Bear in Finnish Folklore

Niina Pekantytär

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Divine Ancestors

The main reason why bears were worshipped was the fact that bears go-to winter sleep/hibernation. The way bears went to sleep every autumn and woke up again in the spring was proof of the supernatural powers of the bear. The ancient people believed that, like the winter nature, the bear died and was reborn again in the spring. It was forbidden to kill bears during their hibernation but it was supposed to awake with a special spell. If the bear was awakened without these rituals, that would have made the spirit of the forest angry and they would curse the hunters.

Bear hunting was an important ritual and there were two hunts in the year. Men had to live in celibacy before the hunt, take a bath and wear white clothes. The first hunt took place in the spring and another one in the summer. The Skeleton of the dead bear was buried in a ceremony that was similar to human funerals. The bear skull was faced east and north and hung into the top of the pine tree (karhuhonka the bear pine) East and north pointed into the constellation of Ursa Major, with this ritual it was made sure that the bear would find its way home and could reborn again. The rest of the bones were buried under the sacred tree. Tradition is very old. Sometimes fishes were hanged next to the bear skull. It was believed that in the afterlife, bears would live in a forest next to a sea or a lake where they could catch fish.

​People believed that if these rituals were not carefully followed the bears would come to the farms and kill all the animals or the spirit of the forest would not send gain for the hunters. These fears were real for the ancient ones. The meat was important but the most important food was butter. Cows were sacred animals of women and they also helped farmers to pull heavy things.

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Folk tale material about the bear cult in Finland was collected at the beginning of the 19th and 20th centuries. The 19th century was the time of extreme puritanism in Finland and by the orders of the church pagan groves and the sacred trees were destroyed. Before the arrival of Christianity, people did not know about the dualism between good and evil. Bear and all the spirits were seen as both good and evil, like humans. It was believed that an evil witch or a jealous neighbour could take control over the bear and send them to kill their enemy. If a bear appeared and behaved aggressively it was a bear that was controlled by someone. When this happened, the birth myth of the bear was sung. It was sung to remind the bear that he is a good creature who does not wish to harm anyone. Livestock was protected from the bears by praying Jesus, St George, Ukko (the pagan thunder god) or Virgin Mary so that the bear would not harm farm animals in the summer fields.

Bear Ancestors

In the area of Karelia bear was considered to be a mythical ancestor and hunting bears and eating bear meat was forbidden. The man was born from the union between a bear god and a woman. This is called the universal bride myth. In western Finland, bears were hunted and bear meat was considered a delicious treat.

The myth itself is archaic and is connected to hunting magic and fertility. In the hunt, the game was a metaphor for a woman. This relationship between the woman and the bear was the reason why there were bears in the forest. After the bear was killed there was a great feast called karhunpeijaiset. In the festivities, the life of the bear was performed in a play. The way the bear was landed from the night sky, when he married a human girl and in the end the way he was killed and then reborn again. Karhunpeijaiset was a big food festival where the whole community was invited.

Bear resembles humans in many ways. Bear can stand on two feet, footprints are similar to humans, the skeleton is similar to humans and the mother bear feeds her cub's the same way as human mothers. Bear was a liminal being. It belonged to nature but it was part human. In folk tales, wizards and shamans could shape-shift themselves into bears.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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