point I have presented a preliminary sketch of Arctic-Saami shamanism as related to the sieidi.  I will make use of it in a further post when I elaborate on the ontological frame of the complex.  The information that I have used here is from secondary accounts, since Saami themselves left few primary ones on their pre-Christian lifeways and spirituality.  A question needs to be asked: How trustworthy are the secondary documentary sources that I have used?

The foregoing account of the Saami traditions of sieidis and saivos, and more that will appear in this and following posts, is drawn from translated portions of writings of Lutheran missionaries to the Saami such as Thomas Von Westen and Jacob Fellman, and by later authors who rely on their accounts, such as Samuli Paulaharju and Rafael Karsten.  The missionary sources represent the earliest accounts of Saami spirituality and practices that, in the view of Hultkrantz, had changed little from pre-Christian times. He says that “Still in the eighteenth century, when the missionaries among the Saamis began to achieve notable results, the traditional religion comprised mainly conceptions and rites belonging to the hunting culture.”  

If we wish to use the accounts of the missionaries today, we must subject them to a prior critical reading.  Specifically, we must remain aware of what we can call the ‘ontological filters’ the missionaries brought to their work, or in Karsten’s words, the ways in which they were “regarding the heathen through Christian eyes”.  (14) I will now explore the nature of these ‘ontological filters’, preparatory to using the missionary accounts to expand upon the Arctic-Saami ontological frame.

The Accounts of Christian Missionaries

The backdrop of the writings of the missionaries was a long campaign by the Lutheran church, across Fennoscandia, to convert the Saamis to Christianity. 

Queen Margaret of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, 1353-1412

The earliest official record of it is a 1389 letter written by Queen Margaret of Denmark, Norway and Sweden that, according to Manker, “calls upon the Lapps (Saami) to abandon their heathen faith and to integrate into the community of Christian nations.” (22)  By the 17th and 18th centuries, the campaign was in its most intensive phase.  It was then that missionaries produced the body of writings about Saami indigenous spirituality that we rely upon today. 

Lotten von Düben: Illustration of kota and portrait
of Eva Bria Mulka, née Granström, 1668

Missionaries who studied and wrote about Saami indigenous spirituality had various motives for doing so, but a primary one was to understand it in order to better combat it.  For example, Karsten says of Thomas Von Westen, an early and prominent missionary, “Even to Von Westen the conversion of the Lapps…to the only true religion was the principal thing, but he was also animated by a certain scientific interest and besides this, he realised that the work of conversion could be carried out successfully only by those who knew something about their own ideas in matters of religion.  A certain study of their pagan mythology consequently was necessary.” (11)  Based on these motives, Von Westen provided the earliest descriptions of early Saami practices, from which many other authors drew.  

Thomas Von Westen pictured in his capacity of ministering to Saamis.

The writings of the missionaries reflected the ontological frame of the Lutheran church of Nordic countries of the time: stark dualisms of spirit versus matter and good versus evil; and the tripartite realms of hell, the world, and heaven.  The overriding mission of the church was to convince or to compel the Saami to come over to the single ‘true God’, whose ontological form is pure spirit and whose essence is pure good, and who inhabits the realm of heaven, occupying a ‘sacred geography’ outside and above nature. (11)

Instead of seeing the powers of the indigenous deities as expressions of the material world of nature in a relational, cyclical cosmos in which forces of darkness and light interpenetrate one another—as did the Saamis—the missionaries considered their powers to flow from the figure of the Devil, a ‘fallen’ spirit with the essence of pure evil who inhabits the realm of hell.  As a result, the sieidis and other Saami deities were deemed to be ‘false gods’ and ‘idols’.  (11)

Lapponia by Johannes Schefferus (1673)

Of particular concern of missionaries were what I would call the reciprocal social relations of the Saami with their deities, particularly their traditions of worship and offerings at sieidis, and that of divination by means of drums.  The missionaries saw these elements as central to the animistic spirituality of the Saami.  (11)

