Inari - a Meeting Place for People and Cultures

Since the prehistoric times, Lake Inarijärvi area has been important to people. Remains of 9000 years old settlements have been found. It is known that the oldest Sámi settlements have been in the area already 4000 years ago. The winter villages of the ancient Inari Sámi people were located along Nukkumajoki River in the 1400s andthe 1500s. In the old days, Sámi people lived together in villages in the winter, and each family moved to their own summer fields in the summer.

Old crosses. Photo: Pasi Nivasalo/MH.In Inari area, there are many sacred places from the times before Christianity, such as Ukonsaari Island and Otsamotunturi Fell, and memorials of the Christian times, such as the Graveyard Islands and Lake Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church.

The village of Inari, located in the intersection of routes, has always been a meeting place for people as well as cultures. Fishermen, reindeer herders, people exercising the natural sources of livelihood, gold diggers, artists, craftsmen, people in tourism business, and officials have things to do there, and they all meet each other. In Inari area, most sources of livelihood have something to do with the natural environment. The history is still present in Inari, and you can feel the atmosphere and life style of Lapland wilderness, which has disappeared in the south a long time ago. In Inari, you can find many very skillful craftsmen and artists, whose products are sold in the shops in the village of Inari.


Pielpajärvi Became the Centre of Inari

The areas around Lake Inarijärvi have been inhabited by the Inari Sámi people for a very long time. The Inari Sámi people's most important sources of livelihood were fishing and hunting. Reindeer husbandry was small-scale, and reindeer were chiefly used as pack and draught animals.

The annual migration cycle was an integral part of the Inari Sámi people's way of life. From spring to autumn, the families moved from one place to another depending on the hunting and fishing destinations. However, for winter the families gathered in one place of dwelling, i.e., the winter village. The winter village was the centre of social life and was also visited by merchants, ministers as well as the tax authorities. In the early 1600s, the winter village of Inari was moved to Pielpajärvi, which functioned as Inari's centre for a long time.

The First Church in Pielpajärvi

Consequently, it was only natural that the first church in Inari was built in Pielpajärvi. However, it was too small for people's needs right after it was completed. It was also difficult to get a minister to Pielpajärvi as there was no proper dwelling for him. The minister therefore only visited Inari once or twice a year.

Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church. Photo: Pasi Nivasalo/MH.

The church service was a major event at the time. The event took one or one and a half weeks in winter and two or three days in summer. During that time people stayed in church cabins that were built on the church grounds. Besides religious affairs, worldly matters were also attended to: the minister and the parish clerk educated people and taught children, the market was organised, tax was levied and court sessions were also often held.

The New Church

The building of a new church became topical in the mid-1700s, when the old church was in disrepair and almost falling down. The construction work for the current church of Pielpajärvi began in 1752 and was completed in 1760. The new church was probably built on top of the old church, as was the custom of the time.

The shape of the church is a cross with almost equal arms. It is 14 metres long from north to south and 13.6 metres long from east to west. In 1760 - 1766 a belfry was built as an extension to the western transept. The lower part of the belfry functions as the church porch. The church galleries are located in the northern and western transepts. The stony church yard is surrounded by a skilfully-made paling fence. There is no graveyard in the vicinity of the church, as the dead were buried, because of beasts of prey, on the nearby Hautuumaasaaret islands.

The church was regularly maintained for a long time but after the mid-1800s, its maintenance was neglected. Consequently, the church was so badly run down that it was beyond repair. It was decided that a new church be built alongside better connections, i.e., by the mouth of River Juutuanjoki, where the current village of Inari had started to develop. The building of the new church was completed in 1888 and use of the Pielpajärvi Church was discontinued.

A New Upswing

The Pielpajärvi Church was reopened in 1940. The church located in the current village of Inari was destroyed in the Winter War bombings earlier that same year, and the Inari prayerhouse was made into a temporary church. However, the Inari inhabitants decided to have a service at Pielpajärvi during Midsummer. This became a tradition that still continues. Nowadays the Easter service is also organised at the Pielpajärvi Church. It is also a popular wedding church.

The church is a relic protected by law. The 30 - 40 church cabins and the parsonage located on the church grounds have been almost completely destroyed. The National Board of Antiquities renovated the church using traditional work methods in 1975 - 1976. Thereafter, it has been repaired and renovated at regular intervals.

Workers moweding in the summer 2017 on the church grounds. Photo: Tuija Kangasniemi/MH.

There is plenty of flora on the church grounds. Metsähallitus has drawn up a management plan for the area. The church grounds have been mowed by voluntary workers in late summer from the year 2000 onwards.

The Sámi World View and Mythology

Studying the old Sámi belief system and traditions has been difficult, as their lifestyle and culture were subjected to an abrupt change as a consequence of Christian conversion and state intervention in the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the old traditional knowledge has been collected, but the collectors were typically clergymen or other representatives of a foreign culture, so the information should be viewed with caution. Ethnological and archaeological studies have also shed light on the old Sámi spiritual culture.

Man and Nature Are One

According to the Sámi world view, man and nature were one. To the Sámi people, nature was home, a way of life, the past and the future. In the Sámi world view, as in that of other arctic peoples, the well-being of man and nature alike was directly dependent upon the balance between the two. As the surrounding nature was considered a part of man, the power of nature was also considered a part of man's power. A deterioration in man's relationship with nature and the breaking of the balance led to a deterioration in man's power. The surrounding world was respected and its integrity protected in order to not upset the balance.

Where Finnish agrarian culture viewed nature as something that man was supposed to either submit to or, in accordance with Christian views, control and master, the Sámi people sought to adjust to nature without changing it. Natural resources were utilised only as much as was necessary, as people understood that their own survival depended upon the regeneration of those resources. The notion of a connection and inter-dependence between man and nature has largely been preserved in today's Sámi philosophy as well.

Shamanism and Rituals

Various rituals helped to maintain the relationship between man's inner world and the world surrounding him, both on the level of the individual and that of the community. By acting in a given way and following behavioural models and rules, people thought they could influence nature and their own living conditions. Nature worship played an important role in Sámi spiritual traditions. The deities were nature spirits, such as the gods of thunder, wind, water and hunting. Most Sámi ceremonies and rituals were related to making a living, from hunting and fishing in particular. With the aid of sacrificial offerings, people asked for good hunting, and when nature bestowed its bounty, it was thanked with gifts.

Sámi shamanism was a way of conceiving the world and acting in it. The world was constructed of three levels: the netherworld, the middle world and the upper world. The netherworld was inhabited by the deceased and the gnomes, the middle world by people and earth spirits and the upper world by the gods. The shaman, or noaidi in North Sámi, was the most important member of a Sámi community as the keeper of order amongst the people. The noaidi's task was to foster the community's well-being. He was in contact with the beyond, he healed the sick and predicted the future. He worked to secure good hunting and fishing and to protect the hunting and fishing grounds, and he took care of the natural resources. The noaidi's most important ritualistic symbol and tool was the shaman's drum with mythical images drawn on its membrane made from reindeer skin. With the aid of drumming, the noaidi would fall into a trance, allowing his soul to take on the form of an animal and perform its tasks. The state and church destroyed or confiscated many of the shaman's drums found in Sápmi, the historical Sámi territory. Today, most of the Sámi drums that were spared are stored in museums outside Finland.

Gods and Nature Spirits

Ukko (known in Sámi as, amongst other names, ÄijihDearpmes and Horagállis) was the most important Sámi deity. He was the giver of life and the protector of people's health. As the lord of the clouds, he protected people from evil spirits as they went hunting and fishing. The Inari Sámi people had several sacred places of worship named after Ukko on Lake Inarijärvi, the best-known being at Ukonselkä and Ukonjärvi. Ukko had a wife named Akka, or Ákku in Inari Sámi. According to tradition, Ukko and Ákku always formed a pair. Examples of this are Ukonsaari island and Kalkuvaara hill (Kálguvaarikálgu = wife) in Lake Inarijärvi as well as the Ukko and Ákku in Lake Ukonjärvi.

In his book Suomen lappalaiset, ethnographer T. I. Itkonen describes Ukko, whom he refers to as Ukkonen ("Thunder") as follows:

"Ukkonen has a hammer with which he strikes evil spirits in the head. He gives life to people and protects their health so that not even death may threaten them unless he so wishes. As malicious spirits may hinder the Lapps' hunting and fishing, and as Ukko punishes them accordingly, the people worship him above all other gods. -- The reindeer Lapps of North-East Inari call Ukkonen the ‘Lord of the Clouds' who arrives to clear the air of ailments. Päjän-äd'dä [Thunder-man] rides on a white cloud , carrying on his back a bag of arrows, or lightning, and in his hands two hollow objects, wooden cups, if you will, which he bangs together thus making the rumbling sound of thunder.  He sends rain lest lightning burn the earth."

On Akka, Itkonen writes as follows:

"Ukko's wife was Akka (Ákku). Her abode, not being as sacred and worshiped as Ukko's, is a high hill by the same name on the south-west shore of Lake Inarijärvi, standing between Inarijärvi and Lake Ukonjärvi. It was thought that a tunnel under the lake lead from Ukonsaari Island to Ákku, the two spouses using the tunnel to talk to each other."

The god of wind, Biegga-almmái, ruled the wind and was important particularly because he was able to move reindeer by making the wind blow continuously in one direction. People have made sacrifices for the wind god at, for example, Inari's Tuulispää Fell, some ten kilometres from the Inari parish. The sun was ruled by Beaivváš, and people used to make offerings to him at Midsummer and in the autumn. The god of water, Čáhcealmmái, was worshipped to ask for whatever people wished for at a given time – money, deer, fish or beavers, etc. Máttáráhkká was the mother of life, and her three daughters, SáráhkkáUksáhkká and Júksáhkká represented other significant Sámi goddesses related especially to womanhood, birth and the kota hut.

