The Sami, formerly known as Lapps, are an indigenous population who occupy today the northern fringes of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia.
The various Sami languages all belong to the Finno-Ugrian family, with linguistic connections to Finnish, Estonian and various languages in northern Russia (Figure 1). The Sami number today about 100,000 people, and we think of them as occupying the sub-Arctic fringes of nations that extend further south. The archaeological evidence, on the other hand, suggests that in the past the cultural links of the Sami people were mainly to the east, with Finns and other related peoples in northern Russia.
Rock art in Fenno-Scandinavia can be divided into northern ‘hunter’s art’ and southern ‘farmer’s art’ styles. The distribution of rock art sites shows that ‘hunter’s art’ is found not only in the area where Sami people live today but also across a much more extensive area settled in earlier times by the ancestors of the Sami (Figure 2). The rock art takes various forms, including polished carvings, pecked engravings and paintings made with red ochre. Very often the rock art is found in sites that are associated with water, for example springs, waterfalls, rivers and close to the sea. The commonest motifs are zoomorphs (often elks and reindeer), boats, and anthropomorphs. In this article I will suggest that many of these rock art motifs are direct or indirect representations of the Mother Earth deity known to the Sami as Máttaráhkká.
Máttaráhkká within the Sami cosmos
Who is Máttaráhkká and what is her place in the Sami cosmos, or world view?
We can attempt to represent in visual form the Sami world-view, using a range of historical sources (Figure 3). As with other northern Eurasian peoples, for the Sami the cosmos consisted of upper, middle and lower worlds. The Upper World was associated with the South, with warmth and life, and with the colour white. It was the domain of both the Sun (always female gendered) and the Earth Mother figure (Máttaráhkká). The Middle World was the everyday world in which we live, associated with the colour red. People shared this world with special liminal creatures such as bears. Through sacrifices and rituals, humans were able to gain access to these other worlds.
In Sami myths, a River of Blood separates the Middle World from the Underworld. Across this river the souls of the dead must cross after death, while at birth new souls come back from the Underworld to the land of the living. Sinister diving creatures like otters, loons and seals can travel underwater to the Underworld, which has associations with the North, cold, the colour black, and with bubbling springs and deep caves.
What sources exist that can help us to establish the nature of the Sami Mother Earth (Máttaráhkká), and can these sources tell us how she might be depicted in rock art? There are five main sources of evidence:
the motifs that decorate shamans’ drums, and historical accounts of how these drums were used
Sami myths written down in the 1800s and early 1900s
zoomorphic and anthropomorphic depictions on traditional Sami dress, pendants, brooches and amulets, some of which survive in archaeological contexts
the rock art itself.
It is fair to say that the meaning of this rock art would be very obscure but for the clues that we can find from the other sources. It is the combination of these various forms of evidence that enables scholars to identify Máttaráhkká as the Mother Earth figure being referenced in certain of the rock art motifs.
An example of a place name that conveys meaning to the Sami is the mountain Áhkká in the Sarek range of northern Sweden. Even today Áhkká is regarded as a holy mountain with strong religious and mythical meanings connected to its name, which signifies that it is the abode of the Earth Mother deity Máttaráhkká (Figure 4).
The drums of the Shaman
Shamanic drums also provide a valuable source of insights into the Sami cosmos. The painted skins on the 70 drums that survive in museums and collections portray the world-views of the Sami peoples in the 1600s and 1700s, which was before the period of enforced Lutheran conversion. A three-layered cosmos is often depicted. We can also find images of Máttaráhkká’s three daughters – Juoksáhkká, Sáráhkká and Ukksáhkká. The three female deities are perhaps best seen as representing three different aspects of Máttaráhkká’s agency in the Middle World in which we live (Figure 5).
Máttaráhkká can also take other forms, all of them consistent with her Mother Earth role as the origin of life. In myths she is also Tjoarvveáhkká, the mythical reindeer cow. Historical accounts speak of the female Sun deity Beijvve, a synonym for the Earth Mother, and she is also depicted on some surviving drums. Máttaráhkká’s opposite manifestation in Sami belief was Jabmeáhkká, the mother of the Underworld.
Details from Sami shamanic drums depicting the three daughters of Máttaráhkká, from left to right Juoksáhkká, Sáráhkká and Uksáhkká and Sami Shama entering a trance while using the drum. Source: Manker 1938: 786.
Figure 5. Details from Sami shamanic drums depicting the three daughters of Máttaráhkká, from left to right Juoksáhkká, Sáráhkká and Uksáhkká and Sami Shama entering a trance while using the drum. Source: Manker 1938: 786.
Material representations of the Mother Earth symbol
In Sami myths the Earth Mother figure was transformed into a more material form. Here we find many stories about Mjandasj, the primordial Sami ancestor, who is actually half human and half reindeer and was conceived when his mother dallied with reindeer stags. We can see Mjandasj as equivalent to Máttaráhkká – both being seen as the ultimate origin of all life. The Russian scholar Vladimir Shumkin has interpreted a rock-art image from Kola peninsula as depicting the Earth Mother giving birth to Mjandasj (Figure 6).
Some of these beliefs found representation in items of Sami material culture. An example is the amulet of a reindeer calf excavated from Vidjavarri, a Sami sacrificial site in northern Sweden. At sites like this many votive objects as well as animal remains and silver coins were deposited in the period AD 800-1200. It seems very likely that this example depicts Mjandasj, the mythical Sami ancestor and son of the primordial Earth Mother (Figure 7). We see the same Mjandasj figure and images of the Sun in several items of traditional Sami dress and decoration. These motifs continued to be used until Modern times, but they can also be found in archaeological contexts dating back to the Viking Age.