A famous sermon directed Saami parishioners  to the Bible passage about Joshua, who “urged the Israelites to worship God instead of poor ‘gods of wood and stone’.” A sharper view was expressed by the missionary Forbus, who said, referring to the Saami shaman drum and the animate spirit beings on it:  “Oh you confounded Drum, tool and instrument of Satan, cursed are your depicted Gods….”  Similarly, Jens Kildal called the drum and its figures “the Bible of the Devil.” (11)

As suggested by the difference in tone of the above quotes, there were divisions in the church as to the leniency or strictness to be observed with regard to the spiritual practices of the Saami.  The most sympathetic trend was that of ‘enlightened orthodoxy’, represented by Pehr Högström.  His writings contain some of the best accounts of Saami spirituality, and even incorporate views and arguments of Saami themselves.  For example, Högström counselled fellow missionaries that they should not move against “idolatries” before they had conveyed to the Saami “clearer conceptions” about Christian doctrine, and “this had to be done little by little and gradually”.  (11) 

Pehr Högström, 1714-84

At the same time, Högström was the priest who delivered the famous sermon on the Bible passage about Joshua, that was highly influential for advancing the conversion campaign of the church of the time.  This suggests that the accounts of all Lutheran missionaries in Fennoscandia in the 17th and 18th centuries need be read for the presence of the ‘ontological filters”.  Even in the most sympathetic accounts the dualisms of good/evil, spirit/matter may colour their observations.  We will see more in a later post how these ‘filters’ played out in their writings.

Secondary Accounts of Academics

A number of academics and researchers, early and contemporary, have used the accounts of the missionaries in their own writings on the animist spirituality of the Saami.  Their work cannot be exempted from a process of critical reading, but with attention paid to an ontological filter of a different kind. 

Here we must look to the influence of Edward Tylor who, according to the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Tylor was the ‘father of anthropology’.  (Anthropology was known in the nineteenth century as ‘Mr. Tylor's science’.)   Tylor was the principal theorist of what is now termed the ‘old animism’ that long prevailed in anthropological theory.  Expressing what was the key argument of his analysis of animism, he wrote of “ancient savage philosophers” who falsely projected spirits or souls, ‘phantoms’, onto what were mere objects.  (24)

Edward Tylor, 1832-1917

Clearly influenced by Tylor, one observer of the spirituality of the Saami wrote, “the worship of seidi, taken as a whole, is an expression of the general tendency of primitive man to animate the world surrounding him.  Not only in himself and in the living nature around him…does he see an indwelling spiritual principle of life, a ‘soul’, (and) he extends the same view even to inanimate nature, (to) the worship of sticks and stones….” 

Consider the irony:  what had been for of missionaries of the Lutheran church in Fennoscandia of the 17th and 18th centuries  the ‘sin’ of worshipping ‘false gods of wood and stone’, had become for anthropologists, beginning in the 19th century, the philosophical ‘error’ of projecting spirit phantoms onto mere objects: “sticks and stones”.  (14) Anthropology—having earlier consigned ‘spirit’ and the ‘supernatural’ to the exclusive province of religion—proceeded to fall prey to its own form of dualism, subject versus object, often referred to as “objectivism’.


While it might be tempting to view the above as a ‘zero-sum’ clash of incommensurate animist and non-animist ontological frames, the story is not so simple.  That is, while the ‘old animism’ of Tylor relegated the divinities of the Saami to the form of mental projections, constituting a true ‘collision’ of ontological frames, for the Christian missionaries, the ‘false’ gods were gods nonetheless—even if they were of the realm of nature.  Rydving states that “It must be emphasised that during the whole period the clergymen took the indigenous religion in all seriousness.” Högström wrote “a religion, though it may be false and superstitious, is, however, for us always less dangerous, than no religion….godlessness is for our race infinitely more harmful, than superstition itself….”  (11)

The areas of commonality provided a narrow bridge for syncretism, or blending of traditions, across the gulf between the animist Saami and the non-animist Christian ontologies.  For example, a proposal was made to the church by some Saamis that they would incorporate the Christian God alongside their own pantheon of animistic divinities of the upper world, and would treat their saivo guardian spirits as angels.  (11)

