Sami people | sleeping on a bed of glowing embers | Sapmi

When there were no makeshift or permanent dwellings nearby, the Sami hunters and herders sometimes slept under the open sky.
LA Dahlmann | talk NORWAY
Sami man and woman - feeding the dogs. Finnmark, Norway. Hand-coloured photo. | Photo: Alf Schrøder co - digitaltmuseum.no FBib.01005-052 - Public domain.
Sami man and woman - feeding the dogs. Finnmark, Norway. Hand-coloured photo. | Photo: Alf Schrøder co - Finnmark fylkesbibliotek cc pdm.

This is ancient Sami wisdom – passed on by Ola Omma – captured by Yngve Ryd –

An ancient Sami 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 final layer of embers must be some 15 centimetres in hight, and 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.

Recommended read
Sami people | the Coastal Sami and their homes | Sapmi

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 they must be prepared in advance and be ready to be spread out across the whole area immediately and in one go. If adding the twigs slowly and in sections only, 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 area of the person sleeping. 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.

The Sami people

  • The Sami is an ancient people of hunters, fishers and gatherers, particularly associated with the reindeer and reindeer hunting – and in more recent centuries also reindeer herding.
  • Historically, the Sami settled across the mid and northern parts of Norway and Sweden, in northern Finland, and on the Kola peninsula in north-western Russia. Sápmi is the name of the traditional Sami 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 11 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, more than ten thousand years ago.

Recommended read
Reindeer | an ancient presence in the Norwegian mountains

Main source: «Bål – samisk ildkunst» by Yngve Ryd – Dreyers Forlag 2018.

Glowing embers. | Photo: dederer - adobe stock - copyright.
Glowing embers. | Photo: dederer – adobe stock – copyright.

Our most recent posts

My Norwegian heritage

The majestic Norwegian mountains can be treacherous - and they steal human lives every year. Study the Norwegian mountain code - and be prepared for your next journey.
Our foremothers were hardworking and inventive. Here you can read more about how the laundry was done on a Norwegian mountain farm in the late 1800s.
It is said that all people are equal in Heaven. But the historical churchyard shows us that no such equality applied here on Earth.
On the historical Norwegian farm, winter feed for the domesticated animals was a precious resource. Sometimes it was harvested and temporarily stored far away from the farm.
Oslo is the capital city of Norway. It was founded in AD 1048 by the Viking king Harald Hardråde. Historically, the city is also known as Christiania or Kristiania.
The Norwegian farm horse was a reliable and powerful companion. But by the late 1960s, they were almost all gone. Enjoy this video-collection of wonderful vintage photographs.
The Norwegians rarely allow alien species into their fauna. With one notable exception, the muskox - first welcomed in from Greenland in 1924.
Queen Maud of Norway was born in London in 1869, as Princess Maud of Wales. Her grandmother was none other than the formidable Queen Victoria.
In 1935, Aslaug Engnæs published a guidance book on how to milk the cow.
From the early 1800s and well into the 1900s, Norway was a significant exporter of natural ice. But how did they prevent the ice from melting?
In the year AD 1537, King Christian 3 of Denmark-Norway embraced the Lutheran Reformation, and the Norwegians went from being Catholics to Protestants. The king confiscated the Catholic Church’s considerable wealth, a welcomed addition to the royal coffers. Norway more or less ceased to exist as a sovereign state and became a province under Denmark.
Lystring is a Norwegian verb that means catching fish or other water creatures in the dark, using a fire torch to attract the fish and a multi-pronged spear.
The first Norwegian Buhund breed-standard came in 1926, based on a dog that had evolved, lived, and worked with the Norwegians since time immemorial.
A kjenge is a drinking bowl used in the old Norwegian farming society – usually with two handles - carved and hollowed out from one piece of wood.
17 May 1814 is regarded as the birth of the modern-day Norwegian state. But it took almost another hundred years before the Norwegians could declare complete independence.
Carl Fredrik Sundt-Hansen created this fascinating oil painting in 1904. It is like a window leading into the house of history. If only we could climb through.
After the Black Death, it took the Norwegian communities centuries to recover. And soon, the country also lost its independence.
Bondegård is a Norwegian noun that means farm. In informal speech and in many dialects, people only use the single word gård or gard.
The word ski comes from the Old Norse language, with the meaning cleft wood. The old Norwegians were master hunters, and have been skiing for over 5000 years.
Skibladner is one of the world's oldest paddle steamers still in regular service. She was launched in 1856, and sails on Norway's largest lake, Mjøsa.
The Fjord horse is one of today’s oldest and purest horse breeds. Its historical habitat is Norway's western coast, with its deep fjords and steep mountainsides.

Follow us on social media

Norwegian history