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Sámi Noaidi and Inuit Angakoq: Traditional Shamanic Roles and Practices

By Lauren Meyer

“The shaman is an individual endowed with supernatural power to heal, or

one who by calling his spirit can find out what is beyond time and space.”

-Melville J. Herskovits


The native Sámi of northern Fenno-Scandinavia are a very spiritually-connected culture of people that have historically practiced ancient shamanistic rituals as an essential part of their daily lives. The Sámi shaman, or Noaidi, was a spiritual guide and mediator of his Sámi siida, or village-collective. He had the ability to travel through the three realms of spiritual reality in which the Sámi believed, during a trance state. His purposes for contacting the other realms were many: finding game and performing hunting-related rituals, foretelling the future (divination), uncovering secrets, healing, bestowing good or bad fortune, manipulating the weather, providing protection from a hostile noai’de, and communicating/mediating with the dead, the spirits of nature, gods, and the unseen worlds (Price 2004). Although the Noaidi did not hold an established position of power in the siida, he was a very influential figure who held the respect and allegiance of the villagers. One very similar figure of spiritual leadership is the Angakoq, or shaman, of the Inuit, a neighboring circumpolar society of Sápmi, spread throughout the northern regions of Russia, U.S. (Alaska), Canada, and Greenland. The Noaidi of the traditional Sámi siida and the Angakoq of the pre-colonial Inuit village system hold surprising similarities in their social roles within their society, their ritualistic practices and beliefs surrounding spiritual contact, and their methods of achieving transcendental states of consciousness. While there are many similarities between the two shamanic roles, there are also many differences that make the Noaidi and the Angakoq distinct and unique.

The Sámi Noaidi and the Inuit Angakoq (also spelled Angakok, Angakkuit, Angalkuq…) held many similarities regarding their functional roles within their society and the forms of influence they wielded over the inhabitants of their villages. As previously stated, the Noaidi of the Sámi siida was not an appointee into a position of established power, and his position as Noaidi did not necessarily confer influence over the people within the siida. His influence depended primarily on his success and accuracy as a healer/diviner/contactor, his charisma within social interactions and rituals, or sometimes, his ability to scare people into submission, such as enemies or nonbelievers. “He is a manifester, a mediator…He is a storyteller, of the tale that wags the dog (his community). He is the messenger that is the message. He gains power only through the tacit consensus of his people, and yet he has thereby ultimate power over them” (Harkrader, paragraph 7). The Noaidi served as a pathfinder, or guide, for individuals on a personal level and for the community as a whole, giving him multiple dimensions of influence. He was the primary contact between the spiritual realms and the human realm. He also was a leader of rituals and ceremonies. The Angakoq of the Inuit (also referred to by the term “Eskimo”, although this is seen as politically-incorrect in most of the east Arctic) held a very similar status position within his village. In a study of the Siberian Eskimos, Tassan S. Tein states that “Shamans of the patriclans played a large role in the conduct of social affairs” (Tein 1994). Unappointed but influential, the Angakoq lead and participated in ceremonies to appease the great spirits of the sea and sky. He also influenced personal lifestyle choices of villagers by keeping watch over the maintenance of cultural taboos which might anger the spirits. “For instance, during the closing performances of the Traditional Bladder Festival, the shaman climbed out through the skylight to enter the sea, visit the seal spirits in their underwater home, and request their return” (Fienup-Riordan 1990). If the spirits were not pleased with the way that the Inuit had upheld their taboos, people might become ill, food might become scarce, or bad weather might plague the village. The Angakok would have to bargain with the spirits to compensate for the misdeeds of the villagers and bring harmony to the balance between nature and man.

