The Lapps by Robert Cranwell

The people we call the Lapps are known by a variety of other names, including Lopar, Sabine and Sami amongst others. The origins of our name for them has also provoked a number of explanations; some say it comes from the old Swedish “lopar” – meaning “to run”, and presumably referring to the speed of their movement on skis, achieved with a loping action. Still others say it comes from the Mongolian “lu-pe” – going northwards, or from the archaic Finnish term “lappes” – meaning “banished”.

Astuvansalmen kalliomaalaukset rock paintings located in Ristiina, Mikkeli, Southern Savonia, Finland at the shores of the lake Yövesi

Whatever the confusion over the names, one thing is certain, that the Lapps are the oldest inhabitants of Scandinavia ,and that they have been there since 8,000 years ago. The Lapps, who actually call themselves ,Sami, are very likely descendants of mixed Mongolian and central Asian stock. There is evidence of reindeer cultures everywhere in Europe around the edges of the great ice sheets, in the Black Forest, the Carpathians, Southwest France and the Swiss Oberland.
In terms of history, nothing is found written about them until AD.98 and Tacitus, who called them “Fenni”, although there is wealth of evidence in Scandinavia in cave paintings and rock grafitti. These depict people on skis, reindeer, and there are also graves where dogs have been found buried their sled harnesses still on. For many centuries, they moved in unison with the great reindeer migrations of Spring and Autumn, seeking new pastures or shelter from the worst of the winters.
Other Lapps lived somewhat more sedentary lifestyles, deep in the forest, again with reindeer, but not needing to migrate over long distances. Dogs, it seems, were in common use to track and to hunt down the strong reindeer, probably, but the pursuit of reindeer was certainly carried out by skis by 2,000 BC. Skis and ski sticks have ben unearthed and dated by pollen analysis of the surrounding sediments. Only by the year 780 AD do we find documentary evidence of the domestication of reindeer, by a scholar who called himself Paulus Diaconus.
He describes the use of lead males and decoy females to entice other reindeer into compounds, which may have been going on for some time, but there is no earlier evidence to support the idea, and even the Vikings, who dealt with the Lapps by this time, give no indication of the lifestyles of the original inhabitants.
Most accounts, up to 1200, when the Viking age was drawing to its end, only give derogatory references to the Lapps, who, they often claim, “live like beasts”. They certainly had a very poor existence. They had no grains which they could cultivate, few wild fruits and depended entirely on the reindeer and the forest margins for their livings. Needles were made from bone and used to sew up skins with sinew, which were then stretched over a a frame of bent saplings.
A woman figure with a bow – the Tellervo of Astuva – a rarity among the rock paintings.

Clothes were made with skins, too. Weapons such as arrows and even spears were made using bone tips. Shelters in more fixed dwellings were usually made from a combination of wood and turf. Although we know that the Vikings extracted tribute from the Lapps, there is no real knowledge of their lives until a great northward push by missionaries and merchants came in the 1600’s. Many myths had, of course, grown up around them and they were variously reputed to live in treetops and in burrows.
They were a strange race of gnomes, they hibernated, and some even said that only had one eye. As with many things, there was an element of truth in these rumours, but invention was rife in stories about this little known people who lived in the dark northern forests and endured the 6 month winters of darkness.
Food was always difficult to store, and often depots of stores had to be left for a later time. The only way to keep meat, especially, safe from marauding wolves and other predators, was to put it beyond reach. To do. this, they built small store huts at the top of sturdy trees and gained access by ladders when required, Of the burrows, we can find evidence of people in Siberia and the Himalayas, too, living in excavated cellars under the ground during the cold periods.
The Lapps knew how to survive the bitter winters in the same way. Chambers were built into the hillside or even flat but well drained earth, and then covered with logs, birch bark and turf to make a warm den where they may have kept small animals like goats to help keep the temperatures bearable. Small fires were kept burning, and the smoke escaped through a single hole in the roof that also served as an entrance. They also dabbled extensively in Magic and had shamans or witch-doctors.
It is recorded that in Siberia, the Amanita mushrooms, especially Fly. Agaric were widely used as hallucinogenic potions in both social and religious celebrations. Such mushrooms grow often in coniferous forest and it seems likely that the Lapps used them too. Some modern writers have suggested that here lies the origins of the Father Christmas myth. A man dressed in red and white (possibly the shaman in ritual clothing) came down the chimney and distributed goodies which made everyone feel happy.
Personally, I don’t feel it’s too far from the truth, as a theory. Anyway, to continue, during the 1600’s, some of these myths began to be both explained and exploded by painstaking recording of travels by scholars. Olaus Magnus described how boats were made by coastal Lapps from thin strips of wood sewn together with sinew, similar to eskimo kayaks. In the 1600’s, too. churches were founded at Lycksele, Arvidsjaur, Jokkmokk and Jukkasjarvi along the borders of the Lapp territory. The aggressive styles of some missionaries caused the quiet and peaceable Lapps to retreat into the forest with their sacred drums and shamans. A shaman and his drum were burned alive in Arjeplog in 1692.
Lars Laestadius, a preacher based at Vittangi, even by the slightly more enlightened 1850’s almost single handedly wiped out the practice of Lapp games, singing and pagan feasts in a large area of North Sweden. But the 1700’s saw the Lapps being forced to go to churches with penalties if they disobeyed. Fortunately all missionaries were not as vigorous, otherwise the Lapps might have suffered complete cultural disintegration and dwindled away as so many primitive cultures have when faced with our civilisation.
The Lapps themselves had a strong a strong system of beliefs, some of which are echoed in aspects of our own conservation-minded age. There was strong matriarchal society, celebrated in the feast of Maddar- Akko, – Mother Earth. They had no inclination to have chiefs or to obey them where they had been selected on their behalf and so are very anarchistic. Co-operation was a strong bond, both in the family and between groups. A system of voluntary Euthanasia was chosen by the old and infirm who often ask for their lives to be ended.
They were often despatched by plunging them over precipices in sleds or into icy cold water. Even when civilisation provided accomodation, the older Lapps preferred to stay with their families, in the full knowledge that they would be left behind when they moved again, with only a few provisions and a fishing line. The climate seems to have had less effect on Lapps than we would think, for on the occasions that Lapps were settled into log cabins with stoves, there were epidemics of tuberculosis which only abated when they resumed their original lifestyle.
The large bear composition at Bergbukten I, Alta, where the tracks of the bears both connect the three main dimensions of the universe, and the den which bears left in spring with the den to be entered in the autumn. The red colour is a modern addition to increase visibility. (Photo: K. Helskog.)

