Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends
The second stage of the Finnmark trip (click here for the first part, the forest trek) consisted of a re-supply stop in Karasjok. I’d intended a quick in-and-out visit before heading east, but the place turned out to be so nice I extended the stop a little longer, look around the town, and camp up on one of the fells overlooking the valley.
The little wooden town sits in the centre of the Finnmark plateau, and is the nominal capital of Norwegian Lapland. It hosts the Sami parliament of Norway, the representative body for the indigenous inhabitants, and a range of cultural institutions showcasing the traditions and history of the region. It’s also a rather lovely place; pine trees grow right down to the edge of the streets, scattered in amongst the houses, so you never quite feel the forest has ended and civilisation begun. Here’s a quick photo-tour, to give you a feel…
I hiked up to one of the fells in the woodland to the south of the town, to spend a night there. The views were impressive, stretching from the Finnish border to the south to the mountains around Stabbursdalen in the north, and Rasttigaisa fell in the east.
Finally, I took a visit to the Sami Museum. It’s a nicely laid-out repository of artefacts, that helps give a good feel for Sami culture. It contains a couple of particularly fine examples of shaman’s drums, replicas of originals dating back to a period not so long ago when the religion of Lapland remained largely pagan, a fusion of Siberian and Nordic elements distinctive in nature.
The drums were used in divination and healing rituals by wandering shamans called Noaidi. They were so widely believed to possess magical powers that the governments of Norway and Sweden made possessing them illegal; most examples were destroyed, with only a few surviving in assorted museum collections. Their mode of operation saw them held flat by the shaman, who would then place a number of objects (coins, discs or bones were all variously used) on the surface, and commence drumming. The reverberations running through the hide of the drum would cause the objects to bounce and shift; as they passed across the surface, they would come into contact with the little red symbols. The path they took from symbol to symbol would be interpreted by the shaman, and a course of action prescribed on its basis. While the extent to which actual spiritual intervention was involved in this process is open to question, what is inarguable is that the advice given was good enough, regularly enough, for the shamanic tradition to persist for thousands of years. Whether this was the work of the gods, or simply the consequence of wise old folk finding a way to give wise advice and, by invoking invisible powers, ensure that it was heeded, I’ll leave up to the reader to decide. Whatever the truth may be, the drums are evidence of a traditional culture with a complex set of beliefs and a striking visual culture; one that was far from primitive, and that preserved a very different worldview to the rest of Europe down to a remarkably late date. The connection between this culture and a very striking set of landscapes will be the topic of the next post in this little series…
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