Moreover, some noaidis placed powerful Christian figures on their drums.  For example, in the tracing of the drumhead from Part 4, above, Manker identifies as the figure at the centre as the “Radien-trinity.  Included are Radienattje “The almighty (father)” the highest divinity of the upper realm of the tripartite Saami cosmography, flanked by Radienakka the mother and Radienpardne the son.  Manker says, “All have halos above their heads.”  (25) Sommarström suggests that this figure is a deliberate parallel with the Christian trinity, a “Saami Holy Family” with the Holy Spirit in female form. (26)  Manker identifies the figure at the upper left, above, as a church that is capped by a Christian cross.  (25)

While these Christian figures may sometimes have been added to avoid confiscation and destruction of the drums, there is evidence that it also indicated a deeper ontological engagement, what Äikäs and Salmi call “syncretism from below”.  (27) Karsten says “The interesting thing in regard to these figures is that the Lapps obviously believed that by means of the drum they were able to influence even these Christian divinities for the purpose of obtaining favours appreciated from a Christian point of view, divine help, absolution from sins, eternal happiness, etc.” (14)

The church of the time was unyielding in its opposition to these overtures. It rejected the Saami offer to recognise the Christian God as a part of the pantheon of Saami divinities.  Moreover, missionaries drew little comfort from the presence of Christian iconography on the drums—intermixed as they were with ‘demons’ and ‘false gods’—and continued to collect and destroy them until only 70 were known to remain across Fennoscandia.  In the face of the animist challenge, the Lutheran church of the 17th and 18th centuries did not wish to consider any opening, let alone a fundamental revisiting of its doctrines. (11)

By the middle of the 19th century, the church did, however, accommodate the work of Lars Levi Laestadius, a Swedish Saami pastor of the Lutheran church with half Saami parentage, who founded a revival movement within the church.  

1839 - Laestadius preaching in Lapland. François-Auguste Biard
Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum

Laestadius included in its elements Saami earth spirits, interpreted according to the Bible, and a rite called liikutuksia that bears some resemblance to an ecstatic shamanic state.  (29) Many of his sermons were, according to Juha Pentikäinen, “filled with names and concepts from Sami mythology and the Sami supranormal world, albeit often with new meanings.” (28) That is, in spite of his incorporation of familiar Saami mythological elements, Laestadius maintained them securely within the Christian ontological frame. 

The syncretistic or blending efforts undertaken by Saamis represent attempts to preserve elements of their indigenous spirituality in a changing historical landscape.  However, in the end what proved to be the most reliable means was the retreat into what Rydving calls “an underground culture”.  Rydving says, “Since the indigenous religion developed more and more into a separate universe of discourse which was inaccessible to the clergymen, parts of the indigenous religion could be preserved.” (11) As a result, according to Karsten, “well into the 19th century drums were secretly beaten and sacrifices made to seites.” (14)

An important historical note:  Äikäs and Salmi report that “In Norway the church has…acknowledged its responsibility in wrongdoings toward Sámi traditions during the Christianization process.” (27)

Engagement With Arctic-Saami Animism

What is missing from both sets of views—those of missionaries of the church of the time and those of early anthropologists influenced by Tylor—is genuine comprehension of the non-dualist, animist spirituality of the people of the pre-Christian Arctic-Saami shamanic complex.  This is in spite of the fact that the wellsprings of Arctic-Saami spirituality pre-dated by thousands of years both the Christian and the modernist ontologies. 

Lapponia by Johannes Schefferus (1673)

In the writings of figures of post-modern philosophy such as Lyotard, both the animist and the Cartesian modernist ontologies can be seen as narratives,  i.e., socially constructed ‘stories’ of how the world works.  The status of a ‘master narrative’, implicitly claimed by modernism since the Enlightenment, belongs to neither (and in fact is not tenable on philosophical grounds), meaning that in Wallis’s words, “this animist ontological position is recognised as equally valid to a Western one….”  (6)  As a result, anthropology in the 21st century, like the Lutheran church of the 17th and 18th centuries, is facing an ‘animist challenge’ of its own.  How has it responded to date? 

