The kuksa is a traditional wooden cup that originates from the Sami people, also known as the Lapps because they live in what is now Lapland. This people is considered to be the oldest in Europe and inhabits a large part of the region, spread over northern Norway, Sweden and Finland as well as the Kola peninsula of Russia. It is very difficult to pin down just how many of them there are, given the fact that they remote far from everything, but they are estimated to be between 85,000 and 140,000. Today, there are still ancient traditions such as the kuksa, which is an object of the duodji, the Lappish craft.
The kuksa is traditionally made of birch wood, and more precisely birch burr, an outgrowth on the trunk that can be used to carve out larger shapes. It generally has a small reindeer leather strap usually used to attach the object to the owner’s belt when hiking. Lightweight, strong and practical, it is more convenient when used outdoors than glasses or cups.
The object is normally used for tea, coffee or even vodka: thanks to the natural materials of kuksa, the object does not get burning hot, unlike porcelain or metal, which heats up and can thus burn your hands. So, the Samis also used it to warm their hands while they were drinking. This social function provides a warm sharing moment!
The kuksas come from the Duodji: a Sami handicraft of several thousand years old. The duodji is functional and utilitarian, but sometimes incorporates artistic elements, and essentially concerns everyday objects (knives, bowls, etc.). This art form splits into two categories because of the materials used – all of them natural: female objects, most often made of skins, and male objects made of wood, horn or bone. They are linked to the nomadic way of life: they had to be practical while remaining easy the desire to adapt to the constraints linked to the environment.
The kuksa is part of the male object group. It was traditionally handmade, requiring both time and dexterity in the cutting of the wood. In most cases, a Sami would make his own kuksa. It was also meant to be a gift sometimes. The kuksa embodies the duodji’s importance in Sami identity: a handmade object which bears a culture, a symbol of their way of life.
It is essential to wash the kuksa with a wet towel and rinse it with water but without any detergent. Be careful, though, because ancestral beliefs suggest that anyone who washes their kuksa away from a pure water stream loses their luck!
The Kuksa remains profoundly traditional and is still used by reindeer herders as a mark of « social success », with livestock being the Sami’s main activity. The number of holes (usually one to three) in the handle is supposed to indicate the wealth of the reindeer herder. The more holes there are in the object, the larger the number of reindeers owned is; a significant number of its wealth and of the respect the farmer can claim from other breeders
In contrast, except in the Scandinavian countries, the object is difficult to find because the different way of life does not necessarily require the object’s functions. In the same way, the object is unusual because of the specific materials used to make it, in particular the vrilbjörk (Scandinavian name for the birch burr), which is a genetic defect in the tree used to make the kuksa.
In addition, handcrafted traditions have changed as society has evolved and the handmade manufacture of objects such as kuksa, taught from generation to generation within a family, has been lost to some extent. Some of the cups were introduced as industrial decorative objects, which is contrary to the Sami philosophy of seeing the object not as decorative but as practical, utilitarian and social.
As a result, today there are many videos or instructions on websites to make your own kuksa, using materials that can sometimes differ from traditional materials: the frail or the oak for example.
Author: Aurélien Di Sanzo
Translated by: Laurane Mandin
For further documentation:
- DUODJI – MASTERS OF SAMI HANDICRAFT. A Book about the Magic Sami Handicraft. Available at: https://www.abebooks.fr/DUODJI-MASTERS-SAMI-HANDICRAFT-Book-Magic/13562573192/bd
- « Histoire – Les Samis ». Norvège : portail d’informations. Available at: http://www.norvege-fr.com/Norvege2016/norvege_portail_informations.php?id=39
- « Tradition and modern thinking ». Sapmi. Available at: http://www.samer.se/4559
- Photos credits: CC by SA