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Prehistoric Swedish Lapland 0 - 1000 AD

The aim of this article is to discuss elements of the economy and religious conduct, and the impact of surrounding areas and people, and their influence in the changes that took place during the first millennia AD in Swedish Lapland.

The northern parts of Sweden has not been the priority of Swedish archeologists and historians, and most of the time and money has been spent to research areas around Stockholm, and south. But all that disinterest is slowly giving way to a newly found curiosity about the northern inlands. Maybe because it is still mostly uncharted waters where interesting discoveries can be made, and maybe partly because of the revival of the Saami self consciousness and their interest to find archeological evidence to prove their claims of being there since times immemorial.

BC - 200 AD

Ceramics containing about 90% of asbestos (Säräisniemi 2), are typically found in northern Scandinavia and Finland and western parts of Russia, and show an eastern influence. The border towards south, where you don't find these artifacts anymore, is very clear, and this division of Sweden lasted for a long time. It was consolidated around 800 BC, and still in 1780, Abraham Hülpers writes in "Samlingar til en Beskrifning öfwer Norrland", that the road finishes in Anundsjö parish in northern Ångermanland, and from there, anyone wishing to continue up to Lapland, had to do it by horse.
This asbestos goods was not suited for cooking; the asbestos threads get off easily, and sides of some of the pots had holes. Some researchers believe instead the goods may have been used in iron production. But, from 200 AD and later, this kind of ceramics is not found anymore, and there is no archeological evidence (so far) that any other techniques to produce iron would have been used later. Was it an earlier (iron producing) culture that disappeared, or the Saami ancestors who just didn't continue with it? Or maybe the pots were used for something completely else? We can only speculate. There are evidence of metal work from around 600 AD, but it consists of rest products indicating forging and/or casting, but no signs of primary production.

Findings After 200 AD

From 200 AD the artifacts scene change. The findings between 200 AD - 1000 AD consist of;

1: Scattered finds of bronze, iron and stone. The iron age begins in Lapland.
2: Dwelling sites in mountains (stalotomter), mostly towards the end of the period.
3: Dwelling sites in forests. Typical towards the end, but found throughout the period.
4: Saami metal depots. Mostly between 1000 AD - 1200AD.

There are no fortifications, large farm-houses or rune-stones north of Limes Norlandicus, so characteristic of the iron age in the southern areas below Lapland.

New Types of Dwellings

Old dwelling sites close to lakes and rivers suggests a hunter/gatherer society. When the findings started to show that people had moved away from water - easy communication routes and food - and into the forests, researchers thought that there should be a good reason for it. And behold, all these new dwellings were found to be situated in perfect grazing lands for the reindeer. It was also concluded that some of these sites had been used for generations, and some of them are still used by the Saami reindeer herders. The archeological findings in, and around, these places, suggests very strongly that they indeed were dwelling sites of Saami ancestors, dating back at least 1400 years, to 600 AD. The hearths have the sizes and shapes comparable to recent day equivalents, and the findings of silver, parts of jewelry, hunting equipment, and other every day utensils, show a correlation with written, historic evidence, and with the findings in Saami metal depots and sacrificial grounds.

Beginning of the Reindeer Herding

Until 600 AD, the Saami ancestors lived mainly by fishing and hunting. Later the fish diet was combined with reindeer and moose, and after the 1300's, reindeer and moose becomes the dominating sources of food. All according to bone fragments found in hearths. This could indicate a change from a hunter/gatherer society to more intensive hunting and a semi-nomadic reindeer herding society, which later became more intensified.
The dwelling sites up in the mountains (stalotomter) are dated to between 500 AD - 1600 AD, with most of them after 800 AD, and are thought of as summer camps of the Saami who followed the reindeers up to the mountains. This hypothesis fits well with the rest of the findings. The hunter/gatherer society started to change it's ways of living around 600 AD, and by 800 AD, they were living a semi-nomadic life. Or to be more precise; some parts of the society went through this change, others probably didn't. At the same time the society is also involved in trading, mainly with their eastern neighbors in present day Finland and Russia. Findings of weights show that the Saami were familiar dealing with silver and gold in accordance with the rest of the nearby civilizations. Round-shaped weights for silver, and cube-shaped weights for gold, scales, and also cut pieces of silver have been found in metal depots and around dwelling places.
The trading intensified and was driving the development of reindeer herding. The reasons for the birth and development of reindeer herding is thus found in external economic and social factors, according to Baudou.

