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What are the Shamanistic Beliefs of the Sami Reindeer Herding People?

Updated: Jul 5

A Sami reindeer herder inside the lavvu tent in Norway

The Arctic Circle is the vast homeland of the Sami reindeer herders. Winter lingers for a long time with its ice and snow, bright moonlight, and flickering aurora borealis, while summer, with its bright nights, is only a short-term guest. The Sami reindeer herders, a nomadic people, have always lived in harmony with nature. They spend their winters in the forest, where the pastures are rich for their reindeer, and then migrate to the north for the summer pastures. They shared a profound connection with the natural world. Sami Noiaddi, the shaman, is widely recognized in Sami mythology, an Indigenous religion

When Christianity arrived in the Nordic countries, there was a widespread perception that the Sámi people held paganistic beliefs. This led to their conversion to Christianity in the 1600s, a significant event that profoundly reshaped Sami's shamanistic and spiritual practices, marking a substantial shift in their history. But what do we know about the Sami shamans and their spiritual beliefs?

Sami Shamanism and Animism: Pillars of Indigenous Sami Religion

Indigenous people embody the role of Earth's custodians. They have sustained a harmonious coexistence with nature for millennia, which is evident in their enduring traditional way of life. Their profound connection with nature, rooted in their beliefs and traditions, transcends mere survival. They honor the interconnectedness of all life forms, extending respect to every entity, be it trees, rocks, animals, or the land. By delving into indigenous beliefs and practices, we gain a profound insight into their natural relationship.

The Sámi people's indigenous religion is a belief system that reveres the soul within all natural objects, such as animals, plants, and rocks. This profound spiritual connection to the natural world is a fundamental aspect of Sámi culture. Unlike monotheistic religions, the Sámi faith is polytheistic, with a pantheon of spirits and gods, including the Mother, Father, Son, and Daughter.

Sámi indigenous religion encompasses a shamanistic form of worship involving drumming and traditional chanting, or yoiking, as essential elements. The Sámi shaman, known as a noaiddi, traditionally served as a healer and protector within the community. At the core of Sami spirituality are the ancient practices of shamanism and animism, which guide their interactions with the spiritual world and the forces of nature. Shamans, known as "noaiddi," are vital in the community, acting as intermediaries between the human realm and the spirit world. Through rituals, drumming, and trance-like states, these shamans connect with the spiritual entities to seek guidance, healing, and protection for their people.

Sami people's traditional lavvu tent in Norway

1. Living Ancestral Spirits

The Sámi people's core belief is that a person comprises three essential components: life, spirit, and soul. They hold a profound reverence for life, forming the basis of their belief in life after death. According to their beliefs, the spirits of the departed, whether human or animal, can return to earth as long as their skeletons remain intact. This belief has led the Sámi to adopt a burial practice that ensures the preservation of bones in their natural order for animals and humans.

The human soul, a profoundly spiritual entity, could depart from the body during wakefulness, sleep, hibernation, or illness, assuming a non-human form. A shaman's soul's spiritual connection makes it particularly susceptible to such transitions. The belief in the soul considering the shape of a bird is not merely a superstition but a profound spiritual encounter. It is often interpreted as a precursor to death, encouraging introspection and interconnectedness.

Even in the afterlife, a person's "shadow" or spirit was believed to remain closely connected to the body. As a result, breaking the bones of people and animals was prohibited. The deceased was meticulously cleansed and shrouded in reed-covered cloths before being laid to rest. In certain regions, it was customary to adorn the deceased with the harness of a reindeer or a bear. Additionally, the departed were interred with essential weapons and provisions deemed necessary for the afterlife, shedding profound light on the cultural customs of these regions. It is believed that the Sami used to place a bag of food in the deceased's coffin. This bag contains an assortment of nourishment, including bread, cheese, meat, fish, butter, and fat, symbolizing the community's care and provision for the deceased on their journey beyond.

Even following the funeral, individuals continued to honor their loved ones by bringing offerings such as tobacco or other cherished items to their graves. In instances of wealth, the sacrifice of a reindeer was deemed appropriate. Ancient tradition dictated that before drinking at a feast, the Sami would pour their drink onto the ground as an offering to the gods and spirits of death.

