Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

Saami responses to Christianity

Resistance and change

Håkan Rydving

The religious situation in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic regions of Eurasia differs a great deal from people to people, between the Saami in the west and the Chukchi in the east. Some of the peoples have been Christian for centuries, while among others the indigenous religions have been alive in all secrecy throughout the decades of the Soviet era. Most of the religious functionaries were executed in the middle of the 1930s when the north - some twenty years after the Russian revolution of 1917 - was integrated into Stalin’s empire. Only some aspects of the religions are known today to the peoples themselves. However, several of the indigenous religions of these peoples have been revitalized since the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Thus, bear ceremonials, sacrifices, and “shamanistic” rituals are today performed once again. In the Republic of Yakutia in Siberia, “shamanism” has even been proclaimed the official religion.

Among the Saami, the religious situation is different. The Saami, who today are a people of about 70,000 to 80,000 in number, living in Scandinavia, Finland, and the north-western part of Russia, have been Christians since the eighteenth century, following seven to eight hundred years of missionary propaganda. I am going to focus on the period between the late seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth century, since that was a time of the most intense religious confrontation and change. I will, however, begin with a few examples of opinions about the Saami in European thought from the seventeenth century to the present.

On a copperplate engraving from the 1680s, the Saamis - or Lapps as they were called at that time - are presented as “the most remarkable people in Europe. Even if the engraving is typical of its time, this characteristic is anything but bound to the end of the seventeenth century. From the oldest written report from the early Middle Ages, the Saamis have been presented and looked upon as exotic and different, both by their Nordic neighbors and by the peoples of Central and Southern Europe. The predominant opinion was that the Saamis were sorcerers. A curious chapter in the still unwritten history of European ideas regarding the Saami was formed by the report of how the Protestant army used Saamis to enchant the soldiers on the Catholic side during the Thirty Years War at the beginning of the century. Although this was a rumor without any ground, it was presented repeatedly during the whole of the century.

Even during the following century, the Saamis were still regarded as sorcerers and as adorers of the devil. In England, Daniel Defoe published an imaginative biography of Duncan Campbell, a soothsayer Defoe, of course, furnished with a Saami mother. And in France, Voltaire linked in with similar lines of thought when the hero of his novel Candide gave money to “Lappish sorcerers” in order to secure a fair wind. It was no surprise that

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