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The Significance of the Bear Ritual Among the Sami and Other Northern Cultures

By Brandon "Kál'lá" Bledsoe

There is an ancient belief that the bear is in communication with the lord of the mountains and with the sky, and certainly he has from time immemorial been surrounded by an aura which enjoins caution and respect.
-Ivar Lissner, Man, God and Magic, (p.163)

Of all the animals that inhabit the worldís northern climates none has been subject to greater reverence than the bear. Indigenous societies of North America and Northern Eurasia share a seemingly uniform belief that this elusive creature is endowed with supernatural qualities. Ceremonies venerating slain bears were, until more recent times, an important aspect of the Sami belief system. Close examination of eyewitness accounts shows that this ritual is in many ways typical of other bear ceremonies in the northern hemisphere. In this essay I will explore possible explanations for the common occurrence of bear ceremonialism, and what this indicates about the Samiís relationship with other indigenous cultures. This subject has received a fair amount of scholarly attention, and a few anthropologists have actually theorized about the origin of the ritual. Based on their information I believe that we can logically infer three possible explanations for this cultural parallel.

  1. Convergence - In each culture the bear is recognized, on some level, as the archetypal messenger to the supernatural world. The uniformity of this belief is the result of an inherent human tendency to venerate certain animals. The special role of the bear in the aboriginal metaphysical system is not due to contact between these societies, nor is it the result of a common ancestral belief system. The contention is that the rituals are a consequence of semi-isolated groups of people reacting to similar environments in a similar manner. These northern people can be said to constitute ìa single circumpolar cultural district in which a single environment forms the basis of common developmentî (Lissner, 160)
  2. Ancient Ancestral Belief-System - The bear's position of prominence within the totemic dominance hierarchy, in each of these groups, is the result of a common ancestral belief-system of Asiatic origin dating back to the time of the Magdalenian period of 20,000 years ago. The Sami, the ancient Finns, the Tungus, the Gilyaks and various other tribes of Siberia, the Ainu of Japan, and Native North American groups, such as the Algonkins and Tlingit, all derived this belief (more or less intact) from the bear cult of prehistoric times.
  3. Historical Interaction - Reverence is a common reaction for humans living in close contact with bears. However, many of the similarities in rites, rituals, and folklore are the result of cultural interactions. Other similarities are purely superficial and do not indicate a shared ancestral system.

One of the inherent difficulties of a broad -based cultural analysis- especially one requiring an outsider to explain alien practices- is the temptation to interpret data in a manner favorable to the ethnographer's assumption. The author of Theoretical Archaeology warns against this tendency. Dark asserts, ìin order to recognize artifacts, structures or actions associated with religion or ritual, we must employ a reliable middle-range theory capable of doing so, unless we choose a relativist positionî (Dark, 145) It appears to me that the best way to create a ìmid-range theoryî in this particular case is to explore multiple levels of ritual interpretation. Once multiple interpretations have been established we can investigate how these levels overlap and influence one another. The bear ceremony is a good example of a ritual containing multiple functions. I will maintain that these functions can be interpreted as follows:

  1. Religious Level - The bear ceremony is a form of communication with the supernatural world, and is an expression of the belief in a hierarchy of spiritual entities. The bear is the representative of a high-ranking deity.
  2. Economic Level - This belief-system is the result of a perceived need for reciprocity with nature. ìSuccess in hunting and fishing is dependent on the good will of the bear that rules over the reproduction of animalsî (Shnirelman, 9)
  3. Psychological Level - In hunter-gatherer societies there is a certain amount of guilt associated with killing animals. The level of guilt may be greater when it is necessary to kill an animal that is seen as being more anthropomorphic or rare. The bear ceremony is performed in order to pacify the bear's vengeful spirit.

I will not claim that any one of these levels alone is the causal motivator. Nor will I assert that one of the three hypotheses on its own can sufficiently explain every aspect of this subject. However, in order to avoid a ìrelativist positionî, I will attempt to integrate all of these hypotheses, and levels of interpretation, into one satisfactory conclusion.

The Sami's Relationship with the Bear

The Sami call the bear ìsaivoî (sacred)

Bear ceremonies are no longer held in Sápmi. The veneration of the bear serves no purpose outside the context of the Sami's former religion. This ritual belongs to the old ways of hunting, fishing, and following the reindeer herds, when they believed all things to be animated by spirits. In their mythology various deities directed all manner of natural phenomena. The Sami's direct dependence upon the surrounding environment actively shaped this belief system. Humanity's relationship with the forces of nature was viewed quite differently from our current empirical model. Industrial society's limited first hand interaction with wildlife has led to the objectification of non-human animals. Our observations are now understood in terms of instincts, reflexes, environmental adaptations, and above all an assumption of superiority. We reckon our evolutionary kinship with other animals based on taxonomic classifications of phyla, order, classes, etc which we derive from morphological and genetic relationships.

The ancient Sami's conception of the natural world was based primarily on utility but was greatly embellished with metaphysical notions. However, the underlying psychology behind this conceptualization is not as drastically removed from our own epistemology as one might assume. As Gonseth points out, ìgenerally speaking the natural sciences are not fundamentally distinct from indigenous and popular forms of knowledge; they develop as a result of a continual process of ëconceptual tinkering'î (Gonseth, 4) Thus their understanding was similarly rooted in the recognition of differences among certain elements of the environment. Nevertheless, beliefs regarding the relationship between these elements were manifested in the form of folk wisdom rather than theories. However, any outside commentator should remember that there are logical premises at work behind such seemingly irrational customs as the Sami's bear ceremony.

Animals are believed to have essentially the same sort of animating agency which man possesses. They have a language of their own, can understand what human beings say and do, have forms of tribal or social organization, and live a life which is parallel in other respects to that of human society.
- Irving Hallowell, Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere, p.7

Since the pre-Christian, shamanistic religion of the Sami was destroyed without leaving any written mythology, our understanding of how their pantheon of deities functioned is open to speculation. It appears that the Sami maintained a religion that was very similar, in most respects, to other circumpolar groups. Their beliefs centered on an ultimate creator deity, called R·dien·httje, and his wife and offspring who fulfilled various other roles associated with natural phenomena. The place of the bear in the ancient Sami belief system is as mediator between the gods and the people.The animal's soul was believed to be able to move freely between the natural world and the otherworld. Each condition of this belief-with different names for gods-could be found at one time from the Hudson Bay area, through the Yukon, across the Bering Straight to Kamtchatka, throughout Siberia, the island of Hokkaido, in areas of Northern Manchuria, and all the way west to Finland and S·pmi. In order to understand the origin and nature of these similarities I will now outline three of the best documented ceremonies we have on record: those of the Sami, the Gilyaks from the Amur region in South-Eastern Siberia, and the Ainus who inhabit Japan's northern most island of Hokkaido.

Particulars of the Bear Ceremony

The Sami

The hunting and killing of such animals is certainly necessary, but at the same time it is frequently a dangerous matter, because in doing so the hunter naturally incurs the anger of the animal killed.
-Rafael Karsten, Religion of the Samek, p.113

  1. Departure for the forest. Bear hunting usually takes place during the hibernatory season, late winter or early spring. Once a den has been located the hunters are assembled, the Noajdde and his drum are consulted, and they then depart for the forest. The one who has located the bear takes the lead. He holds a staff with a brass ring attached to it. A Noajdde usually follows him and precedes the hunter elected to strike first.
  2. The Hunt. The one who located the bear is sent into the den to awaken it. The Sami were known to have used firearms, bow and arrow, lances or spears, and even axes as a means of slaying the bear. The animal was not attacked directly if a spear was being used, the weapon was held in reverse until the beast began its attack and impaled itself.
  3. ìBirchingî the bear. After the bear has been killed they drag it out from the lair and begin to whip it with soft twigs or birch branches. ìA switch is twisted into the form of a ring which is fastened to the lower jaw of the bear. It is tied to the belt of the principal bear-killer; the latter pulls at it three times singing (joiking) in a peculiar tone that he has become the bears masterî (Karsten, 116)
  4. The Bear Master returns. When the hunters return to the sijdda their wives greet them by spitting elder bark juice in their faces. The principal bear-killer brings the ring to his goahte, knocking three times at the door. If the bear is female he calls out s–ive neit (holy virgin), if the animal is male he shouts s–ive olmai (holy man) The bear master's wife keeps the ring in a linen cloth until after the ceremonial meal.
  5. The Feast. It was customary for the men to prepare and cook the bear meat in a specially erected goahte that no woman could enter. Women must cover their heads and during the next five days can only look at the bear killer through a brass ring. After this prescribed period of three days, the bear's skin is stretched out in the center of the banquet area where various libations of tobacco and foodstuff are offered to its spirit. After an apologetic speech is given the feast of bear meat begins.
  6. Ringing Him in. After the feast the ring is removed and the women and children attach pieces of a brass chain to it, which is then tied to the bears tail. Next, the ring is given to the men who bury it with the bones. Great care is taken to ensure that the bones are arranged in their original form.
  7. Immunizing the women. Finally, the skin is laid out on a stump and the blindfolded wives of the bear slayers take turns shooting at it with arrows.