After passing away, the spirits of ancestors continued to be an integral part of daily lives. They were thought to manifest as birds and powerful winds that could topple trees. Some even returned in spirit to herd and safeguard the reindeer for some time before ascending to eternal life. The Northern Lights were believed to be a manifestation of ancestral spirits, serving as a signal for children to seek safety indoors and maintain silence.

Dancing Northern Lights in the Arctic Norway

2. Seita: The Sacred Places to Worship Nature Gods

In the indigenous Sami religion, the Sami revered stones and rocks as divine entities. These sacred sites, known as seita, were not just ordinary rocks; some were specially shaped, while others formed intricate rock formations. The Sami tended to these sacred places with great care, gathering there to seek divine guidance and counsel from the gods.

The Sami people's respect for their sacred sites was evident in their actions. They refrained from building houses near these sites, ensuring the gods were undisturbed by even the slightest noise. The seita rock was held in such high regard that the surrounding area would not be disturbed. This reverence for nature was an essential aspect of their culture. When worshipping the gods, they dressed in their best, a sign of reverence.

In some traditions, women were not allowed to witness the sacred sites, a practice that adds to the intrigue and respect for their cultural taboos. Even extended families and Sami villages where relatives lived together had their nature god and sacred seita place where they went to worship and sacrifice to the god. At the holy place, animals like reindeer and birds were ceremonially offered. All food needed to be consumed on-site, and the bones and skin of the animals were reverently buried there.

3. Bear Worship

A Bear was a sacred animal to the Sami people

In the past, the Sami people were skilled hunters and held the bear in the highest regard. Following the killing of a bear, a reverent bear ritual was essential. The bear, considered sacred, was not referred to by its name. Instead, people called it by other names out of fear that directly addressing it would provoke its wrath.

The Sami people spot the dens of hibernating bears during the winter and leave them to sleep. However, in early spring, they return to hunt the bears. Bear hunting was a meticulously organized task, with each person having a specific role contributing to the hunt's sense of order and structure.

Once the bear was killed, it was left at the site for an overnight. The men then returned home, performing a traditional yoik chant to signal to the women that the bear had been killed. This marked the beginning of the preparations in the village, with people dressing up in their best clothes. The Sami people held a deep reverence for animal spirits, believing that speaking the words aloud would risk alerting the bear's spirit.

In the village, Sami erected a unique tent for the bear slaughter, ensuring that all the meat would be consumed promptly. Initially, the meat was boiled and consumed separately by men and women, who partook in different animal sections. After cooking the meat, they prepared the intestines and head. The bear's heart was the most appreciated and delicate, and it was only allowed for men. It was also essential to ensure the boiling water didn't boil over to the fire, as it was unfortunate.

After the feast, every scrap of meat was consumed, and the bear's bones were meticulously interred without being disturbed. It was of utmost importance to lay the bones to rest in the precise order of the bear's body. While undertaking this solemn task, reverent words were spoken to honor the bear. The meticulous burial of the bones symbolized belief, signifying that the bear's spirit could reunite with its body as long as the bones remained intact.

Traditional Sami lavvu tent in the tundra Norway

4. Sami People's Nature Gods

The spiritual beliefs of the Sami people are deeply rooted in animism, where every object, place, and creature is believed to possess a unique spiritual essence. The Sami worshipped numerous nature gods, sacrificing to mighty forces like thunder, wind, and the moon.

An example is the Northern Lights, a natural wonder of great significance in Sami culture, regarded as ancestral spirits. The respect shown to these spirits is evident when witnessing the Northern Lights in the sky, as it is customary to maintain silence. Additionally, when a Sami person is sledding with a reindeer, they show their reverence by reducing speed and removing jingle bells to minimize noise. Likewise, children are encouraged to go indoors and remain quiet as a gesture of respect for the spirits. No one should point at them with a finger; otherwise, spirits could get furious and create even more lights in the sky.

