Saami Ethno Medicine
- An Introduction
The Saami are the indigenous
people of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland and the Kola Peninsula. They have
been hunters, fishers and reindeer herders, pursuing a nomadic style of life.
Historically, they belong to the Finno-Ugric group. Because of their way of
life in the sub arctic and arctic environment they have developed a tradition
of folk medicine, which to a large extent differs from the rest of Europe.
The Saami shaman, the noaidie, played a large role in folk medicine.
Saami folk medicine is described in the literature, but my interviews in
Jokkmokk have given me new material.(1) Fundamentally, Saami folk medicine is
similar to that of Scandinavia and Finland. Healing elements were taken from
the animal and plant kingdoms. The purely magical components were very
important. The magical rites were founded on concepts such as ”like heals
like” and "healing comes from where the sickness came" and
"pain is cast out with pain". In the pre-Christian and early
Christian period the shamanistic way of thinking predominated. There were and
still are special people who are considered healers. They exercise an unusual
power especially the capacity to stop the flow of blood.
Throughout Saami there are
still stories of people who had the power to heal sicknesses. (2) These
persons were also said to have other powers, i.e. contacting nature spirits:
Kathnia, Haldia, and others and even being able to find lost objects, reveal
thieves, herd reindeer without the help of people or dogs, and the like.
In nearly every household or siida settlement there was often a person who
had a drum and who had unusually good contact with the spirit world. There
was a noaidie as well, the Saami shaman who with ecstatic measures intervened
and influenced the doings of the gods and spirits. In a broad way it is possible
to categorize the Saami art of healing on three levels. At first "self
care", a knowledge, which was quite generally known. Oftentimes there
was at least one person in every family who mastered this knowledge. The next
level was the "doctor", the healer
with special knowledge, and finally there was the "specialist"
where the "noaidie" was involved.
The four elements (fire, water, air and earth) play a big role in Saami folk
medicine. Stones, fire, water (especially from springs) are often used as healing
agents. It was also said that certain sicknesses came from the air, the earth
or the water. Stone baths were carried out in the following way by the forest
Saami in Arvidsjaur: One stone was taken from the water, one from beneath the
surface of the ground and one from the open air. A small hole was dug in the
ground and a fire was made, warming the stones until they were extremely hot.
Then the fire was put out. At this point the sick person sat on a stool or
chair above the hole with the hot stones. A small tent was erected over the
sick person made with skin rugs or blankets. Water was then poured onto the
stones. Steam filled the "tent" where the sick person was to remain
seated. When water was poured on the hot stones sometimes one of them would
crack. This was a sign that the sickness had come from either the water, the
air or the earth, depending on which stone cracked. If a stone cracked, the
ill person would be assured of healing by means of the steam bath. The stones
were then supposed to be returned to exactly the same place from which they
had been removed.
Medicine from animals came largely from bear and reindeer. Different parts of
the animal were effective against different complaints. Bears were such
powerful animals that it was enough, for example, to hold a pad of a bear paw
against the cheek to cure a toothache. Pure bear fat was used as a salve or
mixed as the base for a salve with other ingredients. It was believed that
the bear was an animal endowed with a great power. Different kinds of fat
were also used from the reindeer. The fat that was boiled out of the hoofs
was considered to be extra good as medicine. For example, in small portions
it was given as a laxative for infants. The fat of the hoof was used as a
salve, just like the bear fat. Today we know that in Japan they use reindeer
antlers as an aphrodisiac. The Saami made bullion soup with reindeer antlers,
which was drunk in case of a bad cold. A special tendon from the back legs of
the reindeer was kept and used to tie around a hurting extremity as a remedy
In my notes I have registered over 120 different plants, which the Saami used
in their art of healing. Among the plants, it is especially angelica and
birch, which were used. Many different parts of these plants, from the root
to the seed, were used. The root of the angelica was dug up before it
flowered in the early summer. It was dried and used in many situations both
as a preventive remedy and as a cure for colds.
The dried angelica root is called "urtas" in Lule Saami. During the
market in Jokkmokk, many older Saami used to chew a bit of the angelica root
to avoid catching a cold. On long wanderings in the mountains, especially if
it was cold and rainy, the Saami would scrape a little bit of dried angelica
root into their coffee to avoid colds and other sicknesses. It was thought to
give new strength as well.
To provide emergency provisions on long outings the Saami often carried a bit
of reindeer cheese, a marrowbone and a bit of "urtas" inside their
tunic. Angelica leaves were put on sores and could also be smoked in a pipe
made from the plant's own hollow stem. To smoke angelica was something one
did even as a child, often at the tender age of six or seven. Older people
smoked angelica mixed with tobacco both as preventive remedy and as medicine
against cough. Angelica seeds were put into cognac and after a few weeks were
removed. This mixture was used as cough medicine, often dropped on a bit of
The spring birch sap was drunk as a preventive medicine for upcoming
sicknesses throughout the year. The sap was also good for different kinds of
rashes. Birch leaves could be put on a burn, and tea made from leaves was
said to purify the blood and be good for the kidneys. The inner, thin bark of
the birch was used as a band-aid. Many older people have told me how in their
youth that when they were injured while chopping down a tree, an older person
would then bandage the sore with birch bark until they could get to the
doctor. Birch bark is surprisingly free of bacteria and is said to stop
bleeding. It is also reputed as having healing properties. Birch leaves could
also be used to ease pain so that the part of the body, which was hurting,
was covered in fresh birch leaves. If the leaves were not fresh, water was
splashed on them and warmed. The sleeping place could be covered with leaves
and the sick person would be covered in this way throughout the night if, for
example, the person was suffering from rheumatic pain throughout the body.