This last feature is the most outstanding of the Sami ritual. Special care must be taken to guard women and children against the bear's vengeful spirit. By shooting the carcass they conquer this fear.

The Gilyaks

The bear plays a great part in the life of all the peoples inhabiting the region of the Amoor and Siberia as far as Kamtchatka, but among none of them is his importance greater than among the Gilyaks.
-J. Frazer, The Golden Bough, (517)

  1. A cub is captured in the forest; its mother is killed if necessary.
  2. The cub is brought back to the village, where it is confined in a cage until reaching maturity. During its time at the village the cub is treated like an honored guest, it is routinely walked, cleaned, and well fed.
  3. An arena where the bear will die is prepared. It is then removed from its cage for the final time and is lead from hut to hut where it is teased with fir branches. At the same time reassuring words are spoken to it. The bear's host sometimes sneaks up on it and kisses it good-bye.
  4. The bear is led down to a river, around the host's house three times, and then into the house. Everyone must leave the house except for the oldest kinsman. Finally, the bear is led to a place that has been prepared for it and tied down between two stakes. The animal is left alone for a moment while the banquet commences.
  5. The host feeds the bear for the last time. ìFarewellî, he says to the bear, ìI feed you for the last time; go directly to your owner. May you be able to gain your master's affection.
  6. The procession of the executioner begins. The village headman walks in front, carrying a kettle and an axe, he is followed the Narch-en (shaman), holding the same, and then the rest of the guests.
  7. The executioner waits for the bear to turn in such a way that an arrow can be sent straight to its heart, all the while he speaks to it reassuringly.
  8. The bear's corpse is laid out in the snow facing west. All of its skin is removed except for the head. The head and skin are laid out on a framework resembling a body. A quiver of arrows, tobacco, and eatables are laid beneath the head.
  9. The meat is eaten on the day after the execution. A lively feast goes on through the night.
  10. Two dogs are often sacrificed to the bear's spirit on the day after the feast.

The great winter festival is only an extension of the rite that is observed at the slaughter of every bear.

A map of Hokkaido in Northern Japan

The Ainu

I-yomante- ìthing/send, ìthing/let goî
Hunting, particularly bear hunting, required strict adherence to ritual. The bear itself is a deity and the Bear Ceremony is the best known of all Ainu rituals.
-N.G. Munro, Ainu Creed And Cult, p.4

  1. Hunters capture a bear cub from a den or shortly after emerging.
  2. The bear is raised among the villagers for a year and a half inside a special hut. The women of the village sometimes nurse the cub.
  3. The Iyomante festival is held at the beginning of the cold season, September or October.
  4. Prayers are offered to Fuchi the fire goddess and to Kimun-Kamuy the god of the mountains.
  5. The bear is lead out of the hut by a procession of prominent village men to the nusa (sending place). At this time the women begin addressing it with terms of endearment.
  6. The bear is shot with blunt arrows. Critical wounds are made using sharp arrows, and then the bear is strangled between two logs. ìMeantime the women and girls had taken post behind the men, where they danced, lamenting and beating the men who were killing the bearî (Frazer, 508)
  7. Male elders skin and dress the bear. The skin is left attached to the head. Afterwards they place the skin in front of an altar with gifts that may include food, sake, and a sword and quiver. She-bears are sometimes adorned with a necklace and earrings.
  8. The meat of the bear is taken to back to the hut and left there till the next day. Its liver is cut into small pieces, salted, and then eaten. The men drink the blood that has been gathered in cups. While the bear is being disemboweled the women begin to cry and dance mournfully.
  9. The meat is eaten the next day and the celebration continues.

