Ecological Sustainability in Traditional Sámi Beliefs and Rituals

by Mardoeke Boekraad (Author)
©2016 Thesis 166 Pages


The book gives a detailed overview of relevant traditional indigenous Sámi myths, beliefs and rituals based on empirical findings. The author inquires whether and how they are related to an ecologically sustainable use of the natural environment. Her main sources are ancient missionary texts, writings by Sámi and contemporary interviews with Sámi individuals. The traditional value system included ecological sustainability as a survival strategy. Beliefs and rituals, transmitted via stories, incorporated these values and transmitted a feeling of a round life, despite the strict rules for right behavior and punishment for transgressions. The term round symbolized a sense of safety, interconnectedness, reliance on mutual help and respect, identification and empathy with all living beings.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface to the book edition
  • Introduction to the book edition, by Marit Myrvoll
  • Chapter 1 – Introduction
  • Chapter 2 – Sources and Methodology
  • 2.1 Indigenous Methodologies
  • 2.2 My Perspective as Researcher
  • 2.3 Types of Sources
  • Chapter 3 – Sámi Backgrounds
  • 3.1 On the Sámi people and Languages Today
  • 3.2 Change, Suppression and Diversity
  • 3.3 Traditional Sámi Culture
  • 3.4 Birgejupmi: Are Sámi Ecologically Sustainable?
  • 3.5 Structuring Beliefs Related to Ecological Sustainability
  • Chapter 4 – Superhuman Agency at the Individual Level
  • 4.1 Animal Shape-Shifting
  • 4.2 Non-Human Personhood
  • 4.3 Individual Sacred Animals
  • Chapter 5 – Species-Related Superhuman Agency
  • 5.1 The Bear
  • 5.2 Animal Species-Related Protection Spirits: The Máddo
  • 5.3 Animal Ancestry
  • Chapter 6 – Local Superhuman Agency
  • 6.1 Underground Spirits: Gufithar/Kadnihah/Ulda
  • 6.2 Sieidi: Local Superhuman Agency and the Management of Resources
  • 6.3 Landscapes
  • Chapter 7 – Global Agency
  • 7.1 Nature: Gullat luonddu jienaid
  • 7.2 Mother Earth
  • 7.3 Ancient Pantheon
  • Chapter 8 – Conclusions
  • Summary in Norwegian
  • References
  • Appendix to Chapter 4: Schematic Overview of Species-Related Protection Spirits
  • Appendix to Chapter 5
  • Appendix to Chapter 7

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Chapter 1 – Introduction

Ecological Sustainability and Theory of Religion: Sámi Culture as Case Study

In these times of aggravated ecological crises,1 people throughout the world are reevaluating human values and attitudes toward the physical environment. The so-called large world religions are making efforts to integrate ecological concerns and in offering ways out of the ecological crisis. Environmental education is being integrated into school curricula all over the world (Grim and Tucker 2011). Some important negative trends like the climate change engendered high gas emissions are far from being reversed. The process of understanding how society can create sustainable relationships with the natural environment has not reached its conclusion. Right from the start of the ecological crisis and the ecological movements of the 1960s, indigenous peoples2 like the Sámi who live in the northern part of Fenno-Scandinavia were being put forward as examples to follow for their supposedly sustainable management strategies (Mathisen 2004). In recent years, this interest shifted to a focus on indigenous knowledge of ecosystems,3 ← 15 | 16 → values and spirituality.4 The world society is still looking for good examples to follow. I hope to make a useful contribution to that debate through my detailed analysis of Sámi religious traditions with regard to ecological sustainability5 – but for that, we first need a historical and theoretical framework for the discussion that this introduction hopes to provide.

