Contemporary Shamanisms in Norway

Religion, Entrepreneurship, and Politics

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Trude Fonneland
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sámi shamanism has become, in recent years, one of the main tourist attractions in Norway. Thousands of domestic and foreign tourists visit northern Norway to attend ceremonies and workshops conducted by Sámi shamans, participate in festivals such as Isogaisa (organized yearly since 2010 in the county of Lavangen), and even stay in hotels (such as the Polmaknoen Guesthouse in Tana) especially created to cater to shaman-seeking clientele. Yet before the 1980s, there were no Sámi shamans in Norway, and they had most probably disappeared more than two hundred years before. How a tradition of Sámi shamanism was reinvented in northern Norway is the subject of Trude Fonneland’s book, Contemporary Shamanisms in Norway. It is an extraordinary story, and Fonneland tells it in a scholarly, yet entertaining way.

Although shamanism is in itself a contested category, there surely were shamans, in the most generally accepted and broader sense of the term, in Norway before the 17th century. Between 1650 and 1750, however, state-supported Lutheran missionaries “managed to disrupt traditional Sámi religion…through persecution and punishment of people who used ritual drums (goavddis), through collection and destruction of ritual drums, destruction of sacred sites, and building of churches” (33). Nothing was left, except some traditional folk healing practices. That the old Sámi religion survived hidden within the enthusiastic Lutheran revivalist movement called Laestadianism seems to be a claim of very recent origins. The theory, advanced by contemporary followers of neo-shamanism, is somewhat similar to the one, famously advanced by Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863–1963), and rejected by academic historians, that the old Roman religion survived hidden within medieval witchcraft. Fonneland, however, does not mention Murray, nor does she explain to non-Norwegian readers what the Laestadian movement was all about.

It would seem safest to conclude that the old Sámi shamanistic religion did not survive Christian repression. Its present revival would not have happened, Fonneland tells us, without the international activities of anthropologist-turned-New-Age-guru Michael Harner, well known for his theory that a “core shamanism” exists in similar forms in all native cultures, and for his efforts to revive or recreate shamanism in areas of the world from which it had disappeared. Harner visited Norway twice in the early 1980s, and persuaded local healers that they should call themselves “shamans.” Later, in 1986, Harner trained Ailo Gaup (1944–2014), “the founder of the Norwegian shamanic movement” (27), in California. Gaup was the teacher of most of the shamans featured in Fonneland’s book.

Gaup was a Sámi by birth, but when he was seven years old he was given up for adoption to a non-Sámi foster family. Only at age 29, when he was working as a journalist, did he begin a quest for his Sámi heritage. He did not find any practitioner of the old religion, but met a Chilean political exile who initiated him into Mapuche and African shamanism, an experience that persuaded Gaup he needed training from Harner. Upon his return back home from California, Gaup established in Oslo the Saivo Shaman School. In its first period, “the Norwegian shamanic movement was more or less a copy of the system developed by Harner in the United States” (29). In the 21st century, however, references to Harner were largely dropped, and shamanism was presented as the old and traditional Sámi religion so successfully that it was recognized as such in 2012 by the Norwegian government, establishing itself as the Shamanistic Association, headquartered in Tromsø.

A surprising part of Fonneland’s story is that Norwegian neo-shamanism met with comparatively little opposition. Yes, a Lutheran priest tried to perpetuate the ancient Christian repressive patterns by asking that shamanism be prohibited because of its evocation of “evil powers” (140). Certain academics, most of them foreigners, denounced neo-shamanism as invented and very much different from what genuine shamanism might have been before Christianization. And a small number of Sámi resented the commercialization of rituals that, if anything, should have been kept secret and reserved for initiates. Others decried the fact that some of the new shamans were in fact not ethnically Sámi, an objection countered with the convenient recourse to reincarnation: shamans who did not have Sámi blood claimed to have been Sámi in previous lives. However, these oppositions were both limited and unsuccessful.

Fonneland devotes a chapter to Esther Utsi, the “spiritual entrepreneur” who created the Polmaknoen Guesthouse and was instrumental in attracting Norwegian New Agers to shamanism. “Perhaps the single most interesting ingredient of Esther’s business,” Fonneland notes, “is the more or less complete lack of criticism typically granted to spiritual entrepreneurs promoting New Age values.… Esther, in sharp contrast to her New Age colleagues, has established herself as a media darling and a local hero” (190). One reason for these developments is the collective guilt of the Norwegians for past mistreatment of the Sámi. Fonneland emphasizes the importance of the protests in 1978–79 against the damming of the Alta-Kautokeino river, which flooded Sámi ancestral land. The protests were not successful, but Norwegian politics took on a deep sense of guilt, which later led to official apologies to the Sámi and laws protecting and supporting their traditional culture.

Another reason why the shamanic revival is rarely denounced as non-genuine is the prevalence—including in the governmental reviews of shamanism that led to its recognition as a religion and to the official support of the Isogaisa festival—of a postmodernist point of view that dismisses the whole issue of authenticity as what scholar of Western esotericism Egil Asprem identifies as a “fallacy” (46). In order to criticize invented traditions as inauthentic copies, we should know what the “authentic original” looked like, and we don’t. Fonneland adopts this same point of view, which is certainly useful in avoiding value judgements and with which, as a sociologist, I sympathize. Whether it is a modern manifestation of an old religion or it was invented on the basis of the theories of Michael Harner, certainly neo-shamanism seems to “work” both for its practitioners and devotees and for promoting reconciliation between Sámi and other Norwegians after centuries of discrimination and mistrust. This certainly makes the academic study of contemporary Norwegian shamanism a worthy enterprise, and Fonneland’s well-written and fascinating book a welcome addition to a growing literature on Nordic new religious movements and global neo-shamanism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and managing director at CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Trude Fonneland is professor at the department of culture studies, Tromsø University Museum at the University of Tromsø, the Arctic University of Norway. Her research interests revolve around contemporary religion in society, particularly Sámi shamanism, tourism, and popular culture.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.