Short Summary

People from south, or maybe west, from Norway, moved in to the bordering areas south of Lapland in the beginning of the millennia, and introduced cultivation, large scale farm houses, iron production, new religious beliefs and customs. The inlands, close to the centers of these new influences, became a somewhat mixed cultural environment where Saami and outside customs were mixed, while the northern inlands were not affected as strongly. When this new iron producing economy became stronger in combination with the establishment of the big cities of Ribe and Hedeby in Denmark, Kaupang in Norway, Birka in Sweden and Novgorod in Russia, the market potential of pelts and meat from northern inlands of Swedish Lapland increased. To keep up with the demand, the Saami started to tame more reindeers, intensified the hunting, and slowly moved into a semi-nomadic reindeer herding life. It seems like the trading had a strong bias towards east, in accordance with earlier cultural exchanges, and the direct trading with the Norwegians to the west and the Swedish to the south was not as developed. Which is kind of natural if we consider that people had moved in to Lapland from the north, coming from Finland and Russia, and had a cultural and linguistic connection to that area. The western mountain range was probably an effective border between the Saami and the Norwegians, and towards the south a different cultural group was living.
Judging from the amount of silver found in metal depots and sacrificial grounds, the trading was successful, and according to one opinion, the society changed from an egalitarian hunter/gatherer culture to a silver and gold based market economy with private property.

Religious Reconstruction

It is very difficult to say anything sure about the religious beliefs of the Saami living in Swedish Lapland almost 2000 years ago. But if we accept the thought that it might have been something similar to the beliefs they had in the 1600's, then we can give it a try. But we do have a problem with the written sources. All of them were written by christian missionaries, with their political and religious agendas, and everything was colored by their christian views and language differences. At the time when these missionaries wrote about their knowledge and experiences, the Saami religion had already been influenced by christian teachings, and the Saami shamanism was fading away. During the 1700's the church was hunting down practitioners and burned all the drums it could get its hands on, and under such pressure, who could blame the Saami if they didn't tell everything to the missionaries, or distorted the truth?
Now, all that said, let's see what kind of religious world we can reconstruct for our iron-age semi-nomads. The ideas could differ somewhat between areas, so this is only a large scale, crude picture.

A Three Layered World

This is a classic division of the existence. Heaven, earth and underworld. Siberian shamans and christians alike are familiar with this one. Some of the sources speak of a further division in a number of semi-layers, but there is conflicting information as to where these layers would be located. The heaven is kept up by maylmen stytto, a world pillar of some sort that, possibly, went thru stella polaris.


The Saami shaman, nåjd, was the carrier of culture, traditions and religion. He was both human and divine, and people both revered and feared him. As easy as he could cure someone, he could also hit anyone with calamity and death. A nåjd could be male or female. Most of the time he conducted his reindeer herding duties just like anybody else, but when needed, he could use he's shamanic powers to try to fix things if the spirit world seemed grumpy; bad hunting, bad weather, trolls scaring the reindeers or someone being sick. In accordance with his Central-Asian and Siberian equivalences, it was not necessary for the Saami nåjd to be present at all religious ceremonies. He was called upon when big events were approaching, like a yearly sacrificial ceremony to consolidate the bonds between gods and humans. The role of the nåjd was very similar to that of a shaman in Siberia or Central-Asia, i.e. to be an intermediary between men and the supernatural. All families had their own drums which could be used for simple divination, but only the nåjd could travel to other worlds to get back souls gone astray, and confer with gods and spirits for help and guidance. It is probably evident from what I have written so far, but just to make sure; I believe the old Saami religious beliefs were an extension of the Siberian and Central-Asian shamanism.

