The Medicine Woman and the Raven

Death stood waiting for me at my front door. Dressed in his old, black cloak, he watched me with a look of mild amusement. I approached him and smiled. I was not afraid. We were old friends and although I had not seen him for a while, I knew deep down that I had nothing to fear from him anymore. We greeted each other with a hug…

I woke up from the dream lying on a bunk bed on a night train. It was some time in the middle of the night and my fellow passengers were sleeping. The dream terrified me. Was something bad going to happen? What was Death up to this time? He seemed friendly enough, but I still began to worry.

The night train was heading north and I was at the beginning of a new journey. It was early summer in Sweden and I was on my way north to meet a Saami woman named Laila Spik. We did not know each other and had only talked a few times on the phone. She had invited me to stay for the summer at her home in the mountains, and so, I cancelled my other plans, packed my bags and hopped on a train headed north.

Sometimes you just have to follow that feeling you just cannot explain. By now, I had learnt to trust that feeling and follow it. I knew it would never lead me wrong, even if I sometimes wondered where it was leading me. Ever since my last travels up north during the wintertime, I knew I would be back again. Now the opportunity presented itself.

I did not know what to expect. I had never met Laila before. She said to expect all kinds of weather – “sometimes we have snow in the middle of summer, so bring warm clothes and boots.”

She picked me up at the train station and we drove first to Jokkmokk, a small town where we stayed for some days, preparing and packing things for the summer.

My first night in Jokkmokk, I had a new dream. I was walking in a large, beautiful park. It was summer and I walked down a path under a roof of green leaves. Sitting by a white table, an old woman was waiting for me. She shuffled a deck of tarot cards, drew one card and gave it to me. Surprise, surprise! Death, again. The old woman’s dark eyes pierced through mine as she smiled and said, “You will find your power in this card.”

The dreams followed me around like a dark cloud the following day. I was afraid something bad was going to happen, and yet, at the same time I felt like both dreams came with positive messages. You have nothing to fear from Death. You will find your power in this card…

What were these dreams trying to tell me?

Meanwhile, after packing everything, we left Jokkmokk and drove to Saltoluokta in the middle of the night. The midnight sun was shining like a golden halo over the mountain range ahead of us, and the full moon was glowing in the purple-blue sky behind us. It was a strange, beautiful sight, with the sun and the moon in the sky, both in their full power.

Laila taught me my first Saami words during that night drive.

Sun, moon and star. Beaivi. Mánnu. Násti.

The Saami language is so beautiful to my ears. Speaking it for the first time felt like invoking a magic spell. The words sent shivers up my spine.

The shivers said, You are on the right path. Keep going.

We arrived at Kebnats early in the morning. All was still. Lake Langas was a perfect mirror, reflecting the mountain landscape of Laponia. I caught sight of Saltoluokta on the other side of the lake, which was to be my home for the rest of the summer.

The boat, which would take us to the other side of the lake, would arrive in a few hours, so after a cup of morning coffee and a sandwich, Laila and I took a well-deserved nap on the dock.

Spending time with Laila introduced me to the Saami culture. The Saami people are the indigenous people of the north. They have lived in harmony with nature in the north of Scandinavia and Russia for thousands of years. Where the reindeer go, they go.

Growing up in a reindeer-herding family and living a nomadic way of life, Laila has a different rhythm of being – which is something I began to notice already from the first day I met her. It has been very fascinating, and eye-opening, for me to spend time with Laila.

Whoever said that one must sleep during the night for a set number of hours, and work during the day? When you live with the reindeer and the unpredictability of Mother Nature, then you are forced to live in the present moment. What is happening Now? What is the weather like? Is there a storm coming in? Is there work to be done?

In the beginning, I noticed how my western way of thinking became frustrated sometimes, wanting to “know” and plan ahead. When are we going to eat? When are we going to sleep? Living in the Now and following the clock of Mother Nature is not something we learn in western society. It takes some getting used to!

Laila Spik is a Saami cultural worker, medicine woman and teacher. I have never heard her say it herself, but I would also present Laila as a gifted storyteller, as she is almost constantly followed by an audience, eagerly listening to her stories.

It has been such an honour, such a gift, to have lived alongside Laila all summer as her apprentice, learning about the Saami nature medicine, cooking, preserving, foraging; and learning about the culture, language, stories and spirituality.

