Northern Bear Folklore

Niina Pekantytär

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The birth myth of the bear is similar in all Eurasian areas which suggest that the northern tribes were connected with one another.

A bear birth myth from the Ob-tribe is a well-known myth among all Finno-Ugric tribes. Finnish myth is very similar. Ob´s were a Finno-Ugric tribe whose modern descendants are Hansi and Khanty tribes.

In the myth, the highest of the gods, Num Torum lives with his son, The Bear in the constellation of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Bear looks down to the earth and wishes to live among men. Father lays his son to the earth in the golden and silver cradle. On the earth, Bear lives sinful life. Angry Num Torum orders men to kill his son. The myth has both shamanistic and Christian layers. The birth myth of the Vogul tribe is a bit different. Their god is called Korum, and the bear is female.

In Finland, there are several myths about how the bear was born. According to the legend forest goddess, Mielikki wanted to create a creature who was both beloved and feared. She travelled to the constellation of Ursa Major and returned to the earth bringing magical ingredients with her, from which the bear was born. Mielikki became the Emuu of the bear. Bear is therefore always protected by forest and nature spirits. According to some myths both Mielikki and her spouse, the forest god Tapio had the ability to shape-shift themselves into bears.

The Northern Star, The world view of ancient Finns
In the old Finnish world view, the world had three layers. Those were Ylinen, Keskinen and Alinen.

(yllä - above)

Ylinen was the place where the highest of the gods lived. It was a space beyond space. Depending on the folktale sometimes Ylinen was believed to be the place where birds flew when it was time for their migration. On other hand, it was believed to be a warm and sunny place in the south, and sometimes it was believed to be in northern lights and starry sky.

keskellä (in the middle)

Keskinen was our world. The place where people, the animals and nature spirits lived together.

Alla (below)

Alinen was the underworld (also known as Pohjola and Tuonela). It was the place where the spirits lived and the magical creatures that preferred to live hidden. Place of the death, waiting to be reborn. There was a river in Alinen and the water went in and out from the roots (streams) of the world tree. Same way as in an actual tree the water runs through the cells.

These three layers are not physical places but rather represent different layers of human conscience.

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Pohjantähti The Northern Star

People believed that the earth was covered by a giant dome and it was held together by the northern star and the world tree was nailed to the northern star. When you look at the northern star it seems that the rest of the stars freely flow around it, so this dome of the heaves was seen as a wheel and the northern star held everything together. Some of the old names for Northern Star were Naulatähti (the nail star) Taivaantappi/ Taivaannaula (the nail in the sky). The Latin name of the Northern Star is Stella Polaris.

Bear was seen as a magical creature partly because of its long winter sleep. People did not understand, how the bear stayed alive over the long winter, so they decided that the bear was specially protected by the forest spirits and each morning Mielikki would bring him honey and other treats. The hunter knew that the forest deities, Tapio, Mielikki and the spirits would protect the bear, so they tried to stay on good terms with the bear.

Bear´s hibernation was like death. Whole nature died during the winter. When the bear rose in the spring, it was a great miracle to people. Bear was seen as someone who did not die.

It was not allowed to kill the bear directly in its winter cave. People had to wake up the bear by singing. If the bear would have been killed directly, while it was still sleeping, that would have risen the angry forces of the forest and this was a genuine fear for the people. That could have meant that the bear that was killed, would send other bears to hurt people and the cattle and hunters would no longer receive any gain.

In one way bear hunt was a becoming-into-manhood ritual, that included lots of different rules and customs. Men had to wear white clean clothes when they went to bear hunt and they had to live in celibacy a couple of weeks before the hunt. People did eat bear meat in some areas, but the most common reason to kill the bears was to protect the cattle. Bear was also feared, as a divine creature. When the hunters killed the bear they shook its hand and thanked it.

Cows were important because they provided milk and nutrition was not very versatile in those days. In agriculture cows also worked as draft animals and they were sacred animals of women.

Sources: Niina Niskanen and the 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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