“Here they can still tell stories”

Newly translated book of Sámi folktales makes wonderful—if sometimes eerie—reading

By the fire

Photo: Einar Montén / courtesy Jämtli Museum,
Östersund, Sweden
Elisabet Rensberg (age 83) and her granddaughter Vanja Torkelsson, 1954.

Barbara Sjoholm
Port Townsend, Wash.

By the Fire

Photo: Borg Mesch
Emilie Demant Hatt, 1910. Photograph from Yngve Åstrom, Hjalmar Lundbohm (Stockholm: LTs Förlag, 1965).

About 100 years ago, an adventurous young Danish artist decided to take a vacation in Lapland with her sister. Deeply intrigued by the landscape and the Sámi reindeer herders she encountered, Emilie Demant Hatt ended up devoting a good part of her life to writing about Sápmi in books such as With the Lapps in the High Mountains (1913) and By the Fire, an illustrated collection of Sámi folktales (1922).

As the translator of With the Lapps and author of Black Fox, a recent biography of Demant Hatt, I was familiar with the stories in By the Fire, but it wasn’t until I began to translate them that I realized how unusual they were.

Or how unusual it was that an Edwardian-era amateur female ethnographer had hiked hundreds of miles in the mountainous terrain between Norway and Sweden and had lived in tents and turf huts to record the stories in her field notebooks. Most folktales from Scandinavia, after all, had been collected by men like Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, and that was true of Sámi tales as well. The best-known collectors of Norwegian Sámi folktales were the 19th-century philologist J.A. Friis and the scholar J.K. Quigstad. Neither of them got to know the Sámi in the way Demant Hatt did, and neither of them collected many tales from Sámi women.

But then, Demant Hatt’s ethnography, undertaken summer after summer in the field from 1907-1916, had always been largely focused on women and children’s lives. Long before Margaret Mead went to Samoa, Demant Hatt was setting down details of births, illnesses, courtships, marriages, children’s games, and women’s domestic and herding work. She admired the equal status of Sámi women in their communities, envied the freedom of the children and young girls to live fully in nature, and championed the humor, knowledge, and resilience of her hosts.

By the FireThe gifted narrators of By the Fire include Anni Rasti, in whose tent Demant Hatt lived during a grueling weeks-long mountain trek from Sweden to Norway; Märta Nilsson, a Sámi elder and healer from Östersund; Margreta Bengtsson, a wife, mother, and reindeer herder in Pite Sápmi; former herder Anders Larsson, in Frostviken; and Elisabet Rensberg from Härjedalen, whose still-living granddaughter recalls hearing the old tales as a child. Many of the storytellers, while nominally Swedish, had been born in Norway, worked in Norway, or herded back and forth across the mountainous borders.

Many of us know and love the figures from Norwegian fairy tales: the ambitious “ash lad” who wins the hand of the princess, the dull-witted troll, the talking animals. Sámi folktales also have some of these elements, though the troll is named Stallo. But the over 65 tales in By the Fire also feature plucky girls and staunch old women, many of whom outwit the enemies of the Sámi, whether they be Dog-Turks, bandits called Chudes, or simply Swedish farmers intent on driving the Sámi from their ancestral territories.

With a fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation, I traveled to the folklore archives in Uppsala, Sweden, and the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm for several weeks in 2017. Using Demant Hatt’s original field notes, I was able to piece together who told Demant Hatt which stories and gather some biographical notes on the storytellers and investigate some of the historical sources that gave rise to the folktales. My afterword in the collection also contains photographs of the narrators and more about the illustrations.

Out of print for decades and never translated into English before, By the Fire is being published by the University of Minnesota Press with reproductions of Demant Hatt’s original black-and-white linocuts. For lovers of folktales, By the Fire makes for wonderful if at times eerie and provocative reading, while it also shines a light on an important part of our Nordic heritage: the Sámi people and their culture.

Members of the Pacific Sámi Searvi will join Barbara Sjoholm on May 12 at Seattle’s Nordic Museum to read selected folktales and discuss By the Fire.

