legend of Sulitjelma

The Shaman Family and the Legend of Sulitjelma

By Wenche Spjelkavik

The church and copper smelting works at Sulitjelma.
Photo credit: Sulitjelma Historical Society’s photo collection.

The legend of a Sami shaman’s prophecy of the creation and ruin of Sulitjelma is familiar not only to those who grew up in the mining town, but also to many from far away. In particular, many remember the prediction that if a spire were to be erected on the church tower, then Sulitjelma would “go under”. A spire was never put on the church and the legend remained alive. The name of the shaman, however, has been forgotten.

In the local narrative tradition, the legend of the future of Sulitjelma has been linked to a person, most often described as “a Sami”. The name of this person has not been widely known. The legend has been told as an event that really happened, and not a fictional story. It is unknown whether there are other stories and legends that have survived in the folklore of this area.

The survival of the legend

It is not unusual for a mining town to have a legend about how a Sami randomly found the ore, or about a reindeer bull that kicked away some moss and uncovered some precious metal. In Sulitjelma, the Sami was Mons Andreas Pedersen, who found the ore in about 1858. Older memoir material occasionally mentions the name “Jungen” for the Sami who gave Sulitjelma the legend of the church spire and the downfall of the village.

That the legend has remained alive in folklore until the present day is not so strange. The fate of mining communities who live by producing metals is inextricably linked to international politics and stock exchange prices for currencies and metals, and thus to economic ups and downs. Political events on the world stage have certainly influenced life in this northern-Norwegian mining town. For example, the outbreak of the First World War brought with it an extraordinary increase in the prices of copper and pyrite. In 1915, the enormous profits realised by the mining company became obvious to everyone when the railway was extended by 10 km from Hellarmo and into the smelting works in Fagerli. A brand-new workers’ housing area with architect-designed homes was also constructed in Glastunes. By November 1918, however, the war was over, and the market for those products suddenly evaporated. The 1,545 workers faced massive lay-offs. By October the following year, only 420 workers remained.[i] After such dramatic changes, the legend was surely recalled and refreshed by those who had been affected. People experienced similar sudden upheavals in the mining and economic situation almost every decade, until the mine in Sulitjelma was shut down in 1991. Consequently, there have been many situations where workers have brought up the legend of the Sami who had a vision of the building and downfall of Sulitjelma. The identity of the soothsayer was forgotten, along with when this “vision” was supposed to have taken place. This article aims to attempt to shed new light on both the prediction and the shaman.

The Church and the mining company’s relationship with the prediction.

Johannes Aanderaa came to Sulitjelma as a resident curate in 1915. After two years in the mining town, he wrote an account of the place: They say that about 60–70 years ago, a clairvoyant fjellfinn (Mountain Sami) stood on Sulitjelmatoppen and looked out over the Sulitjelma Valley, […] down to the hills with the lush, green grass and luxuriant forest, which had been his permanent station for many years. There was an excellent pasture for reindeer, and there were plenty of fish in the rivers and grouse up in the woods. And there he ruled, mostly alone. However, as he stands there and looks out over his kingdom, a strange sensation runs through him; he becomes psychic and sees into the future: Large boats with no oars or sails steaming up Lake Langvatnet. The forest disappears, and great houses are erected along the lake. Places where there used to be reindeer paths are teeming with people. They dig into the mountains and retrieve an expensive metal. Everything is changed, and bustling prosperity prevails. A church is also built, but when the church spire is raised, everything will have reached its peak. From then on, the village begins its decline. With certain variations, this is how people retell the vision of the future supposedly seen by a fjellfinn, long before copper deposits were discovered here.[ii]

The Sulitjelma church was completed in 1899. The priest Aanderaa wrote that the church had, remarkably, been built in such a exposed location that no one dared build the church tower as high as was originally intended. The tower was shortened by four metres, and, among the people, this has been interpreted as being due to the legend. Aanderaa does not mention that the church had a cross on the tower and not a spire.[iii]

The church was consecrated with great fanfare, but not without the prediction casting its long shadow among the parishioners. Olaf Amundsen, the parish priest in Skjerstad, had written the text for a cantata that was performed at the consecration. The director of the mining company, Emil Knudsen, had composed the music and was himself the soloist. And, in one of the verses, Knudsen sang:

An ancient legend runs along the mountainsides, and spreads across these villages,

That gone forever are the times of ore, when a house of God is built in this place.[iv]

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[i] Sulitjelma Aktiebolaget, Annual Report for 1920–21, page 2.

[ii] Kaldskap. Johannes Aanderaa. “Fra Sulitjelma”. Printed in the Tromsø Diocese Yearbook 1917. http://www.sulisavisa.no/historielag/Bibliotk/fra_Sul.htm

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Spjelkavik, Wenche. 1999.