There’s more. But first, let’s clear something up: there’s no such thing as a Sami Shaman. The Sami are one of many indigenous, reindeer-herding peoples that stretch in a band across the great expanse of the northern hemisphere. Each tribe has its own name for what we now ubiquitously call “shaman.” The Sámi shaman is called a noaidi. The word refers to a person who practices shamanism and has the ability to “listen in behind all things.”
Before he stabbed me in the heart, he taught me the story of how the Great White Reindeer travels across the southern horizon at the winter solstice, retrieves the life-giving sun between her antlers and carries it back to the world so that all creatures may jump up and live again. He told me how the reindeer sacrificed her own heart to implant at the center of creation and it is her heartbeat that pulses life into all creatures. She is the sustainer of all life. She is the rescuer, the ressurrector, of life from the forces of anti-life as symbolized by frozen, dark winter.
These images of the reindeer are so beautiful to me, and though I’m not a reindeer herder of the arctic north, I seem to know this Spirit helper.
In our culture, the Christmas reindeer are all male, and the lead reindeer is a funny little guy with a nose that lights up. I believe the ancient Northern European indigenous image of the Spirit carrying the sun back between her antlers sunk down into the western collective unconscious, and it re-emerged, filtered through the patriarchal lens, to become Rudolf with his red nose, who saves Christmas.
For 12 years I’ve guided a Winter Solstice ceremony in which hundreds of people come to drum together and make merry (what I call “Spiritual Wahoo”), and to hear about the reindeer Spirit. Then I offer them an opportunity, if they want to take it, to enter sacred time and space, to descend into a deep visionary state and ask the Reindeer Spirit for a blessing. I do this shamanic ceremony because the Reindeer asked me to help undo the shrinking force that has been perpetrated on her by the industrial-machine-mind story of Rudolf, the little boy reindeer who helps Santa, the CEO of the northern toy factory manned by low-paid non-unionized workers, stay on deadline for his mass production schedule.
Our story of Santa is the epitome of industrial culture shrinking down a profoundly healing otherworldly story in order to support our hyper-consumerist Christmas season. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman calls this substituting “more” for “beyond.”
The Sami Noadi, whose name was Ailo Gaup, a short, dark haired, round-faced impish man who spoke soft English with a thick Norwegian accent, stabbed me in the heart after dancing in a circle around me and chanting a gruff melody for 15 minutes. He stabbed me in the heart with his reindeer antler and a vision of the Great White Reindeer burst open in me. She became one of my spirit guides. Since then she has helped me heal and bless clients and groups. And she asks me to dance with her once per year and tell her story to anyone who will listen. So I have, for 12 years, so far.
The Sami’s relationship to the reindeer is as profound, I think, as the relationship between the plains Indians and the buffalo. In a landscape where it is barren and frozen for half the year, the reindeer keep the people alive. She offers her body as food, and provides muscle power to pull a sleigh. Her hides provide clothing, her antlers tools. The reindeer is the sacred life force, the blessing given to us by the creator, embodied in fur, bones and blood.
In the far north where the winter sun dips below the southern horizon and darkness covers the land for weeks on end, the winter solstice is only few moments long. But day after day the sun, the source of life that calls the crops out of the ground, and the milk into the animals, creeps up a little farther above the southern horizon. That’s the great white reindeer carrying the sun back from the underworld.
Ailo told us a story of how the creator of all placed a beating reindeer heart at the center of creation. Of all the creatures, she is the one who volunteered to give her own heart to bring creation alive. It is that mothering heart, pumping warm life-force-blood throughout the world, which keeps everything alive. The image here is not that different from the idea of “God’s steadfast love” found in the biblical tradition. Except that it’s female, and inside everything, and everyone gets the blessing, instead of male and standing off in the distance witnessing his marvelous work, and judging who is naughty and who is nice, and giving the blessing only to the obedient ones.
The reindeer heart beating at the heart of creation is also a similar image that Christians apply at advent and Christmas to the Christ child—that incredibly powerful idea (and so silly to the rational mind) that the creator cares for our wellbeing and so implants the power of love into the foundation of reality, and we can draw on that power - we can direct it up into us, and out of us, to make our lives better, or to help make someone else’s life better, or to just make it through our day in this whirling storm of daily life.
Reindeer mate in the autumn, and male reindeer shed their antlers at mating time. That’s a very good idea when you imagine two beasts with horns like tree branches spreading out for six feet in all directions getting into the holly jolly joy of the rutting season. The higher the level of testosterone in the reindeer, the sooner the antlers fall off. So at solstice time, any reindeers with antlers are going to female.
When I first learned this about female reindeer and the antlers, it turned my mind around about our own Santa story. Santa and the reindeer are not an all-male team as we have been told. Santa is the Great Goddess’s delivery boy. There’s more: In industrial western culture, Mrs. Clause apparently does nothing but knit socks and make cookie for the elves. But I think she may be another suppressed image of the great Reindeer Spirit, who repairs our wounds (knits the socks) and brings us joyful nourishment (the cookies).
This is why, for me, my annual Winter Solstice Blessing ceremony culminates with a group of shamanically trained “reindeer spirits” delivering a blessing to each audience member while I dance under a reindeer hide while holding two immense antlers. The Reindeer delivers the real gift we seek: the resurrection from whatever darkness has taken us, the return of the lost life force. She delivers what we really seek: not “pretty presents,” but “Beautiful Presence.”
A few years ago The Reindeer gave me this song. It’s modelled roughly after the poetic structure of the Finnish Kalevala, an ancient epic mythic poem. If you want to, you can insert the word “She” at the beginning of each phrase to make it a little more rational.
Moves the dark wind through the sky bones.
Flows the silence from the unknown.
Flickers fire in the cold hearth.
Drums the thunder under earth.
Breathes the light into the star room.
Weaves the ice on winter’s tree loom.
Calls the soul back from the deep dark.
Aims the antler to the heart.
About Jaime Meyer:
Jaime Meyer’s eclectic background includes earning a Masters' Degree in theology and the arts from United Seminary of the Twin Cities and studies with a variety of shamanic teachers. His book Drumming The Soul Awake is an often funny and touching account of his journey to become an urban shamanic healer. Since 2001 he has led popular group drumming events around the Twin Cities including 12 years of sold-out Winter Solstice ceremonies that draw hundreds of people. Twenty of his plays have been produced in various cities across the USA. He co-founded the first theatre in the world for the Hmong community (a refugee population from Laos and Vietnam) and managed it for ten years, mentoring dozens of writers and scores of actors, and playing to 200,000 Hmong and non-Hmong people in various cities, including in refugee camps in Thailand. Since 1983 Meyer has studied cross-cultural shamanism, mysticism and the spiritual uses of drumming from many cultures. Among others, he has studied with Jose and Lena Stevens, Ailo Gaup, Martin Prechtel and Sandra Ingerman. He has also completed a two-year Celtic shamanism training with Tom Cowan. He is a member of the board of directors of the Society of Shamanic Practitioners.