Sami Deities and Mythic Figures
Craig Chalquist, PhD
Myths are able to give answers that modern knowledge systems cannot afford to give. In post-modern times and beyond, myths help to stretch the boundaries of the prevailing worldviews and modes of thought.
-- Elina Helander-Renvall
The Sami are indigenous to lands of northern Scandinavia now carved up into Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, a reach formerly referred to as Lappland. As a people with a conscious relationship to their lands, the Sami have learned over the centuries how to work within and around artificial political demarcations. Survivors of centuries of political and religious persecution, particularly by Christian missionaries from the twelfth century onward, the Sami learned to embrace those aspects of modernity that do not conflict with their ancient ethnic character; some, for example, continue to fish, hunt, trap, and herd reindeer even while they maintain global contact with satellite phones and the Internet.
At the same time, they demonstrate how a people millennia old can be a nonviolent culture. (The sole exception to this was a violent incident perpetrated in 1852 by a small group of Sami converted to a fundamentalit form of Christianity.) Except for brief periods, the Sami never found themselves captured by monocrop agriculture and all it brings: territoriality, centralized power, patriarchy, warfare. In 98 AD, Tacitus wrote about their earth-based style of community, "Such a condition they judge more happy than the painful occupation of cultivating the ground, than the labor of rearing houses, than the agitations of hope and fear attending the defense of their own property or the seizing that of others." He marveled that the Sami seemed to want nothing else for their happiness.
>Relatively little Sami mythology has been translated into English from the nine extant Sami languages so rich in nature imagery. Lutheran pastor Levi Laestadius collected some fragments back in the 1800s, but his accounts are marred by poor storytelling and unconvincing attempts to explain away the stories as superstitious, pre-rational explanations for lost historical or scientific facts. More recently, Elina Helander-Renvall has published a small book of Sami tales (Silde: Sami Mythic Texts and Stories, 2004).
Although repressed by the missionaries, vestiges of Sami mythology remain intact. Unlike the abstract ideals personified in Greek and Roman myth, Sami myth has remained close to the earth, a reminder that all mythic tales, images, and lore moves in landscapes still magical and alive. Sami stories live on such intimate terms with sun and moon, rain and snow, rock and hill that they invite us to think of mythology as the shining, numinous inside story of the natural world when experienced as sacred.
See also my page on Celtic deities, another on Nordic and Germanic myths and deities, and a Gnostic Glossary.
My thanks to my friend and colleague Marilyn Fowler for introducing me to Sami culture.
Akka (also Akko, Rowan, or Raudna, "The Childless One"): crone wife of Horagalles; worshipped near rocks or mountain caves. Reminiscent of the Cailleach of Ireland. In some ways resembles Sif, wife of Thor.
Aknidi: daughter of the sun. She lived among humans for a time, teaching embroidering, story-telling, sea songs, button-making, and other skills until people jealous of her beauty and talent crushed her beneath a large rock, whereupon she went back to the sky. Compare Athena/Minerva, White Buffalo Calf Woman, Brigid.
Apara: the ghost of a murdered child.
Arne: guardian spirit of the arnehawde, pits containing hidden treasures. One could find them by the smoke they emanated. The conditions of whomever buried the treasure had to be fulfilled to retrieve it, with the arne overseeing the entire operation.
Bassa Aske (also Mannu): the moon.
Beaivi: feminine name of the sun.
Beaivvas: masculine name of the sun.
Bieggolmmai: shovel-carrying god of the winds and tempests. Compare Poseidon and Neptune.
Boahjenasti: the North Star, around which the pole of the world turns. Ritual acts of sacrifice and other libations of attentive consciousness keep this pillar of the world from falling and plunging everything into senseless unconsciousness.
Boasso-ahkka: guardian household spirit of men's sacred space and activities.
