Saturday, January 13, 2007

Coexistence of Saami and Norse culture – Reflected in and interpreted by Old Norse myths


In Old Norse sources, both Norwegian and Icelandic, we meet a consciousness of the fact that on the Scandinavian peninsula there lived two peoples, the Nordic people and the Saamis, who in the Old Norse sources are called finnar.
Both were peoples with their own culture that in many respects differed considerably from the culture of the other people. They spoke different languages. The Nordic people were farmers while most Saamis lived a nomadic life. They had also before Christianization – different religions, but the religion of the Saamis may have been influenced by the religion of the Nordic people – and vice versa. After the Norwegians and the Swedes had converted to Christianity, the Saamis remained heathen for quite some time. The gender roles within the two cultures differed from each other, and many customs which were practised in one of the two societies, were probably seen as very strange in the other society.

In spite of different cultures with different languages, different ways of
living and different religions the contact between the Nordic people on the Scandinavian peninsula and their Saami neighbours must have been rather close. We use to think of the Saamis as people who lived in the North, and according to Old Norse sources, the Saamis primarily lived in the North, in the territory named after them, Finnmƒrk, which according to the sources was a much larger area than the territory we call Finnmark today and extended – in the inland – as far south as to the border between Halogaland and Trondelag.
But the Saamis also lived in Southern Norway, in Trondelag and in the inland of Eastern Norway. Quite a lot of Old Norse texts, both Norwegian and Icelandic, place Saamis in this area. Even the two laws from Eastern Norway, the Eidsivathings law and the Borgarthings law indicate that Saami people lived within the territory of these laws. The laws forbid Christians to have contact with finnar, to go to them to ask for prophecies or for medical help.
When we take into consideration that the Saamis did not live only in Northern Norway, but also in the inland of Southern Norway, we see that the Norwegians and the Saamis met along a very long borderline, and probably the borderline between the two people was not sharp.

The large number of sources which mention contact with the Saamis and the fact that they lived on a very large territory which was partly shared with their Scandinavian neighbours make it reasonable to think that the Nordic people knew their Saami neighbours and their culture rather well. This impression is also confirmed by some of the pictures of the Saamis in literary sources which may be characterized as close-up. Even though the Saamis most often appear in rather stereotyped litterary motifs, some texts – and understandably enough – especially Norwegian texts – give a picture of Saamis and Saami life which reveals an intimate, first-hand knowledge. One example of this we have in a scaldic stanza made by the Norwegian scald Eyvindr Finnsson who himself lived in the southern part of Halogaland in the 10th century. When describing the cold summer weather during the bad years in the reign of King Haraldr grafeldr, he turned to a picture from the Saamis’ life. “We have to keep our goats in stalls during the summer, just as theSaamis,” Eyvindr says.

Another example is found in the Norwegian Latin chronicle Historia Norwegi?. Here the author gives a very intimate description of a shamanistic seance which took place in the hut of a Saami family.
In the Old Norse oaths called gri›amal and tryg›amal a picture from Saami life is used in an interesting context. These oaths are found in different versions in Gragas (Konungsbok ch. 115 and Sta›arholsbok, chs. 387 and 388) and in two Icelandic sagas, Grettis saga, ch. 72, and Hei›arviga saga, ch. 33. But a little fragment is also found in the Norwegian Gulathingslaw (ch. 320) and the contents of the oath point to Norwegian origin. Here, among other things it is said that an enemy shall have peace as long as the falcon flies, the pine grows, rivers flow to the sea, children cry for their mother and the Saamis go skiing.
The Saamis being there skiing is mentioned among all the normal things. It may be that also a stanza in Havamal gives a picture from Saami life. This stanza is stanza 90 where a false woman’s love is compared to many difficult tasks:

sem aki jo obryddum
a isi halum
teitom, tvevetrum
oc se tamr illa,
e›a i byr o›um
beiti stiornlausu,
e›a skyli haltr henda
hrein i flafjalli.

The limping man who catches reindeers in the mountain is not necessarily a Saami, but it is likely, espesially since the word henda, ‘catch by the hands’, is used.

