The fourth song of Seiðr: Joiking

Joiking is also an important element of the Sami Grand Prix , an annual music competition modeled after the Eurovision Song Contest. This competition draws contestants from Norway, Sweden and Finland, with strong representation from minorities belonging to the Sami community. The traditional art form is significant in both the joik and song competition of the Grand Prix.

I was heavily influenced by the Sami people, as my mentor was a man named Ailo Gaup. He was actually a Core shamanic teacher as taught by Michael Harner, and during his lifetime tried to bring together the old Sami ways of doing sacred shamanic work (which, by the way, the Sami culture of shamanism was almost wiped out by Christian conversion) with the ‘new’ ways of approaching core shamanism. Ailo was much maligned for his innovation, but in many ways I feel he lead the way to a renewed interest and awaking of the Sami peoples shamanic heritage.

In keeping with the mindset of fearless experimentation to assist ancient reclamation, this post we will utilize the most powerful tools of the Sami to connect with the spirit world; joiking (and drumming).

By already seeing the use of the three ‘traditional’ Volva forms of ritual singing, (galdr and vardlökkur) we can now appreciate the power of the oldest of tools of Indo-Eouropean shamanism; which is both the sacred drum, and the most purest form of soul singing which is Sami joiking.

The joik, is a unique form of cultural expression for the Sami people, and can be understood as a style of singing that represents the Sami traditional culture itself.

Like the Sami people, the joik has been misunderstood, ridiculed, appropriated, and even threatened to be lost in annuls of antiquity when the Sami way of life was almost wiped of the map due to the Lutheran faith.

Joiking is a form of song which uses a type of scale and vocalization which is probably unfamiliar to virtually everyone in the Western (American and European) world.

Thankfully, although threatened by Christianity and modernization, the Sami traditional way of life has survived along with the powerful soul song known as the joik.

The resilient Sami have adjusted to new global and local circumstances and continue to endure. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure preservation of the joik in its traditional form. As a key element of the Sami culture, the joik is growing in recognition as well as cultural acceptance by the world as a valuable, unique, viable form of music.

Ursula Länsman of the Sami group Angelit defines the joik thusly:

“A joik is not merely a description; it attempts to capture its subject in its entirety: it’s like a holographic, multi-dimensional living image, a replica, not just a flat photograph or simple visual memory. It is not about something, it is that something. It does not begin and it does not end. A joik does not need to have words – its narrative is in its power, it can tell a life story in song. The singer can tell the story through words, melody, rhythm, expressions or gestures.” This description provides a good starting point for understanding the joik. The concepts of “music” and “song” in Western culture are not completely applicable to the joik. First and foremost, a joik is not a song in the sense that it is about something. Gaski explains the research of Ola Graff:

“The reference to the object of a joik is not something which someone may add to or leave out from the melody…the melody is closely connected to the referential object in an indissoluble relationship. Linguistically this is expressed through the fact that one does not joik about somebody or something, there is a direct connection; one joiks something or someone.”


What I have found as the significant differences between Western and Sami music relates to Sami songs sound and structure. The joik is almost exclusively vocal. A drum will accompany the voice, and occasionally a joiker will gradually increase the pitch of the melodic pattern as the joik continued. Those familiar with Western music, notes the heavy use of musical instruments which is NOT expected in the traditional joik. In fact, “the advent of accompanying instruments has made the gradual pitch changes impossible.” (Laitinen, Heikki -1994)

Another important distinction between the joik and the Western song, according to acclaimed multimedia Sami artist Nils-Aslak  Valkeapää, is that “the joik was never intended to be performed as art” (Valkeapää, cited in Krumhansl et al. 6). Meaning it is a song used for spiritual and religious reasons, not simply for entertain other listeners.

The joik both historically and today has a sacred purpose : it can serve as a tool for community building sharing memories, (for a single family or within a Tribe as a whole), and “for personal self-expression, to calm the reindeer or frighten the wolves, or even to transport one between worlds” (Krumhansl et al. 6).

As stated above; the third notable distinction between Western song and the joik involves form.

Ánde Somby, a noted Sami and scholar and joiker, describes the differences in form between Western song and the Sami joik tradition:

“The regular concept of a western European song is that it has a start, a middle and an ending. In that sense, a song will have a linear structure. A joik seems to start and stop suddenly. It hasn’t a start or neither an ending. Joik is definitively not a line, but it is perhaps a kind of circle. Joik is not a circle that would have Euclidian symmetry although it has maybe a depth-symmetry. That emphasizes that if you were asking for the start or the ending of a joik, your question would be a moot point.”

In ending, the structure of a joik thus follows the Sami worldview of “No beginning, no end”. The Sami see the world as following the circular patterns of nature; and this is reflected in the depth-symmetry of this prominent form of cultural expression via song.




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