Diermmes: a giant hammer-wielding thunder god who controls storms and grasps a rainbow in one hand and a lightning-throwing bow in the other. As with Thor and Jormungand, Diermmes chases Meandas-pyyrre (also called Golle Coarveheargi), a fabulous golden-antlered reindeer with a black head, a white body, burning eyes, and a silver coat. He will eventually reach the reindeer and has already hit it with his first arrow, causing the world to suffer widening deserts, barren oceans, and lack of rain. The second arrow begins to boil the mountains and melt the northern ices (sound familiar?). When Diermmes finally gets close enough to stab Meandas-pyyrre, the sun and moon will go out, and the world will come to an end.
Dirran: the trance state used by noaidi during shamanic work.
Eanan: the goddess Earth. Compare Gaia, Terra, Turquoise (or Changing) Woman of the Navajo.
Gazzi: guardian spirits. Each person is born with one.
Geddekis Akko (or Geddekis Galggo): a ruler of wind and weather who granted earnest wishes.
Goahti: a Sami home. The home is also a shrine inhabited by household deities and spirits something like the Roman lares.
Gufihtar (also Maahiset, Saiwo-olmah, Ulda, Underboniga, Vittra, or Kadnihah): attractive folk who live in the earth. Lucky to be around, but when asked to visit their realm, one should not eat or drink there lest one get stuck underground. Throwing a piece of steel over their reindeer allowed one to keep them. Compare with the Irish People of the Sidhe (fairies).
Guopvssahasat: the Northern Lights, who will punish those who fail to appreciate their beauty.
Haldi (also Maddu): sprites of places and of animals. Every grove, shore, hill, etc. contained such a genius loci.
Horagalles ("Thunder Hero"; also Tiermes, "Hill Man," or Ukko): a thunder god who bore two hammers. He treated trolls pretty much the way Thor did, flattening them whenever convenient. (In Scandinavian mythology, lightning-wielding gods provided a cosmic balance against what Jung called giantism: anything powerful inflated far beyond normal or healthy limitations.)
Iami Aimo: a kind of Valhalla realm within the underworld.
Jabma Aimo: the underworld.
Jabbmeaaakka: powerful underworld goddess comparable to Persephone, Proserpina, or Hel.
Jeetanis: giants. Inflated, but not necessarily hostile. Some outcroppings and hillocks are named after giants.
Joiks (yoiks): a capella traditional song chants, usually with few or no lyrics. Noiaidi possessed special songs that allowed them to work powerful magical transformations, singing things into being or changing.
Juksahkka ("Bow Woman"): goddess who can make an unborn child male; also an instructor of boys. She lived near the entrance of the home. In some ways reminiscent of Athena/Minerva.
Junkars: nature spirits who promote hunting and trapping.
Juovlajohttit: the "Christmas Travelers," spirits in sleds that only some people can see. Looking upon them as they move across the sky can be dangerous to the looker. In some versions they wore red and were pulled by reindeers, a story that eventually caught the attention of Coca Cola.
Kowre: a reindeer deity skinned without use of a metal tool.
Leibolmmai ("Alder Man"): the god of the hunt and the forest and its animals. Compare Cernunnos, Pan, and the archetypal Green Man.
Manalaiset: the souls of dead people.
Mattarahkka: earth goddess mother of the daughters Sarahkka, Juksahkka, and Uksahkka. She received souls sent down for incarnation by the god Radien.
Mader Akko: a goddess who restored eyesight and hearing and could see in the dark. She also guided the lost and was worshipped at an altar of three flat stones. Compare Hekate.
Naideh: soothsaying priests (as opposed to noaidi) who carried out ceremonial work and sacrifices.
Niekija: lovely daughter of the moon, with a red face and silver hair. When Beaivvas sent his son Peivalke to woo her, Peivalke himself fell for her. When the moon concealed her on an island, she was seen by Nainnas, leader of the Northern Lights, who also fell for her, and she for him. But she remained with her mother the moon, and the lovers look at each other across the night sky.
Noaidi: shaman. Noiadi conducted healing rituals, prophecied, forecast the weather, retrieve lost souls (in Sami lore each person has a body soul and a free soul that roams when the body is unconscious), and beat a ritual drum decorated with sacred art. At one time missionaries persecuted them, ridiculed their wisdom, and burned their drums: drums whose heads were adorned with elaborate cosmic maps and symbols. Animals safely guide the noaidi, as does the morning star.