Máttaráhkká’s eyes provide us with a key signifier that can help us to move from the evidence of place names and myths to material culture including rock art. In the myths and in early ethnographies Máttaráhkká is described as being able to see in the dark, to help lost people and to find lost objects. In the rock art and in some amulets we see a large rounded female figure with big staring eyes. This feature of Máttaráhkká is seen in rock art from Alta fjord and in carved bone amulets and images painted on rock surfaces in Varanger fjord, north Norway
One figure from Besov Nos in Karelia is particularly striking. It is a large anthropomorph carved on a rock surface close to the water, and emerging from a natural crack with staring eyes and outstretched arms and fingers. This figure has been interpreted by Enn Ernits as representing the Earth Mother Máttaráhkka. The Christian cross was later superimposed, perhaps to negate the lingering power of Máttaráhkka among the Karelian Sami people in medieval times (Figure 9).
We can see further clear depictions of Mother Earth symbols at Alta fjord in north Norway, which was first discovered in 1973 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is generally agreed this fjord was a meeting place between inland and coastal peoples and a place for various seasonal rituals which involved engraving the rocks with images, originally perhaps painted with red ochre. The thousands of images at Alta mostly show elk, reindeer, humans and boats. If, as I shall argue later, we can conflate mythical elks and reindeer with Máttaráhkká then many of these images are in fact indirect references to the Earth Mother and the origins of life.
In addition, however, there are certain anthropomorphic figures at Alta that may be very direct representations of Máttaráhkká herself. The complex of figures at Amtmannsness in Alta fjord seem to be referring to many different mythical persons and events (Figure 10). The large female figure has been interpreted by Kerstin Eidlitz Kuoljok as a depiction of Máttaráhkká giving birth to the half-reindeer, half-human mythical figure Mjandasj. The same panel shows a long meandering line that could be the River of Blood that features in the same origin myth.
Máttaráhkká at the Badjelánnda site
An even more recently discovered rock art site is Badjelánnda, which is located within the Laponia World Heritage Area in northern Sweden and is unusual in its mountain location (Figure 11). It is in the Arctic tundra zone at 700 m altitude and is only snow-free for four summer months. On smooth rock faces, wet with seeping water, we find scratched images of zoomorphs, anthropomorphs and boats. The unusual topography of the site, its south-facing cliff, and the water emerging from the rock all suggest a liminal place and a gateway to the Underworld. The Badjelánnda site also offered certain gifts of nature, namely outcrops of asbestos used in pottery making and soapstone for making fire-proof cooking vessels.
Once again it is easier to interpret the anthropomorphic figures if we consider the Sami world view and Sami ritual practices. The historical and ethnographic sources show that ritual and sacrifice always accompanied the taking of gifts from Nature. All the Badjelánnda images were probably made in autumn, when the site was snow-free and when herds of wild reindeer were available for hunting. Autumn was also the most likely time for visits to the site for asbestos and soapstone quarrying. We have archaeological evidence for all these activities at or near the site.
The superimposition of some of the figures at Badjelánnda suggest two periods of depiction (Figure 12). Shown in blue on the figure are depictions of sailing ships and associated humans, dated on stylistic grounds to the Viking Age or Early Medieval period. In red are earlier depictions, possibly contemporary with the Bronze Age images at Alta. These show rounded female anthropomorphs with outstretched arms and staring eyes. I believe that these early phase anthropomorphs may represent Máttaráhkká, an interpretation which matches the evidence for economic uses of the site (reindeer hunting, soapstone and asbestos quarrying) and is consistent also with the desire of those visiting this liminal place to acknowledge the role of the Earth Mother in making available these gifts of Nature. If Máttaráhkká was seen by the Sami as their primordial ancestor, then making images and token sacrifices at the site would have served to acknowledge this close relationship of reciprocity.
I have argued in this article that sound interpretation of rock art requires that we employ multiple sources of evidence. Meanings cannot emerge just from the rock art itself, based on our imagination. Instead, meanings should derive from complementary ethnographic, historical and linguistic evidence, such as place names, myths, drum motifs, votive objects, dress, jewellery and amulets.
In the case of the Sami, all these sources indicate clear evidence for the primary importance of Máttaráhkká. She was the ultimate origin of life and she had many alternative manifestations including her Underworld counterpart. She was the symbolic equivalent of the female Sun deity and she was also the mother of the primordial Sami ancestor hero Mjandasj. As historical and ethnographic sources show, in a range of everyday ritual contexts Máttaráhkká’s help was sought from one of her three daughters whose images so often feature on shamanic drums of the pre-Christian period.
New linguistic research suggests that at a deeper symbolic level the idea of Máttaráhkká may have been conflated with a mythical reindeer cow and elk cow. If this is true, then we may need to expand the Earth Mother explanation to encompass a wide range of northern rock-art motifs. The Swedish archaeologist Per Ramqvist has shown how widespread were female elk figures in the rock art traditions of north Eurasian peoples (Figure 13). All these peoples were dependent on the elk not merely for subsistence, but also as an animal that was, as it were, supremely ‘good to think with’. Perhaps for all northern peoples, symbolic Earth Mother concepts were of primary importance in the various ritual contexts in which rock art was produced, and were vital sources of meaning for other images in material culture such as amulets and drum motifs.