Although the Lapp culture may seem very different to our own, there are a number of common links, going back in history. One such link is the cult of the bear, which is still said to exist among rural Lapps, and which is depicted in identical form in rock carvings and paintings from Lascaux in France, Ariege in the Pyrenees, the Black Forest, the Carpathians and even amongst the most northerly tribe of Japan – the Ainu.
The bear was known to be the cleverest and wisest of animals and was also capable of resisting attack by any number of men. Unless, that is there were two brothers among the hunters. It was felt that the bear knew that if one brother were killed or injured, the other would never rest until he had been avenged. The bear would retreat before two brothers, knowing that no person of goodwill would abandon a brother in danger. The necessity of killing bears, either to protect the herds, or from hunger, was always undertaken with elaborate precautions, since this wisest of creatures was almost on a par with one’s ancestors.
No one person could kill the beast, for the power was too strong, so the bear could be enticed out of his den onto a batch of skilfully placed and concealed spears. The hunters would refuse to touch a bear until some time after a kill, and the Ainu of Japan danced around the creature wearing birch bark masks so they would not be recognised. Such dances have been depicted elsewhere, too. Then, usually the following day, the bear would be brought back to camp, but those who brought back the body on a stretcher would rub their faces with and hands with red dye from chewed up old birch bark as a ritual purification.
They would only re­enter their tents by climbing under the flaps at the rear. Other rituals reinforced the link between man and bear and by the bear’s death; they, too, had been touched by death. Even when the bear was cut up and eaten, care was taken not to break any bones and the skeleton waqs re-assembled for burial. A plea for pardon was said at the graveside asking the bear to re-grow itself.
Considerable influence was attributed to bears. It was regarded as an oracle for foretelling the sex of a forthcoming child. Women were particularly influenced during the killing and bringing back to the camp. Apparently, women would become sterile if they so much as travelled in the sled the bear had been transported in.
Such tales are more of the past than the present, however, for few of the present Lapp population are nomadic. The attractions of modern society have drawn many of them from their wild surroundings and many work as telephone line workers in offices or in workshops. They still, however, consider that their personal territory extends beyond the horizon, and a very strong cultural affinity still binds them.
Lapps, as a cultural group, have also become important as a pressure group in both environmental issues and in regional economic policy inrecent years. All the Scandinavian governments seem to be conscious that their developments as nations have had to, impinge on the traditional freedoms of the Lapps, and all take seriously the problems of the Northern populations, even though Lapps themselves now only account for a minority in these areas. It would be a mistake, however, to assume they feel themselves to be suffering from repression on a grand scale for they recognise the efforts which are made to protect their cultural identities.
Small-scale industries, as well as the nationally important ones, receive immense subsidies, in the knowledge that, were the subsidies to be withdrawn, most would simply relocate in the economic areas of the country. But industry must remain if the population is to remain, for they are no longer in a position to support themselves adequately by traditional methods. Tourism has become a significant contributor to the Northern economy, in one of the few remaining wilderness areas of Europe.
Another major factor in trying to maintain a settled and satisfied population is that, were the population to drift away southwards, all three countries would then have a large empty and accessible region directly adjacent to the long Soviet border. Much of Lapland, and every single town in Finmark has been completely rebuilt since the second world war and it is a facet of this recent devastation that people are very aware of how essential it is to remain on friendly terms with the Soviet government.
Finland itself has lost both the Petsame corridor, by which it used to have access to ice-free northern waters and the area of Karelia, to the Soviet Union. In fact, at the outbreak of WW2, Finland was at war with the Soviets over the takeover of Kareila, and when the pact between Britain and Russia was enforced, making them allies against Germany, Finland found itself at war with the allied forces and under threat from German forces too. An unenviable position.
One particular event which seems to encapsulate the feelings of Lapps for their environment was the opposition to a large hydro-electric project to be built in the Alta valley in 1979. Reindeer calving areas and the river salmon would have been permanently disrupted by the flooding of the site, but despite local protest, the Norwegian government decided to press ahead and began constructing the access road to the proposed damsite.
It was widely claimed that central government was acting with complete insensitivity to local interests, despite the new jobs which would eventually be created. The environment came before such short term interests, the Lapps felt, and soon both fishing and farming interests throughout Norway had joined the Lapps, in opposition to the plan.
Environmental, anti-nuclear and political groups all over Northern Europe began to be involved, and in 1980 there were 6,000 people from over 20 countries assembled in protest at the site. Even the military authorities in Finmark refused to co-operate with the police, in response to tremendous public pressure.


Bob Cranwell has travelled the globe taking people off the beaten track in his bespoke guided tours.  Now retired but very much active he writes about his journeys and musings on the website Amateur Emigrant as well as producing podcasts: