A journey leads the author to the north of Scandinavia, to Sápmi. In his exploration of this distant land and the history of the last shamanic culture in Europe, he discovers approaches for shamanic work at home.
For someone who has lived in Central Europe all his life, it is hard to imagine the unsettled vastness of Sápmi. In some regions, you can see for miles on higher viewpoints, over mountain ridges, plains, moors, rivers and lakes, without a trace of human development. And even in inhabited areas, sprawling forests and extensive swamps with a diverse flora and fauna stretch between the human settlements.
What sounds romantic is in fact a highly challenging landscape that constantly puts survival to the test; both today, but especially during the long period of human history when modern technologies were not yet available.
This is exactly what the Sámi and their ancestors, an indigenous folk with shamanic roots, have managed to do over thousands of years with their nomadic way of life. (1) Sápmi refers to the (sub-)arctic territories of Northern Europe that are part of the historical settlement area of the Sámi. Today they are located in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.
It is true that the Sámi culture and their spirituality have been subjected to brutal persecution and oppression in past centuries; and in some cases they still are. Nevertheless, billboards in Sámi administered regions still inform about a world view that is essential to shamanism: “Everything in nature has a spirit and humans are just a small part of something greater”. (2)
Dramatic Climate Change in the Arctic
Perhaps it is this view and a way of life embedded in the rhythms of nature that has enabled the Sámi to survive successfully for so long. And maybe their story can serve as inspiration to our modern societies, which are facing drastic changes in natural rhythms. After all, a 2019 UN report on biodiversity had highlighted the relevance of indigenous people for positive developments in ecological pursuits. (3)
The landscapes of Sápmi are so breathtakingly beautiful that the sight of them makes threatening developments such as climate change seem a distant memory. But appearances are deceptive: the Arctic and the creatures living there are particularly hard hit. The region is currently warming three times faster than other parts of the world, causing tens of thousands of animals to starve to death every year. By the middle of the century, the summer ice of the Arctic could already have disappeared. (4)
As the great glaciers melt, reindeer – the almost iconic farm animals of the Sámi – can no longer find food under the snow in winter. This is due to the rapid change of warmer and colder periods in winter, which causes hard layers of ice to form on the snow, making it impossible for the animals to find food.
The consequences of this change go much further: houses are sinking into melting permafrost and the economic damage to the people who live closely connected to their herd animals is enormous; their culture is further threatened. At the same time, tourism, freight traffic and pollution are increasing dramatically in the far north, with devastating consequences for the ecology. Finally, there is even the threat of political conflicts over the new regions, shipping routes and resources that the melting ice is releasing.
In other words, the Anthropocene, the age in which human activity, as one of the biggest influencing factors, determines the fate of all living beings and their environment, has arrived in the Arctic. (5) But what does all this have to do with the Sámi way of life or with shamanism?
Being embedded in the Cycles of a Landscape
In order to survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, the Sámi lived a highly adapted life embedded in and dependent on the cycles of nature. They divided these into a total of eight seasons of different lengths, which are closely linked to the behaviour of the reindeer and the observation of other natural phenomena. It has been the season that defined different types of work. Thereby, the weather determined daily routine. (6) A day of packed hiking in pouring rain through the highlands at least gave me an idea of what it means to be embedded in this landscape on a daily basis.
Today´s Padjelanta-National Park in northern Sweden, an alpine plateau above the tree line, was visited by the Sámi from the beginning of May, for example, when a good supply of food for the herds and lakes rich in fish attracted them. Fascinatingly, they lived in these areas for at least 6,000 years, but hardly changed the natural environment. Where one might expect extensive facilities, ruins or other cultural legacies finds fireplaces that were in continuous use in the same place for a period of about 1,500 years instead. (7)
The people are still proud of this resource-saving, sustainable use of the natural habitat today. The fact that they did not erect buildings, but lived freely under the sky in tents reminiscent of North American tepees, is also part of the “Sámi way of life”. (8)
It is striking that many myths and fairy tales of Sámi and other Arctic folks revolve around humbleness towards nature and respect for the natural order – as well as the misfortune that befalls those who have violated it. According to these stories, it takes gratitude, consideration and rituals to preserve the cycles of nature and save people from apocalyptic events such as a great flood or the collapse of the sky. (9) In the face of climate change and melting ice, this provokes the question of whether these people were already aware of the finely tuned ecosystems in which they lived. Perhaps they knew that a change in natural cycles is dangerous for our survival.
