Sámi drums

A Sámi drum is a shamanic ceremonial drum used by the Sámi people of Northern Europe. The Sámi people inhabit a land stretching from the Norwegian coast in the northwest, across the northern parts of Sweden and Finland, to the Kola Peninsula in the northeast, a part of Russia.

The earliest mention of the drums dates back to the 12th century. It mentions a drum with symbols of marine animals, a boat, reindeer, and snowshoes. There is also a description of a shaman healing a dead woman by moving her spirit into a whale.

In Sámi shamanism, the drum was used to get into a trance, or to obtain information from the future, or other realms. The drum was held in one hand and beaten with the other. While the shaman was in trance, his “free spirit” was said to leave his body to visit the spirit world.

He could travel to spiritual levels to fight the causes of sickness, heal people, and control nature. When used for divination, the drum was beaten with a drum hammer; a vuorbi (‘index’ or ‘pointer’), a kind of die made of brass or horn, would move around on the drumhead when the drum was struck. Future events would be predicted according to the symbols upon which the vuorbi stopped on the membrane.

The drums are always oval; the exact shape of the oval would vary with the kind of wood used. There are two main variations of drums: a bowl drum in which the drumhead is strapped over a burl, and a frame drum in which the drumhead stretches over a thin ring of bentwood.

The drumhead is fashioned from untanned reindeer hide and the membrane is attached to the wood with a sinew. The symbols were painted with a paste made from alder bark.

The patterns on the drum membrane reflect the worldview of the owner and his family, both in religious and worldly matters, such as reindeer herding, hunting, householding, gods, and relations with their neighbors and the non-Sámi community.

There are no two drums with identical sets of symbols. The reindeer played a very important place in Sami peoples’ life, the reindeer-herding is mainly depicted with a circular symbol for the reindeer corral that was used to gather, mark and milk the flock.

The symbol for the corral is always placed in the lower half of the drum. Reindeer are represented as singular line figures, as fully modeled figures, or by their antlers. The campsite is usually shown as a triangle symbolizing the tent/goahti. The Sámi storehouse (njalla) is a small hut in bear cache style, built on top of a cut tree. It is usually depicted with its ladder in front.

The structure of the patterns can be divided into two main categories:

  • heliocentric drum face, characterized by the rhombus-shaped sun cross mainly in the center of the drum;
  • the membrane is divided into three or five separate levels representing different worlds: the heavens, the world of the living, and the underworld.

Many drums were taken out of Sámi ownership and used during the Christianization of the Sámi people in the 17th and 18th centuries. With their pagan rituals, the Sámi became included in the church’s witch hunts.

The drums were confiscated and burnt by Sámi missionaries and other officials. Other drums were bought by collectors. Between 70 and 80 drums have only been preserved even though it is thought that every family once owned a drum.

The largest collection of drums is at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm.

Merike Joosep taken from Nana Geruni

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