Saami Pantheon and Rites

The earliest written sources of missionaries show that christianity had already at that time had a strong influence on how the Saami perceived the religious world. Old gods on the drum surface shared the space with drawings of christian symbols like Jesus, Maria and churches. The old gods were worshipped together with the new ones, or christian meanings and rituals were transferred to the Saami gods. I have included only the main characters in this list. If these gods really were a part of the pantheon 0 -1000 AD is just educated speculation, there is no hard evidence to support any such claims.
These days there are three different dialects of the saami language in Swedish Lapland; South (S), Lule (L) and North (N). I use these abbreviations below when applicable.

Horagalles, Hovrengaellis (S), Àddjá (L), Bajánolmmái (N), Dierpmis (N)
The thunder god. He's anger is easily aroused and he can kill. A hammer and a sledge hammer are his symbols, and thunder and bad weather he's way to show off. He is feared, but frequent sacrificial gifts will make him feel better.
The name Hovrengaellis is said to derive from Thor, and if so, it shows an influence of the Scandinavian religious world in the southern parts of Lapland.

Biegkålmaj (S), Bieggålmåj (L), Bieggolmái (N), Ilmaris (N)
The wind man. Ilmaris comes from the name of the Finnish weather god, Ilmarinen.

Liejpålmaj (S), Liejbålmåj (L) (N)
The alder man. The god of hunting. Could also be seen as masters (plural!) of animals, guardian spirits for each and every animal. Liejbålmåj and the bears were soul mates. See about the bear hunting ceremony below, and the use of chewed alder bark.

Biejjie (S), Biejvve (L), Beaivi (N)
The sun goddess. Sometimes also called Beive Neijd, the sun girl. The word resembles the Finnish word for day, päivä. An entirely positive, warm, life inducing entity. White reindeers were sacrificed to this goddess, and a ritual out-meal was enjoyed at mid summer. I call it a goddess, but there are no consensus among researchers if the sun was a divine force or a personified god or goddess.

The moon. This character of the night is a bit demonic. It could come down to earth at christmas time and change into a Stallo (sort of troll), and kill noisy kids. The winter moons of November and January were particularly important, and rituals were conducted and sacrifices offered.

A feared creature connected to sicknesses, a demon who required horses to be sacrificed. The learned minds haven't agreed yet about the origins of this fella. My speculation is that it might have arrived from Finland. Rutto in Finnish means plague, hence the name Ruto, where the original meaning of great sickness transformed to mean a demon of sickness.

Maadteraahka (S), Máttaráhkká (L) (N)
Founding mother, and the mother of the three sisters below, Juoksáhkká, Saráhkká and Uksáhkká.

Joeksaahka (S), Juoksáhkká (L) (N)
The bow woman. She decided if a child was to become a boy. All children were girls to start with, but if you sacrificed to Juoksáhkká it would change into a boy.

Saaraahkka (S), Saráhkká (L) (N)
Some sort of "woman", a goddess. The meaning of Sar- is not known. She was called upon during child birth and menstruation, and was connected to the process of creation. She experienced the same pains as the birth-giving mother herself, according to one source. Saráhkká was the goddess of women, but also men could sacrifice to her. She lived under the hearth inside the tent, and small amounts of food and drink were thrown into the fire to humor her. She might have been the most important of all gods and goddesses. There was also a sacrificial ceremony where only women took part, and men were not aloud to eat any of the animals sacrificed

Oksaahka (S), Uksáhkká (L) (N)
The door woman.

Rananiejte, Rananeyda
Neyda or niejte means girl, but the meaning of Rana- is debated. She was sacrificed to in autumn, and in return people expected good grazing for the reindeers the coming spring. Together with Saráhkká, Rananiejte was one of the most important divinities.

Båassjoeaahka (S), Boassjoáhkká (N)
Båassjo means the innermost area inside the sami tent, kåta. Hunting equipment and the drum was kept here. Women were not aloud to be in the båassjo area or to touch the drum. Boassjoáhkká, a goddess, lived below boassjo, and her statue was standing in front of a small door in the back, so that she would be the first to lay her eyes on the results of a successful hunting, brought in through the back door.