Before proceeding, it is important to establish a brief overview of the spiritual beliefs of the Sámi and the Inuit, considering the fact that shamanism is rooted in these basic beliefs and works through them, upholding traditional values. The Sámi pre-Christian worldview was based on polytheism, shamanism, and animism. They held the belief that there were multiple gods and spirits inhabiting the three different realms of existence: the upper, middle, and the lower levels. The middle level was earth, where man lived (although spirits resided here also, such as some female spirits that aided in childbirth). The upper and lower levels were the spirit realms. When humans died on earth, their souls would move to the lower level, which was divided into four realms. Saivu was a good place for spirits, while Ruta was a negative place. Saivu was believed to be an ‘upside-down’ version of the living realm on earth. Noaidi could travel to these different realms to heal people or contact spirits, among other purposes. The spiritual realms may have seemed inaccessible to the untrained eye, but the Sami believed that everything was interconnected and spirituality flowed through all things. The Sami believed that they were descendants of the sun, their father. They were also very deeply connected with nature and the cyclical passage of time represented in the cycle of the seasons.

The Inuit also maintained shamanistic, polytheistic, and animistic beliefs traditionally before Christian missionary efforts to eradicate these practices. “The Eskimo usually distinguish three dwelling places for the dead: the sky, an underworld immediately below the earth’s surface, and another deep underground. In the sky, as in the real underworld (the deep one), the dead lead a happy existence…Only in the underworld directly beneath the earth’s surface, reserved for those who have been guilty of various violations of taboo and for unskillful hunters, do despair and famine reign” (Eliade 2004). In the sky and the “real underworld”, things were almost the same as the earth plane, except that the seasons were switched. This is very similar to the Sámi belief of Saivu as a mirror image of the human realm. The Inuit Angakoq, similar to the Noaidi, could travel to these different realms in a trance state to consult the spirits. The Inuit believed that everything had a spirit and therefore, everything must be respected with the proper ceremonies and rituals surrounding the use of these resources. Although there were many spirits in which the Inuit believed, the most important were Sila, the god of the sky, and Sedna, the goddess of the sea. “She (Sedna) lived on the bottom of the sea and withheld the sea game from the Inuit whenever she was angry with them. Inuit referred to her as the inua- the person, owner, or inhabitant of the sea…She took care of the tarniit (shades, souls) of the animals and avenged transgressions of rules of respect commited by human beings” (Laugrand, Oosten 2008). It is said in Inuit myth that the Angakoq could sometimes appease Sedna by brushing and smoothing her hair because she did not have fingers to complete this task herself. Sila controlled the weather and could cause great, dangerous storms during a hunting party. An Angakoq could appease this god by calling on his helper spirits to guide him up to the god to ask for forgiveness and then make an offering of remorse.

Both the Sámi Noaidi and the Inuit Angakoq were aided by specific “helper spirits”, which guided the shamans through the other realms of reality. All Noaidi had helping spirits or “gáccit/gazzi/gadze”, which varied depending on the realm in which the Noaidi was traveling. Gáccit usually manifested to the Sámi Noaidi in the form of an animal. Biret Maret Kallio, a spiritually guided Sámi woman, describes her experience with prominent Sámi views on gáccit: “Written tradition talks of three kinds of gazzi: One, usually a bird, accompanies the noaidi on journeys to the upper world; the second, usually a four-legged wild animal, accompanies the noaidi on journeys in this world, also called the middle world; the third, a fish, a snake, a lizard, or some other animal that can live underwater or underground, accompanies the noaidi in the lower world” (Kallio 1997). This belief was common to many Sámi, although specific beliefs about gáccit varied between regions. In the novel In Search of the Drum, by Ailo Gaup, the main character Jon, who is coming to terms with his calling as a Noaidi creates a connection with his helper spirits through a search for the shamanistic drum in his dreams. One of them is a great bear, for example, that runs alongside him, giving him courage and protecting him from negative spiritual attacks (Gaup 1993). Some Sámi believed that the Noaidi’s free soul, or the soul which leaves the body for travel in the spirit world, could morph into the shape of the gáccit, while others believed that the Noaidi’s free soul could shrink to the size of a small bug and ride on the animal gáccit’s back or ear during travel through the spirit realms. The Inuit Angakoq is quite similar to the Noaidi with his use of helper spirits. The Angakoq’s spirit guides were called “tuurngait”. Like the Sámi gáccit, the tuurngait also very commonly appeared in the forms of animals. Tuurngait mostly manifested as seals, walruses, polar bears, or other Arctic creatures, and sometimes, in the form of a human. “Tuurngait might come to a person of their own accord, or a person might seek contact with the tuurngait himself. The tuurngait might also attack a person…” (Laugrand, Oosten 2008). Sometimes after an attack on the Angakoq, the spirit may become a helper spirit instead of an enemy. This attack is then viewed as an essential step that needed to happen in an initiatory process for the shaman.

