Creation Myths and Worldview: Sámi Animism and Christianity
Across the world there are hundreds of cultures, each with its own conception of the world and its origins. By looking at these creation myths, an observer may be able to delve into the worldview of the people the myth is accepted by. Hinduism believes many gods are responsible for the creation of life (although Brahma is the creator of the world). All are an integral part of the world. This is called polytheism. Perhaps the dominant creation myth in the world today is the Judeo-Christian story of Genesis. The Judeo-Christian religion believes in a single God. This is known as monotheism. This God created the entire world from nothing and bestowed life to all things. He is the origin of all. This worldview is widely accepted, although it ran into difficulty in the northern reaches of Scandinavia, where the worldview and ideas of creation were radically different than that of Christianity. The Sámi people of northern Scandinavia believed in a world populated by spirits and deities that were an organic part of nature itself. Every creature had a spirit and significance. The Sámi felt that everything in their world was connected through these spirits, and that their people themselves were descended from the Sun. This belief is a form of animism. These beliefs may be traced back, just as in Christianity, to the ideas of the beginning. The Sámi creation myths, such as “The Death of the Sun’s Daughter” and “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants,” are the foundation and explanation of their worldview, just as Genesis explains the creation for the Christians. The differences in these creation myths reflect the fundamental difference in the worldviews of the people.
Genesis is perhaps the most well-known creation myth on the planet. The creation of the world is covered in Genesis I-III, which also establishes the order of the world and the fate of mankind. The myth starts with the earth “a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…” (Genesis 1:2). On the first day, he created the heavens, by separating the waters from the dome. “God called the dome Sky.” (Genesis 1:8). On the second day, God created the land and seas, along with “plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth to bear fruit with the seed in it.” (Genesis 1:11). God continues to create on the third day, with the stars, sun and moon coming into existence. On the fourth day he created “great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of any kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind.” (Genesis 1:21). The fifth day saw the penultimate creation of God: “… the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps along the ground of every kind.” (Genesis 1:25). By now, the creation myth has shown the beginnings of the world from formless void. Except for changes in the number and names of gods and perhaps the order of creation, the myth has followed a fairly standard form across the world. The Sixth day is that which will cause Christianity to stand apart from many indigenous myths and worldviews. It is on the Sixth day that God creates the idea of Man:
Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. (Genesis 1:26)
This idea is a radical departure from many of the other worldviews and from here Christianity’s worldview continues to diverge. God creates a home for Adam (the first man), a magnificent garden called Eden, where he also places the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This tree is forbidden for Adam to eat from. To help man, god creates animals in the garden, and has Adam name all of them. However, Adam is still alone in spirit, so God takes “… one of his [Adam’s] ribs…the rib… he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” (Genesis 2:22). Man and woman are now in existence in the earthly paradise. Both are happy with each other and unashamed of their nakedness. After a time, though, woman is tempted by the serpent (which some interpret as the devil), described as “…more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3:1) She eats from the forbidden tree as does Adam. They gain knowledge and are ashamed of their nudity. God comes across the scene as Adam and his wife clothe themselves. God is furious at them, realizing they have eaten from the tree. Adam explains woman gave him the fruit. Woman tells of the serpent’s trickery. God first punishes the serpent. It is the punishment of the first humans that is most important here, though. To the woman, God says:
I will greatly increase your pangs of childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)
These simple lines will have immense repercussions on the Christian worldview and order. Next God passes judgment on Adam:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17)
From here they are expelled from the Garden to an unfriendly world. Woman is named Eve, which is Hebrew for “life-bearer” as mankind must now procreate to survive. They make skins out of animal hide, an early sign of the new roles of man and animals. From here mankind begins it desolate existence in the world, cursed by its creator and forced to toil and scrape to survive.
The Sámi myths represent a far different idea of the world and creation. The two major epics that are accessible are “The Death of Sun’s Daughter” (which lamentably is just a fragment of a longer poem) and “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants.” Just as Genesis, they explain the origin of the people involved and the structure of the world. These two poems, however, bring out the facets of a culture that believes in animism and polytheism. In addition, they illustrate the far different values of the early Sámi people than the Christians that would encounter them.
In “The Death of Sun’s Daughter” the reader is exposed to a magnificent and emotive poem. The Sun’s Daughter is on her deathbed. She awaits her final moments and longs to see her relatives, especially her father, the Sun. While her son and granddaughter watch her final moments, she whispers out a prayer of hope that the Sun may rise again. In the far north, the Sun may disappear for days on end, leaving the Sámi to live in darkness. The reader is treated to a sad litany of “… the herd shrinks, the pest rages, insects torment, Children grope about in the dark…” (Gaski, 103). It is a heart-wrenching view of the possible fate of the people the Daughter cares for and has protected. With her final breath, the Daughter of the Sun entreats the Sun to reappear and end this suffering and uncertainty. She loves her people, the Sámi, and wants their suffering to ease.
“The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants” has very little in common with the “Death of the Sun’s Daughter.” It is a complete poem, as opposed to the fragment of the Daughter. The “Son of the Sun” is an epic, a heroic adventure telling the origins of the “Gállá-bártnit,” the legendary ancestors of the Sámi (Gaski, 85) and therefore the Sámi themselves. There is travel, adventure, and legendary danger, with none of the stark uncertainty of the “Daughter.” We are told that in the Land of the Son of the Sun there is a dearth of women. The Son sets out on a quest to claim a bride from a land “to the west of moon and sun” (Gaski, 94) that is filled with precious metals and rich treasure. Sailing with a crew of his best men, they travel for a year before reaching the land of the giants. The Son meets “The Giant’s fair young maiden/ The blind old man’s support.” (Gaski, 95) Questioning who he is and what he is looking for, the daughter is told:
Repose I seek in the storm
A mils smile for my wrath
In life someone to gladden me
In death a friend, in hardship hope
In heartache some support
Under burden of need a comfort
A mouth to share the catch with
Someone to guide me in the unknown
A descendant of us both (Gaski, 96)
She is smitten by him, but he must first defeat her blind father in a test of finger-pulling. With the daughter’s aid in tricking the blind old man, he wins and gains the right to marry her. The Son and the Maiden are married on a sheet of whale skin, mixing blood and tying knots against bad luck. Her dowry is several chunks of gold and silver loaded in the Son’s boat. The Son and the Maiden know each other physically before they leave, with the poem making obvious references to fertility and intercourse- the daughter “taking off her maiden shoes” and accepting his “key.” (Gaski, 98) The couple begins to journey back to the Sun’s domain, but once the new bride’s brothers discover her absence, they give chase. The Son and his new wife outrun them by using her magic handkerchief. Once the brothers are struck by the Sun’s rays, they are petrified and the couple make good their escape. They are married in a traditional Sámi manner and:
On skin of bear and young reindeer doe
Bride is transformed to a Sámi
Becomes a human in size.
And with an axe from her own chest
Her doors become wider
The room made larger.
To the Sun’s sons she gave birth (Gaski, 101)
These sons are the Gállá-bártnit, the ancestors of the Sámi, who later ascended to the heavens and took their place in the night sky. This poem establishes the origin of the Sámi people and their relation to the Sun, the powerful elemental force that links all together. It creates the basis of a worldview and history for the people of the midnight sun.
This worldview is very different from the one presented in the Genesis story. The messages given about the world and its inhabitants in the “Son” and “Daughter” myths are often more organic and holistic, while those in Genesis are very defined and rigid. The two creation myths give us extremely disparate ideas on the world itself, the people within it, gender roles, suffering, and the relationships of living things.
Ideas of creation must start with an idea of the creation of the world itself. In Genesis we are given a very clear picture of God creating the world. From the void, he creates light, he fashions a dome in the waters, then land, and so on. God exists before this void and creates within it. Although it takes him seven days, he creates the entire universe, essentially. He is the primordial source of all things that we may experience. He even fashions Man himself, creating Adam from dust and Eve from his rib. This leaves no room for doubt or alternative interpretations. The God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a sole creator. The followers of the Judeo-Christian idea then leave no room for other ideas. To speak of anything else creating anything goes against the rigid interpretation of creation we are given. God is the source of everything and there is no other.
