Sami People: Religion, Beliefs, and Deities

A reindeer breeder and a reindeer.
A Sami reindeer herder in Finland, wearing traditional dress. Lars Thulin, Johner / Getty Images

The Sámi people of Norway, Sweden, and Finland have a rich spiritual history that reflects their culture and traditional ways of life. From reindeer herding to animism, the Sámi have found ways to maintain their ancient culture and religious beliefs despite the ever-changing world around them.

Key Takeaways: Sámi People and Religious Beliefs

  • The Sámi of Norway, Finland, and Sweden have faced government-sanctioned religious and cultural discrimination.
  • The Sámi religious structure is a rich system of shamanic beliefs, that is both polytheistic and animistic. Traditional spirituality holds that all things in the natural world—rocks, rivers, trees—have a spirit and a life force.
  • Among the Sámi's polytheistic religious beliefs, four of the most important beings are the Father, the Mother, the Son, and the Daughter, called Radienacca, Radienacce, Radienkiedde, and Radienneida.
  • There's been a resurgence of interest in the shamanistic Sámi beliefs, and Disney even consulted with indigenous elders for insight on the film Frozen II.

History and Origins of the Sámi

Although their ancestral lands are not formally delineated, the Sámi people are an indigenous group who have made their home in parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and some areas of northwestern Russia for the past 3,500 years. Though they are considered part of the Arctic peoples, in the Middle Ages their territory ranged far into southern Norway and Sweden.

Traditional ethnographic sami bag made of deer fur.
Traditional Sami bags made of reindeer fur and beads. maylat / Getty Images

As nomadic people, they kept their communities very separate from their Norwegian and Swedish neighbors. Primarily working as reindeer herders and fishermen, the Sámi have typically lived along Norway's coasts and in the mountainous regions. The Sámi of the past usually migrated in units of five or six families, accompanied by their reindeer herds.

During the 1800s, as Christianity reached the Sámi and their traditional beliefs were pushed aside, many Sámi found themselves the victims of discrimination and oppression from the Norwegian government. Much like North America's Native population, the Sámi experienced a suppression of their language and culture, along with forced sterilization in Norway. Children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to state-run missionary schools, where they were only permitted to speak Norwegian and could be punished if they used the various languages of their Sámi ancestors.

During the first several decades of the 20th century, Norway began a concentrated and focused effort to eliminate the Sámi completely, requiring that all land transactions be conducted by people who spoke Norwegian and had Norwegian names. In addition, legislation passed in 1913 allowed the Norwegian government to take land from the Sámi and grant it to Norwegian settlers who wanted to move to the north. Finally, during World War II, many Sámi lost their homes and ancestral lands following attacks by the German army into Finland and Norway.

The land in which the Sámi live today, known as Sapmi, is full of natural resources—timber, minerals, and oil, for instance—and much of their territory has been subject to environmental and cultural threats, endangering their ability to continue their traditional herding livelihood. In 1990, Norway finally recognized the Sámi as an indigenous people, in an effort to help protect their land, culture, and traditions.

Sámi Shamanism, Deities, and Beliefs

Sami shaman
A Sami shaman plays a traditional drum. ValerijaP / Getty Images

Although many of today's Sámi people follow the Lutheran religion that is prevalent in Scandinavian countries, in the past, their religious structure was a rich system of shamanic beliefs, that was both polytheistic and animistic. Sámi traditional spirituality holds that all things in the natural world—rocks, rivers, trees—have a spirit and a life force. In addition, there are numerous deities and spirits which are seen as sacred. Finally, traditional Sámi culture involves veneration of the ancestors and their spirits.

Among the Sámi's polytheistic religious beliefs, four of the most important beings are the Father, the Mother, the Son, and the Daughter, called Radienacca, Radienacce, Radienkiedde, and Radienneida. In addition, there is Horagalles, a god of thunder and fire, the sun goddess Beive, and a moon goddess called Manno. There is also Jabemeahkka, a powerful goddess of death.

Like many Pagan groups of the past and present, the Sámi celebrate an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth. According to the Norway Panorama website, the Sámi shamans are called the Noaide. Traditions are passed on from one generation to the next, with aging Noaidi training younger relatives to replace them after death:

While training went on as long as the Noaide lived but the pupil had to prove his or her skills before a group of Noaidi before being eligible to become a fully fledged shaman at the death of his or her mentor.

The Noaide served as both a protector and healer in the Sámi community, as well as serving as the intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead. Part of the shamanic experience involves yoiking, a rhythmic chant accompanied by a sacred drum used in trancework. The drum itself was a spiritual tool; figures drawn upon it represent the world of the spirit realm.

The Sámi Today

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Sami families were attended to the premiere of Disney's Frozen 2. AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images

Today's Sámi are returning to their spiritual roots. In Norway, during the 1980s, shamanism began to see a resurgence. This was partly due to the influence of author and journalist Ailo Gaup, himself a shaman from the Sámi community, whose novels helped reawaken interest in Sámi spirituality.

In 2012, the Norwegian government approved of the Shamanistic Association (SA) as a legally recognized religion. Researcher Trude Fonneland, Professor of Cultural Studies at Tromsø University Museum, wrote:

In Norway, this was the first time a shamanic movement was able to obtain the status of an official religious community with the right to offer and perform life cycle ceremonies and gain financial support relative to its membership... the intention behind the establishment of SA is that the association will develop into a unifying force with the ability to strengthen individuals’ and groups’ rights to practice shamanism.

In 2017, a new campaign was launched in Sweden to highlight the racial and religious discrimination that the Sámi people still face regularly.

Moviemaking giant Disney Studios highlighted the culture and spirituality of the Sámi in their film Frozen II, and even took the time to sign an agreement with indigenous elders. Filmmakers collaborated with a Sámi advisory group in order to make sure that Sámi traditions were portrayed in a culturally relevant and respectful way.

Sources

  • Fonneland, Trude. “Shamanism in Contemporary Norway: Concepts in Conflict.” Religions, vol. 9, no. 7, 2018, p. 223., doi:10.3390/rel9070223. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/9/7/223/pdf
  • Holloway, Allan Ivaar. The Decline of the Sámi People's Indigenous Religion, www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/diehtu/siida/christian/decline.htm.
  • Lawrence, Birta Jennifer. “Ailo Gaup's Adaptation of Sámi Spirituality in In Search of the Drum and The Night Between the Days.” Sami Culture, www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/diehtu/giella/lit/gaup.htm.
  • Meyer, Jaime, et al. “Untwisting the Story of Reindeer.” Society for Shamanic Practice, shamanicpractice.org/article/untwisting-the-story-of-reindeer/.
  • Roden, Lee. “Campaign Launched to Highlight 'Everyday Racism' against Sami People.” Thelocal.se, www.thelocal.se/20170328/campaign-launched-to-highlight-everyday-racism-against-sami-people.
  • Rydving, Håkan. The End of Drum-Time: Religious Change among the Lule Saami, 1670s-1740s. Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993.
  • “Shamanism Approved as a Religion in Norway.” The Nordic Page, 15 Mar. 2012, www.tnp.no/norway/panorama/2792-shamanism-approved-as-a-religion-in-norway.