Seitas, sacred places of the indigenous Sámi people, have become subjects of renewed interest
Archaeologists excavate bones of sacrificial animals from the vicinity of sites; the Ukonkivi seita has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
By Jussi Konttinen in Inari, Finnish Lapland
The low rays of the sun caress the rough surface of a strange stone arrangement on the shore of Inari Lake in Sápmi, or Finnish Lapland.
In the shallow water sits a boulder, on top of which rests the Päällyskivi (“Top Stone”), the shape of which resembles the head of an elk. The top stone is supported by three smaller stones.
“Everything suggests that this is a seita", says Inari Sámi seita expert Ilmari Mattus, while observing the construction.
“An old tale that even embraces Christianity supports the notion. According to the tale Päivän Olavi (Olavi of the Day), a famous seita destroyer, would have snatched the rock here.”
Seitas, or the old sacred places of the Sámi people, have become the subject of renewed interest. The name varies, depending on the local Sámi dialect, and the places are also known as sieidis or Storjunkare.
The Academy of Finland is funding a four-year research project, in connection with which six seitas have already been examined. The archaeologists from the University of Oulu have performed small-scale excavations in the vicinity of the seitas.
The studies have already produced some results.
“Based on radiocarbon dating, the oldest findings have been dated back to the 12th century”, says archaeologist Tiina Äikäs.
Next to most of the examined sacred places the bones of animals, such as reindeer, goats, sheep, or various types of bird and fish species have been located.
Animal offerings were presented to seitas in hopes for better luck with fishing or hunting. Sometimes such proceedings included brushing the stone with blood or fat.
This summer season the excavations will continue in Termisvaara in the far northern municipality of Enontekiö. Divers will start exploring the seitas surrounded by water.
Most known seitas are unusually shaped stones. At one time Christian priests destroyed seitas, but the indigenous Sámi people themselves are also known to have taken them apart, if they have not been propitious.
Behind Inari Lake’s Päällyskivi seita rises the Ukonsaari Island, or Äijih in Sámi, the holiest of the holy places for the Inari Sámi people, The name refers to the highest-ranked of the gods.
A previously unknown seita was discovered on Ukonsaari when the Oulu archaeologists combed through it in 2007.
“It is a stone with a face resembling that of an angry animal. From a nearby hole more than 400 bones were discovered, many of which had been burned. The oldest of them according to dating was the humerus of a swan”, explains Ilmari Mattus.
Another known Äijih is located on Inari Lake closer to the village of Inari itself. It is a peculiarly shaped high island, where there is a sacrificial cave.
Even though the island was already examined in the 19th century, there, too, new discoveries have been made in connection with the recent year’s excavations.
The island has been put forward as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But how do the present Sámi people view their seitas?
Are the old sacrificial sites perchance still in use today?
“Nobody would admit that they worship nature gods. But I do believe such practices still exist”, says Ilmari Mattus.
In Finland, around 50 seitas have been registered as historic relics, but in reality there are many more.
Some of the sacred places are known only to locals, who do not wish to tell their precise whereabouts.
“A few wooden seitas, so-called keropää seitas, also still exist. I cannot reveal where they are, for I have been told about them in confidence”, says archaeologist Eija Ojanlatva.
“This is a typical problem a researcher can run into. An archaeologist should strictly speaking inform the National Board of Antiquities of his or her findings.”
In the ongoing projects only seitas that are publicly known have been studied. The bones that have been collected for closer analysis will be returned later.
In the future the seita studies may be broadened in such a way that sacrificial places are sought based on hints from place-names.
Some of the Sámi people take a reserved stand on the studies.
"One should ask what the benefit of this study is. The Sámi community should first hold an internal dialogue on the subject. When information is entered into a registry by the National Board of Antiquities this speaks volumes of how the situation is not under the control of the Sámi people”, says former chairman of the Sami Council Pauliina Feodoroff.
Feodoroff’s personal opinion is that the sacred portion of what is considered "cultural heritage" should be off-limits to outsiders.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.6.2010
Sámi Shamanism - Sieidis (Wikipedia)
JUSSI KONTTINEN / Helsingin Sanomat