In Sami folklore, enchanting tales of sacred lakes captivate the imagination. According to legend, these mystical lakes were believed to possess dual bottoms, allowing elusive fish to evade capture by slipping through the lower depths. When out on the lake, it was essential to be very quiet. Shouting or making noise was not allowed. It was also best not to use rude language or talk about the fish, which could scare them away.

The Sami people's deep respect for the sun is evident in their worship and gratitude for its constant presence during summer. They value the light and warmth it provides, dispelling the winter darkness and harsh frost. Similarly, the sun was seen as a nurturing mother, especially in caring for their reindeer calves and providing them natural warmth for comfort. On most indigenous Sámi drums, the sun's image holds excellent significance, symbolizing power and spirituality alongside other revered mythological motifs. Following legend, the Sami commemorated the grand Sun Festival annually during the height of midsummer, when they made offerings to guarantee the prosperity of vegetation and reindeer husbandry.

5. Noaidi - The Great Sami Shaman

The influential role of the Sami shaman, known as noaiddi, within the shamanistic beliefs of the Sami reindeer herders highlights the significance of their practices as an indigenous religion. The noaiddi acted as a crucial intermediary, facilitating communication with the gods and spirits in various aspects of life, and played a vital role in reporting on sacrifices. As a result of their esteemed responsibilities, the Sami community held the noaidi shaman in high regard, often entrusting them with leadership positions. When welcomed into someone's home, the shaman was greeted with bare heads as a gesture of respect and humility and offered the finest food, reindeer fur, and lodging, illustrating the deep reverence for their presence.

In a select family of shaman savants, the extraordinary gift of supernatural powers was passed down from father to son, and Noiaddi was no exception. Upon gathering all the vital knowledge about shamanism from the elves and his parents, the Noiaddi was officially consecrated to his role with special ceremonial expenses per ancient customs. Upon reaching the revered status of a shaman, the noaiddi's connection with the elves profoundly transformed. Accordingl to the Sami's shamanistic beliefs, they started approaching him with growing familiarity, manifesting in various forms like an older man or animal at any moment.

The Noaiddi had the remarkable ability to enlist these spirits to serve him at his will. They answered his call without fail through his yoik singing, faithfully guiding him through foreign lands.Noaiddi possessed a shamanic drum that he utilized in his rituals. The drum membrane, made from the skin of reindeer necks, was carefully prepared and attached to the frame using wooden nails or sinew fibers. Elaborate patterns were then painted on the membrane using alder bark liquid or reindeer blood, depicting the gods, elves, celestial bodies, animals, buildings, and other elements significant in Sami culture.

These shaman drums varied in their images and construction methods across regions and periods. The diversity in these drums reflected varying Sami techniques and differences in size and structure. The shaman's drum was adorned with decorations and charms and featured a two-pronged hammer made of reindeer antler, often wrapped in beaver skin. The older the noaiddi shaman's drum, passed down from father to son, the more valuable it was. The shaman drum is a staple in Sami culture. It was a significant event when a Sámi was about to cast spells. He would cleanse himself, groom his hair, and dress in his best clothes, as would the others participating in the solemn service. The powerful drum served as a tool for both divination and spell casting. The shaman utilized the drum to enter a trance state, allowing for potential communication with the spirit world or the deceased.

Christianity and colonialism have long sought to erase the history of Sámi shamans dating back to the 17th century. Despite these efforts, the Sámi people have shown resilience. The drum, once a tool of the noaiddi, now also functions as a musical instrument, symbolic of the adaptability of Sámi culture.

The Sami culture places great importance on the circular economy and sustainable living, emphasizing a deep and intimate connection with nature that the shanistic beliefes confrims. The shaman noaidi's unique ability to communicate with nature's spirits, birds, and animals proves this relationship's interconnectedness.

Are you looking for more? Discover the vibrant world of contemporary Sami reindeer herding culture and tradition. Visit our website to dive into our sustainable indigenous tourism initiative. Book a unique stay with a Sami family in Norway today!

Keywords: Sami religion, Noaiddi, Sami shamanism, reindeer herders, shamanism, animism, Sami spirituality

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