Saami Folklore: Reindeer

Niina Pekantytär

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The Reindeer People 

Saami´s are the native inhabitants of Lapland in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Kuola Peninsula in Russia. Saami land is a wide area that covers several Saami tribes and languages such as; Northern Saami, Koltta Saami, Inari Saami etc. The majority of the Saami's were fishermen, hunters and above all reindeer herders. Therefore reindeer is one of the most sacred animals in the Saami culture.

Taming the Wild Deer 

Some other totem animals of the Saami´s were bears and birds but the reindeer was the most important. The first inhabitants of what is now known as Finland were Saami tribes which arrived thousands and thousands of years ago and many Finns today have Saami ancestry. These people were hunters and fishermen, not reindeer herders. The reindeer business started app. 100 ACE around the time when the Saami´s tamed the wild deer which started the companionship between humans and the reindeer. The Earliest written documents of people owning reindeer are from the 900th century. The lifestyle of the people got more intertwined with the reindeer herding. Saami´s got milk from the reindeer to drink, the flesh of the reindeer to eat, reindeer's helped people to pull heavy things and people made clothes from the reindeer fur. In the 16th century, there was a big change in the Saami culture and people started to measure their wealth according to the amount of reindeer's. The ways of herding also changed from static to nomadic lifestyles. The reason for this was that people ran out of food. They had fished all the lakes empty and there were no animals to hunt. People realized that by following the natural cycle of the reindeer they produced more offspring's. Herders started to follow the reindeer to their mating sites and places where reindeer gave birth. This lifestyle change made Saami´s connection to reindeer's even deeper.

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Reindeer meat is very salty. It is food that you can survive in a cold climate this is one of the reasons why reindeer were important for the Saami´s who were used to harsh weather conditions. Samoyed tribes in Siberia still follow this nomadic lifestyle and the natural cycle of the reindeer. In Scandinavian countries, herding became again static around the 18th and 19th centuries because of political issues and drawing the lines of national borders. In many ways, these political changes were harmful to the Saami´s especially what it came to land rights. This is an issue that is still on the table today and relevant for the survival of the Saami lifestyle and culture.

The White Reindeer 

There is a legend in Saami folklore about the white reindeer. Albino reindeer was the most magical reindeer. White reindeer was the leader of all the reindeer's. If a human would catch the white reindeer it would bring them luck, riches and eternal happiness. Totemic belief in the reindeer spirit was essential and was also one of the reasons for people to take especially good care of the reindeer's. In ancient Finland when a bear has killed the hunter prayed that the bear´s spirit would find its way home to the star sky. Saami´s had similar traditions and beliefs. When reindeer have killed hunters and the herders prayed that the great reindeer spirit would take care of those reindeer's that were killed.

Great Reindeer Spirit 

Only the best and most handsome reindeer were sacrificed for the great reindeer spirit. One of the oldest traditions was to take the antlers of the reindeer and hang them to the top of the seita. Seita was a sacred grove of the Saami´s. An altar where people made sacrifices. They were usually large stone or tree formations.


A great reindeer's spirit was seen as a white reindeer or a hybrid between a man and a reindeer. In many cultures, there have been deities who've had antlers like Cernunnos in Celtic myths and pastoral god Pan in Greek legends. For the Saami´s everything in nature was holy and everything in animals was holy. All parts of the reindeer had magical properties. This included reindeer´s skin, fur, milk, flesh, hooves and especially the antlers because they were reaching to the skies and were directly connected to the universe. In rituals shaman dressed up into a coat made from reindeer fur and wore antlers in his head. This was a way to connect with the great reindeer spirit. During the ritual, the shaman became one of the reindeer's and a servant to the great reindeer spirit. Saami people had a very close relationship with nature. Bones were seen as especially magical. Saami children were taught that when they found a dead animal they had to collect all the bones together and bury the animal. When the skeleton was completed the animal could continue its life in the afterlife. It was bad luck to bury a reindeer even if one of the bones was missing.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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