In the Finnish Lapland, discover reindeer, their herders — the Sami, and find how myths and rituals resonate with common themes across cultures and continents.
Will I return to this part of the Arctic as a reindeer in my next birth? I smile silently at the mental image. But to my host, dressed up just then as a serious, magic-chanting wiseman, a shamam, it may not be even a question worth asking. The answer being a clear “yes” — if you happen to believe in the spirits of the wild, in nature worship and in the religion of the Sami, that diminishing, now-protected tribe of Tundra dwellers that inhabit the northern most edges of Europe.
I am at a reindeer farm, a little off Rovaniemi, a charming, mesmerizing town on the Arctic circle in the Finnish Lapland. We are going off on a reindeer safari in an old, wooden sledge, pulled by one of Rudolf's brethren. This, after all, is Santa Claus' official hometown, the place where you can meet our man in red any day of the year at his workshop in the Santa Claus village. But as we arrive at this farm, traversing a frozen lake and trees laden with snow, I am going to discover yet another facet of this fascinating region so far away from our tropical climes… and yet so strangely close.
A belief in reincarnation is not the only thing that may unite some of the ethnic inhabitants of Lapland (who despite the pervasive Lutheran Church continue to hold their religion of Nature close to their hearts) with those from the Eastern hemisphere where Buddhists and Hindus believe much the same. Of the 84,000 births (as animals and plants) one must take before being born human, surely, it is possible to exist as a reindeer (!) I wonder idly.
But if you are looking for cultural similarities, there is also the Kalevala, the Finnish epic with slight Vedic resonances.
Crossing the Arctic Circle (that runs through this farm) is a magical feat: It is supposed to imbue you with youth and longevity. But first, we, the southerners, need to be cleansed. The “shaman” holds a knife, literally to my neck, mock puncturing it to let out the bad blood, and then anoints me with some soot. I now have the reindeer mark on my brow, as well as some magic in my blood! In my next birth, I am, I am told, destined to be a reindeer in this snowy winter wonderland. Perhaps, I should be a rare silver one.
Reindeer and the Sami are, of course, inextricably linked. If there are hundreds of words for “snow” — to describe its texture, colour, even age, there are almost as many to describe “reindeer” in the dialects (the Sami language is Finno-Ugric but has several local variations because the tribe has historically been nomadic, moving across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia without distinguishing international boundaries ). Though there are just about 50,000 Sami people today — often fighting for political and cultural rights in the different countries they live in — if and when you do meet a family of herders, etiquette demands that you don't ask after the number of reindeer they own. It's almost as obscene as asking about one's salary or money in the bank.
Intermarriages, a dilution of traditional livelihood patterns and modern economics mean that few of the Sami are really reindeer herders anymore. Many, in fact, may just be in the thriving “tourism” beat. But those who are make viable use of the animal — everything from the prized and expensive reindeer meat to its hide and antlers go towards restaurants, craft and fashion.
Back in Rovaniemi, we go to the wonderful home and studio of Ari Kangasniemi and his wife Irene, both Lappish (inhabitants of Lapland; though Ari is also Sami), both superb artists. The couple runs a company called Kangasniemi Hornworks, which uses local materials — wood, reindeer hide and antlers — to make beautiful, unique works of craft.
You can, if you choose, learn to make your own wooden Kuksa, a Lappish cup for coffee or water, that is valued as a very individualistic article (you cannot share it with anyone else and you must first wash it with some alcohol before you start drinking out of it). You can make decorative knick knacks. Or, you can make your own jewellery from reindeer antler — which is what I do. Later, because I like what she is wearing, Irene marks out a couple of symbols (rather like the Runes) on the beads. I have chosen “Aurora” or morning, the mystical “Moon” and “Happiness”, in pursuit of which each of us must spend our lives, as my three personal talismans.
The Arktikum Museum in this town is where you need to be headed to discover more about the region: About life, natural habitats, history, customs and cultures of the people living north of the Arctic Circle. It is late afternoon when we reach there and gasp in surprise at the stunning architecture. The museum, with its high glass walls that shimmer on a bright day almost as coldly as ice, is as much worth looking at from the outside as inside. There is a section on the Sami, among other things, showing off their traditional attire, craft, jewellery, weapons and fur and also giving us a chance to listen to some jojk music, an improvised style of folk singing, that is now being refashioned into modern day Finnish pop and rock.
On clear nights in this part of the world, particularly this year, you may just get to see the famous Northern Lights, or the aurora borealis, mysterious workings of charged polar particles that produce those spectacular fireworks in the sky. We don't get to see them this time. But a video of it at Arktikum (you lie down to watch it projected on the roof) is perhaps just as good. According to local lore, the lightwork happens in the sky when the spirits of ancestors play something akin to football. Who is to dispute that?