Scandinavian Folklore and Folktales #4: Sami Folktales

This month’s folktales come from the book By the Fire – Sami Folktales and Legends collected and illustrated by Emilie Demant Hatt, translated, and with an Afterword, by Barbara Sjoholm.

In the book Demant Hatt explains:

This small book is called “by the fire” because everything here was told around the campfire. Fire is, after the reindeer, the best thing the Sami have. In the old days, fire was a power they made offerings to; they tried not to let it go out. They felt such a personal connection to the trees whose wood they burned, mostly birch and pine, that they chopped “eyes” in the firewood, so the pieces of wood “could see they were burning well.” There are still firm rules for how one should lay the firewood on the hearth stones, and if the rules about attending to the fire aren’t kept, people, at least the elders, believe that misfortune will follow. For the Sami, the fire is more than light and warmth: it is a “friend and comrade.” To be near it means to be secure. Home is where the fire burns.

Emilie Demant Hatt, 1910. Photo: Borg Mesch

The titles of some of the folk tales and folklore are intriguing in themselves:

  • The Old Woman Who Made Reindeer Herding Difficult
  • The Sami Man Who Wanted His Dead Wife Back
  • How the Sami Got the Dog
  • Origins of Lice
  • The Sami Girls Who Created a Storm
  • Njavisjædne and Atsisjædne [Njavisjædne was a good person, but Atsisjædne wasn’t a good person at all – reminds me of the duo Goofus and Gallant from Highlights Magazine found in every dentist’s office everywhere!

But two short tales would be of specific interest to people in Minnesota since both are called the state’s bird: The Loon and How Mosquitos Came into the World.

Sami Working with Reindeer, 1943. Emilie Demant Hatt, Nordiska Museet

The Loon

The loon was angry with God because he didn’t give him red feet. The loon flew away, offended, but as it flew, God threw its legs after it. Thus the legs came to sit too far back, so the bird cannot walk. That is the reason it builds its nest so near the water, so it can just jump in. The loon was given its ugly, unpleasant voice as punishment for killing a human. It was a man who had set a snare for the loon and caught it. But when he wanted to take it out, the bird attacked him and stabbed his sharp beak into the man’s heart. Since then, the loon has had the man’s death shriek.

“The Loon,” was told by Margreta Bengtsson in Pite Sámi.  From By the Fire by Emilie Demant Hatt, translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Translation copyright 2019 by Barbara Sjoholm. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press.

[Pite Sámi is a Sámi language traditionally spoken in Sweden and Norway. It is a critically endangered language that has only about 25–50 native speakers left.]

Margreta Bengtsson (left) with her family, 1916 photo: EDH

How Mosquitos Came into the World

After God had created mosquitos, he stuffed all of them into a sack, and then he left them in the care of a Sámi woman. Eventually she grew so tired of hearing the constant buzzing of the mosquitos that in the end she couldn’t stop herself from letting a few out, just a very few, so that the buzzing would stop. But all the mosquitos flew out at her and flew everywhere and stung man and beast. She ran every which way to capture them in the sack again, but it was all in vain. The mosquitos spread around the world. Probably when God gave her the sack to take care of, he thought she would get sick of their buzzing and, sooner or later, let them out.

Jämtland Coat of Arms

“How Mosquitos Came into the World,” was told by Margreta Bengtsson at Jämtland.  From By the Fire by Emilie Demant Hatt, translated by Barbara Sjoholm. Translation copyright 2019 by Barbara Sjoholm. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press.

[Jämtland is a historical province in the centre of Sweden in northern Europe.  Historically, socially and politically Jämtland has been a special territory between Norway and Sweden. This in itself is symbolized in the province’s coat of arms where Jämtland, the silver moose, is threatened from the east and from the west.]


Ingebretsen’s carries many books and items associated with, and celebrate, the Sámi people. You can learn more about the Sámi people here: