The Sami north and the Viking south – travelling the snowy Nordics

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It is like nature poured a can of white paint all over the landscape. Nothing is spared. Houses, trees, cars, roofs, roads, electric wires, rivers, lakes, mountain tops, sign boards, culverts… day or night, everything is white.

And then the sun comes up and turns everything that is snowy white to yellow gold.

The sun here is so bright. Like a orb of fire emitting rays of melting gold. Here in the Nordics you realise how important the sun is – when it is up, it seems like a celestial god has come up in the sky to give you warmth from the harsh winter and then in summer, it stays up watching over you like some kind of a protector, staying just above the horizon, about 7 degrees north throughout the day.

It is no wonder that the sun is so sacred to the indigenous Sami. Everything is derived from the sun after all – a general sense of happiness after the long and dark winter, the fertility it brings from the melting of the snow, the warmth, and of course the Northern Lights.

So, imagine standing in the middle of a frozen lake about 145 kms north of the Arctic Circle, in the heart of Sami country, looking up at the sky where nature paints its most stunning canvas – the Northern Lights. It is probably the closest you will feel to nature and how generously it draws up a motion picture of dancing lights just for you.

Nature has been painting the night sky with the Northern Lights for eons. The Sami believe the Lights are a gift from god that keep them warm in the night.

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Northern Lights from a frozen lake near Kiruna, Sweden
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Sculpture of rail line workers in Kiruna

The Sami feel a strong connection to the nature. They don’t believe in doing anything for the sake of material gains, particularly the destruction of the forests that belong to the nature.

This is most apparent here in Kiruna, where the municipal corporation is in the process of relocating the entire town 25 kms away from where it currently to access iron ores. Kiruna has the world’s largest underground iron ore mine. The mines are a source of livelihood for nearly 90% of the local population.

The Sami north and the Viking south

The semi-nomadic Sami who live in the northern arctic region, are reindeer herders and continue to maintain this activity even today – both as a form of cultural tie and a source of livelihood. Even though they live side-by-side with the Norge, the social and economic lifestyles of the two communities is vastly different, and has remained so for centuries.

The Norge who lived in the southern arctic region, were primarily farmers and lived near the fjords while their Viking chieftains built longships and traveled to Europe to find new lands for farming. They also traded and pillaged the faraway lands and returned with silks, porcelain and ivory, threw lavish parties upon their return, wore expensive clothes to show they have finer taste over their peasant brethren and gave away gifts to assert their power.

There is little or no historical records about Vikings; however, one thing is certain – the Vikings never had the desire to build an empire like the Romans. To the sea-faring “pirates”, only 2 things were most important: farming and stability.

And while the Vikings were feared for their merciless conquests and slavery, the one thing they feared the most was being conquered. This came with the arrival of Christianity.

Winter is coming

Odin, the god of wisdom, had a warning for the Vikings that the end of the world (or Ragnarok) will come with advances from the South.

Between 8th-12th century, the southern realms of Scandinavia saw a steady stream of conversions, which threatened the indigenous beliefs, and the old and established traditions that provided stability and structure to the Vikings. Christian archdiocese came bearing gifts, luring the Norge farmers away from their pagan pantheon of gods and threatening the power ranks of the Viking chiefs.

By late 9th century, the Vikings started leaving Scandinavia to find arable lands and a stable lifestyle. Iceland, which was not occupied like England and Ireland became the most obvious choice. Even today, the old Norse language is the closest to Icelandic.

Viking chief at Lofotr

One of the most celebrated chieftain who has been mentioned in the books relating to the colonisation of Iceland, was Olav Tvennumbruni. His longhouse in Lofotr is the largest Viking-era chieftain house ever found. The 83-meter (272-ft) residence has a large barn, living quarters, and a storeroom for grains. It is believed to have been raised around 500 AD and abandoned around 950AD. His farm in Iceland near Skalholt, is considered one of the best agricultural areas in the country. There, the farm Olafsvellir (or Olaf’s fields) still exists.

By the end of Viking Age (793–1066 AD), the Norge had adopted Christianity; most Scandinavian countries even adopted the Nordic Cross on their national flag, signifying the religion’s influence in Scandinavia. In comparison, the Sami remained unconverted until the late 18th century and some even practice the ancient religion until today.

What is left is a rather fantastical depiction of the Vikings via films and TV series, and a few sculptures of the Norse god Thor – one of which is at Mariatorget, in Stockholm, where he is slaying his arch rival – the sea serpent, Jörmungandr, in the final battle of Ragnarok.

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