The skiing Saami in the oath shows that the Saamis are part of their neighbours’ world view. They are as necessary as pines, rivers flowing to the
sea and children crying for their mother to make the picture of the known world
complete. The comparison made in Havamal – provided that this is a scene
from Saami life – shows again that the Nordic people had a tendency to include
their Saami neighbours and their culture in their own conceptions of life.
The consiousness among the Nordic people of this “other people” who were
so different from themselves, gives reason to ask whether the relation between
the two people may have been interpreted and understood in the light of mythic
patterns, and perhaps is reflected in the myths themselves.

When Saami people and their world and the relation between the Saami and
the Nordic people is described in Old Norse texts, the parallels to patterns in the
mythic world are sometimes striking. A detail in the text – or in the literary
motif – which shows that the parallel is not accidental is the choice of certain
words when Saamis are described. In some texts – or in some motifs – the
Saamis are called jƒtnar, ‘giants’, or a few times dvergar, ‘dwarfs’. In the text
the Saami man – or woman – may be called Saami and jƒtunn alternatively, or
in some texts Saamis and jƒtnar are presented as members of the same family.
At first sight it seems strange to call the Saamis, who were shorter than their
Nordic neighbours jƒtnar, but tall or short is not the point. When the Saamis are
called jƒtnar, ‘giants’, I think it is obvious that the intentions behind this choice
of words are to activate the imagination of certain mythic patterns.

In the following I will draw attention to ideas connected to the Saamis and their
world in which parallels to mythic patterns – at least sometimes – are
strengthened by the use of the word jƒtunn. Such emphasizing of the parallel to
mythic patterns call for an interpretation in the light of the myths. Thereafter I
will examine one Old Norse myth which I think may reflect an intimate
knowledge of Saami culture. This myth is the one about how Ska›i came to the
gods to avenge her father’s death, and as compensation was offered to choose
herself a husband from among the gods. What I am going to suggest here is that
the giantess Ska›i is to some extent is modeled on a Saami woman.

The otherness of the Saamis and their culture and the fact that they mostly
lived outside the areas where the Nordic people lived, especially in the North,
but farther south also in the border areas between Norway and Sweden and in
the inland of Eastern Norway, conformed to the pattern of Midgar›r–Utgar›r.
According to the mythological map the Saamis became the Utgar›r people. The
Mi›gar›r–Utgar›r pattern was close at hand even if the Saamis were not called
jƒtnar, and may be seen as a basic pattern to describe the relation between the
two people. In addition to the associations with Utgar›r, the descriptions of
Saamis in many texts seem to focus on certain parallels with giants, and it is
especially when these characteristics or qualifications which are typical of
giants are connected to Saamis, that the Saamis are called jƒtnar.
According to Old Norse myths the gods’ most precious possessions had
their origin in the world of giants or dwarfs. When a precious thing with magic
power belonging to a hero in an Old Norse text is said to be a gift from a Saami,
such a motif must of course be understood in connection with the Saamis’
reputations as great sorcerers. But in some cases where a precious thing has its
origin in the Saami world, the Saamis are mixed up with giants in the Old Norse
text. This is for instance the case with Ketill hoengr’s magic arrows which he
got from the Saami king Gusir, the brother of the giant Bruni.