The processes of initiation into shaman status for a Noaidi and an Angakoq both involved training by an experienced shaman, self-induced physical and spiritual hardships to reach spiritual enlightenment, and the acquisition of helper spirits through their own ability to contact the spiritual realms. “The initiation of a (Saami) shaman followed to a great extent the pattern typical of spiritual metamorphosis: the response to a call, withdrawal into solitude, submission as a pupil to a master, and metaphorical death and rebirth” (Walter and Fridman 2004). This process is again demonstrated in the novel In Search of the Drum, by Ailo Gaup, when the main character, Jon, receives a calling in his dreams by an ancient, traditional Noaidi drum. Jon is continuously haunted by this drum until he finally realizes that it is calling him to come and search, not only for the drum, but for his true destiny as a Noaidi. When Jon follows his dreams north to Sápmi, he is taken on several spiritual journeys where he must relearn the truth about human nature and the interconnectedness of spirituality through all parts of life. He has beautiful visions of this spirituality, but he must also experience the pain of moments of failure and the physical burdens of the trek through landscape. After many of these hardships, his soul has been strengthened to fight evil and travel the realms. He realizes that he does not necessarily need the drum to achieve these things because the power lied within himself the whole time. This example is obviously not completely typical of experience of the blossoming Sámi Noaidi. The truth is that the story was a novel with heightened dramatic effect for the reader’s pleasure and also contained aspects of identification with Westernized culture. After all, Ailo was trained on shamanistic practices in Los Angeles, but the story does represent many truths about the process of Noaidi initiation, at the same time.

The selection and initiation process of the Inuit Angakoq is slightly different from that of the Noaidi, although it does follow the same traditional patterns of spiritual death, rebirth, and contact of spirits for aid. Unlike many Noaidi, who are typically selected by a personal spiritual calling, the older Angakoq selects the new pupil as a young child. These are usually children that have either already demonstrated unusual dreams/visions or seem especially gifted for the position. As demonstrated earlier with the reference to attacks by tuurngait, the initiation process of the Angakoq is a bit more inclined towards the aspect of spiritual death and metaphorical dismemberment than the initiatory sequence of the Sámi Noaidi. “The anagkok teaches him to isolate himself in a lonely place—beside an old grave, by a lake—and there to rub two stones together while waiting for a significant event. ‘Then the bear of the lake or the inland glacier will come out, he will devour all your flesh and make you a skeleton, and you will die. But you will recover your flesh, you will awaken, and your clothes will come rushing to you’” (Eliade 2004). In other stories, the Angakoq is ripped apart or slowly drowned at the bottom of the sea. “The ecstatic experience of dismemberment of the body followed by renewal of the organs is also known to the Eskimo. They speak of an animal (bear, walrus, etc.) that wounds the candidate, tears him to pieces or devours him…” (Eliade 2004). Then, he is reborn into his old body with a new sight. It is often described as light pulsating through the shaman’s body and interweaving through the eyes to create new vision.

Once the Noaidi or Angakoq has been initiated into his role as shaman, he has learned many different methods of achieving this transcendental state which allows him to move freely between the spiritual realms and the living realm. Some methods of achieving this state, which the Noaidi and the Angakoq share, are song, dance, and drumming. For the Noaidi, the drum and the yoik were two very important aspects of the Sámi culture that aided the shaman in his transcendental journey. The drum, or govadas, typically had images painted on the skin surface in alder bark juice and sometimes had images carved into the sides of the wooden bowl, often made of birch. The images painted on the surface of the drum served as a map for the Noaidi in his travels through the other realms. The images depicted were that of the sun, in the center, and different spirits which the Noaidi would encounter on the different levels, including his own gáccit. Drums varied region to region and held differences between shaman, based on the fact that each drum was usually personally made by the shaman or altered to be a personalized map. The drum was also used for divination by dropping a pointer onto the surface and reading its postion in relation to the orientation of images. When the Noaidi pounded the drum with his drumstick (made of carved reindeer bone), sometimes dancing and yoiking simultaneously, he could achieve a trance state through this process. Although the drum and yoik were very important to the process itself, the powerful Noaidi did not need either tool to achieve this ecstatic state.