Some of the most widely known Sámi spirits were the spirits of the home, the water and the woods; the stállu who was hostile to people; the man-eating and blood-sucking vuovru; loddedžan, the protector of the birds; the lávvaráddjá and skuŋká who scared children; as well as the tšahkkal gnomes, gufihttars and uldas who lived beneath the earth. Sámi mythology included a multitude of spirits and magical beings, as everything in nature had its own spirit.


"The Lapps worshipped rocks, raised them as gods and anointed them with fish oils and oils made from reindeer fat, for the human condition is such that one needs to worship something, even if one knows nothing of God."
– An old Sámi man according to S. Paulaharju

A seida (sieidi in Sámi) or a place of worship had a significant role in Sámi rituals. The sacred places were typically natural formations that stood out from their surroundings in one way or another – high cliffs, large boulders, tree stumps, tree columns, islands, springs or fell tops. Seida rocks were more common than wooden seidas, and they were considered more sacred. The siidas, the Sámi village communities, had their own seidas, but extended and immediate families as well as individual people could also have their own seidas. Fishermen, hunters and reindeer herders had their own places of worship: fish seidas, deer seidas and reindeer seidas. Fish seidas were located by water; the hunters' or reindeer herders' seidas were typically on a hill or a fell. There were also seidas that could be used to ask for help with many kinds of needs, independently of one's means of livelihood. Over the course of time, as the means of livelihood changed, the seidas could take on different meanings. People usually went to worship at a seida close to where they lived, but the mighty Taatsi seida in Kittilä, for example, attracted worshipers from faraway areas.

People sacrificed to seidas because they knew that nature's powers could affect hunting and fishing. It was chiefly only men who were allowed to practice sacrificial rites, but women are also known to have had their own places of sacrifice – for example, the Naarassaaret islands (the "female islands") in Lake Inarijärvi. Due to its sacredness, a seida was to be approached with reverence. Before going on hunting or fishing trips, people would go to the seida to beg for favour and assistance. People could also ask the seida for advice on, for instance, which way to go. They would list place names to the seida and take off in the direction of the place at the mention of which the seida would move. The seida was anointed with blood and oils from fish and animals, and people would then make their requests. The seida was promised gifts as thanks if the bounty was plentiful. A fish seida was thanked by bringing it fish heads or whole fish. The seidas were anointed with fish oils, guts and the slime covering the fish. A deer seida was thanked by offering deer antlers, a deer head or sometimes even a whole animal, and it was anointed with deer fat and blood. A reindeer seida was offered antlers dropped by the best animals as well as reindeer bones, skulls and skins. In more recent times, liquor, tobacco, butter, money and other valuables have also been sacrificed to seidas. People used to think that the seida acquired more power from the offerings and created new lives from the animals sacrificed to it.

"The weather is bad.
The fishing is not good.
Should we catch plenty of fish,
we would surely anoint you with oil.
Oh, how you have rusted, you poor thing.
But should we catch plenty of fish,
we will surely bring you oils
to clean you up."

"Should we kill some deer,
the largest crown of antlers
we shall bring to you."

"Should we catch some fish,
a great big whitefish,
the biggest whitefish head
we shall bring to you." 

– Old songs and speeches to seidas, according to S. Paulaharju

If a seida did not fulfil its duty towards the worshiper, it could be punished. A piece was broken off the side of the seida, the offerings brought to it were taken away, or the seida was burnt down. Then, however, the seida could show its might. In his book, Samuli Paulaharju describes the following incident:

"A man from Teno caught some trout by his dam and gave some to the seida. But, as it happened, there was no bounty for the next few days. The man got mad and went to beat his god with birch twigs, jeering:

"You are no god!
I've anointed you with oils,
but you will not give me fish."

When the fisherman went back to his fishing dam, a gust of wind threw his boat over and he nearly drowned. Frightened, he crawled back to the rock to ask that it not be angry anymore."

Well-known seidas in Finland are, amongst others, the Ukko in Lake Inarijärvi, the Taatsi Seida in Kittilä, the Kirkkopahta seida in Muonio, the Outakoski deer seida in Utsjoki and the Näkkälä seida rock in Enontekiö. Many of the seidas were systematically destroyed when the Sámi people were converted to Christianity.

Itkonen, T. I. 1948. Suomen lappalaiset vuoteen 1945. Vol. II. Porvoo: WSOY.
Paulaharju, S. 1932. Seitoja ja seidan palvontaa. Helsinki: Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seura.
Pennanen, J. & Näkkäläjärvi, K. (Eds.) 2000. Siiddastallan – siidoista kyliin. Jyväskylä: Inarin saamelaismuseon julkaisuja n:o 3.
Pentikäinen J. 1995. Saamelaiset. Pohjoisen kansan mytologia. Hämeenlinna: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seuran Toimituksia 596 .