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Sámi, Land and Faith in Viking Age Scandinavia

Alison Owen | University of Cambridge


In the far north of medieval Norway, some travellers were staying with the Sámi, a semi-nomadic group indigenous to the area, when they apparently had an alarming experience:


‘Then a wizard spread out a cloth under which he made himself ready for unholy magic incantations and with hands extended lifted up a small vessel like a sieve, which was covered with images of whales and reindeer with harness and little skis, even a little boat with oars. The devilish gandus [a spirit used by the wizard] would use these means of transport over heights of snow, across slopes of mountains and through depths of lakes. After dancing there for a very long time to endow this equipment with magic power, he at last fell to the ground… the dead wizard had perished in the following way: his gandus, in the shape of a whale, was rushing at speed through a certain lake when by evil chance it met an enemy gandus in the shape of sharpened stakes, and these stakes, hidden in the depths of that same lake, pierced its belly, as was evident from the dead wizard in the house.’


Evidently, the Sámi practised a shamanistic, pagan religion which their Norse guests thought ‘unholy’ and ‘devilish.’ This story was written down in a twelfth-century history of Norway, after Scandinavia had been converted by the wave of Christianisation that swept north through Europe at the end of the eleventh century. However, there were no serious attempts to evangelise to the Sámi until the sixteenth century. Who the Sámi were, and why the Norse did not attempt to convert them to their new faith, will be the focus of this article.

Illustrations of Sámi shamanism by Johannus Scheffrus, 1673. Left: Sámi with drum. Right: Going into a trance.
Illustrations of Sámi shamanism by Johannus Scheffrus, 1673. Left: Sámi with drum. Right: Going into a trance.

The Sámi people still live in northern Norway, but in the Viking Age (roughly the ninth to the twelfth century, when Scandinavia was carrying out the bulk of its Viking attacks), their territory extended further south and overlapped with the settlements of the Norse Norwegians. Historians of this era sometimes ignore the fact that the Sámi were living alongside and interacting with the Norse. Alternatively, they treat the Sámi as though they were a timeless, unchanging civilisation, a subject for anthropological study, not history. This appealed to a Victorian enthusiasm for studying indigenous populations as a kind of stand-in for our own prehistoric past. They thought that by studying the Sámi, we could learn more about ourselves. But this does not acknowledge the Sámi as people with a history worthy of study of their own.

In Sámi territory, some of it north of the Arctic Circle, conditions were too harsh for almost any agriculture. The few Norsemen in the area lived in huge communal halls and got their livelihoods from fishing and walrus hunting – and from pressuring the Sámi for tribute. Forests in these northern regions were so dense that they were difficult to travel through, meaning that it was faster to make journeys by boat along the intricate, fjord-ridden coastline. But the forests were also full of animals like squirrels, ermines, and arctic foxes which the Sámi trapped or hunted with bows. The Sámi knew how to use decoy reindeer to attract wild reindeer to themselves; they knew how to fly over the snow on skis; they knew how to follow the reindeer herds, living semi-nomadic lifestyles in hide tents.


Norse writers were impressed by the skills of the Sámi. One saga character says, ‘They can follow tracks like gods both on thawed ground and on hard frozen snow, and they are so able on skis that nothing can escape them, neither men nor animals, and whatever they shoot at, they hit.’ The Norse goddess Skaði, who is the subject of a poem in the Prose Edda, is thought to represent a Sámi because of her association with shooting and skiing.

Woodcut of Sámi hunting on skis, Olaus Magnus, 1555. In the background are the tents that the Sámi lived in.
Woodcut of Sámi hunting on skis, Olaus Magnus, 1555. In the background are the tents that the Sámi lived in.

