Niina is a folklorist and a storyteller who loves to research and explore myths from all around the world.
People of the Reindeer
A large region known as Saami land is home to a number of Saami tribes and dialects, including Northern Saami, Koltta Saami, Inari Saami, etc. Saami people were reindeer herders, fishers, and hunters, because of this reindeer are among the most beloved animals in Saami culture.
Many Finns have Saami heritage since Saami tribes were the first to settle in what is now known as Finland thousands of years ago. These individuals weren't reindeer herders; they were hunters and fishermen. Around 100 ACE, the Saami people began domesticating wild deer.
The earliest records of people owning reindeer date back to the 900th century. The people's way of life became more entwined with reindeer herding. The Saami people used reindeer to move large objects, reindeer provide them milk to drink, food to consume and to make clothing out of their fur. The Saami began to assess their prosperity in terms of the number of reindeer in the 16th century, which was a significant change in their culture.
People ran out of food. There were no animals to hunt and fish in the lakes. People discovered that reindeer were more productive when they followed the reindeer's natural cycle. Herders began to accompany reindeer to their breeding grounds and areas where they gave birth. This alteration deepened the Saami's bond with the reindeer.
Reindeer in Saami Mythology
Reindeer meat is quite salty. One of the reasons reindeer were crucial to the Saami people, who were accustomed to severe weather, is because salty food can help one to survive in a frigid climate. The Samoyed people of Siberia still live a nomadic lifestyle and follow to the reindeer's seasonal cycle. Around the 18th and 19th centuries, herding in Scandinavian nations became static, as a result of political difficulties and the drawing of national borders. These political developments were detrimental to the Saami in many respects, particularly when it came to land rights. This topic is still up for discussion.
The white reindeer is a mythical creature in Saami folktales. The most magical reindeer was the albino one. It was the leader of all the reindeer. Catching the white reindeer would bring good fortune, wealth, and eternal bliss to the one who caught it. Totemic belief in the reindeer spirit was common, and it was one of the reasons why people treated them with such special care. When a bear was hunted in ancient Finland, the hunter hoped that the bear's spirit would return to the starry sky to its ancestors. The Saami's believed this to be true with the reindeer. The herders prayed that the great reindeer spirit would take care of the sacrificed reindeer.
Northern Lights in Saami Mythology
Only the finest and most attractive reindeer were sacrificed for the great reindeer spirit. One of the oldest customs was to take the reindeer antlers and hang them on the top of the seita. The Saamis had a sacred grove called Seita. It was an altar where offerings were made. Usually, seita was a large stone or tree formation.
A cross in the chest of a white reindeer symbolized the spirit of the great reindeer. There have been gods with antlers in numerous civilizations, such as the Celtic god Cernunnos and the Greek pastoral god Pan. Everything in nature and all creatures were holy to the Saami people. Magic was present in everyday life. Reindeer was sacred. The skin, fur, milk, meat, hooves all had different symbolism and particularly the antlers because they reached upward to the sky and were linked to the cosmos.
Shaman wore a coat made of reindeer fur and antlers on his head during rites. This allowed them to communicate with the powerful reindeer spirit. The shaman took on the form of a reindeer during the rite and served the great reindeer spirit. The Saami people had a strong bond with the natural world. Bones were thought to be particularly mystical. Saami children were instructed to gather all the animal's bones and bury them when they discovered a dead animal. The animal could continue its a journey in the afterlife after the skeleton was complete.
Some Saami tribes believed that they were descended from reindeer, and there are many tales about reindeer in Saami mythology. Kola Saami's who live in the Kola Peninsula in Siberia believed that they descended from a reindeer shape-shifter ancestor called Myandash. The father of Myandash was a reindeer and his mother was a Saami witch. Myandash shared a tent with his mother that was built entirely of reindeer bones and fur.
He was a human inside the tent, but when he went outside, he changed into a reindeer. They lived in the realm of the great reindeer spirit. Living in the tent made Myandash feel incredibly lonely, and he confided to his mother that he would like to marry a human. Mother was not happy, but because she loved her son, she went to the earth and looked for a human wife for him. There are several accounts of what happened afterwards.
According to one legend, Myandash fell in love and he and his wife had a large family, and once the kids left the tent, they transformed into reindeer. Some accounts claim that Myandash's wife also possessed the capacity to turn into a reindeer. Myandash once became so in tune with his inner reindeer that he no longer desired to be a human and did not return to the tent. Instead, he would flee into the tundra, followed by their children. The wife performed the ritual and the spirit of Myandash entered her while she was sitting on the reindeer fur for meditating. The wife's second marriage, to a human, continued the bloodline of Myandash among the Kola Saami.
Today, most people consider this myth to be a legend, although Kola Saami still placed tremendous weight on the myth during the 1920s and 1930s. In many cultures, an animal represented a clan. Typically, it began with tales of the animal's bond with people. Otters, lynxes, bears, wolves, and birds are among the most common totem animals in northern Europe and northern Asia. creatures that people regularly encountered and animals that held magical significance for them. Totem animals have occasionally been used to describe a tribe's way of life. The otter might have served as a metaphor for a tribe that resided close to the water.
Reindeer represented a connection both to the earth and to the sky.
Pentikäinen, Juha. (1997). The Mythology of the Sami. Reinhold Schletzer.
Laestadius, Lars Levi. (2002). Fragments of Lappish Mythology. Aspasia Books.
© 2022 Niina Pekantytar