An extant Ume Sámi drum, described by Ole Worm in 1655

The Danish antiquarian Ole Worm (1588–1654) assembled a great collection of natural and man-made artifacts in his Museum Wormianum, including a still surviving Ume Sámi drum. He made a catalogue of its contents which was published by his son the year after his death, containing both a woodcut illustration of the drum with its hammer and pointer, and a short description of its use as an oracle.

This is both the oldest record of a surviving drum, the first published image of a drum and the first recorded account of the oracular use of Sámi drums. Johannes Schefferus quoted the description in his Lapponia in 1673, but did not reproduce the image of the drum.

No provenance is known for the drum, but from its design it must be assumed that it came from the Ume Sámi area, and since it ended up in Denmark most likely from its western (Norwegian) part. Its hammer and pointer have become separated from the drum and are most likely lost, as no obvious matches can be found among unprovenanced exemplars in Danish collections.

The illustration on page 386 showing the drum flanked by its pointer and hammer, not all to the same scale

As the drum still survives, one should not expect the drawing of its design should be of particular interest. However, there are discrepancies between the woodcut and the precise tracing made by Ernst Manker for the second volume of his monumental monograph on the drums, published in 1950. The parts that correspond make it abundantly clear that it is the same drum, and that the woodcut is somewhat distorted. The strange thing is that among the differences, there are several instances where the woodcut corresponds to details from later drums that Worm could not have been aware of, and which therefore must be assumed to have been visible on the drum in his time but are now worn away. The most striking parallel is Jon Lassen’s Ume Sámi drum from c. 1712, confiscated by Thomas von Westen ten years later and described by Johan Randulf in the so-called Nærøy manuscript in the following year.

The drumskin design isolated and turned upright (center), flanked by Ernst Manker’s tracing of the drum (left) and the drawing of Jon Lassen’s drum from Thomas von Westen’s diary (right)

Several features are present on both the woodcut and on Lassen’s drum, but not on the tracing. This includes the ristbalges, the vertical line to the right of the central sun motif, with a church and domesticated animals of the Christian people (Norwegians or Swedes). To the lower left of the sun is a lake with fish in it, further left there is a bear with the characteristic dots in front, and further down an arc with short strokes rises from the outer band, in the Nærøy manuscript interpreted as the dwellings of the Sámi. These parallels suggest that the group of humanoid figures at the bottom of the woodcut but too badly preserved to be interpretable in the tracing probably were meant as an akka group.

Given the close parallels, the tracing might in the opposite direction shed light on a peculiar detail on Lassen’s drum: on von Westens’s crude drawing, the three holy day men on the sun motif are drawn with wings, unlike on every surviving drum or credible drawing. In the tracing, the corresponding figures hold what look like trees with outward-facing branches, which could easily be misinterpreted as wings by a prejudiced observer.

The description

Tympanum lapponicum, quoad modulos pulſato varia explorant & magiam ſuam exercent, ex ligno conſtat ovali, excavato, pedali longitudine, decem unciatum latitudine, cui ſex inſculpta foramina, & manubrium, qui commode ſiniſtrâ teneri poſſit, dum dextrâ pulſatur. Annectitur ei nervis quibuſdam membrana, variis & ineptis figuris ſparſim ſanguine aut rubicundo colore pictis exornata. Huic adeſt æneum corpus Rhomboides, convexum paululum, in Diametro duarum circiter unciarum, in ſingulis angulis & in medio catenulâ æneâ onuſtum. Bapſile ſeu inſtrumentum oſſeum, quo tympanum pulſatur, ſex uncias longum, craſſitie minimi digiti, figurâ literam T. Latinorum repræſentat. Cum quæſtionem inſtituunt, æneum illud corpus tympano imponunt, inſtrumento oſſeo dextrâ pulſant & ſtrenue cantant, tum rhombus hic æneus hinc inde ſaltat. Sed, finitâ cantione & pulſatione, in figurâ quieſcit, quæ rem indicat, quam quærunt.

Notes on the translation

The text has easily corrected errors such as unciatum for unciarum, but the non-word bapsile has no obvious meaning. When Schefferus quoted this section eighteen years later, he altered it to the equally meaningless baptile, and in the English translation of this work from the following year, the term is silently omitted. The closest Latin word is dapsile, abundant or abundantly, but this would not make sense here. From the context, it looks as if it is meant as a term for the hammer, although no similar Sámi term lies close at hand, and it is very unlikely that Worm had access to any Sámi language source. I have therefore left it untranslated as if it was intended as a word from another language. Further, I could not make complete sense of the first subordinate clause, so I used the 1674 English translation of Schefferus’ work as a guide for this part.

The Sámi drum, by the beating of which they investigate different things and perform their magic, is made of a hollowed out oval piece of wood a foot long and ten inches wide, in which is carved six holes and a handle suitable for being held in the left hand while being beaten with the right hand. Tied to this with sinew is a skin, decorated with scattered diverse and unseemly figures painted in blood or a reddish pigment. On this is a rhombic brass object, somewhat domed, about two inches in diameter, with a small brass chain hung from each corner and the middle. The bapsile, a bone tool with which the drum is beaten, six inches long and as thick as the little finger, is shaped like the Latin letter ‘T’. When they set up an inquiry, they place that brass object upon the drum, beating with the bone tool in the right hand and singing strenuously, which causes the brass rhombus to dance. But when the singing and beating have been finished, it rests on a figure; the thing it indicates is what they inquire.

Comments on the content

The brief text gives almost no information about the meaning of the symbols. From their description as ineptis, that is “inappropriate” rather than “unskillful” as in the modern English loan of this word, it is perhaps possible to draw the inferrence that Worm understood that the drawings were at least partially of a pagan religious nature. Further, the oracular use presupposes that the users of the drum would have to know what each figure signified, as the one the pointer ended its movement one represented the answer to the inquiry. Although the only use explicitly described is as an oracle, read in context of other documented uses, the first subordinate clause seems to also point at information gathering (investigate different things) and causing effects in the real world (perform their magic).

The physical description is not bad. The stated width of ten inches must be said to be correct both in Roman inches and in the somewhat longer Danish ones of the period, as the width Manker recorded is between these two, and not far from either. As the length is given as a foot rather than the more precise equivalent of twelve inches, this seems acceptable even though the real length is closer to fifteen inches. For the wording six holes and a handle to be precise, one would have to include four more ornamental holes at part of the handle, and not only the two large oblong ones.

Photo of the underside of the drum by Ernst Manker.

Finally, the description of the use of the drum as an oracle is remarkably precise despite its brevity. It takes note of which hand the drum is held in and which holds the hammer, and that the beating is accompanied by joiking (singing strenuously). Further, it covers the placement of the pointer and the peculiar fact that the beating makes it “dance” around, as well as the importance of the position of the pointer with regards to the symbols on the drumskin.