In the Sámi animistic view, the Sun and the Earth existed first. The Sun is the father of all and the Earth is the mother of all. Between the two of them, they gave birth to the creatures that roam the earth. Every thing was descended from the divine, not just created. They also had a son and daughter. These too were legendary figures, semi-divine and curious of the new world. In searching, the Son found another world, beyond the Sun and Moon. The Sun does not shine here. In fact, the rays of the Sun destroy the brothers of the giant maiden, “…The Suns rays melt them/Turn their foreheads to stone…” (Gaski, 101) From this we may assume that the sun did not create the giants or the land that they inhabit. Therefore, there are other creative forces for life in the universe, not just the children of the Sun. By mixing his blood with the giantess, the Son created the Gállá-bártnit, a new people on the earth. From these came forth the Sámi. This leads to the idea of the Sun and Earth as parents, not creators, an idea that may be accepted for the creation of as many or all things as the listener may believe. The Sámi worldview allows for other people and origins to exist. It is a worldview for their people only, tolerant of others and able to accept new ideas from outside of its boundaries. Their myths leave room for other cultures, something that Genesis does not do.
Genesis is also very specific on the creation of mankind. God “formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…” (Genesis 2:7) once again creating something from nothingness. In wanting to make a partner and helper for man, God “…caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman…” (Genesis 2:21-22). This shows that god is creating something in his image, but creating it from nothingness in a way that mankind cannot understand or replicate. Adam and Eve do not even understand the continuation of their species until they are banished from the garden. The idea of a physical union is unknown until the forbidden fruit is eaten. Following that, the act of procreation becomes not only a necessity, but a curse. Eve gains her name as a life-bearer, but must undergo horrible “pangs of childbirth.” (Genesis 3:16) They must create life, but cannot do so as God does, but in a cursed and painful way. Mankind therefore may only be created in peace by God. Human reproduction is simply the legacy of a punishment.
For the Sámi, they exist because of physical union. The Gállá-bártnit are their ancestors. They married and had children that became the Sámi themselves. The Gállá-bártnit exist because of the Son of the Sun and his bride. The Son himself quested for her because “…A lack of women for the men.” (Gaski, 94) The poem itself opens with sexual and fertility imagery:
The Man hugged his woman
Their blood they blended together.
The Mother suckled her offspring
Washed and fed the child.
The boy kicked in the cradle
From his father got strong sinews
From his mother gained good sense.
Ancestor of the Sun’s sons. (Gaski, 94)
The purpose of the poem is to explain the descent of the Sámi. It makes perfect sense in their view that it should contain many references to sexual congress. This is how people are made. The poem continues on with such images as:
Her maiden shoes she takes off
Hides well her ancestress’ rags
Devotes to foreign brother
She accepts his key (Gaski, 98)
These four lines show a remarkable use of human sexuality. She has given up her maiden shoes, showing she is ready to become a woman and be deflowered. She has hidden her ancestress’ rags, which were used to soak up menstrual blood, signifying she is fertile and able to bear her husband children. The acceptance of a key can only be interpreted as the penetration in the physical act. All of this shows that even these semi-divine figures create life in the same way as the people do. There is no secret, there is no pain, and there is no punishment. It is the way that every man and animal conceives life. Why would the Sámi or their ancestors be created any different? This idea creates a much more organic view of human creation and existence. There is not an attempt to establish a gulf of difference between the divine and the average. This further establishes the bond between the Sámi and their cosmology.
Perhaps one of the most viciously debated ideas in Christianity is that of gender roles. Many passages in the Bible address this topic, but the idea of female subordination begins in Genesis. To begin with, Eve is created of Adam’s rib. He is firstborn and she follows simply to be “…a helper…” (Genesis 2:20) and to give Adam company. She is automatically given a subordinate role. In addition, it is woman who is tempted and eats of the forbidden fruit. She takes the blame for his eating of it as well. It is in the next passage that the gender roles become truly warped. In her punishment, God decrees to Eve that her “…desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16). This is the basis for Judeo-Christian gender roles. It is the woman who begins the fall of man. It is woman who is created in a subordinate function. And it is woman who needs a husband and must be ruled by him. This has shaped women’s lives for centuries and created an extremely disparate society where women have little say and must struggle to have anything of their own. This passage was written 4000 years ago and only now is the idea of a patriarchal society being challenged in the Judeo-Christian world. By the interpretation put on this creation myth, gender relations have been altered almost irrevocably.