Laila is a strong, proud woman who knows where she comes from and is fully devoted to her mission on earth. Her parents were her teachers and they taught her from an early age about all aspects of the traditional Saami lifestyle – about reindeer herding, nature medicine, crafts, cooking; how to survive in an arctic climate, learning to read the signs of nature and the weather.

Laila’s family were both practical and spiritual. The spiritual element of life was interwoven with the practical part of everyday life. Every morning Laila’s father would light a fire and thank Sarahkka for blessing their home with her warmth and light.

Laila’s father told her, “Everyone has something to give to you. Take time to get to know the person that life sends your way. You don’t know who the person is, and if she or he might become your best helper and friend.”

Laila learnt a lot from her parents, and just like them, she invites many people into her home. People come from all walks of life, from all over the globe, to meet Laila and learn from her. 

This past summer I have fallen in love with the northern nature and the mountain landscape surrounding Saltoluokta.

The crystal-clear, ice-cold streams. The small, crooked birch trees with their bright green leaves. The ancient forests of old pine trees; their thick roots and branches twisting, curving and twirling around like snakes. The mountains; looking down upon us like great grandfathers and grandmothers, commanding respect.

Laila once told me something her father taught her – “whenever you make a fire, or prepare to sleep somewhere on the earth, then you must first ask for permission. Ask the earth if you may sleep there or make your fire there. Always ask. Wait for the answer to come. Nature speaks to all of us, but many have forgotten to listen.”

Nature has been my sanctuary for as long as I can remember. For a long time I thought that everyone could talk to, and listen to the earth. When I grew older I realised that this is not the case, and like Laila said, many have forgotten how to speak the language of nature.

When I first travelled up north during the wintertime, what moved me most about the Saami culture was learning about their music and way of singing – the joik.

Joiking is a way of communicating a feeling, and expressing something without words. It is a way of remembering and invoking a feeling. A joik can be about a person, a mountain, a place in nature, or an animal. A joik can be about a feeling, about the wind or the northern lights. It is often a very emotional experience for the person who sings it.

Music historians say that the joik may be the longest living music tradition in Europe. With the Christianisation of the Saami, joiking was condemned as sinful. The joik still exists today despite the fact that it was forbidden for many years.

Earlier in history, the joik was a part of the ceremonies of the noajdde, the shaman. By joiking, the noajdde could get into a trance and travel to other worlds. The Christian missionaries considered the work of the noajdde to be dealings with the devil, and so the noajddes were persecuted and their drums burned or taken away from them. Today the noajdde is no longer the central figure in Saami society. The drums that were taken from them can now be found at many museums throughout Europe.

When I am in nature, I listen to her and she speaks to me through song, through feeling and story. It is very real to me, and I although many might find this a bit strange, I do believe that all people have this ability to communicate with nature in this way.

I was so happy to find the Saami people and hear the sound of joiking. It felt like coming home to a culture that communicates with nature and sings her songs in a way that I also have been doing long before I heard about joiking.

Most of the songs that come to me have no words; they are more of an expression of feeling that come from the heart. The songs can be found at certain places, at certain rocks and creeks. For me it feels like they have always been there, waiting for someone to listen to them. 

Throughout the summer in Saltoluokta I have met many birds – especially a raven. First, raven came to me in a dream, calling to me so loudly I was awoken from the dream. The next day a new song came to me, a song about raven and his message of wisdom…

In the darkest night I found my way,

I heard the song calling me home,

the song the raven sang to me,

the song that called me home.

I heard the raven calling me,

the song the raven sang to me,

calling me on,

and calling me home,

home to where I belong.

And raven said, to spread my wings,

fly beyond, and go on your way,

follow your calling,

and honour your path,

go home, to where you are strong.

I said to raven, I am afraid.

Where am I headed and why am I here?

I don’t know where to go,

I don’t know who I am.

And raven said,

do not be afraid.

Follow your calling,

and go on your way.

Know that you are never alone,

I am here by your side.

In the darkest night I found my way,

I heard the song calling me home.

The song the raven sang to me,

the song that called me home,

Home to where I belong.

Home to where I am whole.

Home to where I am strong.

On my last day in Saltoluokta I saw raven once more, soaring over the forest.

“So are you ready now?” he said. “Are you ready to let go of everything you thought you knew about yourself and about the world? Are you ready to let go of fear and embrace the Mystery of Life? I am here and I will help you on your path. The time is come for you to go on, spread your wings and fly. The time is come for you to share your gifts with the world. The time is come for you to step out of the closet and show who you really are.”

So, are you ready?”


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