Ancient Sami wisdom – passed on by Ola Omma – captured by Yngve Ryd –
For millennia, the Sami people have followed the migrating reindeer through the mountainous Nordic landscape. When there were no makeshift or permanent dwellings nearby, the hunters and herders sometimes slept under the open sky. The weather was often unpredictable and icy cold – and people needed ways to stay warm and dry.
An ancient method to keep warm during particularly cold nights was to sleep on a bed of hot, glowing embers. This was, however, not an undertaking without danger.
Warning! Sleeping on glowing embers can be highly dangerous and is not for the inexperienced.
Only the alpine willow will do
For this particular purpose, only fresh alpine willow – a woody shrub – will do as fuel. Old Sami wisdom says that glowing embers from the freshly cut willow stay evenly warm for a whole night and a whole day.
When the time came to rest, the hunters looked for a large willow thicket – a råhto in the Lule Sami language. Towards the centre of the thicket, they cut away enough willow to create a sufficiently large sleeping spot – but no more. Here, the willow can be as tall as a man. The remaining wall of shrubs gave protection from the wind.
The initial big fire and the subsequent bed of glowing embers require a large number of thick willow branches – and take more than a couple of hours to prepare. The layer of embers – at the end, some 15 centimetres high – must cover the entire width and length of the sleeping area.
When the fire starts burning out, fine ash is created, covering and protecting the glowing embers. It is essential to leave the cover of ash intact – and not to poke around with a stick as the fire dies down.
Building a mattress of twigs
The next step of the process is to cover the ember bed with an ample three-layer thick mattress of fresh, slim, and straight willow twigs – the twigs being about 25-30 centimetres long. It is crucial that they are freshly cut and not dry – and prepared in advance and ready to be spread out across the whole area immediately and in one go. If adding the twigs slowly and in sections, air and wind may lead to flames flaring up, and they will start burning.
The twigs are gently laid down so as not to disturb the ash – with all the twigs pointing in the same direction – and with the longer side facing the wind. The layer should be particularly thick around the sides – and stretched a bit outside the edge of the bed of embers – interwoven and dense so that the wind does not get access. The mattress must be as windproof as possible. The concept is to get the underlying embers to glow all through the night, without too much oxygen finding its way in – based on the same principle as a charcoal kiln.
A good night’s sleep
When the bed was ready, a reindeer calfskin was often put on top. The skin didn’t cover the full length of the body – but at least the back. The knapsack was the pillow – and an extra piece of clothing or canvas the cover.
It should be noted that it is important to sleep on one’s back, with the face out into the open air. Toxic fumes from the embers may otherwise pose a risk.
The old Sami hunters often had a dog with them, tied to either their leg or around the chest. Should the willow twigs catch fire during the night, the dog would likely wake its owner when trying to get away.
Preparing a bed of embers was hard work – but it gave a pleasant and warm night’s sleep – under the mighty sky – in the freezing Nordic winter.
Read more about Norwegian history in The Norwegian reindeer | and the Norwegians
Main source: «Bål – samisk ildkunst» by Yngve Ryd – Dreyers Forlag 2018.
The Sami is an ancient people of hunters and gatherers, particularly associated with the reindeer and reindeer hunting – and in more recent centuries also reindeer herding. Historically, the Sami settled across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and in north-west Russia.
Sápmi is the name of the Sami’s traditional territory.
Today’s overall population is estimated at between 80,000 and 115,000, with the majority living in Norway and Sweden.
In Norway, around 3,000 people are currently actively working with the traditional reindeer herding.
Throughout Sápmi, there are 10 different Sami sub-languages.
The traditional Sami way of life is a fascinating gateway into the earliest Nordic civilisations, as they evolved after the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago.