Literary Otherness in Nordic National Epics – The Case of the Sámi

Literary Otherness in Nordic National Epics – The Case of the Sámi

When the concept of literary otherness is mentioned in the field of Sagas studies, the mind goes inevitably and immediately to the Sámi, or finnar, as they are called in Old Norse. The Sámi are arguably the most mentioned ethnic minority in the sagas, especially in Heimskringla, the collection of sagas written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century and nowadays widely regarded as one of the most renowned Norwegian national epics. The presence of the Sámi has also a relevant role in another Nordic national epic, from an other time, the Kalevala, composed by Elias Lönnroth in the first half of the 19th century. The role these two works played in the process of nation-building in Norway and in Finland is hard to deny; what is yet to be determined is how minorities and ethnic groups — especially the Sámi — fit into this process.

Both works are connected by the nationalist context in which they were written. Norway and Finland were much more affected by the rise of national romanticism than Denmark and Sweden, two countries with a solid historical and political foundation (Straubhaar, 1999, p. 104). Therefore, nationalists from both lands plunged into folklore in order to find material to (re)create the existence of their respective identities. Their efforts resulted in the composition of the Kalevala in Finland, whilst in Norway Heimskringla was rediscovered and published in a national edition, gaining an unprecedented amount of popularity. Snorri’s worked work reminded the Norwegians that in the past their nation was not only independent, but a powerful kingdom in the Scandinavian region, whose values were very much still alive in the 19th century.

A lappish hut, the typical living accommodation of the Sámi in many Nordic literary works. Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

But let’s talk about how the Sámi are presented in both works. In Heimskringla they are mostly defined by their magic powers and their witchcraft; several memorable episodes see them in connection with the supernatural. One of the best known examples is told in Haralds saga ins hárfagra, in which King Haraldr marries Snæfríðr, a Sámi woman. The involvement of magic in the whole episode is rather obvious, although it is never made explicit. During his first meeting with Snæfríðr, the king feels a wave of heat in his body and he desires to possess her immediately, which leads to their marriage. After the death of Snæfríðr, her body remains unscathed until it is moved, three years later. At that very moment it starts to stink, it turns black and all kinds of foul creatures come out of it and only when the body is burned the king finally returns to wisdom (Finlay and Faulkes, 2011, p. 73). In the same saga, during an expedition in the Finnmark (the northernmost province in medieval Norway), some men of the king come across a Sámi woman, Gunnhildr, who is learning witchcraft from two other Sámi. They are described as mighty wizards, capable of turning the earth upside down and of killing with their sight. After their murder by the king’s men (due to a deceitful plan plotted by Gunnhildr), there is a night of powerful thunderstorms (Finlay and Faulkes, 2011, pp. 78f).

Another common feature of the Sámi is the remarkable beauty of the women. Usually, when a Sámi woman is mentioned in the Sagas a remark is written about how she is incredibly beautiful. The utmost beauty of Sámi women is found in the Kalevala as well: in the Finnish epic, the Sámi are usually associated with Pohjola, the land of the North. The women of Pohjola are said to be the fairest of the world; furthermore, they also assume the role of kings‘ and heroes‘ brides, a recurring topic in Heimskringla as well. One of the leitmotifs of the Kalevala are the travels and perils of the three main heroes (Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen) in order to earn the right to marry the daughter of Louhi, the ruler of Pohjola.

Magic is a recurring feature in the Kalevala as well, but in a very different way. In Heimskringla, magic is the cause of differentiation and discrimination, as only the finnar master it; in the Kalevala, on the other hand, magic is shared and used by all the parties concerned. In the Finnish tradition, knowing magic is equal to knowing the origin of phenomena (Kailo, 2016, p. 198); therefore, when magic is involved there usually is an explanation about how the subject of magic was created. For instance, in canto 45, Louhi sends diseases against the land of Kalevala:

She keeps thinking, what doom she could bring about, which death she could carry out, on those folk of Väino-land, those Kalevala people […] with disease kill them, and slay the mean kin.

Lönnrot, 1999, p. 585.

It follows an extensive passage in which Louhi tells about the origins of diseases: her knowledge of this phenomenon allows her to cast the destructive spells against the heroes. Magic users are therefore implied to be very sage and knowledgeable, features that are particularly embodied in Väinämöinen, who is the wisest of them all. The fact that the magic of the heroes of Kalevala eventually overcomes that of Louhi shows the Finns’ superiority over the Sámi on a symbolical level, as their knowledge is greater.

Then, why is the idea of magic so unalike in the two works? The explanation might lie in the role of Christianity. In the Kalevala, Lönnrot could not remove key elements of folklore from the narration such as witchcraft: taking away the magic would have deprived the poem of a significant and symbolic feature, especially because it is the way in which the Finns demonstrate their superiority. However, Christianity appears in the last canto: the young virgin Marjatta (a clear reference to the Virgin Mary) gives birth to a child that symbolizes the arrival of Christianity and the end of paganism. The events of the last canto could justify the Finns’ use of magic in the poem, as they later accept Christianity. The situation is dissimilar in Heimskringla, which not only was written in a Christian context but also by a Christian author, Snorri. This aspect is especially striking in Oláfs saga Helga, where terms associated with heathenry appear more and more. It is therefore not a surprise that in such a context otherness is strongly based on supernatural factors, given the fact that these factors would not mix well with the Christian background of the text.

The depictions of the Sámi in both works show similarities and differences. The aim here is not to discuss whether the finnar of Heimskringla and the people of Pohjola in the Kalevala are the same folk. But whether they are or not, they fulfill the role of the other in both national epics.

In the Kalevala, the inhabitants of Pohjola are clearly the antagonist of the story. It is often referred to with derogatory terms, such as “dark Pohjola” and “misty Sariola[1]”. The struggles of the three heroes against the people of Pohjola are an essential part of the epic, and elevate them to god-like figures in the eye of the public. William A. Wilson, in his publication on the joint history of folklore and nationalism in Finland, highlights the Finns’ need for old heroes and their deeds as a part of proto-nationalistic movements (Wilson, 1976, p. 11). This is exactly the purpose of the Kalevala: it provides Finland a glorious past on which the future can be shaped. Without the other, the heroes’ exploits could not be achieved, making them an essential actor.

The same can be said about Heimskringla, although this factor appears much more subtly. The Sámi make scarce appearances, then clearly defining their role is a harder task. However, every encounters between the heroes and the Sámi eventually lead up to some kind of benefit or positive result for the former. After the misfortune with Snæfríðr, King Harald’s rule improves and his kingdom is more united. Again, the encounter with the other ends up being beneficial for the community. Lindow reaches a similar conclusion, arguing that the mere existence and preservation of these “others” is a way for the “main” group to better identify themselves (Lindow, 1995, p. 22)[2].

It can be argued that the Sámi presence in both Heimskringla and the Kalevala is beneficial to the nation building process, as it enables the identification of a main group that will eventually become a nation.

[1] Sariola is an alternative name for Pohjola.

[2] Aalto briefly discusses the same theory in: Aalto, 2003, p. 2.


  • Aalto, Sirpa: “Alienness in Heimskringla. Special Emphasis on the Finnar”, in: Rudolf Simek/Judith Meurer (Ed.): Scandinavia and Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. Bonn: Universität Bonn, 2003, pp. 1-7.
  • Aalto, Sirpa: “Categorizing Otherness in Heimskringla”, in: John McKinnell (Ed.). The Fantastic in Old Norse/-Icelandic Literature. Sagas and the British Isles. Preprint papers of The Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th-12th August 2006. Bd. 1. Durham 2006. pp. 81-98.
  • Kailo, Kaarina: “Gender and ethnic overlap/p in the Finnish Kalevala”, in: Himani Bannerji et al. (ed.): Of Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism, Toronto 2016.
  • Lindow, John: “Supernatural Others and Ethnic Others: A Millennium of World View”, in: Scandinavian Studies Vol. 67, No. 1 (1995), pp. 8-31.
  • Lönnrot, Elias: The Kalevala: An Epic Poem After Oral Tradition, trans. by Keith Bosley. Oxford 1999.
  • Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif: “Gustav Storm’s 1899 Heimskringla as a Norwegian Nationalist Genesis Narrative”, in: Tijdschrift voor skandinavistiek, Vol. 20, No. 2, 1999, pp. 101-124.
  • Sturluson, Snorri: Heimskringla, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, London: Viking Society for Northern Research, 2011.
  • Wilson, William Albert: Folklore and nationalism in modern Finland. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

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