Sámi and Norse traded with each other. The Norse word for ‘fox’ is a loanword from Sámi (rebeš to refr) because the Norse needed the valuable furs of Arctic animals that the Sámi hunted and trapped and which were in great demand in more southerly markets. Meanwhile, lacking ore deposits of their own, Sámi made use of metals they bought from the Norse. Viking Age metals such as arm-rings appear in characteristically Sámi archaeological sites, such as slab-lined pits and graves where the body is wrapped in a shroud of birch bark. Another distinctively Sámi site is the bear burial: bears appear to have been important to the Sámi world view, and archaeological finds include bears that have been ritually buried with the skeletons laid out in anatomical order. Poems and songs collected much later indicate that the Sámi claimed the strength, skills, and senses of the bear by eating the appropriate parts of its body.


The ‘vessel like a sieve’ referred to in the story quoted above was a Sámi drum, of which more recent examples survive, which are covered with illustrations of people and animals. The Sámi shaman would place tokens on the drum and then strike it. The tokens would leap about, and where they landed could be interpreted for the purposes of divination. Before the Christianisation of Scandinavia, the Norse would go and visit the Sámi to get their fortunes told in this way. After Christianisation, this was forbidden, but the Norse still did not attempt to convert the Sámi.

I suggest that one of the reasons for this is because of the Sámi’s traditional association with the land. Here is a description from a tenth-century walrus herder called Ohthere: ‘there are wild moors… running parallel to the inhabited land. On the moors dwell Finnas [the Sámi]…’ That is, he describes the moors as wild and uninhabited, but also as the dwelling place of the Sámi. There is an even less respectful one from a twelfth-century historical work: ‘On the borders of Norway is an immense wilderness, which divides the country all along its length and separates the Norwegians from the heathens. Only the Finns [the Sámi] dwell here and wild animals whose flesh they eat half-raw and whose skins they clothe themselves with.’

This all suggests that the mobile lifestyle of the Sámi was not one that the Norse recognised as settlement because it was not based on permanent farming settlements like theirs. The historians Hansen and Olsen put it this way: ‘Paradoxically, therefore, the Sámi past largely unfolded in areas that settlement maps labelled as “uninhabited”.’

Illustration of reindeer herding by Sámi author Johan Turi, 1910
Illustration of reindeer herding by Sámi author Johan Turi, 1910.

This is important because a connection with land and territory was key to the conversion of medieval Scandinavians. By the tenth century, conversion of a whole people group by force had become an accepted part of medieval practice – if not theory. Teaching and understanding were supposed to come before baptism, but in reality, mass conversion was a useful tool for medieval rulers. It could be used as an excuse to attack a neighbouring polity. Ecclesiastical power was also another way for one polity to extend control over another afterwards. The archetypical example is Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars.


This threat of external pressure to convert is sometimes cited as the reason why Scandinavian countries made quick, top-down decisions to convert around the end of the eleventh century. Essentially, Scandinavian rulers were saying, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to come over here and convert us – we’re already Christian.’


The eleventh-century Norwegian king Óláfr Tryggvason also used this tool to unify Norway's petty kingdoms and chiefdoms. Christianity was both one of his selling points as a new, modern, European kind of king and a reason for him to attack or execute anyone who didn’t accept it.

Illustration from Heimskringla, Halfdan Egedius, 1899. Óláfr is said to have drowned a group of sorcerers on a skerry.
Illustration from Heimskringla, Halfdan Egedius, 1899. Óláfr is said to have drowned a group of sorcerers on a skerry.

Óláfr toured around the provinces of Norway, preaching Christianity, arranging strategic marriages, debating with key leaders, offering people a choice between conversion and battle, and threatening, torturing or executing those who insisted on the old faith, or what they called the old ‘laws.’ He used exactly the same tactics as someone who was trying to take control of territory.


Even though he was concerned about pagan sorcerers, he never dashed off into land that he regarded as ‘uninhabited wilderness’ to confront the sorcerous Sámi. When he conversed with the people of Norway at local assemblies to try to convince them to adopt Christianity, the account of his life specifies that he was talking to bœndi ­– farmers – and as soon as he is finished with the Norwegian peasants, the narrative abruptly turns to Iceland and more interactions between Óláfr and farmers.


