A reindeer at Jotunheimen National Park in Norway. A reindeer bull features prominently in Sámi sky lore. | SkyNews
A reindeer at Jotunheimen National Park in Norway. A reindeer bull features prominently in Sámi sky lore. (Sébastien Goldberg/Unsplash)

Sámi: Looking for lost elements of night skies

Over the past couple centuries, much of Sámi sky lore has been lost, but what is known shows a culture that is intimately in tune with the land.

For the Sámi people, the sky is a mirror for how they live and view the world. But what role these views played in their pre-Medieval culture is a mystery.

The Sámi are spread across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Murmansk Oblast. Unlike the Norse or Scandinavian settlers of the area, the Sámi settled further inland and lived hunting and herding lifestyles. There was little contact with them until Scandinavian settlers moved inland during the Medieval era, and their cultures developed independently.

Jonas Persson, associate professor of physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said the Sámi historically relied on oral storytelling. He noted that as with Norse sky culture, Sámi sky stories were not recorded until after they had been influenced by other cultures; what did survive started to be written down during the late 18th century.

Persson’s research can be found as a part of the World Asterisms Project, a living collection of asterisms built by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Inclusivity and Diversity Committee as a celebration of the sky cultures of the world. The collection includes more than 9,000 asterisms from 400 cultures around the world.

“There’s even less to work with compared to Norse, which but there’s a rich oral tradition that differs in different areas,” Persson said.

What is known shows a culture that is intimately in tune with the land.

The Sun’s importance to Sámi culture can be seen by its representation on drums. The Sun is shown to be carried by a bear, which indicates the animal had high cultural importance to the Sámi. 

Persson argues a connection is implied because the Sun is barely visible to the Sámi during the winter, which is also when bears are hibernating. 

Dark periods emphasize the Moon as a light source, while the stars were used for navigation since landmarks were buried under snow. Persson believes the stars may have also been used as a clock, because the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor have names in Old Finnish connected to time. 

“Note that ‘boahji’ in Sami is related to ‘pohja’ in Finnish, which means north or fundament,” Persson wrote in his paper, adding that Polaris is called “Pohjan täthi,” North star in Finnish. “Thus indicating both support and a guide.”

There are few constellations noted in Sámi culture, thought to be because the stars are often obscured by the Northern Lights. But the myths found in the stars offer a window into their lifestyle.

Common Sámi myths include a heavenly hunt in the sky, which is not surprising for a hunting culture. A reindeer bull, either named Sarva or Sarvvis, is usually the target of the hunting party. Cassiopeia forms an antler or the head, and the animal’s body is formed by Perseus and parts of Auriga. The hunter Favdna aims his bow, which is the Big Dipper, at the animal. His sons, found in Orion’s Belt, are with him for the hunt. Other hunters in the party are found in Procyon, Vega, Castor and Pollux.

A view of the night sky showing Sámi asterisms. | SkyNews
A view of the night sky showing Sámi asterisms. (Stellarium)

While the Sámi may have some common views of the sky, there is no common sky culture. The Sámi are divided into different cultures with their own languages and traditions. How asterisms influenced their beliefs have answers likely destroyed by colonialism.

“The late recording of Sámi culture makes it quite difficult to draw any major conclusions about the Sámi sky culture. What we find are just pieces from different parts of the Sámi culture with no singular part complete,” Persson said. “It might be possible to collect what remains of sky related stories and organize them in a way to get a better identification, but most likely, has too much been lost.”

This World Asterisms Project, which includes more than 8,600 asterisms from 400 cultures, is a living project celebrating sky cultures. Published by The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, it continues to grow as the process of naming stars continues and as ethnoastronomers and researchers investigate old records, interview elders and recover previously lost sky culture information.