The Bear Went Down the Mountain
The bear had a lofty status in ancient myth and legend. This was especially so among circumpolar hunting groups who believed it to be sacred. There was something supernatural about this large animal that disappeared in the late autumn after nature had withered only to return in spring, perhaps with cubs. The bear was a symbol of strength and courage, of wisdom, of regeneration, rejuvenation and of motherhood. What’s more, it inspired veneration and confidence and presented the ultimate test of courage to the hunter. Even the name Arctic finds its origin in the Indo-European word for bear. In contrast, Sámi folktales portray the bear as a large, rather stupid animal easily duped by others, for example by the fox. This essay attempts to answer the question as to why and how the bear’s stature changed so significantly from its high standing in early Sámi myths to its status in Sámi folktales handed down orally and recorded by scholars over the past few centuries.
Bear in Pre-Christian Worldview
The ancient religion of Sámi hunting groups combined animism – a belief that all aspects of nature possessed a soul – with shamanism – where the noaidi or shaman with the help of the magic drum and yoik was able to reach a state of ecstasy allowing his free soul to travel to the three levels of the universe – and polytheism. Drawn on the drum with alder bark juice were figures representing various gods; at the center was Beaivi, the Sun and progenitor of the Sámi, usually a rhombus with rays extending in the four directions. Animals were also on the drum with the reindeer, an essential part of the early hunters’ subsistence patterns, most frequent followed by the bear. There were often thongs hanging from the underside of the drum with pieces of metal or bone attached; some had the “penis bone of a bear” commemorating “the only animal that is ‘related to man’.” Half of the seventy odd preserved drums have bears on their skins.
In some ways the bear resembled humans. When it reared up on its hind legs it could walk erect with both heel and toe making contact with the ground (plantigrade manner of walking). And it could swing its arms. But the bear hibernated every year, something so remarkable to early hunters that it led to a bear cult. In the 5th century BCE Herodotus wrote of Salmoxis/Beleizis, a Thracian god who made an underground chamber and disappeared for three years. Rhys Carpenter, in a fascinating but speculative study, suggested that the name Salmoxis is derived from a Thracian word for hide and that the god is none other than a bear. The underground chamber was, of course, the lair and the bear had become a supernatural spirit to early man. No mortal might enter this lair, for it would become his death in that he would lose his shadow (soul). The American tradition of Groundhog Day on Candlemas (February 2nd) was once bear’s day, the day the bear came out of hibernation. If the bear saw its shadow it meant that it had not really been among the dead, so it would have to return to its lair and sleep another six weeks before it could herald the end of winter.
Bear As Object of Veneration: Evidence
Wild game including fish were thought to be sacred. The men going out to hunt left through a special door (N. Sámi boaššu, S. Sámi båassjoe) and brought their quarry in through the same door; the women were not allowed to participate. In a religious sense no animal was as important as the bear. The words Arctic from Gk. arktos, ursa from Lat. ursa (fem.) in the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) and even the name Arthur (Middle Irish art) derive from the IE root *rkso- “bear” and attest to the significance of this animal in the north. *rkso, however, is itself a loanword from the Northern Tungus (Altaic branch of the Ural-Altaic languages) word for bear, raketa. Furthermore, *rkso is not found in the three IE language groups, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic, that border Finno-Ugric peoples to the north and east. Instead they use circumlocutions. In Germanic, for example, the English word “bear” means “the brown one.” The Slavic word for bear means “honey-eater” and the Baltic word means “licker, the one who licks.”
Numerous bear graves from the 9th century on have been found in forest and mountain areas throughout Scandinavia. In Northern Sweden there are thirteen finds of which six have been investigated archaeologically: the bones have been laid in a specific arrangement similar to their placement in the live bear with the cranium and shoulder blades at one end. In about half of the graves the bones have not been split. There is evidence in the bear ceremonials too that after the bear meat had been eaten the bones were carefully buried in a particular order.
