The Sámi drums are oval wooden frames (South Sámi gievrie) or bowls (North Sámi goavddis) covered with reindeer skin. The drumskins are decorated with characteristic patterns painted with a red colour obtained by chewing alder bark. Of the thousands once existing, only 71 drums have survived with their skins intact; with the designs of a few more are partially known from early modern drawings of variable accuracy.
The drums can be classified according to their construction and decoration styles. Though the exact place of origin is known only for a minority of the surviving drums, the distribution of each type seems to correspond so closely to the territory of a distinct Sámi language (if the now extinct Kemi Sámi language is included), that the terms used for the languages may with some caution also be applied to the drum types.
The map shows the recent historical distribution of the Sámi languages with the current number of speakers in parentheses. The icons show the main characteristics of the corresponding drum types and the number of surviving drums. Written sources confirm that drums also existed in eastern Sámi areas other than Kemi, but none survive and neither their construction types nor their design styles are known.
The Sámi languages can be organised into a language tree, but their relation is perhaps better described as a continuum where neighbouring dialects usually are mutually intelligible. Similarly, the drum types can be grouped into larger categories, though with the same inherent problem – no matter which characteristic is chosen to define a group, its boundary will also separate drums with other shared features. Further, the terms generally used for such categories are also used for branches of the language tree without necessarily matching these precisely.
|No sun cross||
|Undivided field||Divided field|
The diagram to the right suggests two obvious alternatives in
categorisation: either pairwise in rows, giving a northern, an
Circle and a southern category, or – intuitively less useful
– in columns giving eastern and western categories consisting of a
single type each and a central category with four. However, in spite of
the clear similarities in the decoration both between the South Sámi drums
and the neighbouring Ume Sámi ones and between the Kemi Sámi drums and the
North Sámi ones, the latter categorisation is probably the better one for
two reasons. First, most features shared by Lule and Pite Sámi drums are
also common to Ume and North Sámi ones, so the suggested
Circle category would be defined by negative criteria
(lacking a central sun cross; having no more than two
horizontally separated fields). Second, the three columns closely
correspond to different construction types.
There are two major types of
construction: frame drums, where the skin is stretched over
cylinder made of bent wood stiffened by a crossbar also
functioning as a handle, and bowl drums with a rounded body
made from a single piece of wood, with two elongated holes in the bottom
forming a grip. Both types had developed before any of the surviving
drums were made, but the bowl drum is typologically a later development,
via a subtype of frame drums with an inward flange on the bottom rim of
In the normal frame drums, the body is made from a thin band of wood
bent into an oval. This type is similar to the Siberian shaman drums, the
Irish Bodhrán and several other drums from around the world. With four
minor exceptions, this subtype corresponds to the South Sámi decoration
style, though it must have been the original type in all areas. The
exceptions are two bowl drums with South Sámi decoration and one frame
drum with Ume Sámi decoration – all three with somewhat transitional
features in the decoration as well – and finally a very late South
Sámi drum with partially
degenerate decoration style where the
frame-shaped body uniquely is carved from a large piece of wood like the
Characterised by a central sun cross (missing on a single
drum) and an unbroken path around the edge, and by the absence of
horizontal lines separating the field in separate compartments as in all
other styles. Individual figures are commonly placed on the arms of the
sun-cross, on the outer path or
floating between these. Smaller
straight or moderately curved paths forming the baseline for further
figures might be
floating or branching off from the outer path, the
sun cross or each other.
The sun-cross is normally shaped as a lozenge with arms protruding in all cardinal directions. This feature seldom strays from the center along the horixontal axis, but is often placed markedly below the exact center, and more rarely above.
The terminal of the lower arm is often embellished, in many cases with
a sort of (cave?) opening. This is according to old descriptions the
starting position for the brass ring or antler piece placed on the
drumskin when used for divination. The only other figures commonly found
on this arm are the
holy day men. These three figures (sometimes
just one or two) are usually the most simplified of all human figures,
frequently represented by simple crosses.