In the Sámi creation epics, women are the equal of men. In the beginning there is the Sun, a father, and the Earth, a mother, for all creatures. There is not the interpretation of a single male god. In “The Son of the Sun’s Courting in the Land of the Giants” the giant maiden is not weak or subordinate. He is not seeking a servile bride. He is looking for a companion, someone to bolster him when he needs it and to share in the joys in his life (see above). The Son is searching for someone who will share her life with him, not someone who will give her life to him. The Maiden actively pursues the Sun as well, even tricking her father so that she may share herself with this bold young adventurer. They share equally in the danger and arrive safely. An even more striking example of equality is the poem “The Death of the Sun’s Daughter.” The main figure is obviously the Sun’s daughter. The Daughter of the Sun is an extremely important figure, a benevolent spirit for the Sámi who tries to protect them. She is “… the Sámi people’s best ambassador to the powerful force of the Sun…”(Gaski, 81) The anxiety of the poem is because the Daughter of the Sun often intercedes on the people’s behalf, and with her imminent passing, she fears for the future of her people. She is an extremely important figure to the Sámi, equal in stature to any of the other heroic forebears. All of this leads to an idea of equality between genders in the community. Labor may still be divided, but there is no subjugation or subordination. The messages of the epic poems speak volumes about the gender roles in Sámi culture.
All Judeo-Christian creeds speak of the role of suffering in one degree or another. It is a universal truth that rain will fall on the just and unjust alike. However, Christianity also has a unique way of viewing this suffering. In Genesis, Adam creates a grim reality for all mankind by eating of the forbidden fruit. This leads to the doctrine of Original Sin. Each person is born with a small amount of sin already in place due to the actions of the first humans. This in turn leads to punishment and suffering unique to mankind: that man must toil to survive. Only by working hard against a hostile world is man able to grow the food he needs to survive, while the beasts, who have not sinned, have their food within easy reach. In repayment for knowing good and evil, in repayment for knowing shame, in punishment for the fruit Adam ate, all mankind undergoes suffering. Mankind has sinned, so life is difficult for all mankind.
In the Sámi worldview, there is no reason to believe that mankind has erred. They believe that mankind is linked in spirit to the world. All creatures in the world must go through hard times occasionally. It is not unnatural. Man has not been specially marked for punishment. In “The Death of the Sun’s Daughter” she does not lament that the Sun is punishing the Sámi. The Sun simply goes away occasionally, bringing darkness and hardship. That is a fact of life. It affects all creatures equally. The Daughter expresses concern for the Sámi; she sees the harsh nature around them. The worldview shown is one that is hard and uncompromising, but it is shown as natural and the way the spirits in the world work. Without the concept of a divine being meting out punishment, herding and fishing are just chores to get food. It is not harder than hunting or foraging. Everything in the community of life must work for survival. It is not a divine judgment.
Lastly, there is the simple concept of the order of the world. In Christianity, once again, a simple passage has immense consequences on the worldview. In Genesis, God states “Let us make humankind… and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26) It is in these simple lines that mankind is given authority over the world and nature. The Judeo-Christian worldview believes that the other creatures on earth are here for mankind’s use. Man is in charge of the world. This is the God-ordained idea that has led us to dominate the natural world and adapt it to our needs.
In the Sámi worldview, there is not a single example of a creature set above all others. They believe in a world populated by spirits and deities that are an organic part of nature itself. Every creature has a spirit and significance. The Sámi feel that everything in their world is connected through these spirits, and that their people themselves were descended from the Sun, who created, with the earth, all things. “The Death of the Sun’s Daughter” reveals the concept of the connection between all life in the world. The Sun is a life-giving force that fathered all the people and animals. He gives and takes this life by revealing himself or not. The Sámi are his children as much as the wolves or the Daughter is. All are bound together and all must live in the same world with the same stark realities. There is a community of life and this community shelters and helps man within it. This is the Sámi belief in the order of the world, allowing for a balanced worldview.
Both worldviews are supported and in part created by the creation myths. Genesis shows us a world created by a single God, with man created in his image. Adam, the first man, was given dominion over woman and beasts. However, Adam sinned and for his sin was cast out into this world to toil and struggle to exist. It is only by exercising his abilities and control that this effort may continue and perhaps mankind may one day redeem itself. The Sámi creation epics give us a world that has existed, with life born of the father Sun and the mother Earth. Men and women have been born since the beginning, with both sharing the world with the wolves, reindeer, fish, and all other animals. They are all linked by their spirits and may struggle with each other to survive, with none gaining dominance. This, in the end, gives us two societies: one that allows for no real debate or alternative worldview, which imposes itself upon others and the world. The other shows no interest in forcing others to believe it, as all other views may be valid.
Gaski, Harold. Sámi Son of the Sun. Vasa: Arkmedia Oy, 2003.
Meeks, Wayne, ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible, New Revised Standard Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.