Shamanism in pre-Christian Norway
Princess Märtha Louise’s romance with American shaman Durek Verrett recently triggered media mentions of shamanism. Our correspondant surveys the belief’s history in Norway.
M. Michael Brady
Shamanism, an animistic faith of northern Asia, holds that a person known as a shaman can influence the relationship between the natural and supernatural worlds and thereby control spiritual forces and perform magic. The faith arrived in northern Norway ca. 1500 to 1000 BCE, with Finno-Ugric-speaking settlers who came from the Urals, the mountain range that forms the boundary between Europe and Asia, and assimilated with the indigenous population to become the Sámi people. By 500 CE, more than three centuries before the Kingdom of Norway was founded in 872, the Sámi language and culture were well established in what is now Finnmark.
In today’s terminology, Norway then was pagan, as Shamanism was not and still is not a main world religion. After their raids on Britain and Ireland brought the Vikings in contact with Christianity, they returned to Christianize their homeland. That effort was ultimately successful in the 1020s, when King Olaf II achieved the official adoption of Christianity in Norway, a feat for which he subsequently was canonized at Nidaros (now Trondheim). In Christian Norway, shamanism then was relegated to be a minority faith practiced by a minority, the Sámi people.
In the 17th century, Queen Kristina Augusta of Sweden sought to place her country on the intellectual map of Europe by inviting foreign scholars to settle in the country. One of the invited scholars was Johannes Schefferus, who in 1648 relocated from his native Strasbourg to a faculty position at the University of Uppsala. Schefferus is most remembered for Lapponia, the first monograph on the Sámi people.
Lapponia was a remarkable achievement of ethnographic research. It was comprehensive, because it was based on the firsthand observations of Swedish clergy living in Lappland, as the area inhabited by the Sámi was called. (The word “Lapp” is a pejorative Swedish term for the Sámi.) It was meticulously detailed, because it contained first-ever illustrations of Sámi cultural practices, such as the use of a runebomme, an onomatopoetic term for an oval drum of stretched reindeer skin used in shamanic trance drumming. Each runebomme is an individual work of art, as its drumhead is decorated with symbols descriptive of its owner’s journeys through the spiritual world.
The first edition of Lapponia was published in Latin in 1673. It was subsequently translated into editions in English, German, French, and Dutch. Curiously, Lapponia was not translated into Swedish until it appeared nearly three centuries later under the title Lappland (1956).
Though the six editions of Lapponia made it a benchmark reference on the Sámi, the people themselves fared less well. Like minorities elsewhere, they were repressed in many ways, the most onerous of which was Norwegianization, a harsh governmental policy of eradicating their cultural identity.
Norwegianization was rescinded in the 1980s, and reparations were made. In 1997, King Harald V opened the Sámediggi (Sámi Assembly) by observing that “The state of Norway was founded on the territory of two peoples—the Sámi people and the Norwegians. Sámi history is closely intertwined with Norwegian history. Today, we express our regret on behalf of the state for the injustice committed against the Sámi people through its harsh policy of Norwegianization.”
The status of the Sámi as a discriminated minority has been voiced most touchingly by Sámi singer Mari Boine, born and raised in Karasjok, in Finnmark County. The overall conclusion of these texts and singer Boine’s songs is that Sámi culture is integral in contemporary Norwegian culture. Moreover, the Sámi practice of shamanism has an enthnogenic cousin in Norway, as finds on a Viking ship suggest that the Völva (Viking priestesses) used cannabis to attain trances.
• Lapponia by Johannes Scheffer, published by 1673; English translation The History of Lapland: runeberg.org/hilapland.
• “Multicultural Citizenship as Sami in Norway by Kristin Strømsnes,” paper presented at the Sixth International Conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research in Toronto June 2004: at.yorku.ca/c/a/m/m/60.htm.
• “Viking ship cannabis conundrum,” The Norwegian American, Jan. 29, 2016: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/viking-ship-cannabis-conundrum.
This article originally appeared in the July 12, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.