The most interesting motifs where the Saamis replace giants in the mythic
pattern are, however, the motifs where a Saami replaces a giant – or rather a
giantess – in the end of a genealogical line. According to Old Norse myths the
marriage between a god and a giantess resulted in a son who became the
forefather of the royal family, the Ynglingar, or the family of the earls who were
called Haleygjajarlar and Hla›ajarlar. According to Ynglinga saga, which
builds on Ynglingatal, the Ynglingar are descendents of the god Freyr and the
giantess Ger›r. According to Haleygjatal the Haleygjajarlar are descendents of
the god O›inn and the giantess Ska›i. For the earls there must in the tradition
also have existed an alternative line leading back to the giants. fiorger›r
Hƒlgabru›r is in many Old Norse texts presented as a foremother of the earls,
and her father Hƒlgi is mentioned as early as in Haraldskv?›i as a forefather of the Haleygjajarlar. From many of the sources it is obvious that these figures
are looked upon as giants. Some saga characters are presented as descendents
of a man with the nickname halftroll or something of the sort. It is not always
clear who these trolls from whom the children got the nickname halftroll were,
but according to the defination of the word halftroll in the dictionaries the
mother or the father of a man with such a nickname was a troll, a giant. At least
in one example where a Old Norse hero has a giantess for mother, the mother’s
troll family is mixed with Saamis. This hero is Grimr lo›inkinn, whose mother
was Hrafnhildr, the daughter of the giant Bruni, but Bruni’s brother was Gusir
Finna konungr, king of the Saamis, and Bruni later took over his kingdom. This
could perhaps indicate that the nickname halftroll could be given to children of
mixed Norwegian and Saami blood. Some people in Old Norse society seem to
have traced their family back to a Saami king, and that was something they took
pride in. According to Landnamabok some Icelanders could trace their family
back to Grimr lo›inkinn (S 135, H 107 og 202, M 48), and as we have seen, his
mother is both presented as a giantess and as a Saami princess. Other Icelanders
and Norwegians could trace their family back to a certain Mƒttul Finnakonungr,
a Saami king whose granddaughter according to Landnamabok (S 43, H 31)
was married into a very prominent Norwegian family, she was married to a
great-grandson of Bragi skald inn gamli.

A god and a giantess produced according to Old Norse myths the protoking.
A human hero and a giant’s daughter were of course not so prominent
ancestors as a god and a giantess, but I think that these genealogies on a smaller
scale signal the same as the genealogies of kings and earls. To bear the
nickname halftroll is in fact very promising. The idea seems to be that the
giantess, who in the world of men may be replaced by a Saami woman, infuses
new blood which makes their offspring born leaders in society.
We have the clearest example of this in the story about the Norwegian king
Haraldr harfagri who married Sn?fri›r, the daughter of the Saami king Svasi.
The function of this story in the kings’ sagas is probably to strengthen and
underline the original mythic pattern, in which the god Freyr and the giantess
Ger›r produced the proto-king.

King Haraldr harfagri, the king who united Norway into one kingdom, was
married to many women. In his old age he married Sn?fri›r, the daughter of the
Saami king Svasi. The story about King Haraldr and Sn?fri›r is first told in the
Norwegian king’s saga Agrip. Snorri later used the Agrip text. The story is also
mentioned in Flateyjarbok, in fiattr Haralds harfagra and in fiattr Halfdanar
svarta. The story says that once upon a time when the king stayed at Dovre, the
Saami king visited him and invited King Haraldr to his turf hut. The king did not
want to go, but Svasi was very persuasive, and at last the king gave in and
followed the Saami. When he arrived in the turf hut, Svasi’s daughter Sn?fri›r
stood up and offered the king a welcoming drink. All of a sudden the king was
struck by blind love, and he wanted to make love to her the same evening. But
Svasi insisted on a proper marriage. And the king married her and loved her so
dearly that he never departed from her as long as she lived, and after she was
dead he sat by her dead body for three years.

Sn?fri›r gets a lot of attention in the kings’ sagas, more than the other
wives of the king. The reason for this is obvious. Eirikr blo›ox, who became
king after Haraldr harfagri was the son of Queen Ragnhildr, the Danish
princess. Eirikr’s sons were pretenders to the Throne, and his son Haraldr
grafeldr reigned together with his mother, Queen Gunnhildr, for some years, but
he had no son to succeed him. Hakon inn go›i, one of the youngest sons of
King Haraldr, who also became king, was the son of fiora mostrstƒng. He had
no son who succeeded him. Olafr Tryggvason became king for a few years. He
was a descendent of Olafr, son of Haraldr harfagri and his wife Svanhildr, but
Olafr Tryggvason had no son who succeeded him. Some years later Olafr inn
helgi became king. He was a descendent of Bjƒrn, another of Haraldr’s sons by
Svanhildr. Olafr inn helgi was succeeded by his son Magnus inn go›i, but he
had no son who succeeded him. But thereafter Haraldr har›ra›i became king.
He was the half-brother of King Olafr inn helgi on the mother side, but his
father was Sigur›r s‡r, son of Halfdan, son of Sigur›r hrisi, and Sigur›r hrisi,
was one of Haraldr harfagri’s sons by the Saami woman Sn?fri›r. From this
time on the kings of Norway could trace their family back to King Haraldr
harfagri and the Saami woman Sn?fri›r.

