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 .