The term “Samoyed” applied to various indigenous tribes of Siberia throughout history. At least three of these tribes are now extinct, while the four remain. The largest remaining tribe are the “Nenets” – meaning simply “men”. Since the 20th century, the term “Nenets” became a substitute for the term “Samoyed”, considered to be derogatory.
But why derogatory? The truth is that nobody knows what the word “Samoyed” means. According to Wikipedia:
The Russian words “samo” and “yed” give the meaning “self-eater”.
Indeed, this Russian translation works in all Slavic languages. The second morph is present even in the English term “edible”. But since the Samoyed are not cannibals, why would they have such a name?
I would like to propose a different perspective: What if the first morph does not mean “self” but “soma” – as in magical “soma” plant?
What is soma?
Soma is the name of a ritual drink, sacred in both Vedic and Zoroastrian religions. The main ingredient of this drink was an extract of an unknown plant. In both the ancient Vedic religion and Zoroastrianism, the name of the drink and the plant are the same.
There has been much debate on the nature of this plant, but most of the scholars agree that it was psychedelic. This fact is pretty obvious in ancient texts. In modern India, the ancient ritual of drinking soma is still alive. It is known as Somayag, but the plant used is a leafless wine know as – Sarcostemma acidum, a plant that is not hallucinogenic. However, many scholars claim that this plant is a substitute, used to preserve the sacred ritual, as the original plant does not grow in India anymore.
So what was this plant? The hallucinogenic theories go from opium and ephedra to cannabis or even some mixture of these. But one of the most common candidates is Amanita Muscaria – The fly agaric mushroom. This theory dates at least to the year 1968 and most often draws parallels between Vedic texts and rituals of the Siberian shamans, who still use this mushroom.
Sami people and the magic mushroom
Now, there is another group of people, known as Sami, living in Scandinavia and parts of Northern Russia. The original name of Finland – Suomi probably comes from them.
Both Sami and Samoyed languages belong to the Uralic group, meaning that in ancient times they belonged to the same group of people. This fact is largely ignored by scholars who tend to see them as two separate groups just because they are not on the same branch of Uralic languages.
And since the majority of Sami lives in Scandinavia and not Russia, the Russian etymology of “self” does not work here. Instead, we get the most incredible story:
Sámi (presumably from the Proto-Finnic word), Häme (Finnish for Tavastia) (Proto-Finnic *šämä, the second ä still being found in the archaic derivation Hämäläinen), and perhaps Suomi (Finnish for Finland) (*sōme-/sōma-, compare suomalainen, supposedly borrowed from a Proto-Germanic source *sōma- from Proto-Baltic *sāma-. in turn borrowed from Proto-Finnic *šämä) are of the same origin and ultimately borrowed from the Baltic word *žēmē, meaning “land”. The Baltic word is cognate with Slavic земля (zemlja), which also means “land”.
I don’t know about you, but to me, this seems like a really long stretch. Also, a recent study clearly shows that the Sami have Siberian origins.
Sami – Shamans?
What I find interesting in the etymology above is the part “Proto-Finnic *šämä” – shama, as in shaman. What if their name is related to the magic mushroom – a highly important element of shamanic rituals all over Siberia and Scandinavia? The term “shaman” comes from the Evenki (Tungus) language of Russia – another region where Amanita mushroom is sacred.
Here is a great, 2 minute BBC video, giving a good introduction to the topic:
So in a nutshell, we have a sacred, hallucinogenic plant of Ancient India and Persia, known as “soma”, from one side. One of the plants proposed is Amanita Muscaria. On the other side, we have the people known as Sami, and Samoyed, who still use this mushroom in their sacred rituals.
Could there be a connection?
The origins of the Samoyed
Most of the scholars agree that Sami are indigenous people of Scandinavia. They lived in the sub-artic region of Scandinavia and Russia for at least 5,000 years. Certain scholars even push this date to 10,000 BC, based on the petroglyphs of their region, which contain the same motifs as the traditional art of the Sami.
However, the same opinion does not apply to the Nenets. Their ancestral homeland lies to the west of the Ural mountains, from where they have progressively moved in all directions. As “Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia” states:
Linguistic evidence points to common Samoyedic ancestry, probably in the West of the Ural mountains. In the first millennium BCE, the Samoyed tribes began to migrate to the east, northeast, and southeast…
Basically, the main migration of Samoyed simply followed the route of the river Ob, from their origins between Ural and Altai on the south – to their present homeland in the Arctic circle. This migration to the north had happened gradually, for three millennia, as the northern areas were becoming more and more habitable.
David W. Anthony, author of “The Horse, the Wheel and Language”, believes that soma comes from the Indo-Iranian culture of Bactria-Margiana. He further states that the Old Indic religion developed around the Zeravshan river, or in other words between Uzbekistan and Iran.
Samoyed – the soma eaters?
Let us now summarize the facts:
- People known as Samoyed originated in the north-west of modern-day Kazakhstan. They were present there since the 1st millennium BC. And they were using Amanita Muscaria mushroom in their sacred rituals since the dawn of time.
- Soma drink probably originated in the south-east of modern-day Kazakhstan. It was popular during the 1st millennium BC. It was probably hallucinogenic and perhaps made from Amanita Muscaria.
Could then the Samoyed be the “soma eaters”, an ancient tribe whose prehistoric rituals might have influenced two great ancient cultures, those of India and Persia? The fact is, that around 500 BC, near Bactria and Sogdiana (the homeland of the Samoyed) there was a tribe known as Amyrgians or Saka haumavarga (Soma-drinking Scythians). Could “Samoyed” be just a Slavic translation of the same name?
Samoyed as the Androphagi?
It is not clear how old is the idea that Samoyed means “self-eater”. However, the confusion could be of ancient date. Namely, Herodotus describes a tribe of “man-eaters” (Andophagoi) in the 5th century BC. He claims that they are nomads, who dress like Scythians but have their own, unique language. And… “Unlike any other nation in these parts, they are cannibals.”
Wikipedia on Androphagi states:
Marija Gimbutas suggested that “Androphagoi” is a Greek translation of the Scythian *mard-xwaar “man-eater”. From this, one can derive “Mordva” or “Mordvin”, the Russian name of the Finno-Ugrian Erzya and Moksha peoples of east-central European Russia. From Herodotus, we can deduce a location for the Androphagoi that is approximately the same as that occupied by the modern Mordvins.
Mordvins are another ancient Uralic-speaking group of this region. However, it is precisely the term Samoyed that could have been a cause of confusion. The remains of the mass-scale cannibalism were never discovered in this region – a fact that has baffled scholars for centuries.
In “A Commentary on Herodotus” by W. W. How, J. Wells we read:
Neumann (p. 212) thinks the Androphagi were Finns, quoting evidence that these people were said to practice cannibalism even in the Middle Ages; perhaps they are the ancestors of the Mordvinians, a Finnish tribe still surviving in the Volga basin.
Soma, Santa Claus, and Coca-Cola
On a side note, it is already a well-known fact that the image of Santa Claus comes directly from the Sami shaman and their sacred raindeers. Not only because of the characteristical clothing. The traditional Sami houses have a roof entrance, as the main door often ends up under the snow. The shamans would visit people during the winter, selling the dried Amanita mushrooms, whose red and white colors are the colors of Santa’s clothing.
But there is another interesting fact that everyone seems to miss out on. The original Coca-Colla contained cocaine – it was a narcotic potion.
The logical question is, did the creators of the Coca-Colla image (perhaps inspired by the “Brave new world”) see this drink as a modern-day soma – hence the whole symbolic?
But if this is the case, how did they put all the pieces together?
I speak Czech, and it’s true that “samo-jed” can pass for “self-eater”, or maybe “self-eaten”… “jed” or “jedli” generally means “ate”, in the past tense sense of the English verb (“jíst” being the present-tense translation of English “to eat”).
However, the context you’re discussing here — magic mushrooms — it’s interesting to note that “jed” can also mean “poison”. While there’s more than one Czech word that can describe poison, and the correct word generally depends on context, I grew up speaking Czech and I seem to remember “jed” or “jedovaty” being used most commonly to specifically describe poisonous forest mushrooms.
Interesting input, thank you!
I was wondering if there is a connection between the Saami and Samojedi. I read about Samojedi in a book called The kingdom of the Slavs- Mavro Orbini where it said that Samojedi used to worship a certain sort of black snake that had four small legs, like a lizzard, and that they called it ЖИВОТИЈА (or Животиња) or Zhivothija (Zhivothinja) which litteraly in all slavic languages means “ANIMAL”. My thoughts are that it is maybe a missunderstanding. Maybe the man asked what is the name of the animal and they said to him “oh that is an animal yes” or Zhivothinja :). Anyway as a Serb I could tell you that Samojedi could also mean “the ones who eat alone” because “sam” means “alone” or “solo”. Maybe they were eating away from the other tribes because they had different rituals which were a secret or something.
Great article and great comments! I am a native Danish/Norwegian speaker and have a degree in Finnish, so I can give additional input. It makes total sense, that the whole man-eater connection has been made through Slavonic languages. Because “sama” in Finnic languages mean “same”, and ‘saamelaiset’ can be directly translated into ‘same kind of people’, which goes all the way back to the first encounters between Finnic and Samoyed peoples in modern day Finland and Finnmark in pre christian times. Also, they traded massive amounts of reindeer pelts and salted fish with people from Denmark and Sweden, all the way back to the Bronze Age…. for honey mead! Soma, in classical terms. This is supported even down to parallel myths here in Scandinavia, of Sutting’s sacred mead and the quest for the Sampo, from the Kalevala source poems.