During the reign of Haraldr har›ra›i, the interest in Sn?fri›r probably
started to grow, and the foremother who made the ancestors of Haraldr
hardra›i’s branch of the royal family conform to the mythic pattern based on
the story about the god Freyr and the giantess Ger›r, was made the most of.
In Agrip Svasi is presented as a Saami, he is called finnr and Finnkonungr.
Snorri calls him both finnr and jƒtunn, and strengthens thereby the associations
with the mythic pattern. In all the texts which tell the story about King Haraldr
harfagri and Sn?fri›r, this story is linked up with a story told earlier in the text
about how Haraldr as a young boy helped a Saami who was taken prisoner by
his father to escape, and Haraldr himself ran away with the Saami. In the
Flateyjarbok text this Saami operates together with Dofri, who takes care of the
young Haraldr and becomes his fosterfather. Dofri is called jƒtunn and troll. In
this version of the story the Saamis are placed in a mythological setting from
the very beginning. The fact that the Saamis are called jƒtnar or operate
together with jƒtnar makes the Mi›gar›r–Utgar›r pattern explicit.

But there are also other parallels with the story about Freyr and Ger›r. The
god and the king are struck by blind love much in the same way. Freyr found it
very hard, but had to wait nine nights for Ger›r. The king wanted to make love to Sn?fri›r at once, but had to wait so that formalities could be taken care of.
Both women are pretty at first sight, but in the descriptions of the two women
there is one little detail which I think indicates that the model Sn?fri›r is drawn
from was Ger›r – and perhaps other young giantesses whom the gods desired.
In the myth Freyr fell inn love when Ger›r lifted her arms, and light was shed
from her arms over both sky and sea, and all worlds were made bright by her. In
an anonymous scaldic stanza from around 1200 the scald says about Haraldr
and Sn?fri›r: h_num flotti solbjƒrt su, ‘he thought she was bright like the sun’.
The same adjective, solbjƒrt, is also used about the giantess Menglƒ› in
Fjƒlsvinnsmal (42). The giantess Billings m?r in Havamal (97) is described as
solhvit, and a giantess with whom O›inn had an affair is in Harbar›sljo› (30)
described as gullbjƒrt. I think these examples show that the description of
young desirable giantesses has served as a model for the description of
Sn?fri›r’s beauty.

If the Saami people were part of their neighbours’ world view to the extent
that the Nordic people interpreted and understood their relation to the Saamis in
the light of their own myths, we should perhaps also expect to find reflections
of contact with Saamis and knowledge of Saami culture in the Old Norse myths

One broad field of interest here is of course the shamanistic elements in Old
Norse mythology and the vƒlur. In Vatnsdoela saga, ch. 10 a vƒlva described in
a Norwegian setting is in fact presented as a Saami woman. Here I will,
however, limit myself to the discussion of one particular myth and one
mythological figure, the giantess Ska›i and the myth in which she arrives in
Asgar›r to avenge her father’s death, and as compensation was offered to
choose herself a husband from among the gods.

