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The Early Period of Sámi History, from the Beginnings to the 16th Century

Doug Simms

The Stone-Age to Antiquity

From the beginning of the last Ice Age until approximately 10,000 years ago, all of Scandinavia had lain beneath ice. The first traces of human habitation in Scandinavia are found along the western coast of what is today Norway, indicating that the coastline was free from ice. The first phase of human habitation of Scandinavia are the Fosna culture (beginning 8,000 BC) and the Komsa Stone Age culture (beginning approximately 6,000 BC), named after the mountain in the vicinity of this culture's first find. It has been argued that the predecessor of the Komsa ulture is to be found in central and Uralic Russia. An identifiable spread of cultural artifacts is observable spreading from the Ural mountains north and north-west into Fenno-Scandinavia. The Komsa culture also has great affinities with the Suomusjärvi culture (ca. 7,000 BC) which represents one of the first cultures to spread into Finland from the east. Although it not entirely conclusive, some archaeologists have suggested that the people of the Komsa culture might have been the ancestors of the Sámi. That fact that the languages of the Sámi and many of the modern inhabitants of the Urals can be traced to a common ancestor lends credibility to this hypothesis.

Even though there is no direct historical evidence of the Sámi prior to the first centuty C.E., one can deduce from linguistic evidence that the Sámi and their forebears had had contact with many different peoples, mostly speakers of Indo-European langauges, occasionally borrowing words from them. Some of these contacts could have taken place as much as four thousand years ago. The Sámi word for '100', cuođi, for example, was borrowed at an early date, most likely from an Iranian language, c.f. Avestan satem '100'. Other loan-words are evidenced from other languages at various times. One finds loan-words from the Balto-Slavic languages, such as in the South Sámi word daktere 'daughter' or suvon 'well-trained dog'. Many words have been borrowed from the Germanic languages at every period in their history, some of which are still recognizable by speakers of Modern English, e.g. guos'si 'guest', áiru 'oar', mánnu 'moon', nuorti 'east' c.f. Eng. north.

Cornelius Tacitus (ca. 55-ca. 117 C.E.) was a Roman historian who, in his most celebrated work the Germania, provides the earliest written material about the Sámi. In describing the Fenni (i.e. Finns, most likely the Sámi, c.f. Ptolemy's Phinnoi) he is not sure as to whether they are Germans or Sarmatians. He goes on to say:

The Fenni live in astonishing barbarism and disgusting misery: no arms, no horses, no household; wild plants for their food, skins for their clothing, the ground for their beds; arrows are all their hopes; for want of iron they tip them with sharp bone. This same hunting is the support of the women as well as of the men, for they accompany the men freely and claim a share of the spoil; nor have their infants any shelter against wild beasts and rain, except the covering afforded by a few intertwined branches. To these the young men return: these are the asylum of age; and yet they think it happier so than to groan over field labour, be cumbered with building houses, and be for ever involving their own and their neighbours’ fortunes in alternate hopes and fears. Unconcerned towards men, unconcerned towards Heaven, they have achieved a consummation very difficult: they have nothing even to ask for.

When this description is compared with the following description by Procopius, it will be seen that the Fenni are in fact the Sámi who were semi-nomadic reindeer hunters at the time. The scant shelter referred to is the Sámi goahti, a transportable, tepee-like structure. The Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (490?-562? C.E.) accompanied Belisarius on military campaigns and even commanded the imperial navy and served as prefect of Constantinople. Highly educated and a distinguished public servant, he wrote histories that are well respected because they are in many cases first hand accounts of the events described. In his History of the Wars, VI. xv. 16-23 he writes:

But among the barbarians who are settled in Thule, one nation only, who are called the Scrithiphini, live a kind of life akin to that of the beasts. For they neither wear garments of cloth nor do they walk with shoes on their feet, nor do they drink wine nor derive anything edible from the earth. For they neither till the land themselves, nor do their women work it for them, but the women regularly join the men in hunting, which is their only pursuit. For the forests, which are exceedingly large, produce for them a great abundance of wild beasts and other animals, as do also the mountains which rise there. And they feed exclusively upon the flesh of the wild beasts slain by them, and clothe themselves in their skins, and since they have neither flax nor any implement with which to sew, they fasten these skins together by the sinews of the animals, and in this way manage to cover the whole body. And indeed not even their infants are nursed in the Lapps way as among the rest of mankind. For the children of the Scrithiphini do not feed upon the milk of women nor do they touch their mother’s breast, but they are nourished upon the marrow of the animals killed in the hunt, and upon this alone. Now as soon as a woman gives birth to a child, she throws it into a skin and straightway hangs it to a tree, and after putting marrow into its mouth she immediately sets out with her husband for the customary hunt. For they do everything in common and likewise engage in this pursuit together. So much for the daily life of these barbarians.