The Fox Tricks the Bear and Makes a Sami Man Rich

Barbara Sjoholm

Linocut print: Emilie Demant Hatt / courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press
“Hot, hot, old fox!” cried the bear, when the fire singed his fur.

“The Fox Tricks the Bear and Makes a Sámi Man Rich,” was told by Elli Ristina Nutti during the summer of 1916 on the island of Kvaløya near Tromsø. Nutti heard this tale from her grandfather. Excerpt is from the forthcoming publication By the Fire by Emilie Demant Hatt, translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Translation copyright 2019 by Barbara Sjoholm. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press.

The fox had stolen some fish from a man. And just as he was walking along with his catch, he met the bear, who saw the delicious fish and asked where one could find such a catch. The fox answered that the bear should stick his tail in the waterhole that people drew water from. Here the fish would cling to his tail and he would need only to pull them up, but they bit best in a strong frost. The bear stuck his tail in such a waterhole and waited patiently until the tail was frozen fast. He believed it was the fish hanging on to it. Suddenly the fox cried, “People are coming! People are coming!” The bear sprang up to flee and jerked the frozen tail so hard that it tore off.

Now the bear was angry at the fox and caught it and carried it off in its jaws to kill it. In this difficult situation, the fox began to talk to the bear as if nothing had happened. But the bear could not answer because he had the fox between its teeth. Finally, when the fox asked eagerly, “What wind have we today?” the bear said, “The North Wind!” With these words he had to relax his grip, and the fox was free.

The fox did not get far though before the bear caught him again. And once again the fox began to talk, as if to himself. “Oh the times were better then, when I decorated the skins of small birds,” said the fox as they passed a colorful woodpecker in a tree.

“Couldn’t you make my skin as beautifully colored as that?” growled the bear.

“Yes, I surely could, but it will hurt. You wouldn’t be able to stand the pain.”

“Yes I can. I can easily stand it,” said the bear.

“Oh, but there’s so much work involved. You have to dig a big pit and trees have to be pulled up and a fire lit in the pit and willow branches must be twined together.”

“I can do all that,” said the bear, and he started work right away. The bear huffed and puffed, managing to dig the pit, gather the wood and set it alight, place logs over the pit, and twine the willow branches. Then the fox got ready to decorate the bear’s skin. The fox carefully bound the bear fast to the logs with the twined willows. The bear, who began to find it warm when the fire singed his fur, cried, “Hot, hot, old fox!”

“Yes, I knew you couldn’t stand having your back decorated.”

“I can stand it, I can stand it!” cried the bear.

But the bear burned up, so only the legs were left. The fox collected them in a sack and he walked off, rattling them as he walked. A Sami man who came by bought the sack in exchange for six of his pack reindeer. The fox had made him believe that there was a treasure in the sack but that he must not open the sack to look inside before he passed seven small hills, or else the treasure would be transformed into burned legs. The man went off with the sack and the fox with the reindeer.

The fox wanted the reindeer slaughtered, and so he called together the other animals to help him. When all the reindeer were killed, the fox scared all his helpers away by shouting that people were coming. The animals fled in all directions, but the wolf snatched a reindeer leg to take with him. The wolf always attacks the reindeer by sinking its teeth in the reindeer’s haunch. The wolverine took the head; it always goes for the reindeer’s head. But the hare ran in fear under the sooty stewpot, and with that, the tips of his ears turned solid black. The fox was now alone with the reindeer meat and was just about to eat when the Sami man, whom he had deceived, came back to kill the fox. The fox suggested that instead of killing him, the man and the fox should go to the king’s estate. There the fox would make the man rich.

When they arrived at the king’s estate, the fox went in first to the king and said to him, “I have a rich man with me, but he doesn’t dare come in because he doesn’t have a change of clothes with him.” So the king gave the fox some beautiful clothes, and the fox brought them to the Sami and bade him put them on. After that, they returned to the king. The fox now told the king that the man was so rich he had 500 tree cutters and 500 field hands working for him. The fox suggested that the king should give his daughter to this rich man.

