While conflicts did occur, there were also periods of trade, cultural exchange, and mutual respect between these two diverse groups. 

Societal evolutions 

The traditional history states that the Viking Age started with a devastating raid on the English island of Lindisfarne in 793

However, the societies that produced the Vikings, who terrorized Europe and its surroundings well into the 11th century, evolved from earlier cultures over thousands of years. 

Whilst Viking warriors first emerged in the latter half of the 8th century abroad, at home, in Scandinavia, the societies that produced these warriors had been slowly evolving from earlier Germanic societies for much of the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 – 700). 

It is challenging to cleanly separate the ending of this age from the start of the next, but historians have now concluded that several raids in the latter half of the 8th century, one in Estonia and one in England, probably signaled the dawn of this new Viking Age. 

However, the people from Viking societies were not alone in this region of the world. They had northern neighbors who had inhabited the region for millennia: the Sámi. 

The map shows the traditional Sámi territory across Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. Red areas signify over 25,000 speakers of Sámi languages, yellow 2,000, green 600, and blue 400. Source: Eurogeographics (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Sámi: The neighbours of the North 

The Sámi people (also spelled Sami or Saami) are the indigenous people of the northern region of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as the Kola Peninsula in Russia

Their traditional lands, known as Sápmi, have been inhabited for thousands of years, long before the first Viking raid ever occurred. 

The Sámi have adapted to this environment for centuries; thousands still inhabit the modern nation-states of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia. 

They are skilled hunters, fishers, and herders, striving to live in harmonious balance with the harsh climatic conditions beyond the Arctic Circle. 

We do not know when the first encounters occurred between people from Viking societies and the Sámi. 

By the beginning of the Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100), a burgeoning population led to the expansion of Viking societies, not only outward across the North Sea but also northward into the Sápmi. 

This northern encouragement by people from Viking societies led them into direct contact with the Sámi. Soon, these two groups would form a mutually beneficial relationship. 

Proficient in Arctic survival, including trapping, hunting, and fishing, the Sámi secured valuable commodities like furs, skins, and fish, which the Norse highly valued. Photo: V. Belov / Shutterstock 

Networks of trade 

One of the great injustices of Viking history is the disproportionate focus on bloodshed and violence, while little credit is given to them for laying the economic foundations of trade networks that still endure today. 

People from Viking societies were the great entrepreneurs of the early medieval period, and it should be no surprise that trade dominated one of the most frequent interactions between the two groups. 

The Sámi were masters of survival in the harsh Arctic environment, excelling in activities such as trapping, hunting, and fishing. 

Their expertise in these areas allowed them to procure valuable commodities such as furs, skins, and fish, which were highly sought after by the Norse. 

Furs were prized for their warmth and durability, making them valuable commodities in the colder regions where people in Viking societies resided. 

In addition to goods, animals themselves were also traded. There are tales of bears being kept as common pets, and a polar bear was even given to a medieval English king. 

Birds of prey, especially falcons, were prized possessions for elites across Europe. 

In exchange for these goods, people in Viking societies offered a variety of items either forged themselves or obtained through their extensive trading networks across Europe and its surroundings. 

These goods included metalwork, such as weapons, tools, and jewelry, crafted by skilled artisans in Viking communities. 

Textiles, another essential commodity, ranged from everyday clothing to intricately woven fabrics (used for sails) and decorative purposes. 

Additionally, luxury items such as glassware, pottery, and exotic spices were acquired through trade with distant lands, further enriching the exchange between the Vikings and the Sámi. 

Coinciding with the lucrative exchange of goods between the two groups was another exchange, one of ideas, knowledge, and beliefs. This cultural exchange left a lasting imprint on both groups. 

These traditional Sámi knives are showcased at Arktikum, a museum and science center located in Rovaniemi, Finland. Photo: Fanny Schertzer (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Viking technological innovation 

A significant aspect of cultural exchange was the sharing of technological innovation and craftsmanship. 

