It was on one recent cold, wet and windy weekend – typical weather for the Peak District – that I decided to spend an afternoon curled up on the sofa reading, fire lit and the cat next to me dreaming. I decided to read about shamanism in the far northern (and far colder than Derbyshire) lands of the Sami. Whilst going through the book “The Art of Siberia” (1) I came across some Shamanic items that matched two we had at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

These two items are reindeer antlers, engraved with images of reindeers and geometric patterns. Whilst working on these two items at the museum I wondered what their function was, and thought that maybe they were just purely decorative. However, indigenous people do not necessarily make art for art’s sake – they usually have a much deeper, spiritual side to them.

Sami shaman drumstick. Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. Acc. No. M1152a.4

The Sami are the indigenous people of Northern Europe in an area stretching from the Norwegian coast in the northwest, across the northern parts of Sweden and Finland, to the Kola Peninsula in the northeast of Russia.

Prior to their Christianisation, the Sami world view was animistic, believing that all objects in nature had a soul. The animistic, and consequently polytheistic, view leads to the desire for harmony with nature, and this leads to the need for shamans who mediate between the human and spirit world, and a cooperation with natural forces. For the Sami it was essential not to interfere or damage nature, as this would upset the natural balance of things.

Sami drum, 17th to 18th century. © Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen.

Like many shamans, those of the Sami, known as Noaidi, used a drum to help travel in and out of the spirit world. Through the rhythmic beat of the drum, and to the accompaniment of chants, the shaman entered an ecstatic state. Once the shaman reached the trance state he or she was believed to leave their body and move on as a spirit. They then have the ability to change into a reindeer and fly over the treetops – think of Rudolph and the approaching festive season!

The drums were also not just a means of enabling the shaman to enter a trance; they were also decorated, using pigment made from chewing on the bark of an alder tree, with images that acted as maps to the spirit world. To the centre of many is the sun god Paivo, forming a cross shape that divides the world of the gods, that of humans, and that of the underworld. Other deities include Madderakka, the Mother Goddess, and her partner Ukko, the sky-god holding his hammer with which to create thunder and lightning – much like the Norse god Thor. Other images on the drums are reindeer, plants and animals, natural features and shrines. The style of the images is very reminiscent of the Bronze Age rock carvings of Sweden.

To create the rhythmic beat of the drum a drumstick was used that was often made from a reindeer bone or antler – such as the two examples we have at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Sami shaman drumstick. Buxton Museum and Art gallery. Acc. No. M1152c.4

The church believed that Satan had given the drums to the Sami and that the shamans, who were viewed as sorcerers and witches, summoned demons with them. Most shamans were tried for witchcraft in the 17th and 18th century, and executed. It was for this reason that many Sami drums were destroyed, and only a handful now remain in museums scattered around Europe.

The Sami believe that when out in nature you must never shout and make too much noise for fear of upsetting the spirits that dwell there. So, if you decide to venture out for a therapeutic moment with nature, or just a healthy hike in the Peak District National Park, please tread carefully, respectfully and quietly!

  1. The Art of Siberia by Valentina Gorbatcheva and Marina Federova. Parkstone Publications. 2016