Sami Spirituality and the Cult of the Sacred Stones
The Cult of the Sacred Stones belong to the Sami people of northern Europe. The Sami (occasionally spelled Saami) live in Lapland, a part of northern Europe near Norway, Sweden and Finland, and adjacent to the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The Sami people once shared in variations of the Norse religion, worshipping gods akin to Odin, Thor, Loki, Freyja, etc. And while the pre-Christian Norse appear to have also valued nature spirits as deities, the Sami were—and are—more attuned to these natural spirits. The Sami traditions of worshipping and presenting offerings to the spirits is continuous, and is best seen within the Cult of the Sacred Stones, or the Cult of the Seida.
A Sami family in Norway around 1900. ( Public Domain )
At the core of the Sacred Stones (called seida in the language of the Sami) is a deep-seated belief in spirituality rather than religious figures, or deities. (That is not to say that the Sami do/did not worship figures; merely this means that the religion surrounding the Stones specifically are rooted more in spirituality.) The Sami value particular rocks as possessing the spirits of the natural world; these rocks are considered spiritual for a variety of reasons: in some cases, the rocks are naturally positioned in an intriguing way, or the rocks themselves are "of fancy form", as one source notes. However, there is also a man-made aspect to these Stone formations; the Stones themselves are delineated as sacred and can therefore be configured or reconfigured as necessary or desired by the religious leaders.
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A Nordic Sami woman playing lur horn in the evening. Made after nature by Emma Edwall, Stockholm in Sweden. Mid 1800's. ( Public Domain )
Sami and Nature
To fully understand the value of the Stones in the culture of the Sami, one must first note the value of agriculture and animal husbandry. Herding, hunting and fishing are still highly pertinent aspects of the Sami culture, just as they were early on. From this deep-seated association with the natural world, and because of the constant movement of the Sami across their native lands, the Cult of the Sacred Stones arose.
Sami with reindeer, Finnmark, Norway (1890-1900). ( CC BY 2.0 )
This importance is difficult to understand, even today, as the Sami keep their spiritual and cultural secrets close to heart, the Sami elders retaining the most comprehensive knowledge of the culture. Perhaps this is why the Cult of the Sacred Stones, and the ancient core of the Sami lifestyle, remains so strongly intact in the present.
The Cult of the Sacred Stones
What is known about the Sami Cult of the Sacred Stones is best described by Robinson et al. in Sami Potatoes: Living with Reindeer and Peretroika (as described to the writers by a tour guide):
"...the sacred Stone was used for spiritual guidance in bad times and to provide a good omen to hunters and fishers. Often the Sami made sacrifices to the sacred Stone."
-Robinson et al., p. 64
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Seida on Vottovaara mountain. Large boulder is located on 3 small rocks, which lay on another large boulder. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Stones are also considered highly valuable in relation to specific families; not unlike the clan tartans of Scottish lineages, it is believed that “every family clan had its own sacred Stones, which were known only by members of the clan." If this is indeed the case, and this tradition continues into the present (again, only known with certainty to the Sami elders and the specific families), then it may be reasonable to presume particular families had something akin to patron Stones, or spiritual watchers.
Illustration of stone worship or spiritual offering. In Lapponia by J.Schefferius (1673) ( Public Domain )
Regarding the Sacred Stones as Stones (and not only holders of nature spirits), one might consider them altars as well. Sacrifice upon these Stones was common, as an offering to the spirits of the Stones, and possibly as a gift to ensure the release of the spirit or the blessing of the spirit upon the sacrificer.
"The sacrifice usually was done near the seida, as the place where the Stones laid was sacred. To those seidas that were situated at inaccessible places, the sacrifice was given by throwing to the seida the Stones wetted in the sacrifice reindeer blood. Women were forbidden to come near the seidas." (M. Robinson)
Stabben: A seida (worshiped stone) in Balsfjord. ( Public Domain )
A Sacrifice to the Altar
As is associated most often with the terms "altar" and "sacrifice" a blood offering was the common form of offering provided to the spirits within the seida; there are, however, references to an offering of fat as well. (Most likely, animal fat presented in much the same fashion as animal blood.) According to Robinson et al., sacrifice is no longer a popular trend when presenting gifts to the seida, and has been displaced by the more mainstream—for lack of a better term—gift of money.
While a complete understanding of the Cult of the Sacred Stones is highly desirable, the secrecy and close-knit traditions of the Sami are likely what have kept their religion intact and their culture non-Westernized for so many years. Perhaps this is in the best interest of the Sami, as one of the more ancient religions continues to thrive alongside—but sometimes independent of—the modern religions. Despite the mystery, however, the Cult of the Sacred Stones, and the religion of the Sami can still be appreciated and respected by all who study and visit their Finnish homes.
Top image: A seida (worshiped stone) Tromsø, Norway. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Mulk, Inga-Maria and Tim Bayliss-Smith. “Liminality, rock art and the Sami sacred landscape.” Journal of Northern Studies . 2007. pp. 95-122.
Robinson, Michael P, Karim-Aly S. Kassam and Leif Rantala. Sami Potatoes: Living with Reindeer and Perestroika . Bayeux Arts, 1998. pp. 64-65.
“Saami Sacred Stones in Karelia.” Heninen. 1997. Accessed April 25, 2018. http://heninen.net/seid/english.htm