Primitive Nature

The history of the relationship between European society and indigenous peoples is a complex one and has been characterized by the term “primitivism.” Geertz states that primitivism is a philosophical position, which has been a part of all cultures including the European. It consists of paradoxical ideas that one might have regarding indigenous peoples. On the one hand, they are seen as backward and inferior, and on the other hand they are idealized and romanticized. This applies even to science itself. Armin W. Geertz (2004) did an analysis of primitivism where he states that indigenous cultures played a central role in the development of theory in the social and cultural sciences, while at the same time, having been marginalized and even rendered invisible (Geertz 2004: 37). In primitivism, nature becomes a norm for what is good and an ideal for the return to some ideal archaic natural society (Geertz 2004: 41, 55).6 ← 16 | 17 →

The myth of the “noble savage” profoundly inspired the European Enlightenment (Geertz 2004: 44). This myth informs a vision of the Sámi, as close to nature and therefore, in particular when Christianized, morally superior to ‘civilized’ people (Lindmark 2004). In the mid-nineteenth century the ideology of social Darwinism was developed and with it the concept of more and less advanced societies (Lehtola 2004: 44). Indigenous peoples like the Sámi were considered inferior because they were presumed to be at a lower stage of development as compared to others. These normative and discriminatory social Darwinist ideas were considered to be scientific and they influenced state authorities. It was because of this view that a series of discriminatory policies were adopted in all Scandinavian states. Social Darwinist doctrine also inspired fascist regimes and their mass-extermination of “inferior” races before and during the Second World War. After defeat of the fascist armies, the scientific community reacted strongly against this idealization of nature. Together with worldwide decolonization processes, the doctrine of primitivism became outdated in anthropology and other social sciences as well as in the humanities. The fear of a new totalitarian regime based on certain absolute and eternally valid “laws of nature” – combined with a sense of superior racial identity – is still rooted deeply in the European memory. It is therefore understandable that henceforth all movements and intellectual currents which romanticize nature are critically scrutinized for their democratic and humanistic commitment.7

But the idealization of nature, the Sámi and other indigenous peoples continues to the present day and takes the form of contemporary neo-primitivism (Geertz 2004, Mathisen 2004). Also the Sámi-inspired neo-shaman movement in Norway idealizes nature and the ancient Sámi religion (Fonneland 2010). Siv Ellen Kraft has analyzed nature-idealizing discourses about the Sámi in which they are represented, according to her, as perfect keepers of the ecological balance (Kraft 2009: 184, 2004: 243). ← 17 | 18 →

The Sámi and other indigenous peoples have become double targets of criticism: as possible source of religious mythologizations of nature and simultaneously as victims of a scientific myth of “natural,” for instance social Darwinism when adopted by aggressive regimes.

Some scholars of religion have detected inherent and non-explicit signs of the fact that the ecological movement bears religious traits according to post-secularized concepts of religion. This development was analyzed by the Norwegian scholar of religious studies Tarjei Rønnow (2007: 94–95). Nature in modern Norwegian society, wrote Rønnow (2007: 94), is still considered a source of cultural values, as the model for an ideal society that guarantees a common authenticity, a type of sacred cosmos.8

This tendency would seem to carry on to the present day. Internationally we see a group of scientists that even go so far as to declare their positive attitude toward or even full support for “dark green religion,” something they see as the last possible resource for changing human societies’ attitudes and behavior toward the environment (Taylor 2010, ch. 4 and pp. 220–222).

Geertz is entering a plea for criticism of all forms of anti-humanism and for a “radical revitalization of the Enlightenment project” in order to move beyond such primitivist opinions (2004: 62). Mathisen (2004) claims that if the Sámi should become partners with the ecological movement then they would have to join the discussion solely on the basis of facts. This might also lead to a better understanding of the relationship between indigenous cultures and sustainability – an area which must be addressed by scholars working that common ground shared by the natural and human sciences.

Ecological Saints or Just People like You and Me?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Sámi people indigenous religion sacred animals
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 166 pp.

Biographical notes

Mardoeke Boekraad (Author)

Mardoeke Boekraad studied biology and French language and literature in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris as well as religion at the University of Bergen (Norway) and Umeå (Sweden). She is committed to environmental issues both on a private and on a professional level.


Title: Ecological Sustainability in Traditional Sámi Beliefs and Rituals
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168 pages