The Iyomante ritual was performed in honor of many of the other animals that the Ainu hunted, as well as certain plants and tools. However, the bear ceremony was by far the most important and elaborate


Many of the peoples living in Siberia and North America called the bear ìold manî, ìlordî or ìsacred animal."
-Viktor Shnirelman, Grandfather Bear, p.9

Interpreting the rituals

The parallels between the bear ceremonies of these three very distantly related cultures are unmistakable. In each case all three functional levels are simultaneously present. A consistent belief in the bear's role as mediator between humanity and the lord of the forest reveals much about the rationale behind the ceremony. It was not the physical manifestation of the bear that controlled natural phenomena, such as reproduction; rather it was his or her archetypal ìownerî. In each of these examples the creature's spirit is begged for forgiveness -the blame is often ascribed to a neighboring tribe- and offered gifts to take to its master. Many of the rites performed may appear paradoxical to the western mind. Why is it that they would kill an honored guest? Why tease and praise the bear at the same time? Why fear its wrath if you are paying homage?

The motif that reoccurs most often is reciprocity with nature. The animal is expected to sacrifice its mortal self so it may return to the god with words of praise for its human counterparts. Still, there may be some uncertainty as to whether or not the animal wishes to leave. The bear's spirit is not feared because of any inherent malignance, he may simply be angry for having been slain. This idea could indeed be the result of the respect, and guilt, experienced after taking the life of a formidable creature. Equally plausible explanations can be given in terms of religious beliefs, economics, or underlying psychology, but I find none of them alone to be adequate. Only by assuming the participant' mind set can one hope to appreciate the ritual's true meaning.


The widespread dispersal of these notions, from S·pmi to the Hudson Bay, does suggest that its origins are indeed rooted in the bear cult of prehistory. A wall painting from the Trois-FrËres cave, which dates back to the Magdalenian period, clearly depicts an ancient bear ritual. The bear is shown being shot and stoned to death while blood streams from its mouth. Countless collections of Ursine bones and skulls have been found deposited across the Northern Hemisphere. Of course many of the similarities shared by the Gilyak and the Ainu ceremonies can no doubt be explained by the close contact between these two groups. But this should in no way negate the theory of its ancient origin. Nor should the fact that reverence for bears does seem to be a natural inclination for humans everywhere. There are remnants of this in western culture as well: the word berserk is of Norse origin meaning ìbear shirt,î the Welsh name Arthur is usually translated as ìbear hero,î and the Greek myth explaining the origin of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor is strikingly similar to some of the beliefs of the peoples discussed.

The animal's peculiar habit of hibernation certainly lends it an air of mystery. Bear remains are difficult to find because they usually crawl away to the mountains to die. Above all, the bear is a creature that lends itself easily to anthrophomorphication, its habit of standing on two legs to strike and the human-like appearance of its skinned carcass gave many cultures, including the Sami, a sense of kinship.


Dark, K.R. Theoretical Archaeology. Cornell University Press, 1999.

Frazer, J. The Golden Bough. Macmillan: London, 1922.

Hallowell, Irving. B ear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere. American Anthropologist 28, 1926.

Karsten, Rafael. The Religion of the Samek. Leiden: Munich, 1955

Lissner, Ivar. Man, God and Magic. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1961.

Munro, N.G. Ainu Creed and Cult. Oxford Press: Oxford, 1963.

Internet Resources

Gonseth. Marc-Olivier. (1988) Man and Animals. UNESCO Courier, Feb 1988 p4(5)

Kwon. Heonik. (1999) PLAY THE BEAR: Myth and ritual in East Siberia. History of Religions, May 1999 v38 i4 p373

Shnirelman. Viktor. (1988) Grandfather bear; hunting rituals and animal worship in early Eurasian cultures. UNESCO Courier, Feb 1988 p9(2)


Cover - 1984 Childcraft Annual : Great Myths and Legends . World Book, Inc: Chicago, 1984

Map - Encyclopedia of World Mythology. Dempsey Par: London, 2000

Bear Image- Eyewitness Guides : Viking . Dorling Kindersley: New York, 1994