How a chance encounter led to an uncommon collection of Sami folktales by Emilie Demant Hatt.


By the Fire is an uncommon collection of Sami folktales recorded by a woman who was herself quite remarkable for her time. Emilie Demant Hatt was born in a rural village in Jutland, Denmark, in 1873 and only attended school up to the age of fourteen. But with help from her mother’s family, Demant Hatt moved to Copenhagen in her early twenties to study art at the Royal Academy. At the age of thirty-one, by now a painter, she traveled with her sister to northern Sweden as one of the first tourists on the new iron ore train through the high mountains between Sweden and Norway, lands previously inhabited mainly by the nomadic Sami herders and their reindeer.

Demant Hatt’s chance encounter on the train with Sami wolf-hunter and would-be writer Johan Turi changed both of their lives. After studying the Sami language at Copenhagen University and preparing herself as best she could for a sojourn among reindeer herders, Demant returned to Sápmi in 1907 and spent nine months with Johan Turi’s brother and his family. She then accompanied another group of herders and reindeer over the mountains from Sweden to Norway, a grueling trek memorably chronicled in her travel narrative, With the Lapps in the High Mountains (1913). Demant Hatt later went on to make many field trips to Sápmi, to translate and edit the work of Johan Turi, to travel in North America with her husband Gudmund Hatt, and to study with the Boas circle at Columbia University. She became a noted Expressionist painter and left a large body of work with Sápmi as a major motif.

As the translator of her astonishing (and beautifully written) travel narrative, and eventually as the biographer of Emilie Demant Hatt, I was familiar with her illustrated collection of folktales, By the Fire (Ved ilden). Originally published in 1922 and long out of print and neglected by Nordic folklorists, By the Fire first struck me by the charm and power of the linocuts, so reminiscent of the German graphic artists of the time. Through her endnotes I could see that she had collected her tales from various siidas or communities in Swedish Sápmi, and I gradually realized that a large number of tales must have come from her women friends and teachers over the years 1907 to 1916, even though few names were mentioned. That Demant Hatt was particularly interested in the lives of women and children was already evident to me. Her ethnography is notable not only for the fact that she was an early practitioner of participant observation but also because her focus—many years before Margaret Mead went to Samoa—was on the daily lives and customs of women relating to courtship, marriage, childbirth, work inside the tents and work outside (often in dramatic weather conditions), herding, leading migrations, and setting up camp.

I wrote about By the Fire and some of the storytellers in my biography of Demant Hatt, Black Fox, and then, after deciding to translate the folktales, I returned to her field notes in Danish (500 pages, fortunately typed), which are held at the archives of the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, along with her photo albums from Sápmi. Using the field notes as my guide, I was able to correlate many of the folktales with individual storytellers. Some I was familiar with already: Anni Rasti, for instance, whom Demant Hatt had memorably described in With the Lapps as “Gate,” in whose tent she lived in spring of 1908 on that rigorous, nearly two-month trek over icy plateaus and frothing rivers, to get to the green meadows of Norway. Or Märta Nilsson, a Sami elder and “wise woman,” who resided in a tent with her husband Nils in a siida near Östersund in South Sápmi. Demant Hatt spent six weeks with this couple in 1910. Other storytellers I was less acquainted with: Margreta Bengtsson, a mother, wife, and herder in Pite Sápmi, with whose family Demant Hatt and her husband traveled in 1914; or the former herder Anders Larsson, whom the Hatts got to know well in 1912. Thanks to a travel fellowship from the American Scandinavian Foundation, I was able to spend some weeks in 2017 in archives in Uppsala and Stockholm, gathering material on the storytellers to add to what I already knew from Demant Hatt’s mostly unpublished manuscripts.

In my research I often found that the details of the herders’ lives in the early twentieth century, at a time when their culture was gravely threatened, gave added resonance to the stories she collected from them. Demant Hatt admired the Sami for their resilience and humor, and she collected a number of tales and legends that spoke to how an indigenous people could protect themselves against enemies, often through inventive means, and otherwise bear witness and seek justice. Some of the tales she recorded are well-known in Sápmi and appear in other historic collections, but it’s notable that By the Fire contains a higher proportion of tales by women, and perhaps because of that, a higher proportion of girls and women as heroines who outwit farmers, bandits, Dog-Turks, their Stallo fathers, and even Swedish pastors who mean them and their people harm.

By the Fire is less comprehensive than deeply personal, the reflection both of self-educated scholarship and an unusually modern view for the time that indigenous people, and especially women, deserve to have their voices heard in all their wisdom, humor, and power. I’m very happy that this collection in English translation will be available to a wider audience almost one hundred years after its first publication.


Barbara Sjoholm is a writer, editor, and translator of Danish and Norwegian literature, including By the Fire: Sami Folktales and Legends. She has written fiction and nonfiction.

Emilie Demant Hatt (1873–1958) was a Danish artist and ethnographer who lived among the Sami of Swedish Lapland in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

“When the darkness draws [the Sami] to the campfire, when the stew kettle hangs on its sooty chain and steam and smoke rise up through the tent opening to the clouds and night sky, then rest comes, memories slip in, like dreams to a sleeper. . . . The spirit of Fairy Tale perches at the edge of the hearth. The fire hisses, the flames flare and die back. . . Outside in the deepest night wander the dead, the spirits, the evil thoughts one person sends another. . . Here inside the tent is the campfire; here is home, the great safe place.”
—Emilie Demant Hatt, from the Introduction

By the Fire offers insights into the fascinating Sami storytelling tradition at a time when folk beliefs met Christianity—where motifs from Cinderella and legends about sea monsters intertwine in milieus as diverse as icy mountains and tobacco fields. Barbara Sjoholm’s translation renders these wonderful stories in all their darkness and power.”
—Coppélie Cocq, Umeå University

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