When Ska›i arrives armed and dressed like a warrior, she is acting like an
Old Norse skjƒldm?r, and when she wants to avenge her father herself, we get
the impression that she was the only child. If she was her father’s only child,
her behavior would to a certain degree be expected according to Old Norse
gender rules since such a woman, a baugr‡gr, would take a son’s position in the
family. But it was hardly expected – in the real world – that she would take
revenge herself by her own hands. Before Snorri in his Edda tells the story
about Ska›i’s arrival in Asgar›r, he has, however, already introduced Ska›i,
and she is introduced in a way which foreshadows an uncommon female
behavior from an Old Norse point of view. This woman went skiing and hunted
animals! This behaviour does not conform to Old Norse female gender roles. In
Old Norse society her behavior is much more in accordance with male gender
roles. But people who lived in the Old Norse society knew – or at least knew
about – a society where women could behave like Ska›i. As early as in the so
called Ottar’s Report from late in the 9th century, Ottar who claimed to live
farthest north of all the Norwegians, told King Alfred in England about the
Saamis who lived from hunting, fishing, bird-catching and reindeer herding,
and both men, women and children went skiing faster than the birds. Also
within the Saami culture the male and the female gender roles of course differed
from each other, but the border between the two systems of gender roles were
drawn up along other lines than in Old Norse society. The fact that women in
the Saami nomadic culture seem to have shared outdoor activities with the men
to a much higher degree than in Old Norse culture, may have given rise to the
opinion among the Nordic people that Saami women often behaved as if they
were men.

I find it very likely that Saami female gender roles served as a model for the
skiing and hunting Ska›i, and since these activities in Old Norse society were
seen as typically male, it is very logical – also when we leave Ska›i’s wish to
avenge her father’s death out of account – that she should arrive in Asgar›r with
the most masculine manner Old Norse female gender role would allow, as a
skjƒldm?r and as a baugr‡gr. Even her name lays emphasis on Ska›i’s
masculinity. The female name Ska›i is declined as a weak masculine. Only very
few female names in Old Norse are declined in this way, names ending in an /i/
are masculine names. But also among the very few female names with this
declension, the name Ska›i is special; this name is in fact also used as a
masculine name (Vƒlsunga saga, ch. 1).
In addition to Ska›i’s masculine appearance as a skiing and hunting woman
there is also another element in this myth which I think could reflect knowledge
of Saami culture. This element is the scene where Ska›i is offered to choose
herself a husband.
When the gods offer Ska›i, who is seeking revenge, marriage as
compensation for her dead father, this is an act in full accordance with the
norms of Old Norse society. Marriage and fosterage were often used to settle a
conflict between two families. However, there is something in this strange story
which could point at the Saami culture.

In a few Old Norse texts we find a motif where a man is offered, or enters
into, a short-time sexual relationship on his arrival in a place outside his own
environment. The sexual relationship, or marriage limited in time, is meant to
last for as long as the man stays. The most typical example of this motif we
have in the Eddaic poem Rigsflula where Rigr stays for three nights in three
places, and every place he takes the husband’s place in bed. This motif has been
seen as a result of Irish influence, and the name Rigr has been seen as a loan
from Irish. A custom which implied that a distinguished guest was offered
sexual relations with the wife of the host, is known from Irish sources from the
Middle Ages. In ?rvar-Odds saga the hero during a stay in Ireland entered
into marriage with an Irish princess. The marriage was stipulated to last for
three years. The fact that these two motifs can be associated with Ireland, makes
it plausible that the Irish custom, whatever the exact substance of this custom
was, was known in the viking world.

However, there is reason to believe that the Nordic people in Scandinavia
knew a custom, more or less similar to the Irish, from a culture that was closer
to them than Ireland. This culture was the Saami culture.
In the Old Norse sources from the Middle Ages we have no good evidence
for the existance of this custom among the Saamis. In many fornaldarsƒgur we
find a motif in which the human hero on his arrival in the world of the giants is
invited at once to the bed of the beautiful giant’s daughter. This motif could
very well be the result of the male author’s fantasy and imagination. It is
noteworthy, however, that this motif also is found in texts where giants and
Saamis are presented as members of the same family. When the hero Ketill in
Ketils saga hoengs arrived at the farm of the giant Bruni who had a Saami king
for brother and later became a Saami king himself, Bruni offered Ketill his
daughter the first evening.