To what degree this way of life is the result of everyday, conscious interaction with the spirits can only be speculated. At least it shows an attitude that contributed not exclusively to the well-being of a human community, but to the whole community of life in this landscape. (10) Shamanic practice was at least a part of this.
Shamanism in Sápmi
The spiritual version of observing nature was divination, i.e. the generation of knowledge by consulting the spirits and by applying oracle techniques. (11) For example, the Sámi shamans, the Noiadi, placed power objects as pointers on their drums. (12) They beat the drums and could read answers to their questions from the movements of the objects, such as where wild could be found for hunting, when will be the right time to move on or what were the causes and possible solutions for an illness. In this way they also identified sacrifices and gifts that were needed to ensure the well-being of their community. (13)
The so-called siedi played a peculiar role in this. Siedi, influential local spirits, are said to be responsible for the protection of the surrounding landscape and the animals living there. They usually inhabited special stones and rocks, crafted tree trunks or other prominent places and objects in nature. The rock or the wooden sculpture was both the image and the embodiment of the siedi. Siedi, for example, ensured successful hunting and rich fishing when they were given a share of the prey. Accordingly, it was they who were addressed to lead prey to the people. Both, people and the spirits, had to contribute something to the successful interaction. (14)
Although much knowledge about pre-Christian spirituality has been lost, some of the practice has survived or been revived to this day. For example, the exhibition guide of the Swedish fell and Sámi museum Ájtte in Jokkmokk said: “We Sámi regard the sacred sites with reverence and respect. Sometimes we avoid them altogether, but we know where they are and what they are called.” A contemporary Sámi blogger even describes how offerings are again openly laid out at some well-known siedi today. (15)
Core-Shamanism in the Here and Now
Certainly, a multi-day hike in Sápmi cannot be compared to the routine everyday life of a culture. Nevertheless, I remember impressively how contacting the spirits can facilitate safe movement through nature and the day. One evening we pitched out tent on a plateau overgrown with birch trees and blueberries. The next morning, the landscape, close to the Áhkká massif, sacred in Sámi-mythology, was enclosed in thick fog.
There was uncertainty about whether heavy rain was to be expected that day and which route to take. Asking for clarity, we sang a song of power and left part of our breakfast to the place, whereupon the fog lifted and one of the sunniest and warmest days of the trip began. It was the experience of responsiveness by the nature spirits that created confidence and orientation in us. What assistance the spirits gave the former nomads to deal with snow, cold up to -50°C, lack of food or the long darkness in winter can only be guessed at.
People in Europe today no longer live in a shamanic or nomadic culture, including the Sámi, even if elements have survived there. (16) But this is not necessary for working with the spirits. Most Sámi today, of course, also use modern technologies, such as snowmobiles, drones or motorboats, and only live seasonally with the reindeer. They adapted, just as they are trying to adapt to the realities of climate change. But will we succeed as a global society?
The landscapes in Sápmi and the encounter with the spirits on site was impressive. Ultimately the intense experience of nature leads us to seeking contact with the spirits in our own life realities. Core shamanism offers many possibilities for this: Techniques of divination are also suitable for modern everyday life to receive helpful advice from the perspective of compassionate spirits. Applied methodically, the interplay between people and spirits offers a powerful basis for carving out solutions in challenging times, among other things. Furthermore, the spirits of nature are not only accessible in faraway places, but also in our own living environment. (17) Shamanic practitioners can build relationships with places of power, help support their beauty and quality, and thus make them more accessible to the whole community.
At best, these ways and practices teach us something about how we can consciously shape our lives in harmony with the rhythms and cycles of the very nature in us and around us – as the Sámi demonstrate.
Alexander Jatscha is a shamanic practitioner living in Kempten, Germany. In August 2020 he had the possibility to travel to Sápmi, which inspired this article.
Photos: Alexander Jatscha
Sources and Comments
(1) Archaeological findings show that northern Scandinavia was already inhabited by Stone Age peoples who belonged to a larger circumpolar cultural circle around 10,000 years ago. A certain form of asbestos pottery from the period from about 1,500 BC to 300 AD is considered a decisive feature of distinct Sámi culture. See Kuoljok, Sunna; Utsi, John-Erling (1993): Die Samen. Volk der Sonne und des Windes. Jokkmokk: Ájtte, Schwedisches Fjäll- und Samenmuseum. pp. 6-8.
