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Metaphor and Metaphysics within Sámi Culture

By Elizabeth Anne Svec

Religion is a combination of elements that converge into a worldview that is both created and sustained by the collective whole. Without the participation of each individual within the whole, the worldview cannot hold. Though it requires the constant participation of the members of a given society, the aspects of a particular worldview are not constant, but in fact evolve to complement the shifting environment in which the group functions. Environmental factors include not only the fluctuations of nature, but also the contact that people have with others (or differing perspectives and worldviews) from outside of their collective system. Every society, no matter how large or small, develops systems of operation and belief in order to form an understandable and comprehensive universe. One major component of spiritual belief systems is the use of metaphor, whereby connections are made between the spiritual and the temporal. The religion or, more accurately, the worldview of the Saami, clearly illustrates each of these aspects of the function and formation of worldview within a culture. The Saami are the indigenous people of Scandinavia. Their complex and ancient religion is founded on shamanism, animism, and polytheism. The purpose of this essay is to examine: (1) the development and properties of systems of belief and mythology, as well as the incor- poration of metaphor therein, and (2) the Saami worldview and its different components and how metaphor is subsequently utilized within that worldview.

Before examining the Saami worldview and its various components, it would be appropriate first to form a broad outline of the universal components of systems of belief and mythology. “A belief system is a set of related ideas (learned and shared), which has some permanence, and to which individuals and/or groups exhibit some commitment” (Borhek and Curtis 1975:5). Belief systems are composed of several elements that provide the form and function upon which the system operates. One function is to set forth the values of the society--what it considers good and what it considers bad, what is right and what is wrong. “A course of action may be declared socially legitimate if it can be shown to derive from a collective value. In short, individual behavior that must take account of the interest of other actors is organized under a principle on which all the actors more or less agree” (Borhek and Curtis 1975:9). Thus the values that a society holds up must be incorporated into the actions of the individual in order for that person to remain a functioning member of the collective.

A major element within a system of belief is perspective. Once the values of a group are established, they are then applied to everything around them. Every different society looks at an occurrence, an object, or a person from a different angle, and therefore applies a different meaning or interpretation upon it/them. “The perspective, or cognitive map, may consist of nothing more than a classification or set of conceptual tools” (Borhek and Curtis 1975:11). Values thus translate into systems of classification, and the perspective of a group dictates how it will classify elements of its stable environment as well as random events or encounters. Perspective provides definition to things outside of the group, but also allows the group to define itself based on its differences or relationship to these outside influences.

Another major element within a belief system is language. “Human language functions as a creative vehicle for organizing and giving meaningful shape to human experience” (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:190). Language is developed in order to express and describe the values, perceptions, and necessities of the collective. Thus language and belief are interwoven, the former developing around the latter in order to explicate its components. Consequently, different cultures with differing belief systems create unique vocabularies that may not be translatable to other languages or culture systems.

A belief system is passed down from generation to generation, and each new group of participants shapes it to fit the current needs of the group.

Strictly speaking it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him. He finds himself in an inher- ited situation with patterns of thought which are appro- priate to this situation and attempts to elaborate further the inherited modes of response or to substitute others for them in order to deal more adequately with the new challenges which have arisen out of the shifts and changes in his situation (Mannheim 1936:3).

Therefore a belief system is more far reaching than one person’s lifetime, and can perhaps be understood as having a life of its own (independent from the people who function within it). Belief systems “are capable of such complexity that they would exceed the capacity of a given person to detail” (Borhek and Curtis 1975:42).

A large component active within a belief system is the use of metaphor. “Every myth,...whether or not by intention, is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors” (Campbell 1986:55). The creation of myth gives shape and definition to an invisible world which is a mystery to the people who seek to understand it; belief is myth’s natural complement. Campbell refers to Kant’s formula:

What there is offered is a four-term analogy (a is to b as c is to x), pointing not to an imperfect resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things: not ‘a somewhat resembles b,’ but ‘the relationship of a to b perfectly resembles that of c to x,’ where x represents a quantity that is not only unknown but absolutely unknowable--which is to say, is metaphysical (1986:57).

