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Bear Cult and Prehistoric Bear Objects in Finland

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(Original article 5/10/2018)

The Birth of the Bear

The Kalevala tells about the creation and the birth of the bear:

“Otso was not born a beggar,
Was not born among the rushes,
Was not cradled in a manger;
Honey-paw was born in ether,
In the regions of the Moon-land,
On the shoulders of Otava,
With the daughters of creation.”

Mielikki, the mistress of the forest creates the bear and makes the teeth out of twigs of pine and fir trees. Knowing the birth of the prey gave a hunter the power over it.

Picture © Francis C. Franklin, Wikimedia commons

Name of the bear

The bear was a mythical animal for Finns. It was not allowed to say the real name out loud. He/she might guess the intentions of the hunters. On the other hand, it was feared that the bear might come and do damage if they heard the real name. That’s why they had many other names to avoid the real name: He/she, kouko, ancestor, mesikämmen (“honey-paw”), ohto, otso, kouvo, kontio. Only in the midwinter, the real name could be used because the bear was sleeping.

The killing of the bear and funeral feast

Killing the bear was always a special and ritual occasion. After the killing, a ritual feast or a funeral took place. The ritual feast reflects the belief in the reincarnation of the animal. The prey was appeased so it would be willing to reborn in the woods.

The oldest written source about the funeral feast is from the 17th century. At the feast, people drank from the bear’s skull and ate parts of the bear. This is how the participants could gain some of his/her strength and skills.

Also, the symbolic wedding was held at the feast. A young woman and a man were chosen to represent the bridal couple. Or according to the gender of the bear, he/she was given a bride or groom for the wedding. The purpose of it was to secure hunting and marital success.

The teeth were removed and used as magical or healing objects. After the feast, the skull was placed on a pine tree looking to the east and the bones were buried under the tree. This was how the bear’s soul was returned to nature and freed to reborn.

In the Kalevala, Väinämöinen sends the soul of the bear he has killed back to heaven:

Counts the teeth of sacred Otso;

Loosens all the claws of Light-foot,

With his fingers strong as copper,

Slips them from their firm foundations,

Speaking to the bear these measures:

“Otso, thou my Honey-eater,

Thou my Fur-ball of the woodlands,

Onward, onward, must thou journey

From thy low and lonely dwelling,

To the court-rooms of the village.

Go, my treasure, through the pathway

Near the herds of swine and cattle,

To the hill-tops forest covered,

To the high and rising mountains,

To the spruce-trees filled with needles,

To the branches of the pine-tree;

There remain, my Forest-apple,

Linger there in lasting slumber,

Where the silver bells are ringing,

To the pleasure of the shepherd.”[:]

[;fi]Karhunhammasriipuksia[:en]Bear tooth pendants[:]
In the Iron Age women wore bronze bear tooth pendants on their waist. They were believed to improve fertility.

The clan of the bear and bear objects

It was believed that the human was somehow related to the bear, he/she was an ancestor of the humans. Sometimes, a human may have taken the form of a bear.

Many skillfully made objects representing a bear and dated to the Stone Age have been found in Finland. It’s been thought that these objects might be related to a clan the totem animal of which was the bear. Tacitus, a Roman historian, tells us about two clans that were living in Finland in the 1st century. The names of the clans could have meant bear and elk.

Objects representing animals in the Stone Age were mainly the axes and mallets with holes, stone daggers, wooden spoons and clay figurines. The objects with a hole may have been ritual instruments fastened on a pole or wand. They may have been offered but they were not ordinary everyday objects. Other animals depicted in addition to the bear were at least a moose and birds. Although there are many animals pictured in the rock paintings the bear isn’t among them.

[:fi]Karhuesineitä[:en]Bear objects[:]
Bear objects at the National Museum: on top mallets and axes with holes, in the middle a stone dagger

[:fi]Karhunpääriipuksia[:en]Bear head pendants[:]
Pendants inspired by a bear head mallet found in Espoo, Finland

The Kalevala translations by John Martin Crawford, [1888]