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Clocks and the Sami

By Alex Knox

“No clock strikes for the happy one”
-Germanic Proverb

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”
- English warning to the happy ones

The first practical invention which was entirely independent from nature – which was entirely mechanical, without the need of sunlight or water – was the modern clock. The river of time had finally been turned into a canal: there would be no more torrents or eddies, time would follow a certain path at a certain speed. The Western idea of time made this inevitable, but it cemented the West as having abandoned the traditional idea of time – which indigenous cultures like the Sami still followed. This profound shift would have extreme repercussions in Western-indigenous relations.

The Sami are the children of the sun, so it should come as no surprise that their conception of time comes entirely from their father. The sun does not follow the same path from day to day or month to month – it will stay longer and longer as it comes to its favorite months in the summer, then shy away as winter comes, only to repeat the process the next year.

The Sami therefore view time cyclically. Just as the sun repeats its rhythm time loops in on itself. As Nils-Alsak Valkeapää put it,

“I lived
lived a complete life
one day followed another
rose sank disappeared arrived” i

This fits neatly with the life of the reindeer herder. In the summer, head to the mountains, when the sun begins to hide take the herd to the forests. There are minor variations from year to year as the land is systematically preserved from overuse, but these too follow their cycle.

The West has been headed in the opposite direction for some time. Though the Old Testament admonishes men that “to everything there is a season” the modern West has a completely linear idea of time. Time A happens, then Time B, then Time C, none to happen again. All of Western civilization has been an attempt to overcome nature and live independently of her whims – to rely on man alone for food, shelter and life – so of course the natural method of time-keeping must be abandoned.

An important consequence of this is that standardization must be invented. Standardization is a necessary function of time – for society to be able to function, it must be able to coordinate using time. In a cyclical view of time this happens naturally – the sun goes down and returns, summer disappears and returns, and everyone can find their bearing by simply paying attention to nature.

The linear view does not have a natural way to standardize. It must rely upon the same method as the cyclical view: by paying close attention to nature. Refinements could be made, by making sun clocks or even water clocks, but these still relied upon nature to operate. This significantly handicaps the linear view by hybridizing it with the cyclical view. Though of course so long as the sun comes and goes and the seasons continue to shift the Western man will never completely rid himself of cyclical time, to have to rely on it for standardization is to be excessively reliant on nature, and this chafes the Westerner.

Relief came in the 13th century, at the hands of Christian monks. Western religion, and in particular Christianity, is unique in that it posits a complete divorce between man and God. It does not take much imagination to see that this is related to the divorce of western man and nature. So it is little wonder that the first mechanical clocks were invented for the purpose of standardizing prayer times in the monastery. ii Finally a device had been invented which was independent of the whims of nature, an ideal for man to follow.

An excellent paradigm for contrasting the two methods of keeping time is music. Though vastly different, Beethoven and the Beatles dominate Western music with highly structured music that follows a melody from the beginning of the song until the end. This reflects linear time: there is a beginning and an end, and a progression along a set path between the two.

In comparison, the Sami yoik generally takes a basic melody and repeats it over and over, with slight variations in the notes and the tempo. This is the cyclical world writ small, nature sung out loud. The melody is the sun and the variations are the changes in the season.

And there the world could have stood, with two sorts of times for two sorts of people. The two times could not cohabitate in the same area (men must of course share a common time if it is to share any function at all) but they could live side by side, were it not for the instinct of linear time to grow. Societies using cyclical time, and more generally oneness-with-nature, accept both growth and decline and parts of the natural rhythm of the world. However linear societies, which do their best to avoid any natural rhythm of the world, have a different perspective. Decline means nearing the end, and growth means being toward the beginning, and since the end means death growth is preferred.

So linear societies grow. And grow. Eventually they begin to meet their neighbours, and take over their neighbours, and it is not long before the Sami too find themselves run by the West, and Western clocks begin popping up. There is now a conflict between the old and new ways of keeping time. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the new (linear) way has firepower on its side, we must accept that cyclical time will still lose when put next to linear time and linear people. This is because linear time is undoubtedly more efficient – it allows everyone to synchronize exactly in a manner unheard of (and undesired) in cyclical societies. This efficiency allows for better and larger organizations, and by being more efficiently organized linear people will inevitably gain control even if they start on level footing with their cyclical friends. With the head start of more people with more guns, cyclical peoples have no chance.

Today even a brief glance will show that linear time has won. Even when they're dressed traditionally photos of modern Sami often show a watch, like an anachronism in a poorly forged historical photo. iii Given that modern reindeer herders use snowmobiles, we must assume they make as simple a concession to the technological society as a watch.

Ironically cyclical time today is hampered in the same way linear time once was. Before the clock, linear time needed the cyclical sun to synchronize. In the modern world cyclical time needs a linear clock to synchronize. The clock rules most of modern life, and living “off the clock” is reserved for special occasions like vacations or get-aways.

What is the future of cyclical time? The question itself betrays the answer. Linear time has won, and cyclical time will not reign again so long as civilization (which practically means people with clocks) does. The Sami cannot shy away from the modern world and so they too will have to give up cyclical time, or retain it only as a memory, or an occasional treat. This is everybody's loss.

i Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Poem 430. Guovdageaidnu: DAT O.S, 1988.

ii Landes, David S. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge: Mass., 1983 In Christianity's defense, Meister Eckhart later offered that “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us”, evidently unaware of his religion's culpability in the invention of linear time.

iii Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People. Aanaar - Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002. For example, see page 112. Or even more starkly, page 63. But then she's at school, and how could a school run without linear time?


Landes, David S. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge: Mass., 1983

Lehtola, Veli-Pekka. The Sami People. Aanaar - Inari: Kustannus-Puntsi, 2002.

Valkeapää, Nils-Aslak. The Sun, My Father. Guovdageaidnu: DAT O.S, 1988.