It is logical that the known would therefore be applied to the unknown in order to shape it to fit within the contours of the collective psyche. Thus metaphor is born.

“A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives, metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the fulfillment of a given culture at a given time” (Campbell 2001:1-2). The question thus becomes: What is the purpose and function of myth within society? An initial function, already discussed, is that of “reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence--that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is” (Campbell 2001:2). A second function, is the fulfillment of a societies’ need to create an ordered and comprehensive cosmos. Once the elements of the universe have been labeled, identified and defined (so as to be understandable to the collective group), those different parts must then be organized into a whole. The result is a mythological hierarchy which is subsequently representative of implicit social values and beliefs. These “values are not independent but must form a coherent system with the metaphorical concepts” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:22) through which a society structures itself and its mythology.

This leads to another important function of mythology which is to “validate and support” (Campbell 2001:5) the values and beliefs from which it evolved. This provides a sort of cognitive map by which an individual can structure his/her life, which will in turn reinforce “the moral order by shaping the person to the demands of a specific geo-graphically and historically conditioned social group” (Campbell 2001:5).

A final function of mythology as put forth by Campbell, is “to carry the individual through the various stages and crises of life--that is to help persons grasp the unfolding of life with integrity” (2001:5). Thus a mythology provides a cultural reference point to which a person turns to gain understanding and perspective of the different occurrences and stages of their life. The individual will therefore incorporate the meanings and representations of the collective into his/her comprehension of their own experience.

Since an outline of the origin and function of systems of belief and mythology has been established, it is now appropriate to shift focus to the Saami--their values, beliefs, and customs, represented within a mythology, which in turn translates into a unique worldview. The three foundations around which the Saami worldview revolves are shamanism, animism, and polytheism.

Shamanism is not unique to the Saami, but is found around the world in many different cultures.

In as much as culture influences social behavior, social needs give rise to cultural forms. Therefore, under these terms, shamanism may be viewed as a substantive content of a religious transformation and phenomenology, effecting in ritual techniques that aim at satisfying preexisting psychosocial conditions (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:14).

Shamanism arises out of a social need for a person who acts as a “ritual specialist”, who performs ceremonial acts which fulfill the societal “desire for the magical, or the symbolic” (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:14). So the shaman is able to act as a bridge between society and the metaphysical, and thus metaphorical world it has created; in fact “the entire nexus of shamanistic techniques ...depends on the successful manipulation of metaphors” (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:207). A shaman is thus transcendent, able to move beyond the boundaries within which the other members of the society are bound. “Myths...create the expectancy of transcendence” (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:194), and the shaman, who is of the extraordinary, is thus able to meet that expectation. Finally, shamanism, “as a belief system, contains elements which respond adaptively to certain fundamental needs of human beings” (Ripinsky-Naxon 1993:205), and as such complements the broader belief system, in that it can shift to accommodate environmental fluctuation.

The Saami word for shaman is noaidi, which means “the one who sees,” though “if you consult a contemporary dictionary, you will find that the word noaidi is translated as ‘troll, ogre, witch, sorcerer, conjurer, magician’ or the like”(Kallio 1997:38). The noaidi functions in all of the already specified shamanic roles, though unique to him or her is the use of a drum, original in both form and function.

The old Saami word for the drum is govadas, and it means ‘an instrument to develop pictures with.’ It could not be more traightforward and simple: ‘A seer sees with the help of an instrument which develops pictures’ (Kallio 1997:38).

A representation of the Saami universe and its various elements is painted on the surface of the drum. Though these images are but a symbol of their belief system, the noaidi uses them for a functional purpose. He/she translates meanings gathered from interaction with the drum into reality involving direction in the temporal world (where to hunt for example). According to Kallio, a modern female noaidi, the images of modern drums are not simply duplicated from old drums (or modern museum pieces), but are enscripted with a modern symbology, which speaks to the contemporary noaidi, and his/her modern worldview.

