This article is from the Nordic countries FAQ, by Antti Lahelma and Johan Olofsson, with numerous contributions by others.
Living of the nature has formed the original conceptions of the world
among Sami; the world view was animistic by nature, with shamanistic
features. They believed that all objects in the nature had a soul.
Therefore, everybody was expected to move quietly in the wilderness;
shouting and making disturbance was not allowed. This beautiful
concept still prevails among the Sami.
When speaking about beliefs I deliberately avoid using the word
"religion", because among Sami that word is strictly connected to
christianity - instead one should speak about "world of beliefs", or
about "a Sami mindset", however vague that may sound.
The Sami believed that alongside with the material world there was an
underworld, saivo, or (Jábmiid) áibmu, where everything was more whole
than in the material world and where the dead continued their lives.
Eastern Sami use the word duot ilbmi, "that air" (i.e. afterworld).
Important places had their divinities. Every force of nature had its
god and sources of livelihood were guarded by beings in spiritual
world which could be persuaded to be more favourable.
Stállu stories are known in all Sami cultures. Stállu was a large and
strong but simple humanlike being living in the forest, always
traveling with a dog, rahkka, and he could some times steal a young
Sami girl to become his wife. It is believed that stállu stories are
related to early contacts with Vikings.
Some people were capable to foretell future events, or fortune in
hunting etc. A person with this special gift could be 'called' and
accepted by the community as a noaidi (shaman). A noaidi was capable
of visiting the saivo and people from far away would come to him/her
for advice. For more demanding "trips" a noaidi sometimes used a
"magic drum", much in the similar way as the northern Siberian
In the forest you could find trees which resembled a human body, or
you could make one. These were called sieidde (in Finnish seita) and
they were worshipped. Also a strangely shaped stone or rock could be a
Christian missionaries and priests normally didn't understand these
Sami concepts, but regarded them as satanic. Sami people were
converted to Christianity by force and shamanic practices were
The disintegration of the hunter/gatherer culture and the transition
to other forms of occupation meant that the old world view had less
significance for the Sami, although at first the christian beliefs
were adopted alongside with the original beliefs. The "Sami apostle",
Norwegian Thomas von Westen (1682-1727) started public education among
the Sea Sami in Sami language. From 1773 on Sami language teaching was
forbidden and all teaching had to be in Danish until nineteenth
Lars Levi Laestadius (1800-1861) has had the strongest religious
influence on Sami people and his thoughts spread all over Sami region
although there is evidence that elements of the original religious
practices of the Sami were used as late as the 1940's. Characteristic
to Laestadius' ideas is the central significance of parish. This has
helped in preserving Sami culture.