(2) Laponia, World Heritage in Swedish Lapland: blackboard in Padjelanta National Park near Gisuris Refuge; visited in August 2020.
(3) Ayoub, Nadja (2019): https://utopia.de/un-studie-artenvielfalt-biodiversitaet-131237/; 13.10.2020.
(4) Dickie, Gloria (2020): https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2020/oct/13/arctic-ice-melting-climate-change-global-warming; 13.10.2020.
(5) The far-reaching consequences of this development are shown in the exhibition “The Arctic – While the Ice is Melting” by the Nordic Museum and Stockholm University, based on three years of interdisciplinary research. Vgl. Nordiska Museet (2019): https://www.nordiskamuseet.se/en/exhibitions/arctic-while-the-ice-is-melting; 13.10.20, and the resulting anthology: Gustafsson Reinius, Lotten (Hrsg., 2020): Arktiska spår. Natur och kultur i rörelse. Stockholm: Nordiska Museet Förlaget.
(6) Jonsson, Ella (2020): https://www.swedishlapland.com/stories/the-eight-seasons/; 13.10.2020; Redding, Stephanie: https://www.laits.utexas.edu/sami/dieda/anthro/concept-time.htm; 14.10.2020.
(7) Laponia, World Heritage in Swedish Lapland: Blackboard in Padjelanta National Park near Gisuris Refuge; visited in August 2020.
(8) Personal notice in August 2020 from Markus, a crew member of the ferry M/S Storlule, which sails on the Áhkájávrre reservoir in summer. A German-language flyer from the Sami Information Centre, an archive of information about the Sámi, puts it this way: “Sami culture for us is catching reindeer, going hunting, making coffee, hiking in nature, the how and what we live and experience there – under bare skies.”
(9) Deaton, Jeremy (?): https://theyearsproject.com/learn/news/these-apocalyptic-myths-are-coming-true-thanks-to-climate-change/; 03.11.2020.
(10) That shamans and shamanic practitioners serve the larger community is also an essential tenet of Core Shamanism. See Erle, Adele (2020): https://www.shamanism.eu/shamans-serve-the-community/; 03.11.2020.
(11) Also see: Roland Urban (2015): Divination – Die Kunst der Weissagung. https://www.shamanicstudies.net/divination-die-kunst-der-weissagung/; 14.10.2020. Detailed information about their daily divinatory practice is known from another people near the Arctic Circle, the Naskapi. Day after day, divination was an important tool for hunting and survival. See Speck, Frank: Naskapi (1977; Original: 1935): The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 128-173.
(12) Joy Francis has made his dissertation on sámic drums publicly available: Francis, Joy (2018): Sámi Shamanism, Cosmology and Art as Systems of Embedded Knowledge. Rovaniemi: Lapland University Press. (See https://lauda.ulapland.fi/handle/10024/63178; 04.11.2020).
(13) Kuoljok, Utsi (1993), p. 24. Gaup, Ailo (2016): Das Herz des Nordens. Ein Sami Schamane erzählt. Übers. von Margit Berg. Böhl-Iggelheim: Veth Verlag. p. 183.
(14) Pulkkinnen, Risto (2014): https://saamelaisensyklopedia.fi/wiki/Sieidi#tab=English; 03.11.2020. Mulk, Inga-Maria (1997): Sámi Cultural Heritage in the Laponian World Heritage Area. Jokkmokk: Ájtte, Swedish Mountain and Sámi Museum. pp. 27-31.
(15) Kåven, Elin, Svonni, Jungle (2018): https://beneathnorthernlights.com/sieidi-a-holy-rock/; 03.11.2020.
(16) Particularly in view of the strong climate change in the Arctic regions, the Sámi are facing some drastic adaptations. Tisdall, Simon (2010): https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/mar/10/sami-finland-climate-change; 03.11.2020. Global Geneva (2018): https://www.global-geneva.com/northern-reindeer-adapting-to-survive/; 03.11.2020.
(17) Working with the spirits of nature, for example, can include cooperating with them locally, as in your own garden. Cf. Huguelit, Laurent (2018): „Das wiederentdeckte Paradies: Mit den Geistern im Garten“, in: Roland Urban, Laurent Huguelit (ed.): Schamanismus und Ökologie. Wartberg ob der Aist: The Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe. pp. 90-94.