Even the parasite fungi (polyporus and fungi) on the birch were used.
It was common to return to the place where the illness began in order to be
cured. If somebody got a rash from dirty water or mud, that person would
return and again put their hands in the water or mud. If people were injured
by a rock, they would place that part of the body that was hurt against the
part of the rock that caused the problem and would say: "Let the hurt
return to the rock. This method of "returning" or "putting
away" a hurt was used in many contexts. In case of a toothache, they
could use a birch splinter and then insert it into a crack in the birch. It
was believed that the toothache was transferred from the tooth to the
birch. (But the person who eventually chopped down the birch would then get a
toothache.) In the same way back pain could be rubbed away against a pine.
(Is this why so many lumberjacks have backaches?)
Pains of different kinds (toothaches, rheumatic aches, gout, etc) seem to be
the most common complaints, which were treated by folk medicine. There are
more remedies for pain than for other ailments. Saami folk medicine has
borrowed part of the Scandinavian and Finnish folk medicine. Cupping and
bloodletting as done in Sweden and Finland was also practised. The ability to
stop the flow of blood has a significantly greater spread than what is the
traditional Saami area. Staunching blood isn't limited to the Saami area.
Those who staunch blood are the most common kind of healers. A blood
stauncher is a person who can make bleeding stop.
Usually this power is passed on from an older relative to a younger.
Oftentimes the blood stauncher uses his mental power and some kind of formula
to stop the bleeding. The formula varies, but a common trait is that they
often refer to a biblical passage and end up with the Trinity. A common
formula could be like this:
As the water stopped
In the river of Jordan
In the three holy names
God the Father and Son
And the Holy Spirit."
There are examples of stopping the flow of blood from a great distance just
by a telephone call to the stauncher.
When people "burned tunder" they used the birch shelf fungus
(tinder) or birch bark. "Tunder" is an Old Norse word for tinder.
It was lit and placed on the skin at predetermined places depending upon
where the pain was located. It was to glow on the skin until there was a sore
from the burn. To "burn tunder" occurs also in Chinese acupuncture
as "moxa burning" but there they used the fuzz from mugwort leaves
(Artemisa Vulgaris). It is meant to heal or soothe. The idea is that the pain
runs out through the discharge. To maintain the discharge for a longer
period, a so-called "fontanelle" was made by attaching something
irritating in the burn, like a pea or a Daphne berry. Daphne is very strongly
irritating even on healthy skin. Recently it has been
discovered that the points that were burned are in agreement with the points
and meridians in classical Chinese acupuncture. A toothache led to a burn in
the angle between the thumb and the index finger. In acupuncture that is the
point to anaesthetize the oral cavity and pharynx. Linneus described
"tunder burning" during his journey to Lapland in 1732. It has
recently been shown that "tunder burning" has been used from the
Scandinavian Peninsula to the Kola Peninsular and Siberia and all the way
down to Mongolia and China.
As a medicine angelica has been carried from the northern areas to all of
Europe and was very highly appreciated from early medieval times. In Latin it
is called Angelica Archangelica. This means "angel archangel".
Tales recount that during the black plague in the medieval times the
Archangel Gabriel himself came holding angelica and gave it to people to show
what remedy should be taken for the plague.
At a later time (20th century) Saami folk medicine borrowed a lot from the
variety that the pharmacy offered: pepper, ginger, mercury, aloe and lysol
are some examples. Lazarol, Salubrin, different liniments, Campher drops,
Hoffman's drops, etc are some examples of such things people bought at the
pharmacy and then used in their folk medicine but not always for the
complaint the pharmacopoeia stated. Tobacco (often as snuff) was sometimes
used as a medicine, not just for people but also for the dog or reindeer if
they had some kind of sickness.
Some kinds of stones were special as healing agents. People carried stones
that came from special brooks fed by springs and used them to apply pressure
to the painful area or rub them over it. These stones were called
"healing stones" and often it was intuition that showed which stone
was the right one. When the stone had been used for some time it had to be
The stone was placed in running water, so that the water would wash away the
pain, which the stone had captured. There were also certain stones, which, by
carrying them, increased a woman's fertility. Mountain crystal was a powerful
stone. Certain places (often large boulders) were especially good to sit on
when healing a complaint. Some plants were used in food. It was said that it
was healthy to eat them along with milk. In this way food has provided folk
medicines based upon thousands of years of experience that have shown that if
one eats one or another food, he or she will not become ill or if ill will
1. Qvigstad, J. 1932; Steen, A. 1961;
Hultkrantz, Å. 1962-63 et al
2. Eriksson, Jörgen, I.1988 ”Saami Shamanism”; Eriksson, Jörgen 1992. “Blood staunchers
and laying on of hands.”
Translated by Tom Rutschman