Sámi drums

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 hundreds – possibly thousands – once existing, only 71 drums have survived with their skins intact; the designs of a few more are partially known from early modern drawings of variable accuracy.

Classification and geographical distribution

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.

Geographical distribution of languages and 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.

decoration styles
No gaps With gaps
3+ rows  

1–2 rows  
No sun cross  
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 Arctic 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 Arctic 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 a short 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 the body.

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 bowl drums.

Frame drums – mainly with South Sámi decoration style

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 of lost drums

Questionable drawings

Drawings that do not resemble any surviving authentic drums.

Bowl drums – mainly Ume, Pite, Lule and North Sámi decoration styles

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 field.

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 of lost drums

Questionable drawings

Drawings that do not resemble any surviving authentic drums.

Flanged frame drums – Kemi Sámi decoration style

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. Being 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).

Siberian shaman drums

Siberian shaman drums are the closest parallel to the Sámi ones. They share many basic traits: oval frame drums with schematical drawings of heavenly bodies, vegetation, animals, people and human habitations; sometimes divided into separate regions by horizontal or vertical lines.

Other possible parallels

The actual figures on the Sámi drums often bear a close resemblance to Scandinavian petroglyphs (rock art, no. helleristninger). However, these are thousands of years older than the drums, and are found over a larger area than what is believed ever to have been inhabited by Sámi people, thus making it hard to discern any explicit link.

Less similar, but on the other hand contemporary, are some forms of clog almanacs. Forms of these existed both in the Scandinavian-speaking parts of Norway and Sweden (no. primstaver, sv. runstavar), as well as in the Sámi area. These are wooden sticks (or in the case of the Sámi ones more often pieces of horn) with a notch for each day of the year, with ecclestially or agriculturally important days marked by symbols not entirely unlike those found on the Sámi drums. Though any similarities may be explained by similar physical constraints, some influence either way seems at least possible.

Early descriptions

More references to and excerpts from relevant material (in Norwegian) can be found on a web site on Sámi religion by Roald E. Kristiansen, Associate Professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø

Tor Gjerde <i@old.no>