In sources from after the Reformation we have more reliable information
about this custom among the Saamis. However, the sources are not rich and
detailed. The custom is perhaps known mostly because the sources deny its
existence. This has to do with the nature of the sources. The oldest sources with
information about Saami culture were written down by Swedish clergymen in
the period after the Thirty Years War. During the war the Swedes had been
accused of making use of Saami witchcraft. The well organized collection and
writing down of Saami culture had the intention to clear the Swedes of
suspicion by describing the Saamis as good Christians.
In spite of this there are enough hints in the texts to tell us that a custom
more or less similar to the custom reported in Irish sources from the Middle
Ages existed among the Saamis, and if this custom existed in the time after the
reformation, we can be quite sure that it also existed in the Middle Ages.

Now we can return to Ska›i’s arrival in Asgar›r. This scene has been
analysed thoroughly earlier, for instance by Margaret Clunies Ross. My
analysis will hardly be inconsistent with earlier analysis. But if we consider it
likely that Saami women served as a model for the skiing and hunting Ska›i,
and keep in mind that a distinguised guest in the Saami society perhaps would
expect to be offered a sexual partner on his arrival, that will throw new light on
the myth which makes it possible to see other aspects of it.

When the gods line up on Ska›i’s arrival and offer her marriage they
probably try to ward off her anger by showing her honour and offering her the
same hospitality which they suppose she knows from her own environment. In
fact we do not know from the sources that women were treated in the same way
as men with regard to the custom in question. But in Ska›i’s case that does not
matter much since Ska›i arrives as if she were a man in a man’s gender role.
The fact that she arrives as a man, forces the gods into the female gender role.
As we know, Ska›i had to choose one of the gods without seeing any more of
him than his feet and legs. I agree with Margaret Clunies Ross when she
suggests the explanation that when feet or legs are marked in Indo-European
myth, they usually stress the sexual nature of the hero. But I also find it a
interesting question why their faces are covered and with what. Since Ska›i acts
in a male gender role and is engaged in choosing herself a spouse, the gods are
in fact lining up as potential brides. Could their faces be covered by bridal veils,
and are the gods hiding behind bridal veils from shame? Probably their position
in this scene is not much better than fiorr’s position in firymskvi›a.

The next scene in the myth, the tug of war between Loki and the goat, is
perhaps even more peculiar than the first scene. To make Ska›i laugh, Loki ties
a cord round his testicles and the other end to a nanny-goat’s beard, and they
drew each other back and forth and both squealed loudly. Margaret Clunies
Ross has pointed out a suitor test from folk literature, to make a sorrowful
princess laugh, as the model for this scene, which I find quite convincing. But
the function of this strange tableau within the myth is, in my opinion, to
illustrate the power struggle between the gods and Ska›i. Loki is not normally a
good representative for the gods, but at this occation the childbearing Loki is
well-chosen. His pain illustrates the gods’ wounded masculinity. The nannygoat
with a beard, which normally is an indication of masculinity, is wellchosen
to represent the giantess who acts in the male gender role. Her position
is not extremely good either. She has lost her father and is on her own among
enemies. But the gods’ position is worse, their position is dishonouring.

As I have tried to show, the Nordic people interpreted their relation with the
Saami people in the light of their own myths, and their familarity with Saami
culture may be reflected in the myths themselves. This indicates that the
relation between the two people was seen as important within Old Norse
society. The fact that Saamis replace giants in mythic patterns certainly
demonstrates an ambiguity felt towards the Saamis. However, it is noteworthy
that Saamis most typically replace giants in what can be called a marriage
pattern. The Saami woman Sn?fri›r replaced Ger›r, and Ska›i may be modeled
on a Saami woman. Neither the mythic nor the mixed Nordic-Saami marriages
were normal marriages, and they were not necessarily happy marriages. But the
main symbol in Old Norse myths and in Old Norse literature of the relation
between the Nordic people and the Saami people is after all a marriage – with
its ups and downs.


Anonymous said...

This was a great article! I have been researching the sagas in relation to the Saami and you helped point me in another direction, liking the jotun and the Saami.


Alkman said...

You are welcome.

Anonymous said...

god byrjun