The upper terminal is also often embellished, but in different ways than the lower. A common type is a short crossbar forming a baseline path for one or more figures in an upright position. Otherwise, no significant preference for the orientation of individual figures can be seen.
Drawings that do not resemble any surviving authentic drums.
Characterised by a horizontal line dividing the drum in a smaller upper
and a larger lower field. Very often, three or more gods are standing on
this line, while a reindeer
floats above them. A few other figures
might also be
floating in this area, and structures (possibly
representing dwellings) are often attached to the outer edge of the top
It is the use of the lower field that distinguish between the four subtypes within this category. Ume Sámi drums here have a sun cross like the neighbouring South Sámi ones. The Pite Sámi designs instead have a central vertical dividing line, so that the drums are divided into three fields of roughly equal size. The Lule Sámi drums again have a representation of the sun centrally placed in the lower field, but here it is circular rather than cross-shaped. The North Sámi drums have a second horizontal line spanning the entire width, so that the field is divided into three rows of roughly equal size. A single North Sámi drum sometimes considered a subtype of its own (the only one from Finnmark) has both the upper and the central field further divided by horizontal lines, making five rows (even more if partial lines are also counted).
Though probably an over-simplification, the upper field seems to represent the realm of the gods in all types, with the realm of men below. The underworld is represented as a separate lower row on the North Sámi drums, while on the other ones this is a more limited region on the lower part of the outer edge.
Drawings that do not resemble any surviving authentic drums.
The two surviving Kemi Sámi drums have the two horizontal lines in
common with the North Sámi ones, but differ from these in numerous ways.
flanged frame drums, they are significantly larger –
actually the largest of the frame drums. Their size allows for an
enclosing border which is frequently missing on the smaller bowl drums,
and both this and the horizontal lines are drawn with double lines with
ornamentation between them. An unique feature shared by these two drums
alone is that both the border and the horizontal lines are interrupted
where they intersect the central vertical axis (which is otherwise not
indicated in any way).
The oldest known description of a Sámi drum and its use is found
in the late twelfth century Historia
Norwegiæ, where it is described as
a small vessel;
sieve-shaped and filled with various small figures: whales, reindeer
with harness and skis, even a small boat with oars; presumably a
frame drum like the later South Sámi type.
The Pite Sámi Anders Huitlok’s drawing and interpretation of his own drum from c. 1645; the oldest known interpretation of a drum of which a drawing is preserved.
Drawing and description of a surviving Ume Sámi drum and an account of its oracular use by Ole Worm, published in 1655.
Description and interpretation of a lost Lule Sámi drum recorded by Samuel Rheen in 1671, including an account of several different uses of the drum.
Drawing and interpretation of Anund Eriksson’s Pite Sámi drum in Johannes Schefferus’ Lapponia from 1673.
Drawing and interpretation of a lost Pite or Lule Sámi drum in Lapponia.
A c. 1688 interpretation of a still extant South Sámi drum attributed to Olaus Stephani Graan.
Anders Paulsen‘s interpretation of his own still extant North Sámi drum, confiscated in 1691.
Drawing and interpretation of Jon Lassen’s Ume Sámi drum, made c. 1712, as recorded in Johan Randulf’s so-called Nærøy manuscript from 1723, based on the testimony of Sjur Larsen who drew the drum and Jon Lassen, its maker and owner.
Bendik Andersen Frøyningsfjell’s c. 1725 interpretation of his own still extant South Sámi drum inherited through four generations.
Drawing and interpretation of a lost South Sámi drum by Hans Skanke around 1731.
Description and interpretation of a lost Lule Sámi drum by Peter Schnitler around 1745.
I have also transcribed some chapters of The History of Lapland, the 1674 English translation of Lapponia; including the chapter Of the magicall Ceremonies of the Laplanders dealing with the Sámi drums.