Many anthropologists are currently reconsidering the animist ontologies of hunter-gatherer-fisher cultures, leading to deeper engagements with them.  However, in the view of Wallis, much of the new work continues to be from the “rationalist materialist”, i.e. modernist, standpoint, but now in an updated form.  For example, one influential current focuses on the altered state of consciousness (ASC) of  shamans, locating the origin of their experiences of interacting with spirit persons and travelling to the other world in neurophysical attributes ‘hardwired’ in the brain, that are activated in trance states.  (30)  As a result of such approaches, in the view of Wallis,  ”Animism continues to be positioned as incorrect and a projection, making the updated version so safe for humanistic liberal thought.” (6)

A different direction is being taken in the work of ‘new animists’ in archaeology and anthropology like Robert J. Wallis, Graham Harvey, Timothy Ingold and others.  Reflecting a perspective of this emerging trend, Wallis states, “Contra Tylor, indigenous communities are…dynamic and creative agents of their own ‘survivance', historically and in the present, with sophisticated ways of knowing.”  (31)

Robert J. Wallis, Professor of Visual Culture,
Richmond University

In Finland, ‘new animist’ authors such as Lahelma, Helander-Renvall, Back Danielson, and Lund focus specifically on the indigenous spirituality of the Saami.  I am hoping to build on their work here by casting the animist relational ontologies of early Finland in a form—as ontological frames—that can be specifically applied to the interpretation of sacred art. 

In the next post I will present the three core elements of the frame of the Arctic/Saami shamanic complex, beginning with the ontological forms of the spirit persons ‘bound to the landscape’: the sieidi and the saivo.  Since I will be referring to the accounts of the Christian missionaries, and authors in the modernist tradition who make use of these accounts, we will again encounter the dualisms of spirit versus matter and subject versus object. However, we will also see how they are superseded within the context of the non-dualist, animist spirituality of the Arctic-Saami.

Works Cited

1. Zachrisson, Inger. Saami Prehistory in the South Saami Area. [book auth.] Roger Kvist. Readings in Saami History, Culture and Language III. Stockholm : Center for Arctic Cultural Research, 1992.
2. Siikala, Anna-Leena. What Myths Tell about Past Finno-Ugric Modes of Thinking. Myth and Mentality. s.l. : Studia Fennica Folkloristica 8, 2002.
3. Christian Carpelan, et al. Encyclopaedia of Saami Culture project introduction. [Website] Helsinki : University of Helsinki, accessed Feb. 1, 2017.
4. Layton, Robert. Shamanism, Totemism and Rock Art: Les Chamanes de la Préhistoire in the Context of Rock Art Research. Cambridge Archaeological Journal . 2000, Vol. 10, 1.
5. Ingold, Tim. Totemism, animism and the depiction of animals. The Perception of the Environment. London and New York : Routledge, 2000.
6. Wallis, Robert J. Exorcizing “spirits”: approaching “shamans” and rock art animically. [book auth.] Graham Harvey. Handbook of Contemporary Animism. London : Acumen Publishing, 2013.
7. Napolskikh, V.V. Proto-Uralic World Picture: A Reconstruction. Ethnologica Uralica: Northern religions and shamanism. 1992, 3.
8. Mulk, Inga-Maria and Bayliss-Smith, Tim. Rock Art and Sami Sacred Geography in Badjelannda, Laponia, Sweden. Umeå, Sweden : Dept. of Archaeology and Sami Studies, University of Umeå, 2006.
9. The Impact of Materiality on Sami Burial Customs and Religious Concepts. Svestad, Asgeir. Helsinki : Fennoscandia archaeologica, 2011, Vol. 48.
10. Skandfer, Marianne. Ethics in the Landscape: Prehistoric Archaeology and Local Sami Knowledge in Interior Finnmark, Northern Norway. Arctic Anthropology. 2009, Vol. 46, 1-21.
11. Rydving, Hakan. Tracing Sami Traditions: In Search of the Indigenous Religion among the Western Sami during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Oslo : The Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture (IFSK), 2010.
12. Koski, Mauno. A Finnic Holy Word and its Subsequent History. [book auth.] Tore Ahlback. Old Norse and Finnish Religions and Cultic Place-Names. a : s.n., 1990.
13. Kert, G.M. The History of the Ancient Saams. [book auth.] Gösta Berg. Circumpolar Problems: Habitat, Economy, and Social Relations in the Arctic. Stockholm : Elsevier, 2013.
14. Karsten, Rafael. The Religion of the Samek: Ancient Beliefs and Cultsof the Scandinavian and Finnish Lapps. Leiden : E.J. Brill, 1955.
15. Hultkrantz, Ake. On Beliefs in Non-Shamanic Guardian Spirits among the Saamis. [book auth.] Tore Ahlback. Saami Religion. Stockholm : Almqvist and Wiksell International, 1984.
16. Äikäs, Tiina. From Boulders to Fells: Sacred Places in the Sámi Ritual Landscape. Helsinki : Archaeological Society of Finland, 2015.
17. Hultkrantz, Ake. Religion and Environment among the Saami: An Ecological Study. [book auth.] Takahashi Irimoto and Takako Yamada. Circumpolar Religion and Ecology: An Anthropology of the North. Tokyo : University of Tokyo Press, 1994.
18. Honko, Lauri. Hunting, Introduction. [book auth.] Keith Bosley. The Great Bear: A Thematic Anthology of Oral Poetry in the Finno-Ugrian Languages. London : Oxford University Press, 1994.
19. Schefferus, Johannes. Lapponia. Hämeenlinna : Hämeenlinna, 1963 - written1673.
20. Huggert, Anders. A church at Lyckselet and a sacrificial site on Altarberget the two worlds of the Saami. Acta Borealia. 2000, Vol. 17, 1.
21. Lahelma, Antti. A Touch of Red: Archaeological and Ethnographic Approaches to Interpreting Finnish Rock Paintings. Iskos . 15, 2008.
22. Manker, E. Seite Cult and Drum Magic of the Lapps. [book auth.] V. Dioszegi. Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia. The Hague : Mouton and Company, 1968.
23. Holmberg, Uno. Mythology of All Races Vol. 4: Finno-Ugric Mythology and Siberian Mythology, Chap. 7: The Seides of the Lapps. Boston : Cooper Square Publishers, 1927.
24. Harvey, Graham. Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York : Columbia University Press, 2006.
25. Manker, Ernst. The Figures of the Shaman Drum. Helsinki : Display materials of the National Museum of Finland, 1950.
26. Sommarström, Bo. The Saami Shaman's Drum and the Star Horizons. [book auth.] Tore Ahlbäck and Jan Bergman. The Saami Shaman Drum. Abo : he Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History, 2010.
27. Salmi, Tiina Äikäs and Anna-Kaisa. The Sieidi is a Better Altar/the noaidi drum's a purer church bell: long-term changes and syncretism at Sami offering sites. World Archaeology/Archaeology of Religious Change. 2013, Vol. 45, 1.
28. Laestadius, Lars Levi. Fragments of Lappish Mythology. Beaverton : Aspasia Books, 2002.
29. Lars Levi Laestadius. Wikipedia. [Online] [Cited: January 15, 2018.]
30. J. David Lewis-Williams, David Pearce. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos and the Realm of the Gods. London : Thames Hudson, 2005.
31. Wallis, Robert J. Re-Enchanting Rock Art Landscapes: Animic Ontologies, Nonhuman Agency and Rhizomic Personhood. Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. 2009, Vol. 2, 1.
32. Sarmela, Matti. Finnish Folklore Atlas: Ethnic Culture of Finland 2. Helsinki : SKS, The Finnish Literature Society, 2009.

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