Bear Hunting Rituals

The biggest happening was when a bear was killed. The handling, eating and burying of a bear was surrounded by complicated rituals. Bears were considered holy animals.
After a bear had been killed, the singing hunters carried it to the camp, and were greeted by singing women dressed in their best clothes. The men then crawl inside the tents through the back door, and were greeted by women hiding their faces chewing alder bark, which they spit through a brass ring on the faces of the entering hunters and their dogs. The first day is finished with a meal, women and men eating and spending the night separately.

The second day the bear is taken to a small hut, specially built for this occasion, and the reindeer that dragged the bear to the camp, is decorated with brass rings, and for the coming year, no woman is aloud to ride with this reindeer. The body of the bear is sprinkled with chewed alder bark and brass rings are placed on its head. While the bear is being flayed, the hunters sing for it, assuring it that they are not locals, but hunters from some distant countries. Also songs depicting how much the hunters honor the bear are performed, and the bear is asked to tell its friends to be easily catched.
The meet is cut and chopped in a manner that doesn't damage the bones, and again, women and men eat separately. Women need to put the first piece of meat into their mouth thru a brass ring. After the meal, it is time for the men's cleaning ceremony. It takes place where the bear was cooked. They wash themselves with strong lye, run three times around the cooking ground, and then several times in and out through the tent, while sounding like bears. After the men have been purified, it is time to put all the bones in a grave, arranged exactly as they were when the bear was living.
After the burial, the fell is put on display, and with their eyes covered, women shoot arrows or throw sticks at it. If a married woman hits the fell, then her husband will be the next in line to kill a bear, and if an unmarried woman is the first to hit the fell, then her coming husband is going to be a fearless bear hunter. Women are now aloud to look at the fell thru brass rings.

Seita, Sejta, Siejdde, Sieidi

Naturally shaped stones with eye-catching appearance. Could also be a tall tree stub or a pole driven into the ground. A seita was a place where the gods manifested themselves. Whether the seita itself was seen as a god is not clear, but my take on this matter is that is was not. These were places were people could get in contact with the gods, and where sacrificial gifts were placed.


This seems to be a local name in Lule Lapmark. Probably identical with seita. Some place names still carry the Junkar-prefix of unknown meaning, like Junkarautjo, Junkartjåkko and Junkarhällan.

Some Final Notes

Spirit helpers of both ordinary men and the shamans lived on holy mountains called saajve (S) or bassevárre (N). The place of the dead, the underworld, called Jábbmeájmmo and ruled by the goddess Jábbmeáhkká, was a place where men and animals roamed happily together.
The ordinary world was full of different spirits and creatures you needed to be aware of, some of them probably created for educational purposes, like the female bear creature, Gorremasj, with the shape of a bear but without the skin. She would eat young couples involved in premarital activities.
Holy places and sacrificial grounds were found close to the camp sites, reindeer trails and hunting places. Some of them were for the whole community, while others were only used by a single family.
The dead were buried under stones or natural cracks and cavities, or in the soil. The bodies were never incinerated. Not enough graves have been found or dated to say if these traditions changed over time. I would guess that bodies were buried in a manner that was possible; stones and cavities in mountains, and under the soil elsewhere.


Evert Baudou: Norrlands Forntid (1995)

Sven-Donald Hedman: Boplatser och Offerplatser (2003)

Hans Mebius: Bissie, studier i samisk religionshistoria (2003)

Mircea Eliade: Shamanism, archaic techniques of ecstasy (2004)

Per H Ramqvist: Fem Norrland, om norrländska regioner och deras interaktion (Arkeologi i Norr, 2007)

Per H Ramqvist: University lecture (Fem Norrland, 2008)

Per H Ramqvist: University lecture (Handel & Utbyte, 2008)

Birgitta Fossum: University lecture (Samiska heliga platser, 2008)


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