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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
The wind man. Ilmaris comes from the name of the Finnish weather
Liejpålmaj (S), Liejbålmåj
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
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
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
Founding mother, and the mother of the three sisters below, Juoksáhkká,
Saráhkká and Uksáhkká.
Joeksaahka (S), Juoksáhkká
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
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
Oksaahka (S), Uksáhkká
The door woman.
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
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
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,
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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