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Heroic Epic, Utopia and Prayer

– the Son of the Sun, the Daughter of the Sun and the Sámi

Harald Gaski

Tr. John Weinstock

The Sámi once had a rich tradition of oral poetry about their background so that they could count themselves as descendants of the Sun's children. This idea is found in old epic poetry, in narratives, family names and much other traditional material. The sun was construed as father and the earth as mother, as is also the case with many other peoples of the world. The sun, of course, had a special place in the Sámi worldview during the entire period it was gone for two months during the winter, and conversely, was always present for a period in the middle of summer. This of course provided a special reason to establish a particular relationship to this powerful force in the universe, and what could be stronger than a demonstrable relationship between the Sun and the Sámi -- Beaivvi mánát, as it is expressed in the poem about the Sun's children.

According to this tradition, the Sámi received wild reindeer as a gift from the Sun's daughter. The Sun's son acquired his bride in the land of the giants, and together with her produced "Gállá-bártnit" or hunting sons that the Sámi are descended from. Gállá-bártnit were capable elk hunters who also invented skis, something for which the Sámi were so thankful that they were immortalized in the sky after their death, where today they make up the constellation Orion's Belt. In other words, they are still hunting and have Ursa Major as their bow. The Sámi are descendants of this mythical people.

The poem about the Sun's children is above all connected to the South Sámi clergyman Anders Fjellner. He was born under the open sky right in the middle of the reindeer migration from Norwegian territory back to Sweden on the 18th of September 1795, at Rutfjällen in Härjedalen. Both of his parents were Sámi. His father died when Anders was still a child, but with the help of relatives he acquired an education and was registered as a clerical student at Uppsala during the spring term of 1819.

The most complete monograph about Anders Fjellner is Bo Lundmark's book from 1979 Anders Fjellner -- Samernas Homeros (Anders Fjellner -- the Sámi's Homer), from which I have gotten much of my information. Lundmark characterizes Uppsala in the 1820s as "something of a Mecca of romanticism with folk poetry at the center" (1979: 11). The first collection of Finnish folk poetry was actually published in Uppsala, in spite of the fact that the main center of Finnish romanticism was Åbo. It was the student C. A. Gottlund who collected and published the poems. Fjellner and Gottlund became friends during their student days, a friendship that had an inspirational effect on Fjellner's literary interests. After graduating in 1821, Fjellner became a substitute clergyman or a type of missionary in Jukkasjärvi and Karesuando parish in North Sweden where, coincidentally, he was contemporary with the better-known Lars Levi Læstadius. In a Sámi literary-historical connection Fjellner looms just as large as his colleague does in the history of religion and science.

The Sámi language Fjellner encountered in the north was quite different from what he grew up with in Härjedalen, and which he heard during all the vacations when he was at home. But Fjellner is supposed to have learned both North Sámi and Finnish quite rapidly in Karesuando.

According to tradition Fjellner is supposed to have been a keen and interested listener to and collector of all sorts of folklore. He himself is also supposed to have been a fabulous storyteller, with a nice sense of exaggeration in dramatic depiction. This characteristic has been used as a complaint against his trustworthiness with regard to the poetry about the Sun's sons. Another amusing trait Fjellner is remembered for is that because of his short stature he had to use a stool to stand on so that he could be seen over the edge of the pulpit. One time, however, the sexton had forgotten to put the stool in place at the pulpit. Then a shout was heard: "Sexton, bring the stool here, so that the congregation can see my face and praise God." Another story relates that Fjellner climbed down from the stool one time to put in a pinch of snuff after having spoken the words of the Bible: "For a little while you won't see me; and after a little while more you will be able to see me" (Lundmark 1979: 28).

After 20 years in the Karesuando area, the whole family traveled south in a string of reindeer and sleds during the spring of 1841 to Fjellner's new post as pastor in Sorsele. He remained in this position for the rest of his life until he died, over 80 years old, in 1876. In Sorsele Fjellner was visited by several well-known researchers who wrote down his stories and myths. Among these Gustav von Düben and Otto Donner deserve mention.