The Angakoq also used a drum to achieve his trance state, but, without any images on its surface, his drum did not serve as a map for orientation in the other realms. This did not lessen its importance though. “The shaman’s drum was no different than the drums used by the Eskimos in their community dances. But the shaman’s drumstick was thicker and more massive than a common one. It could be made from any kind of wood…with a handle of walrus tusk or reindeer antler” (Tein 1994). While the Angakoq beats his drum, he dances and sings a song in his own secret language, which can only be understood by himself and the spirits with which he is conversing. The spirits hear the call and lift the shaman out of his body and into the air or beneath the ground. “The secret shamanic language is highly elaborated among the Eskimo and used as a means of communication between the angakut and their spirits. Each shaman has a particular song, which he intones to invoke the spirits” (Eliade 2004). This is reminiscent of the vocables intoned into yoiks which conjure images of people or nature.

After hundreds of years of shamanic traditions amongst the Sámi and the Inuit peoples, missionary efforts of Christianization threatened to destroy these ancient systems by forced conversion, assimilation, and destruction of traditional shamanistic beliefs and tools. By the sixteenth century, Lutheran missionaries were traversing Sápmi to claim souls and establish state-system land claims. Noaidi were killed and their drums were smashed and burned. “Used by the noai’de…there were once many hundreds, if not thousands, of these drums. Today, less than eighty examples from the post-medieval period survive, scattered throughout Scandinavia and the anthropological collections of the world” (Price 2004). The Sámi were forbid from yoiking, giving offerings at their sieidis, or practicing any form of their traditional belief system. The Inuit would also face the spread of Christianity in the following centuries. “After the conversion to Christianity, ministers and priests replaced angakkuit as authorities on iconography of the world of nonhuman beings…The adoption of Christianity implied that belief in nonhuman beings that were not recognized by the Christian churches became a matter of controversy. But Inuit continued to have encounters with these nonhuman beings” (Laugrand, Oosten 2008). The elderly Inuit refused to admit that they had anything to do with Angakoq, but it was clear that shamanistic beliefs still persisted, even under the extreme pressures of assimilation.

The Sámi and the Inuit people are both very spiritually connected groups of people that have sought to live in harmony with nature and all of the spirits living within its expanse. They believe in the respect of all things because all things are connected through forces which cannot be seen by the typical human eye. The Sámi Noaidi and the Inuit Angakoq are the leaders and pathfinders which see this bond and work through all realms of reality to maintain a multi-dimensional peace. They are also the charismatic leaders that influence the lives of the people which they live amidst. These people seek the guidance of the Noaidi and the Angakoq, not only because they are leaders, but also because they are often great story-tellers and interesting personalities. Seemingly schizophrenic, they are followed by spirits which actually help them make decisions and wield influence. These spirits are contacted through yoik, secret language songs, drumming of the govodas, drumming of the walrus belly drum, dancing, and sometimes eating some strong psychoactive drugs. When the effort to “save souls from the eternal fires of damnation”, or rather the effort to obtain land and amass power, became a prominent theme of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shamanism was almost destroyed completely. Many years of these traditional systems within the Sámi and Inuit lifestyles could not be eradicated so easily, in the end, and shamanic practices persisted in underground efforts to maintain culture, sometimes blending with Christianity. Although shamanism does not exist in the same form among the Sámi and the Inuit as that of the past, the people of these two cultures have found new ways to reinvent their cultural identities in ways that define a new age of indigenous autonomy.


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