Bear of 1000 names

Niina Pekantytär

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Finland is located near the arctic circle. The climate is also arctic. The Word arctic (arktinen - in Finnish) is derived from the Greek word arctos - meaning bear. In ancient Greece, arctos was a term that was used to refer to an unknown area in the north. People in this area were known as the people of the bear because they lived right underneath the bear constellation.

In the hunter-collector culture, people lived at the mercy of nature and because of this, there was a strong connection between humans and nature. It was believed that the spirits of nature helped people to survive. The Bear was a god and a sacred creature, therefore, a taboo. It was not allowed to say his name aloud. People spoke of the bear with euphemisms. The Bear was good, old, wise, self and god.

In the Finnish language, there are over 1000 names for the bear which highlights the bear´s position as a sacred creature.

Words that were used to describe the bear refer to its size and power. Other names were kouvo, ukko, äijä which all refer to an old man/old age. The Bear was god, therefore eternal.

There are many bear names that begin with the letter O.
Ohto, Otso, Ohtonen, Osmo, Otsonen, Otto

Letters that begin with O-might refer to the Finnish name of the bear constellation which is Otava.

The Finnish word for bear Karhu, has been delivered from the word karhea, which means rough fur. Bear has an older name, which is so sacred that people have forgotten it. When a witch/shaman wanted to control the bear they were not allowed to mention the bear´s true name.

Another category are the names that refer to bear´s love for all things sweet. Hunajainen (honeyed), omenainen (appleyed), metsän omena (apple of the forest), mesitassu, mesikämmen (honey-paw).

Names that refer to cute teddy bears: nalle, pikku nalle nallukka, nallenpoika

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Year of the Bear

Because the bear was the sacred ancestor of mankind, the wheel of the year followed the events in the bear´s life. The life of the bear was followed from its birth to death and the important moments were ritualized. These moments were birth, naming, weddings and funerals/rebirth.

It was believed that bear turned in its winter nest during Heikinpäivä (Day of Heikki) on January 19th. According to an old expression "Heikki snaps the back of winter". In northern Finland, it was believed that Bear moved in its nest during Matinpäivä (Day of Matti) on the 24th of February. According to the folklore, the bear wakes up in Jyrinpäivä (the day of St George) 23rd of April.


On the day of Yrjö 6th of May cattle was released to roam in the fields. People cast spells so that bears and other wild animals would not take them. When Catholicism and Orthodox spread, these spells turned into prayers.

Day of Marketta, Marketanpäivä 13th of July was known as the day of the bear. According to Finnish folklorist Juha Pentikäinen, in the Baltic lands, the Day of Marketta was celebrated as the birthday of the bear. In Estonia, this day is known as Karuse Päev (day of the bear). In Finland, there was a custom that during the day of Marketta group of women climb up to the hill and sang the song of the bear.

It is believed that the names of these people of these sacred days, originate from ancient pagan figures, possibly nature spirits and later on they were changed to match Catholic saints.


Autumn was time for both bear and the people to collect berries and gather food from nature. It was believed that the bear went to sleep during Syys-Matti, Autumn Equinox 21st of September and it was believed that the bear slept all the way up to Talvi-Matti (the old name for Spring Equinox) 24th of February.

Sources: Niina Niskanen, Juha Pentikäinen and Society of Finnish literature

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

Finland, MN
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