When Isak Saba (who was also the Sámi's first representative to Parliament from 1906 to 1912) published the Sámi national anthem in the Sámi newspaper Sagai Muittalægje in 1906, he referred among other things to the mythical background of the Sámi people. He had become acquainted with this story through Otto Donner's book Lappalaisia lauluja that was published in Finnish and German in 1876. Saba also says in an earlier issue of Sagai Muittalægje (no. 11, 6/1/1905) that he didn't know about Fjellner or the epic poetry of the Sámi before Donner printed Fjellner's songs in his book, but he adds that now that the songs have finally become known, the Sámi must never let them sink into oblivion again. Therefore, Saba chose to refer to this historical background in his national anthem as an appeal to the Sámi people to remain proud and conscious in spite of the authorities' deprecation of everything Sámi, as demonstrated through assimilation policies and Norwegianization. For, as it says in Sámi soga lávlla, never shall enemies manage to conquer "beaivvi bártni nana nálli" (the strong stock of the son of the sun) if we take care of our mother tongue and remember our forefathers' words to us: Sameland for the Sámi!

The poem about Beaivvi bárdni -- The son of the Sun -- is the most complete and elegant of the many epic-poetic songs that Anders Fjellner wrote down, preserved for posterity through copies and translations. Unfortunately it appears that all the original manuscripts in Fjellner's hand have been lost, as well as large portions of the Sámi original.[i] From other texts we know about the prose versions, but have little preserved of the epic-poetic form of the narratives. This is the case with the poem cycle "Beaivvi nieida" (the Sun's daughter), that Fjellner claimed to Gustav von Düben consisted of a hundred or so legends in all, of which the rich poetry about the nice Njávisheatne and the evil Achesheatne is a portion.

The poem cycle about the Sun's daughter has its point of departure in the myth that after her death she left the grave and wandered around like a spirit in all of Sameland together with her herd of reindeer. When she is awake she cannot be seen, but when she sleeps both she and her herd are visible. The one who then discovers her, and embraces the Sun's daughter at the same time as he awakens her with a kiss, will acquire her and her reindeer herd. But to keep them he must show himself to be worthy -- and not lazy, but follow the instructions that the Sun's daughter gives in every detail.

The poem describes a lazy whippersnapper who surprises the Sun's daughter while she is sleeping, but who then is slipshod in complying with her strict instructions about covering the tent or turf hut so that the rays of the sun don't get through. When morning comes, a band of light leaks in through the smoke hole in the ceiling, and the Sun's daughter exclaims: "Oh, I see my father's and mother's eyes," and she is immediately pulled out of the tent and disappears. The lazy man loses among other things the reindeer herd that could have been his for a kiss and an embrace. Life is not so simple; it is just a utopia about the good life that will get us to strive harder and harder if possible to attain a share of wealth that had been every man's possession during the golden or mythical era.

The poem itself "The Death of the Sun's Daughter," is incomplete; there is original Sámi text only for the last part of the poem. Here the Sun's daughter is on her deathbed and is concerned about how things will go for the Sámi now that she is leaving. She has been the Sámi people's best ambassador to the powerful force of the Sun, and now she sees clearly what dangers threaten the Sámi's continued existence:

The sun slowly sinks, the wolf comes

slinks around in the dark of night

wily it is on its hunting,

Morning will come, will it not?

The sun is setting, the herd shrinks

The pest rages, insects torment,

Children grope about in the dark.

Morning will come, will it not?

This little excerpt shows that the poem is almost a prayer to let morning come both in a concrete and a figurative sense, so that the Sámi can again find their way and escape the afflictions of the dark. In the Sámi myths there has always been a struggle between the light and the dark, between the sunny side and the shady side, where the Sámi have been called the children of the Sun or of the Light. Hence the dark has always represented a threat to the Sámi.

"The Death of the Sun's Daughter" represents in its soft-spoken expression an entirely different tradition and attitude to the Sámi than we find in "The Son of the Sun's Courting in the Land of the Giants." Where the Son of the Sun poem is an obvious heroic epic that is supposed to effect pride and faith in the future, "The Death of the Sun's Daughter" represents a much more earthbound perspective of the Sámi people's place and possibilities in the hard Arctic reality. In its beseeching formulation the poem is almost a counterpart to the bombastic rhetoric of the Son of the Sun poem, and therefore represents an important reminder to the Sámi people's collective conscience about life's sunny and shady sides. Optimism and faith in the future in the heroic epic get their counterbalance in uncertainty and a need to pray for a continued existence as a people on this earth. The Danish polar explorer Knud Rasmussen too was carried away by how rich the silent pain is and how deep the anxiety and concern for the fate of the Sámi people is as expressed in the poem (1907: 89ff).

"Beaivvi bártni soagnu jiehtanasaid máilmmes" (The Son of the Sun's Courting in the Land of the Giants) is the most elegant of all the preserved Sámi epic-poetic songs derived from Anders Fjellner, with regard to style, meter and content -- actually it is so elegant that for that reason it has been rejected as original Sámi folk poetry by a number of researchers on the Sámi (Wiklund, 1906 among others).

"The Son of the Sun's Courting in the Land of the Giants" opens with an introduction about the time when there was a "lack of women for the men," and continues with a description of the Son of the Sun's conception, birth and childhood. Then the legend itself begins "Nu leat mii gullan / Sáhka lea beaggán" (That's how we heard it / So it is told). Beyond the easternmost star, west of the sun and moon are found mountains of silver and gold where the sea mirrors the mountains' image. The Son of the Sun wants to travel there and takes along his best men on a journey that lasts an entire year.

They pass both sun and moon and eventually reach the land of the giants. There they find the giant's young daughter down on the shore washing herself. She fixes her eyes on the Son of the Sun and asks him: "Gos don boadhát, gean don ozat" (Where do you come from, whom do you seek?). She hints at an answer herself that is supposed to frighten the Son of the Sun and force him to turn around immediately. But he hasn't traveled so far just to head home empty-handed, so he boasts of his own strength and informs her of his mission. He wants to have a friend for life who can comfort him and cheer him up, control his anger and carry on the lineage. The giant's daughter is flattered and asks her father for permission to marry the Son of the Sun. But the old one doesn't want to give up his only daughter so easily. He wants to measure strength with the suitor. The blind giant holds out a finger and wants to pull fingers. The daughter sticks an iron gauntlet in the Son of the Sun's hand, and the old one must admit that they are truly strong, the finger sinews of the sunny-sided one, and then he agrees to the wedding. The intoxicant that the giant drinks goes right to his head, and the giant rages around until he is again capable of performing the ceremony. It takes place in a ritual manner on a hide of whale, the king of the sea. Blood is blended, and knots tied, everything part of a ritual of mythological origin.

As a dowry the giant's daughter gets large blocks of the golden cliffs by the shore. They are brought on board the Son of the Sun's ship. The giant's daughter takes off her virgin shoes and hides her second mother's (refers to one of the female gods -- Sáráhkká -- who is central in the marriage ritual) menstrual rag. This means that she is now mature and herself ready to become a mother. A secret key is handed over to her and she has three chests carried out of a turf hut specially made as a resting place for youth. One chest is blue, the second red and the third white. Besides, she takes along the washcloth she was washing herself with when the Son of the Sun arrived in the giant's land. On the cloth are three knots of the three female gods Máttaráhkká, Sáráhkká and Uksáhkká. The knots stand for three grades of wind strength, from breeze to strong gale, that are released when the knots are untied.