Skis are not directly mentioned in the above passage, but the name of the people described — the Scrithiphini (Gk. Skriqifinoi) — consists of two parts: scrithi which in Old Icelandic is skríđa "to ski" and phini which is the modern word Finns, i.e., the "skiing Finns." The Scrithiphini are actually the Sámi of northern Scandinavia who had been skiing for centuries before this and who were responsible for originally bringing the ski to Scandinavia. The accepted name for the Sámi in Norwegian today is samer, though occasionally Norwegians have referred to Sámi as "Finns."

The Middle-Ages to the 16th Century

In the sixth century, the historian Jordanes makes mention of the same people, though in an altered form of the name, as the Screrefennae. However, it is not until toward the end of the eighth century that we find the first written evidence linking the Sámi with reindeer. Paul the Deacon (ca. 725-799?) was a Lombard historian who spent some time at the court of Charlemagne. His main work was his History of the Langobards covering the two centuries from the middle of the sixth to the middle of the eighth century. It is one of the earliest histories of a Germanic nation written by a German. In Book I, Chapter V he has:

The Scritobini, for thus that nation is called, are neighbors to this place. They are not without snow even in the summer time, and since they do not differ in nature from wild beasts themselves, they feed only upon the raw flesh of wild animals from whose shaggy skins also they fit garments for themselves. They deduce the etymology of their name according to their barbarous language from jumping. For by making use of leaps and bounds they pursue wild beasts very skillfully with a piece of wood bent in the likeness of a bow. Among them there is an animal not very unlike a stag, from whose hide, while it was rough with hairs, I saw a coat fitted in the manner of a tunic down to the knees, such as the aforesaid Scritobini use, as has been related. In these places about the summer solstice, a very bright light is seen for some days, even in the night time, and the days are much longer there than elsewhere, just as, on the other hand, about the winter solstice, although the light of day is present, yet the sun is not seen there and the days are shorter than anywhere else and the nights too are longer, and this is because the further we turn from the sun the nearer the sun itself appears to the earth and the longer the shadows grow.

Again the people referred to are the "skiing Finns," but Paul gives a description of skiing, "leaps and bounds with a piece of wood bent in the likeness of a bow." The animal they hunt that is "not very unlike a stag" is undoubtedly the reindeer.

Ottar's Path

A century after Paul we encounter another description of the Sámi, although here it seems to be much closer to the source of information than other previous histories. Alfred (849-899) was king of the West Saxons from 871 until his death. He fought long and hard against the Danes, and after capturing London in 886 concluded a treaty with Guthrum that set up the Danelaw north and east of the Ouse, Lea and Thames rivers, an area where Danish law would be in effect. He was responsible for new law codes, which strengthened the monarchy. His greatest achievement came in his reviving Old English literary prose by translating Latin works into Old English, among them Orosius’ universal history which contains an account of the Norse explorer Ohthere’s (Old Norse Óttarr) voyages. Orosius, Ch.--.

Ohthere was a very wealthy man in those possessions in which their wealth consists, that is in wild animals; yet he had, when he came to visit King Alfred six hundred beasts unsold (they call these beasts reindeer); six of them were trained as decoys; they were highly prized among the Lapps because with them they capture wild reindeer. Ohthere was among the foremost men of that land; yet he did not have more than twenty head of cattle, and twenty sheep, and twenty pigs; and the little that he ploughed, he ploughed by horses. But their revenue is greatest in the tribute which the Lapps pay to them. That tribute consists of the skins of animals and the feathers of birds and the bones of whales and in ships' cables, which are made from the skins of whales and seals. A man of the highest rank has to contribute the skins of fifteen martens and five reindeer and one bear and forty bushels of feathers and a tunic made of bearskin or otterskin and two ships' cables; both must be sixty ells long; they must be made either of whaleskin or of sealskin.