People in Viking societies were renowned for their metalworking skills, producing intricate weapons, tools, and jewelry that showcased their craftsmanship and artistry. 

Through trade with the Sámi, these metalworking techniques may have been introduced to the indigenous peoples of the north. 

Furthermore, there is evidence of motifs in Sámi rock art and artifacts that have been influenced by Viking artistic elements

Sámi artisans could have adopted and adapted these techniques, incorporating them into their own traditional crafts and artistic expressions. 

This exchange elevated the quality of Sámi craftsmanship and enriched their cultural heritage by integrating new methods and styles from southern Scandinavia, Europe, and beyond. 

Sámi climatic adaptation techniques 

Conversely, the Sámi deeply understood the Arctic environment and developed sophisticated hunting, trapping, and survival techniques over generations. 

These indigenous skills and knowledge may have been shared through trade with the Vikings, providing invaluable insights into thriving in the harsh northern wilderness. 

People in Viking societies, accustomed to the milder climates of southern Scandinavia, would have benefitted from the expertise of the Sámi in navigating the rugged terrain, hunting game, and exploiting natural resources. 

By adopting and adapting Sámi techniques, people from Viking societies were better equipped to survive and prosper in their northern settlements. 

Sámi religion, influenced by early contacts with Vikings, shares elements with Norse mythology, exemplified by their worship of Thor until the 18th century, according to ethnographers. Photo: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Religious exchange and influence 

This cultural exchange also extended to spirituality, including the two groups' religious beliefs, rituals, and folklore. 

Both groups possessed rich spiritual traditions rooted in animism and shamanism, which may have overlapped and influenced one another through their interactions. 

Ritual objects, symbols, and myths exchanged through trade would have contributed to the syncretism of beliefs, leading to the emergence of shared cultural practices and syncretic religious expression. 

The Old Norse religion of people in Viking societies was most influenced by this exchange of ideas, as later medieval accounts of this "pagan" religion suggested it contained elements of animistic shamanism. 

Archeology never lies 

The archeological record seems to back up the fact that contact between the two groups was mostly peaceful. 

Excavations have uncovered Viking-era artifacts in Sámi settlements, suggesting the presence of trade and cultural exchange. 

Some of these artifacts include jewelry, tools, and weapons, indicating a level of interaction between these two Scandinavian neighbors. 

However, their relationship was not entirely peaceful. 

From the early medieval period onwards, due to Viking societies encroaching on traditional Sámi lands, there was undoubtedly societal and cultural tension, occasionally boiling over into violence. 

As people from Viking societies expanded outwards into the world, more goods and human capital were needed to trade. 

It should not be forgotten that a huge segment of the economic foundation of Viking societies was underpinned by slave labor

We can assume, but will never know the exact figure, that many Sámi were forced into servitude for their Viking overlords or shipped off to be sold at the many slave markets around Europe where Vikings sold human flesh, including Dublin

An image from around 1900 shows a Sámi family posing in front of their traditional tent called a lavvu, made of wooden poles covered in reindeer hides or canvas, in Norway. Photo: Unknown author (Public domain)

A friendship... for the times 

At The Viking Herald, we prioritize presenting history's cold, hard truth, even when it means acknowledging the absence of happy endings. 

Whilst there was a degree of cooperation between the Norse and the Sámi, it was rooted in pragmatism rather than ideology. 

The early medieval period was characterized by lawlessness and violence, with people from Viking societies perpetrating untold horrors of mass violence, rape, and forced servitude, as did many pre-modern societies (and even some modern ones). 

Likewise, the Sámi undoubtedly resorted to violence when they deemed it necessary, particularly against the pesky southern Scandinavians encroaching on a region they had inhabited for centuries. 

The relationship between people from Viking societies and the Sámi during the early medieval period was relatively peaceful, especially considering the widespread violence of the time. 

While it may not have reached the level of friendship, there were periods of cooperation and mutual respect between the two groups. 

For more information on the relationship between the Sámi and Vikings, you can visit the EPOCH website here

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