Sweden: the spiritual magic of ‘joiking’

We have all experienced moments of beauty in our lives. One of mine is something I experienced on a trip to the North of Sweden in an town called Hemavan.

The resort we stayed at had a restaurant at the bottom of a ski slope. One day when we were in there, a Sami man climbed up onto the small stage and began to sing an enchanting song. He was dressed in traditional blue and red Sami dress, and through the large windows behind him we could see reindeer high up in the snowy landscape.

It is a beautiful, serene image that is forever etched in my mind.

A contributing factor to the impact this had on me is how the man was singing. In fact, he wasn’t singing, he was ‘joiking ’. What, you might wonder, is joiking ?

Joiking is not a song as such, but a melodic sound that is integral to Sami culture. It is used to express relationships to people and nature. Traditionally, joiks have no lyrics, consisting of chanting, not unlike that found in some Northern American Indigenous cultures. They can also include mimicry of animal sounds.

Like in the restaurant, joiks are often performed for entertainment. However, they can also have a spiritual function. In past times, a noaidi (Sami shaman) could perform joik whilst beating on a Sami drum with bones to contact the spiritual world.

In Sami culture, most people are given their own melody, like a signature tune. This leads to the Sami saying that they are “joiking someone” rather than “joiking about someone”. Most joik melodies are about people, but also animals and places can have their own joiks. Animal joiks are often about wolves, reindeer, or birds such as ducks.

During the Christianization of the Sami from the 1700s onwards, joiking was considered sinful and was banned. But it survived and today is included as a frequent part of Swedish cultural events. Most recently, a Sami artist was televised joiking in a celebration of Crown Princess Victoria’s birthday in July.

If you’d like to experience some traditional and modern joiking, check out the links below. You will be captured by its melancholy and immediately transported to the mountains and plains of northern Sweden.

After snaps cometh headache

This time of the year is the traditional crayfish party in Sweden. These small red crustaceans are usually eaten with Västerbottens cheese pie. Of course, crayfish parties don’t have to involve alcohol, but the traditional approach is to wash it all down with copious amounts of snaps and beer.

Throughout the years, I’ve been to my fair share of crayfish parties. I was at one last night. The bon ami, the snaps songs, the silly paper hats and the noisy, messy slurping make it, for me, one of the best festivities in the Swedish calendar.

One thing is certain though. The day after a crayfish party, one feels a little….delicate. After snaps cometh headache.

A snaps is a small glass of ‘burnt wine’ – or brännvin in Swedish. Brännvin is a spirit distilled from potatoes or grain with a high alcohol contented at least 37.5%. So it is not the same as a shot! It can be plain and colourless, or flavoured with herbs and spices. Brännvin includes vodka and akvavit, but akvavit is always flavoured with caraway and dill.

Brännvin has been in Sweden since around the late 1400’s and is an integral part of Swedish custom. It has been given many different names throughout history. Some synonyms are: ‘eldvatten’ (fire water), ‘jodlarsaft’ (yodel juice), ‘hojtarolja’ (shouting oil), ‘polarvätska’ (polar liquid), and ’spånken’ (originating in the Latin and Greek word for mushroom – spongia).

If you’re ever here, you should try it. But take it carefully!