December 2014 Book of the Month: The History of Lapland by John Scheffer (1674)

Scheffer's History of Lapland's title-page

Title-page of The History of Lapland: Fellows’ Library P.5.20 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The History of Lapland is the first anthropological publication from Oxford University Press. Written by a Swedish professor of law and rhetoric, it describes the beliefs, customs and artefacts of the Sámi people.

The study was commissioned by Sweden’s chancellor in response to rumours that Sámi witchcraft was responsible for Gustavus Adolphus’s victories in the Thirty Years War. Scheffer’s account reflects an interest in Sámi magic by describing the prophesying of shamans and depicting the drums which induced their trance states. The book also contains detailed illustrations of Sámi crafts, modes of travel and sacred sites. However, Scheffer never conducted fieldwork in Lapland himself. Instead, he relied on the testimony of missionaries and public officials.

Image of a shaman in a trance state: Fellows’ Library P.5.20 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Image of a shaman in a trance state: Fellows’ Library P.5.20 (© Jesus College, Oxford)

While Scheffer did not dispute their association with paganism and magic, his portrayal of the Sámi as charitable and peaceful people led to romanticised notions of their culture. This English translation was responsible for stimulating interest in Lapp love songs. Those published by Addison and Steele in the Spectator journal were indebted to Scheffer’s translations. Their versions in turn found their ways into the writings of notable poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Emma Jones (Library Assistant)

Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • Madan, Falconer, Oxford Books: A Bibliography of Printed Works relating to the University and City of Oxford, or Printed or Published There (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1895-1931), Vol. 3, p. 300, no. 3023.
  • Pentikäinen, Juha, ‘Central Asian and Northern European Shamanism’, in Patrick Curry (ed.) Divination: Perspectives for a New Millennium (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 47-68.
  • Wright, Herbert, ‘Lapp Songs in English Literature’, Modern Language Review, 13 (4) 412-419, 1918.
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