When Óláfr claimed to be Christianising Norway, he really meant settled, farming Norway. His conversion campaign demanded that the local chieftains and farmers accepted the whole package of Christianity and his personal kingship of Norway. It was (at least) as much about bringing people into his kingdom of Norway as it was about faith. Sámi, due to their relationship with the land, could not belong to the kingdom of Norway in the same way a Norseman could. Therefore, the Sámi were not subject to Óláfr’s violent brand of evangelism.

Copper carving of Sámi with drum, Knud Leem, 1767.
Copper carving of Sámi with drum, Knud Leem, 1767.

Turning away from the political motivations for attempting to convert people, we might expect there to be some more personal, faith-based ones as well. However, we have no records of individuals approaching Sámi to evangelise to them peacefully either.


In a twelfth-century collection of miracle stories, Sámi and Norse are depicted as doing the same activities alongside each other, but their spiritual practices are as unmixed as oil and water. The Norwegians are warned not to use a magic wand to help with their fishing as the Sámi do; and when the Sámi ask to get in on a miraculously large catch of fish provided by the Norwegians’ patron saint, instead of sharing their saint or their faith, the Norwegians refuse their request.

There is also a story where a Sámi man attends mass and has a vision of the communion bread appearing as a child. This makes it look like a Sámi individual might have chosen to attend a Christian service. However, the story is too generic to be convincing. There is a whole subgenre of medieval miracle stories where a character, usually a Jewish one, has a vision of the communion bread bleeding or appearing in human shape as a reflection of Christ’s real presence at communion. The Sámi is here substituted for the Jewish person as the local non-Christian representative.

An example of a eucharistic miracle illustrated in MS Harley 7026, c. 1400. Jewish people are depicted stabbing the communion bread, which bleeds.
An example of a eucharistic miracle illustrated in MS Harley 7026, c. 1400. Jewish people are depicted stabbing the communion bread, which bleeds.

There is also a moment in a medieval account of Óláfr Tryggvason’s life where a Sámi sorcerer tells the king not to try to convert him because ‘I cannot be converted to anything or any nature than I have now.’ Perhaps the association between Sámi identity and pagan shamanistic religion was so tight that to change religion would have meant the Sámi changing to a new nature.


Finally, there is a suggestion that Christian Norwegians may have used the Sámi as a kind of living representation of their own pagan beliefs. That is, they sometimes depict the Sámi as worshipping gods like Thor and Odin. Even though this was probably not an accurate reflection of Sámi faith, it let the Norse use the Sámi as a kind of container to hold their past beliefs, which they had given up at the time of Christianisation, but still respected. Here, we circle all the way back to the Victorians’ use of the Sámi that I mentioned at the beginning: the Sámi used as representatives or relics of one’s own past. This would disincline the Norse from interfering with Sámi faith.


There is a 1313 Norwegian legal amendment offering the Sámi privileges if they converted to Christianity, but for the most part, the Sámi were left out of evangelism attempts – peaceful and violent alike – because their very ‘nature,’ or at least the space they occupied in the settled Scandinavian worldview, would hardly allow for any such attempts.

 

Further Reading

  • Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, trans. Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2016). Available freely online at vsnrweb-publications.org.uk.

  • Lars Ivar Hansen and Bjørnar Olsen, Hunters in Transition: An Outline of Early Sámi History (Boston: Brill, 2014).

  • Neil Price, The Viking Way: Magic and Mind in Late Iron Age Scandinavia (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019).

  • Siân Grønlie, The Saint and the Saga Hero: Hagiography and Early Icelandic Literature (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2017), chapter 5: ‘The Outlaw, the Exile, and the Desert Saint’.


Alison Owen is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge in the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She is studying the inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations between medieval Scandinavia and the rest of the world, especially the impact of Christianity on those relations.

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