The brothers of the giant's daughter come back from hunting seal, whale and walrus and discover that their sister is gone. "Whose sweaty smell was so sweet / Who perceived the odor of bosom / To whom did our sister give her hand?" they ask their father, who answers: "Beaivvi bárdni, borjjus bárdni" (The Son of the Sun, the Sailor). The brothers sit down at the oars again and take up the chase after the Son of the Sun's ship. Soon they are right behind those fleeing, but then the giant's daughter unties the first knot. The wind increases, takes hold of the sails and the brothers fall behind. But they don't give up their pursuit. Soon they are again on the verge of catching up to the Son of the Sun's ship. They shout and threaten, gall melts and wrath seethes. But the giant's daughter longs for the bridal bed with the Son of the Sun. She unties the second knot, and right away the wind increases even more. The brothers see that the other boat is gaining a greater advantage again. When they begin to near the Son of the Sun's ship a third time, it is no longer sweat that is pressed forth on their foreheads, it is blood, and their hands leave impressions on the oars. "Can the boat take more wind?" the giant's daughter asks the Son of the Sun, and he answers: "Rigid is the mast, the boat'll hold up!" At that she releases the strong gale. The boat lurches from side to side, is tossed between the waves, the mast creaks and the giant's daughter seeks shelter at the bottom of the ship. The brothers completely lose contact, and have to give up the chase. They have to go ashore to look out for the Son of the Sun's ship from a mountaintop, but there the rising sun's rays shine on them the next day, and they and their boat are turned to stone.

When the Son of the Sun's ship finally arrives at home again, the bridal pair has to go through the wedding ritual that is customary in the realm of the Son of the Sun. On a bearskin and the hide of a two-year-old reindeer female they are united in wedlock again, and the giant's daughter is made a Sámi, "moarsi sámáidahttui." Then "her doors become wider / The room is made larger." This is clearly a play on fertility, for in the last line it is affirmed: "To the Sun's sons then she gave birth." The children were the legendary Gállábártnit, the beginning of the Sámi people.

For that matter the poem allows one to pose the question of whether it is correct to distinguish so markedly between what on the one hand is connected with the Son of the Sun's land and on the other hand with the giants' culture. In the song one gets the impression of a great geographical distance between the area where the Son of the Sun lives and the realm of the giants. However, there are some circumstances that indicate that the distance between the cultures is actually less than professed. The use of the Sámi gods in a context that obviously has a connection with the giant daughter's mythical abilities and her right to dispose of the forces that the trio of gods, Sáráhkká, Uksáhkká and Máttaráhkká have control of, is remarkable in that the giant's daughter really belonged to an entirely different culture than the Sámi. I'm thinking about the way the brothers of the giant's daughter are shaken off by her untying the knots that were connected to the three gods' names.

The two weddings are similar to each other: in giant land the wedding takes place on the hide of a whale and in the Son of the Sun's realm on the hides of a bear and a two-year-old reindeer female. Tying and untying of knots -- for one thing Sáráhkká's "bolbi" or envy-averting knot -- are central elements in the wedding ceremony with the giants, in the same way that they are also the medium for a shamanically mobilizable unfolding of power in the face of natural forces connected to the Sámi gods during flight.

I'm not even going to try to suggest an answer to the question of whether distance/closeness between the Sámi and the giants -- the latter are a mythically created people -- but just mention something strange in that the Son of the Sun's long journey nevertheless doesn't take him farther away than that the customs and mythology are still quite identical within both groups. This fact should support the assumption that the narrative does not primarily have as its point of departure a journey actually undertaken, but rather forms part of a mythically based world of explanations about the Sámi people's origins. Nevertheless, I cannot entirely shed the captivating thought of regarding the poem about the Son of the Sun's courting journey as historical after all, and as a fully possible parallel to the narratives about the vikings' journeys to the west. As is well known they took the Greenland explorers all the way to Vinland. The Sámi had the reputation in the sagas as capable boat builders, and certainly could have undertaken longer sea journeys in olden times, but how far the Son of the Sun is possibly supposed to have sailed, is of course impossible to say.

The differences on the level of content in those versions that Fjellner knew of the song about the Son of the Sun's courting made it necessary for him to rework the variants into one poem, a parallel to what Elias Lönnroth did with the Finnish national epic Kalevala. The basic material existed in such disparate linguistic versions as North Sámi and South Sámi, and Fjellner naturally enough chose to approach his own dialect in the version of the song that is preserved. Linguistically speaking, Fjellner's original lies closest to South Sámi, but the form of language that the final poem has taken, in a way makes it into a distinctive and original cultural treasure in its pan- Sámi form. One possibility that should not entirely be disregarded is that perhaps Fjellner with his pan- Sámi also wished to contribute linguistically to a common mythical past for the Sámi people.

The poem has regular meter. Each line is of eight syllables and since the first syllable is always stressed in Sámi, each verse consists mainly of four trochees. Only rarely in the poem is this regularity broken. Alliteration and metaphoric paraphrasing are widespread.

The most obvious paraphrasings are, for example, calling a horse "obbagazza" (an animal with hooves as opposed to, for example, reindeer that have cloven hooves, in other words whole in contrast to divided in two). Further "meara mánat" (the sea's children) is used as a name for waves, and The Son of the Sun's ship is characterized as "the traveling swimmer." Moreover, the giant's daughter is characterized as "gaska-goadhi fávru" (the beauty of turf hut's midst) by her brothers when they come back from the hunt and discover that their sister is gone. When the giant's daughter speaks of her deceased mother, she doesn't mention death with a word -- however she says: "Eatnásab sádduid bessiid sis" (My mother in sand and birch bark). This alludes to the burial customs of the Sámi where one puts birch bark under and on top of the person buried. The whale is spoken of as "Cháziid háldi" (the seas' sov'reign), and the wind causes the sails to swell up.

The three god names mentioned are also central on the level of metaphor; for one thing the woman's menstruation is linked to the second mother, Sáráhkkás napkin. The envy-averting knot "bolbi", that is presumably central to a happy marriage and for starting the liberating storm during the pursuit, is connected with the same god. Also the dialogues in the poem are full of allusions, figurative meanings and bombastic rhetoric. An example of this is the Son of the Sun's high-flown courting of the giant's daughter that he concludes with a wish for "A descendant of us both."

An interpretation of the content of "Beaivvi bártni soagnu jiehtanasaid máilmmes" that goes a great deal further than understanding the poem as an expression of the Sámi's proud connection all the way back to the sun will perhaps not be entirely faithful to the intention of the underlying myth. All the same I want to bring up one aspect of the content that in a sense can be said to be connected to the lineage's continued existence here on earth, namely the levels of the text that involve fertility, propagation and sexuality. For example, the listener is clearly made aware that the giant's daughter is old enough to fulfill the Son of the Sun's wish to have children together with him. That is, she hides the cloth with the menstrual blood on it, and gets ready to receive the innocent brother. It is not so important to determine whether the key that is mentioned in the following line of the poem is a metaphor for the Son of the Sun's "key" or actually refers to a secret key that can open the three chests that the giant's daughter brings along, but in any case it is clear that the placement of "the key" in the context is done on purpose just to create an ambiguity in the interpretation.

We must remember that these songs most probably were presented both with children and grownups present, and that the demand on the narrator then was to maintain a double communication, so that the children mainly understood the denotative content of the texts, while the grownups could enjoy a connotative level that sustained several meanings. This was especially challenging perhaps in erotic narratives, then as now… (?)

In the introduction to the poem it is also quite clear what type of "embrace" is being spoken about, in the same way as later on in the text when the giant brothers discover that their sister is gone, they leave no doubt about what they think the Son of the Sun is doing with her. Also the soft reindeer hide that the bridal couple is married on when they have arrived in the realm of the Son of the Sun, could have a further function than what is evident from the text. The hide of the two-year-old reindeer female could suggest to knowledgeable listeners something having a basis in certain fertility rites that were pivotal for that era's people, but that has been lost in the course of being handed down. Otherwise it is reasonable that sexuality is included in a narrative so closely connected to a mythic explanation of the genesis of Gállá-bártnit or the sons of the Sun. The myth's most important function was probably to demonstrate the Sámi's long history in Sápmi and to legitimize the Sámi people's continued right to inhabit this area.