King Alfred's description of the Sámi and their interaction with the Norwegians has a two-fold significance. Ohthere's mention of the use of decoys signals the beginning of the Sámis' domestication of the reindeer. Unfortunately, Ohthere's primary source of income shows also that even in the ninth century, outsiders had already begun taxing the Sámi. In this sense, then, Ohthere's travellogue represents and presages the future of Sámi interaction with other peoples, as well as the shift in their subsistance practices from hunting reindeer to herding them in order to pay taxes or tributes.

Subsequent histories and records tend to mention the Sámi in relation to Christianity, which had only arrived in Scandinavia toward the end of the tenth century. Adam of Bremen (ca. 1070) mentions the Sámi in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum as a people living between the Norwegians and the Swedes and that some of them had been converted to Christianity. Similarly, two early, christian law codes, the Eidsivathingslag and the Borgarthingslag (both prior to ca. 1120) prohibited Christians from visiting the Sámi in order to have prophecies made for them. The Historia Norvegiæ, written approximately 1190, makes a distinction between the land inhabited by the Christian Norwegians from the land inhabited by the heathen finnis and wild beasts. In each of these documents, however, the Sámi are referred to as either Finns or Scrithifinns.

Beginning possibly as early as the 12th century, outsiders begain calling the Sámi by other names. In the Saga of the Orkneyislanders, which is imprecisely dated between 1100 and 1230, we find the first mention of the Sámi as lappir 'Lapps'. At the same time, ca. 1200, the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus referrs to the land of the Sámi as Lappia, though he still uses the word finn for the people. It is not until the end of the 13th century that we encounter the first occurrance of the word sámi. In the Icelandic Vatnsdæla saga, ch. 12, we find two instances of the word semsveinn. The second portion of this compound, sveinn 'young man, boy', is clearly Germanic in origin. The first element of the compound, however, seems to be from the word sami.

The interaction between the Sámi and other peoples, does not always appear in the literature as a hostile meeting of peoples. Rather, one finds a varied portrayal of the Sámi. In the eddic poem Völundarkviða, the mythical smith Völundr (Old English Weland), is reported to be the son of a finnakongungr 'king of the Finns', i.e. a Sámi-king. With this in mind, it is difficult not to see Völundr as a sámi noajddi. Scandinavia at this time also seems to have been an area with several ethnic groups, not just the germanic-speaking Scandinavians and the Sámi. As one can see from the following quote from Egils saga, Ch. 14., the author presents a situation in which various peoples met to trade, make war, and make alliances with each other:

Thorolf traveled that winter out to the borderlands and had close to a hundred men with him; he traveled the way just as in the previous year, he made trade with the Sámi and traveled widely about the borderlands. But when he went far to the east and there retraced his previous journey, there came to him Kvens and they said that they were sent to him, and that King Faravid of Kvenland had done this; they said that the Karelians were harrying his land, and he wanted Thorolf to go there and help him.

Despite the literary evidence, which represents Norse-Sámi interaction in a range possibilities from peaceful co-existance to open hostility, the actual nature of the interaction between the two people is a matter of debate. The traditional view has been that the Sámi were the victims of Norse exploitation. This view-point is well supported by the many years of squabbling betweent the kings of Norway and the chieftains of Halogaland and Tromsø as to who received the "Finn-tax" (ON finnskatt), the tributary payment of furs, eider-down and other wild goods from the Sámi to the Norwegians. However, some have argued that the Sámi also benefited from the trade. In exchange for furs and other such goods, the Sámi were able to get grain and iron tools in return, items they would otherwise have been unable to obtain. Intermarriage during this period is also a possibility. Snorri Sturluson's 13th-century history of Norway, the Heimskringla, reports that King Harald Fairhair (ca. 865-933) married a Sámi girl, though with unhappy consequences. In the Sagas of the Kings, also written by Snorri, Harald's son, Eirik, met a woman originally from Halogaland, who lived with the Sámi to learn witchcraft. Interesting also are the jarls (chieftains) of Lade who claimed to be descendents of a certain Sæmingr, whose name could mean "the son of Sámi".


Zachrisson, Inger, et al.. Möten i Gränsland. Samer och Germaner i Mellanskandinavien. Stockholm: Statens Historiska Museum, 1997.