The old religion of the Sami is based on an animistic
interpretation of life in which humans and nature were closely
connected, inasmuch as all life, animate and inanimate, was held to
possess a soul. It was important to stay on good terms with the
powers of nature, and sacrifices to obtain good luck were made at
sacred seid stones. Like the religions of other northern
peoples, the Sami religion had a shamanistic form in which the
noaide was the religious leader. The noaide
mediated contact with the world of the spirits.
In present-day Sør-Varanger there are two groups of Sami:
East Sami and North Sami. The East Sami have inhabited the area for
the greatest length of time. The North Sami are the descendants of
the Sami who came to the area from the mid-1700s. Some of them were
Sea Sami, or Nomadic or reindeer-herding Sami, and came from the
most northerly and easterly parts of the North Sami area, around
Tana and Varanger. The two groups had different languages, but
could nevertheless understand one another. The biggest difference
was in religion: the Sea Sami were Lutheran and the East Sami were
The East Sami came into contact with Christianity through the
Roman Catholic church during the period prior to the Reformation,
and via the Orthodox church in Russia. In the 1500s, the East Sami
came under the Russian ecclesiastical system and judicial system.
According to legend, the Russian monk Trifon christianised the East
Sami and built St. George’s Chapel in Neiden and the chapel
in Boris Gleb.
The Pasvik Sami were a religious people, and maintained the
rituals of the Russian-Orthodox church to the extent possible. Mass
is still held in St. George’s Chapel in Neiden.
- St. George’s Chapel. Norway’s smallest church
building stands in the “Skolte Sami town”, the old
communal lands of the East Sami in Neiden. The holy monk Trifon
built the little house of God, which was consecrated to St. George,
- Boris Gleb. Right over the border, on the Russian side, lies
Boris Gleb. There are clear indications that this area was
inhabited from at least the 1400s. The holy monk Trifon erected a
chapel here in 1565, which stood until 1944 when it was burned
down. In 1874 a new church was built, which still stands
- Trifon’s cave. Trifon is the apostle of the East Sami,
the monk who christianised and baptised the Sami of the Kola
Peninsula. Legend has it that Trifon rid the entire area at
Holmengrå of trolls and sea snakes which prevented boats from
sailing through the treacherous waters that surrounded the island.
On the return trip, Trifon held a service of devotion in the cave,
which has since become a sacred place.
Only sporadic attempts had been made to christianise the Sami
prior to the beginning of the 18th century, when the priest Thomas
von Westen carried out several major missions to the Sami areas.
The Sami mission led to a decisive break in continuity in the
centuries-long Sami religious tradition, which was forced
underground, if not forgotten. As opposed to the Russian-Orthodox
East Sami, the North Sami became Lutherans. In 1862 the Lutherans
in the municipality got their very first church when
Sør-Varanger Church was consecrated.
Churches as border markers
Politicians frequently pointed to the importance of marking
Norwegian sovereignty in the area. Churches and schools were
important partners in this task. In Sør-Varanger three
church buildings were erected which were intended not only to serve
ecclesiastical needs, but also to provide spiritual and physical
protection for the border to the north-east.
- King Oscar II’s Chapel was consecrated in 1869 and was
the result of the direct need to protect the border. After the
border was drawn in 1826, the new border lines were not well
respected, by Russian fishermen among others. The decision to
strengthen Norway’s position in the area with a highly
visible Lutheran church came with the realisation of the fact that
the Russian population were highly religious. In 1873 King Oscar
was on a visit to Finnmark and the chapel was named after him.
- Neiden Chapel, which was finished in 1902, with its building
style similar to a Norwegian stave church, marked Norwegian
authority in this area which had previously been Sami and which was
first incorporated in Norway in 1826. The background for the
building of the chapel was both the local people’s demands
for better conditions in which to worship and the
authorities’ ongoing policy of Norwegianisation.
- Svanvik Chapel was consecrated in 1934. With its unusual
design, built with round timber from the local area, the Chapel was
erected as a result of a local initiative, but also for border
policy reasons. The east side of the Pasvik river became Finnish in
1920, and the fear that Finland would gain control over all the
Finnish-speaking areas and make them part of a «Greater
Finland» was a contributory cause of the efforts to make
Sør-Varanger as Norwegian as possible.
Strand boarding school
The establishment of boarding schools was an initiative which
was part of the process of making Finnmark into a homogenous
Norwegian area. In Sør-Varanger people lived spread over
wide areas and it was therefore difficult to have a permanent
school in each district. Strand boarding school in the Langfjord
valley was built in 1905 and was a combined school and church. As
there was no church in the local area, one of the classrooms was
fitted out to enable it to be used for church services. A
churchyard was also established close to the school.
Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1861), who was the priest in
Karesuando in Sweden, initiated a revivalist movement which
gradually spread through large parts of Norway and Sweden and most
of Finland. For Læstadius, an extremely important cause was
the fight against alcohol. He also opposed all forms of unnecessary
finery and splendour, which he believed distracted people’s
attention from God. In Sør-Varanger, the revivalist movement
was initially concentrated around Bugøyfjord and
Bugøynes, but quickly spread further afield. By around 1885
most of the Finnish and Sami population had joined the movement,
while the Norwegian population to a great extent remained faithful
to the Church of Norway.
The church in Boris Gleb, consecrated on 23 August 1874.
(Photo: Wilse. Sør-Varanger Museum Collections)
Orthodox cross in Svanvik churchyard. (Photo: Ingar G
Henriksen, Sør-Varanger museum)
Consecration of Svanvik Chapel, 25 September 1934.
(Photo: Unknown. Sør-Varanger Museum
The chapel at Strand boarding school. (Photo: Ingar G
Henriksen, Sør-Varanger Museum)