The concept of the underworld is relevant in many different cultures, including Sami culture. Powerful female deity Jábmiidáhkka is known as the guardian of the Sami underworld, receiver of souls passed on and old woman of the dead. Jábmiidáhkka is one of the earliest Sami deities and what she is known for is still relevant in modern mythology.
Overview of Jábmiidáhkka
The Sami goddess Jábmiidáhkka is one of the earliest Sami goddesses and is also known as one of the most powerful. Jábmiidáhkka is associated with death, much different from the other popular Sami goddesses who are all about birth, life and protection. Jábmiidáhkka is the guardian of the underworld and could be compared to the Greek deity, Hades, who is the king of the underworld in Greek mythology, or Hel, the Mistress of the Underworld in Norse mythology. Jábmiidáhkka’s title and powers are unique to Sami society because Jábmiidáhkka is a female deity, which is not always the case in other cultures.
Jábmiidáhkka is known as guardian of the underworld, receiver of souls and taker of souls, old woman of the dead, or housekeeper of departed souls. Other iterations of her name include Jabbmeaaakka, Jabme-Akka, Jabmeakka, Jabmi-Akka, Yambe-Akka, Yambeakka.
Jábmiidáhkka was a powerful goddess who could use her powers to inflict disease and torment, so staying on her good side was important to the Sami people. Jábmiidáhkka received the Sami souls after they passed on and helped them transition into the underworld. Some sources say that Sami people believed that the spirits of the deceased would then live in the northern lights and stars. One source says that it is essential for the dead to be given a proper send off and to celebrate with beer before they reach Jábmiidáhkka. Birch bark shoes were common attire to be buried in—a staff if it was an old man, clothes and ornaments for a woman and more. If the deceased were not given their “rights” by Jábmiidáhkka, they might come back resentful and disturb the peace of the living.
Scandinavian mythology introduced the idea of the deceased living underground after they passed. Many cultures and mythology then adapted that idea, notably the Greek mythological idea of the underworld.
Sami people believed that their underworld was in a bottomless lake or the mouth of a river. There were places in the Sami community that were deemed sacred because they thought those were the homes of the dead. Sami believed that their deceased ancestors took an active role in the lives of the living, so Jábmiidáhkka protected and received these souls to continue to take a role in Sami culture after death.
One source notes that early Sami beliefs thought human spirits occupied the physical world and the underworld, which Jábmiidáhkka is the guardian of. They also believed there was another spiritual world that became a home to a pantheon of gods and “lesser” souls. The concept of the underworld in Sami culture then changed with the introduction of Christianity.
In Sami shamanism, the generalized female spirit is called akka. Máttaráhkká is thought of as the first akka. Women and girls belong to here and her akka spirit, and boys do as well until they reach the point of manhood. Worshiping akka is common practice in forms of rituals, prayers and sacrifices. Jábmiidáhkka is part of the akka from the ending part of her name—”ahkka.” She is one of the many female spirits in Sami culture.
History of Sami mythology
Sami, also spelt Saami, is the population of people who inhabit the region of Sapmi, which is comprised of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The Sami people are descendants of nomadic communities who lived in northern Scandinavia for thousands of years. Reindeer herding, sheep herding, fishing and fur trapping are a few livelihoods the Sami are known for.
Before Christianity spread to the Sami people, they believed that there were two different types of souls: the free soul and the body soul. The free soul is the one that continued on to the afterlife and lived on, but the body soul was stagnant and died with the person.
Source: Swedish National Heritage Board
The Sami heavily believed in and relied on their ancestors’ souls, so they were treated with respect and great care. Proper burials and specifications, as mentioned earlier, were important, as well as regular prayers and offerings.
Traditional Sami religion and spiritual practices are considered to be animism—the belief that all naturalistic objects possess a soul. Examples can include rocks, plants, animals, and anything in the natural world. The Sami people took as much care with animal souls as they did with human souls. Prayers, offerings and rituals also applied to animals.
Burial sites of both humans and animals were kept private and were moved away from where the Sami people were stationed. Because of the cold and icy environment, some deceased people were wrapped inside sleds or wrapped inside hollow tree trunks.
Influences of other religions/cultures
The presence of Christainty in Sami culture was active during the Roman Catholic middle ages, but the 17th century is when Norway and Sweden colonized Sami and Christianity was a main focus. In the kingdom of Denmark-Norway, the practicing of Sami religion resulted in a death penalty, for it was thought of as witchcraft. A Chrisitan mission was enacted in the 17th century to convert the Sami people to Christianity. During this period, the Sami people practiced Christianity in public, but in private, still continued their Sami religion.
Before Christinaity, women in Sami culture had higher regards in society because they were seen as the primary caregiver of the family and the one responsible for the family’s survival. Jábmiidáhkka and the many other female deities contributed to the idea that Sami women were well-respected in society and were mainly equal to men, specifically with Jábmiidáhkka’s role as the ruler of the underworld and could be compared to Hades, who was a powerful and well-known male deity. Jábmiidáhkka could be more similarly connected to the Mistress of the Underworld in Norse mythology: Hel. Both Jábmiidáhkka and Hel are powerful female deities who are ruling the underworld, which is thought to be more male-oriented. However, once the ideas of Christianity reached the Sami people, this ideology changed.
Jábmiidáhkka, under the spelling Yambe-akka, was featured as the goddess of the death of witches in the novel trilogy, His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman. The novels were then adapted for television.
Although there is a lack of specific information on the Sami goddess Jábmiidáhkka, there is significance in her role as the guardian of the underworld, specifically as a female deity. Her role in Sami culture is vital, for she is the receiver of souls. The Sami people really valued their ancestors and the spirits that have passed on, so making sure the souls make it to the afterlife and the underworld was an important aspect of the Sami life cycle.