The drum was vital to the Saami, and “formerly there hardly existed a house where this sacred instrument was lacking” (Karsten 1955:68). This changed with the coming of Christianity. For the proselytizing clergy, destruction of these drums was a primary focus since they were central to the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Saami. Every detail of the drum held significance, both aesthetically and functionally, and first and foremost was the importance of the tree from which it was made.

The drum of the Swedish and Finnish Lapps had to be made either of fir, pine, or birch. The tree, furthermore, ought to be one that had grown in an out-of-the-way place, far from the other trees, on a spot out of reach of the sun. Besides this, the stem of the tree had to be twisted clockwise and not counter clockwise (Karsten 1955:69).

The other piece of material standard to the construction of all Saami drums was the reindeer skin which was stretched over the bowl, or frame, of the instrument. It was upon this skin that images were painted, and the skin itself was of great significance because reindeer were understood to have important powers and a strong connection to the spiritual world.

Once the drum was completed and ready for use, it functioned in two distinct capacities in relation to the noaidi and the collective. Initially the drum was used to create an avenue by which the noaidi entered into a trance state, or more specifically, direct contact with the supernatural, but later evolved to function as a tool for divination as well. It was not the drum alone that helped the noaidi reach this ecstatic state; the drum was accompanied by yoiking (the uniquely Saami use of melodic vocal intonation or singing) from the shaman as well as the other members of the group. The continuous singing allowed the noaidi to remain in trance as well as to later return to the temporal (at the appropriate time). Thus we have a collective attempt to move the noaidi beyond temporal boundaries, and thus situate him/her in an active position within the metaphorical, or supernatural world. Divination was also drawn through the noaidi’s ability to form a connection with the metaphysical. The standard tool for divination was either “a triangular piece of a reindeer-antler, a brass ring, or a small bundle of brass rings” (Karsten 1955:70) which were placed on the face of the drum. As the noaidi beat the drum, the object moved across the surface, and it was the interpretation of this movement that formed the divination.

The second major element of the Saami worldview is the belief in an animistic universe, one which encompasses a world animated by spiritual beings or divine forces. Every person (living or dead), animal, mountain, river, etc. is filled with a life force which is, in turn, interwoven and in operation with both the visible and invisible worlds. “Natural forces such as sun, thunder and wind were personified as divine images; disease and death were spiritual beings, and livelihoods such as hunting, fishing and reindeer-herding had their own protective gods or spirits” (Mulk 1994:125). A key element of coexisting with this spiritual realm is the belief in reciprocity between man and the larger surrounding forces that have the power to effect his world.

For a fishing near the water...the cognitive domination of what formed their environment was important. They already controlled their effective environment--fishing, nets, boats, etc.--but in order to achieve cognitive dominance these sea Saamis, these creators of culture, had to perceive their environment in such a way as to be able to classify it, give it a name, master it--all in order to master their life situation. For them it must have been a necessity to have power over the forces of the weather by means of concrete concession measures, i.e. ritual behavior with sacrifices or the like (Fjellström 1984:40).

Thus people create ritual behaviors that work to create relationships of exchange with the forces of nature by which they are surrounded and influenced. Sacrifices were offered to these forces in exchange for their cooperation in bringing luck and prosperity to the Saami on special occasions, such as a hunt, or simply during their day to day struggle for survival.

A sieidi is a sacred Saami space in which these rituals and sacrifices were enacted. It is a spiritually charged place and “in the Saami pre-Christian conception of the world every significant mountain, lake or stream would have holy places and sacrificial places” (Mulk 1994:125). The location of a sieidi tends to be near a hill, mountain, lake, stream, waterfall, etc., all areas that invoke feelings and emotions from people based on their magnitude or sheer beauty. A sieidi can be understood as any natural formation that elicits such a response or reaction. Water for instance has a calming effect on the spirit as well as many life sustaining properties, and different life forms contained within it, which could perhaps explain the universal tendency to infuse natural water formations with spiritual significance. For the Saami a space eliciting this numenosity would be interpreted as a sieidi, a place from which they can interact with the supernatural.

There are three main functions of Saami sacrificial acts according to Mulk:

In the first, comprising gifts to the gods, there is a relation between giver and receiver wherein the receiver expects the gift, and the giver expects something in return. The second, comprising collective sacrificial ceremonies, includes holy sacrificial repasts, where some animal, identified with the divinity, would be slaughtered and eaten according to fixed rituals...such meals rendered strength as well as fellowship. In the third, comprising propitiatory sacrifice, the tribute was paid to conciliate a divinity when some sin had been committed, or in order to facilitate some imminent activity (1994:128).

Social beliefs are thus acted out at sacred sites, where the Saami become active participants of their worldview. They carry out the rituals derived from their unique system of belief, and through their actions subsequently ensure its continuance.

The third element of the Saami worldview is polytheism, which results in a complex pantheon of gods. Each god is the representation of the believed spiritual force behind different environmental stimuli with which the Saami came into contact. There are, for instance, gods of thunder, wind, and the sun, though each of these deities requires different ritual treatments in order to be satisfied or appeased. For instance, the god of disease and misfortune, Ruto, was believed to be persuaded through the sacrifice of “a piece of livestock...(e.g., a black horse),...” to “remain in his own underworld, thereby avoiding the onset of dangerous disease or famine” (DuBois 1999:49). Karsten relates an account from Samuel Rheen of the 17th century Lule Saami:

The chief of their gods, he says, is Thor or thunder, which they hold to be a living being rumbling in the heaven, and his function is to kill all trolls, which they believe exist everywhere in mountains, fields, and lakes. This is the reason whythey depict him carrying a hammer in his hand. This hammer they call the hammer of Thor, and the Rainbow they call the bow of Thor, with which he will shoot and kill all the trolls who want to cause them harm. [He] has power over the life, death, and health of men (1955:28).

Through thousands of years, the Saami developed complex systems of characteristics, likes, dislikes, etc., of each of the gods, and also the necessary rituals to complement those characteristics.

Though Saami culture had influences from other cultures for thousands of years, nothing compared to the cultural destruction aimed at them through missionization and acculturation efforts of various Scandinavian governments and the Christian church. There were also cultural divisions created by the forced dislocation from their ancestral lands, around which their culture had developed, resulting in divisions created in what were once cohesive collectives. Cultural encounters of the distant past left the Saami with new elements which were incorporated into their worldview, but the policy of the nation-states and the missions was to completely wipe out their ancient worldview and way of life, and subsequently replace it with Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, or Russian structures. This process did not destroy Saami culture, but forced it underground, and caused a divide within their worldview--the public versus the private.

“When certain religious or political interpretations of human life are insisted upon, mythic dissociation can occur. Through mythic dissociation, persons reject or are cut off from effective explanatory notions about the order of their lives” (Campbell 2001:5). Thus it is hard on the psyche of a people in the position of the Saami who were displaced, and then taught to reject every aspect of how their existence was structured, and to no longer gather meanings about their world from familiar sources. Further, they were bombarded with the counter belief that they were heathen, uncultured, barbaric, and in many instances evil. Consequently, Nesheim suggests that the Saami are “in the throes of a crisis so grave that there is danger of their losing both their language and their culture before they can adapt themselves naturally to a new pattern of living that will enable them the more readily to meet the challenge of the modern world” (1953:26). Since this prediction was made some fifty years ago, the Saami have become much more organized in an active salvation and uncovering of their heritage and language. Far from being destroyed, the Saami worldview has provided the tools of cultural adaptation to ensure its survival. Through the use of metaphor the Saami have been able to reach an understanding of the world in which they live, and through the ritual manipulation of the metaphor, are able to feel at peace with their place within a complicated world. Kallio writes: “The Saami culture which I am part of continues to be and continues to change. Other people in other parts of the Saami culture may think and write noaiddaseapmi somewhat differently. This is the sign of a culture that is alive” (1997:38).


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