Padnakjunne ("Dog-Face"): cannibalistic humanoids with dog snouts.
Passe ("sacred" or "sanctuary"): altar or sacred place. The word points to the cooking done for sacrificing in gratitude to a god.
Radien Attje ("powerful father"): all-ruling god of the upper sky. From him descend human souls that go to Mattarahkka and then to her daughter Sarahkka for incarnation into earthly life. He usually worked through his son. Compare Zeus.
Rana Niejta ("Green Fertile Fields"): springtime daughter of Radien. She made everything bloom. Similar to the German Flora.
Ruotta and Japmeahkka: spirits of sickness and death. They like to infest merchants' goods and sailing ships.
Sala Niejta: daughter of the sun who ended the cold and snows every year.
Saiwo: the underground realm (but not the underworld of the dead) where the Gufihtar or Saiwo-olmah lived like the Irish Sidhe folk. Lucky if allied or traded with. Their magical animals were passed down through families as inheritances. Saiwo-loddeh were magic birds employed by the noaidi.
Saiwo-neidah (also Kadnihah): alluring saiwo maidens in red dresses; their hair is like green linen. Their singing is beautiful to hear. Not as deadly as the Sirens or the Lorelei.
Sapmi: the Sami homelands.
Sarahkka: a well-respected goddess who molds an unborn baby's body around a soul. She also helps the mother give birth and sat near the hearth. Drinks were offered to her by women, who also ate a special gruel in her honor. Similar to Artemis/Diana.
Sarvvabivdu: a cosmic elk hunt reflected in the constellations Gemini, Castor, and Pollux. See Diermmes.
Serpent stone: lucky egg-shaped magic stone said to be possessed by serpent kings. If stolen the wielder could use it for health and wealth but had to avoid all the relentless serpents who came in pursuit.
Shakkalag: child-sized spirits who lay in the ground just below the surface. Their bellies are stuffed with silver coins.
Siedi (also Storjunkare): sacred sites, whether natural or made by humans, around which clans gathered. Offerings are occasionally still left at them. Some are unusually shaped stones or rocks whose markings and holes are reminiscent of humans, animals, gods, etc. A stone taken from such a place will grow lighter when the bearer guesses what the place wants.
Sierg-Edne (or -Siedga: "Willow Mother"): wife of Radien and creator of souls.
Siida: village. Colonization by European nation states worked to break down the original siida system, but in places it continues to function.
Silde: a tricksterish spirit who upsets travel plans and scatters reindeer herds. He can bring riches and health, but also death if one fears him. Compare Hermes and Mercury.
Sjo ra: sea sprites.
Stallu: large, stupid trolls who like to challenge people to fights. When beaten they lie still on the ground waiting for their heads to be cut off and their store of silver taken. They own dogs, sometimes wear red hats, and often steal children, fatten them up, and eat them. Their knives bring misfortune when collected.
Stuorra-Jovnna: a figure of Sami folklore who could turn into a wolf.
Suologievra: the wolf spirit who traverses the lower, middle, and upper worlds.
Tarvopaike: a particular place where one prays to the gods.
Tille: animals called into human service through magic.
Tjatse Olmai: a sprite tended by sitting on the shores of rapids and voicing what one wants to obtain while offering a silver coin. His voice would reply. His assistant was Nekke.
Tonta: a stallu with one eye who sticks close to a particular place it guards. Reminiscent of the Irish Formorians.
Trollkaringa: troll women. One of them, Atsitje, was married to the original Stallu.
Uksahkka ("Door Wife"): midwife helper of newborns and protector of menstruating women and of children from illnesses and other dangers. In homes she stood near the door.
Ulda: Gufihtar who carry off babies. Mothers would place silver amulets around their children to prevent this.
Vadas: a being who wrecked ships with storms.
Varalden Olmai (also Radien Kiedde): Radien's son.
Vuorwro (also Heiman): a night-wandering female spirit who eats slumberers in rooms that contain no water. Contrast with the succubus and Lilith.