The king agreed with this, and the man was wed to the king’s daughter. After they were married, the king wished to see his son-in-law’s great property. The fox ran off to prepare for this. He knew there was a little snake that owned a large estate and had 500 tree cutters and 500 field hands working for him. The fox went to him. First he met the 500 tree cutters and to them he said, “The king is coming and wants to kill you, but if you say you are his son-in-law’s tree cutters, he won’t do you any harm.” They promised to say that when the king came. After that the fox said the same thing to the 500 field hands, that the king was coming to kill them but if they said that they were his son-in-law’s field hands, then they would save their lives. And they fell in with this.

Finally the fox came to the snake’s house, and there he met the maidservant: “The king is coming and wants to kill you, but if you say you serve the king’s son-in-law, then nothing bad will happen to you.”

The maid promised to say that, whereupon the fox asked, “Where is the snake?”

“He is sitting in the dining room at the table,” said the maidservant.

The fox went into the dining room and said to the snake, “The king is coming and wants to kill you!”

“Where shall I go then?” said the snake, terrified. The fox answered, “Here is a roll of homespun cloth; I’ll put you in it and put you up on the shelf.”

“Yes, do that,” bade the snake.

So the fox rolled the snake up in the roll of homespun and threw the whole thing in the fire. Both snake and homespun burned up. In this way the king’s son-in-law got all the snake’s property. Now the Sami man was rich, and the fox had done right from that which was done wrong before.

The Sickness Spirit That Arrived on a Stick of Wood

Barbara Sjoholm

Linocut print: Emilie Demant Hatt / courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press
He took the ax and swung it repeatedly into the twig-covered floor in front of the sick woman.

“The Sickness Spirit that Arrived on a Stick of Wood,” was told by Anders Larsson in 1913 in the Frostviken district of Sweden near Norway, in an area that had been ravaged by the Black Death centuries before. Excerpt is from the forthcoming publication By the Fire by Emilie Demant Hatt, translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Translation copyright 2019 by Barbara Sjoholm. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press.

A poor man was on his way to a prosperous Sami tent to ask for a reindeer to slaughter. In those days, when you were poor and had nothing to eat, you sought help only from your own. You never asked for anything from the farmers.

The rich Sami wife was sick, and while the poor man was walking he met on the way a woman he suspected of being a sickness spirit. He entered into conversation with her and asked, if she was going to the same tent where the wife was sick, whether they could walk together. The woman now asked what errand he had in the tent. He said that since he hoped to get an old pack reindeer that he could slaughter, maybe she might get a reindeer cow? She answered that maybe she would rather have an old woman instead.

He asked her more about it, how she was planning to enter the tent. She told him that when the fire chirped the first time, she would be in the vicinity of the tent, and when it chirped the second time she would be near the spot where wood was chopped, and when the fire chirped the third time, she would enter the tent. She would arrive on the tip of a piece of wood that poked out from under the door of the tent, and when she was inside she would place herself between the housewife and the loaido, the space around the hearth in the center of the tent, where everyone gathered.

After this conversation they separated, and the man arrived first at the tent. When he had been sitting there a little while, he heard the fire chirp the first time and, soon after, the second time. The poor man now understood that the woman was just outside, near the spot where the wood was chopped. He asked the people in the tent if they had a steel ax. Yes, they did. He asked to borrow it and placed it in front of him.

The family had a daughter in the tent who was a little stiff in the back and for that reason not very careful when placing the wood inside the tent. As usual she had tossed the pieces inside so they fell any old way, such that the ends poked out under the tent door. When more wood was required for the fire and the log was dragged over to the cooking area, the fire chirped the third time. Now the poor Sami knew that the woman had entered and that she was sitting in the loaido between the fire and the sick woman. He took the ax and swung it repeatedly into the twig-covered floor in front of the sick woman. Neither he nor the others saw anything, but they clearly heard a moan.

Only afterward did the poor man tell them that he had met a sickness spirit on the way, and he said what she had told him.

This tale has come down from generation to generation, and parents have told it to their children to teach them to pile the wood correctly so that the tips don’t poke outside the tent.

This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.