One aspect connected to "the re-marrying" in the Son of the Sun's land, where the giant's daughter is reduced in size and turned into a Sámi, is the point about "making her into a Sámi." This is supposed to show the poem's ever present current interest in the identity question as long as the concept "Sámi" exists with the content that "Sámi
stands for something other than for example "Norwegian." The myth about the Son of the Sun's courting journey accordingly belongs to the very first Sámi texts that involve choice or change of ethnic belonging, where this happens for the benefit of Sámi identity. However, the material is too flimsy to draw further conclusions about criteria for ethnic attribution in that era's Sámi society, but anyway it is no less interesting to suggest this approach to the problem.

As myth the "Beaivvi bártni" text contains one dimension in addition to those already mentioned. It says something about a utopia from a bygone era, a dream about a richer existence than what the Sámi people gradually were forced into, resulting in the impoverishment that followed colonization. In the tradition, one thinks back to the large wild reindeer herds, the rich swarms of salmon and the golden era when the utilization of the resources was not greater than what could be tolerated ecologically. Of course, in the Sámi myth these concrete riches cannot be mentioned by name, but one can move them to a level that contemporaries surely understood. One allows the golden mountains of silver and gold to exist in the land of the giants, that is far away in a sense, but no further away than that the customs and mythology are like those of the Sámi. Put into other words: it is possible to get there (…again?).


Donner, Otto. Lappalaisia Lauluja. Helsinki / Lieder der Lappen. Helsingfors, 1876.

Duüben, Gustav von. Om Lappland och lapparne. Stockholm, 1873 (1977).

Gaski, Harald. Med ord skal tyvene fordrives. Om samenes episk poetiske diktning. Karasjok, 1987 (1993).

Lundmark, Bo. Anders Fjellner -- Samernas Homeros -- och diktningen om solsönerna. Skrifter i västerbottnisk kulturhistoria, Umeå, 1979.

Rasmussen, Knud. Lappland. København, 1907.

Sagai Muittalægje nr. 7, 1. April 1906 og nr. 11, 1 June 1905.

Wiklund, Karl. B. Lapparnes sång och poesi. Uppsala, 1906.

[i] J. A. Linder, clergyman in Umeå 1823-77, wrote a series of articles "Om Svenska Lappmarken och dess Inwånare" (On Swedish Lapp Territories and Their Inhabitants) in the periodical Läsning för folket (Reading For the People) from 1849 to 1854. Here he published in 1849 a translation of some excerpts from "Beaivvi bártnit" (the Sun's sons). The originals he said he had gotten from the Swedish pastor in Sorsele, Anders Fjellner. The poem created a stir when Linder printed it the first time and "Beaivvi bártnit" was rather quickly translated into German where it was included in Erman's Archiv für wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russland, bd. 12, Berlin 1853. Later the poem was translated into both Finnish and English, and is found in several versions in Swedish. In Professor Donner's monograph Lieder der Lappen, 1876, the song about the Son of the Sun is printed in the form that Fjellner dictated it to Donner, with a few additions from a manuscript that J. U. Grönlund had gotten from Fjellner at the beginning of the 1840s.

The poem "Beaivvi bártni soagnu jiehtanasaid máilmmes" exists in a copy that is thought to have been Fjellner's original in the library of Lund University, among the papers left by Professor Rietz. Here there is a copy of "the original poem" made by J. A. Linder. Fjellner's own manuscript is however not to be obtained anywhere; it has either been lost in the family possessions or been loaned out to one or another researcher who hasn't returned it. Professor Ernst Manker writes in 1939 that the papers Fjellner left behind were considered to be worthless after K. B. Wiklund's criticism of 1906 in the writing Lapparnes sång och poesi (Song and Poetry of the Lapps) (Uppsala), where Fjellner is branded a literary forger. "They were in large piles and were used among other things as filling material in double floors, according to what they said in Ammarnäs," Manker writes among other things in the book Under samme himmel (Under the Same Sky), Stockholm 1939, p. 30.

Fjellner says himself that he wrote down the poem from a Sámi by the name of Leuhnje in Jukkasjärvi in Torneå Lapp territory, but also claims to have heard the same song in his childhood area in Härjedalen.