Foto: Leif Milling
Foto: Leif Milling

Before the word of God

The early history of the Sami is shrouded in mystery, and there is no collective picture of how they perceived the world. In addition, the written sources are usually from Swedish priests charged with converting the Sami to Christianity.

The written sources describing the pre-Christian beliefs of the Sami were relatively late, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, and were written by the church's people. It was their 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.

Exchange of knowledge
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.

History written by others
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 a certain amount of caution needs to be employed 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.

Gods and goddesses
The traditions of 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 nåejtie 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.

Animal ceremonies
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.

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