Finland, MN

Bear Clan and the Moose Clan

Niina Pekantytär

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For a long time, there has been a theory going on that in Finland there was two big clans, the bear clan and the moose clan. According to folklorist Risto Pulkkinen, these two were the high-level clans and underneath them, there were smaller clans, that had different totem animals.

Traditionally it has been believed that people in western Finland were part of the moose-clan and the people in east-Finland, part of the bear clan because traditionally in Karelia, eating bear meat has been a taboo. According to Pulkkinen, the situation was the opposite and people in western Finland were part of the bear clan and people in eastern Finland were part of the moose clan. Arguments are about the sacred position of the animal and how well people have reserved it. In Western Finland, there has been rich folklore about the ancient bear worship rituals and in the place names, the old name for the bear, Kouko, which means highly respected ancestor, has been preserved. In Eastern Finland, there are lots of cave paintings about moose and some of them are erotic positions between man and the moose. Kalevala poem about hunting the moose of the Hiisi, originates from eastern Finland.

Bear Statues and Grave Findings

From the area of Fennoscandia, archaeologists have found altogether 26 bear-head statues. These statues are axes, daggers and spoons. Most of the findings are from the late stone age and some of them have been found in Finland.

In Finland, ancient bear bones have also been found and the burial customs of these bears have been similar to those of men. Most famous bear burial is from Käyrälampi, in Kouvola from 1987, where archaeologists found 600 bones around a large stone, buried in three different parts. Archaeologist Timo Miettinen has estimated that the young bear was buried about 8000 years ago and the site might have very well been proof of the ancient hunting ritual.

Bear bone-findings from the stone age are usually bear bone fingers. Material can refer to bear fleeces. Already in the stone age, it was common to wrap the dead inside the fleece. One suggestion for this custom is that it has symbolized animal spirit that has escorted the person to the land of the dead and kept them safe.

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Bronze Age and Iron Age

There isn´t much material connected to bears from Finland´s bronze age but in general bronze age in Finland isn´t that well researched and there are not that many archaeological sites from that age.
Bear items pop up again in the graves dated to the Iron Age. Grave findings include bear fleeces, teeth, fingers, and necklaces made from bear teeth. About 100 necklaces have been found from Finland. Most of them from southwest Finland´s cremated graves and burial graves both as singular teeth and rows of teeth.

Interesting enough, all the bronze bear teeth necklaces found from the graves have belonged to women, whereas bare nails and teeth have been found from the graves of both sexes. Singular teeth have been possibly worn as necklaces and women wore jewellery made from rows of bear teeth in their hips.

Bear fleeces have been found from cremated graves. Iron Age was Viking Age and bear fleeces are believed to be part of the Scandinavian warrior culture and refer to berserk who possessed the courage and the strength of the bear.


From the Middle Ages to the 19th Century

From the Middle Ages archaeologists have found bear nails from the foundations of buildings. With the arrival of the new religion bear objects slowly disappear from the grave findings.

The pagan and the Christian worldview lived side by side together for quite a long time. In one 17th century building from Tornio, nine bear nails were found. In 1840 bishop Rothovius condemned the bear rituals of the Finns;

"where men were drinking beer from the bear skull gowning like a bear at the same time, believing that this would bring them luck for hunting".

As late as in 19th century the Orthodox church forbids using bear fleeces in burial rituals as "both pagan and Catholic tradition". On the other hand, the church also "Christianized" bear fleeces, using them as altar carpets. Besides all this, bear feast rituals continued in east and northern Finland all the way to the beginning of the 20th century.

Sources: Niina Niskanen, 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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