The drum had two functions. For the noaidi, the Sami shaman, it was an instrument that helped him or her to enter a trance. When in the trance, the noaidi could travel to other worlds, to the world of the gods or to other places he wished to visit. To make the drum more powerful, various amulets and objects of power were attached to it.
Help in foretelling the future
The drum could also be an instrument used to help foretell the future. The world in which the Sami lived was drawn on its leather membrane. The drum's membrane was a picture of the cosmos. In the southern Sami area, the main god, the Sun, was surrounded by gods, animals and other forces that were important in life. Further to the north, the world was divided into several layers. It was often perceived that the world had three layers: the underworld, the visible world and the celestine world; the world of the gods. Some drums even had five layers. The most common motifs on the drums were the gods, reindeer, hunting and quarry animals, encampments and residences. In more recent times more modern motifs were found on some drums, such as churches and horses. A plumb was laid on the drum's membrane. This could be made of antler or brass. When the shaman drummed on the membrane, the plumb moved around. By following its movements he was able to predict the future.
The noaidi's tools
It was mostly the noaidi who used the drum. In addition to travelling in time and space, the drum could also be used to cure illnesses or to predict what would happen in the future. In order to cure a sick member of the group, the noaidi's job was to ascertain what offering the gods required in order to lift the illness from the sufferer's body. With the help of the drum, the noaidi could also learn about things that were important to the group. When they should go out and hunt, when they should move or which god required a particular offering. The noaidi, with his helpful spirits and his drum, was the central figure in the group. He or she was their religious and spiritual leader.
Christianity threatened by the drum
For the missionaries who worked among the Sami, the drum and the noaidi were considered to be the greatest threat to the conversion of the Sami. Laws were written forbidding the noaidi and the other Sami from worshipping what were termed idols. The use of the drum was punishable by law. They were collected in, burned or removed from the environment in which they were used. At the beginning of the 18th century the drum was a common object in most households. At Åsele market in 1725, more than 20 drums were collected.
The people who were forced to hand them in were probably not noaidis. Even though the authorities and the priesthood maintained at the time that the Sami had now been converted to Christianity, most groups of Sami lived in double worlds. Only 70 drums are still preserved today. Some of these can be seen at the Ájtte Mountain and Sami Museum in Jokkmokk and at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm.
The drum today
In spite of the fact that drums were forbidden and burned, many succeeded to keep them in secret. Drums were used and made in the 19th century, and there is even information from early 20th century. Some stopped using their drums but they did not hand them in to the authorities. They were still highly values objects. In stead the drums were buried, often in the mountains, in a special and secret place chosen by the person who buried it.
Several drums have been found by people who were looking for other things. The skin is destroyed, but the frame of the drum, made of hard wood, has been preserved. Today new drums and copies of old famous drums are made, by both Sami and non-Sami. There seems to be unwritten rules on how to make them, and handle them. Some craftsmen follow the traditional ways on how to choose wood, skin and the other material needed. You do not mix characteristic details from different regions, but stick to the style used in the area where the craftsman has its origin.
What you see in the painted symbols on the skin, is for your own interpretation, but for the person who made them they often have a special meaning. Today the Sami usually don't use the drum like in old times, to foretell the future or enter a trance. Now it is used as a music instrument or as a symbol in political manifestations. The drum is still a strong and important Sami symbol.