Nils Uddenberg writes that “the large prey animals were seen as having well developed mental abilities, something that likely could result in their attaining a high moral status.” And Johan Turi said that “the animals, the trees, the rocks, and other things have lost the faculty of speech, but they still have the faculty of hearing and understanding.” To counteract this animal intelligence early hunting groups resorted to two strategies – in part related – to deceive the bear. They used special language to disguise the hunters’ intentions and to prevent vengeance on the part of the bear’s kin. They also proclaimed their innocence in the slaying of the bear and thereby deflected the blame onto others.
It was commonly thought that the bear could understand human language, at least on a fundamental level. Therefore, one could not use the real word for bear or parts of the bear’s body; otherwise the bear would become aware of the hunters’ intentions. There are two words for bear in Sámi: guovža and in Swedish Sápmi bierdna. The proscription from using these words applied not only to bear hunts but to daily speech as well. Instead, three types of expressions (so-called noa words) were used: 1) circumlocutions based on the bear’s characteristics such as muottat “the fur-clad one;” 2) metaphorical expressions such as meahcehas “the one living in the forests;” and 3) kinship terms such as luođuid eadni “mother of the wilderness.” Gaski suggests that using a kinship term would help give the bear a kind disposition toward people. A circumlocution such as lavdnji “turf” could allude to the color of the bear’s hide.
Nils Gaup’s 1988 film Pathfinder includes a Sámi bear hunt and the ensuing ceremonial. As the men are heading out to hunt the bear a young boy, Ovi, is about to utter the word for bear. His mother prevents him from doing so by referring to the bear as dárffot “the one who resembles moss (in color).” As Gaski points out, the Sámi, though respectful of the bear, were implicitly drawing a border “between the human intellect and the animal’s nature.” This special form of communication whereby the bear was unable to understand the symbolic content of the Sámi language provided the model for the “elaborate…hidden messages conveyed in the more rebellious songs from the period of colonization.”
Another way to deceive the bear through language was to distort the facts. Samuel Rheen, in his 1671 description of a Swedish Sámi bear hunt and ensuing ceremonial, reports that when the hunters arrive at the place where the bear is to be consumed and are met by their wives, they sing out loud “Here come men from the land of Sweden, from Germany, England and all lands” and hence they themselves are not to blame. In the Kalevala Louhi, the dame of Pohjola, furious that the people of Kalevala have recovered from the pestilence, sends a bear to wreak havoc on Kalevala’s cattle. Väinämöinen learns of this and has the smith Ilmarinen forge him a special spear with which he then dispatches the bear. Väinämöinen says “My own Otso, you my only, Good old Honeypaw, the handsome! Be not angry without reason; I am not the one who slew you, You yourself rolled off a shaft-bow, You yourself down from a pine bough” as if the bear’s death had been accidental.
Using words from other languages would also divert attention from the bear’s killers and help to prevent vengeance. The South Sámi used many Nordic loanwords in their bear ceremonials, e.g. instead of the South Sámi word for “nose” njuenie they used the Swedish word nos. The South Sámi reindeer herder Anta Pirak writes that a hunter was not permitted to brag about his bear hunting exploits and had to be respectful toward the bear; otherwise an “evil ear” might hear the boasting and perhaps take revenge. He adds that if a woman were to meet a bear in a cloudberry patch, she was supposed to lift up the front of her dress and say: “See, I’m a woman. Shame on you – get away from me. I don’t intend to kill you.” The Sámi also attempted to trick the bear or rather the bear’s kin by laying the blame for the bear’s death on others such as men from Sweden, Germany or England.
Bear As Quarry
If the bear was so venerated, why was it hunted? DuBois writes that the “ceremonial bear hunt sought to remove a fierce competitor from the local environment, while winning its power for the hunter and community and assuring its eventual reincarnation or return to the sky.” It provided the hunter with the chance to measure his strength and courage with that of the bear. When the Sámi hunters had come out on top, the bear’s death was celebrated; even the bear participated. An elaborate “björnvisa” or bear song – really an antiphonal yoik text in no fewer than 48 parts – was recorded in 1775. It reenacts many aspects of the bear ceremony from shortly after the felling of the animal to a few days later when all the meat had been eaten and the men could finally return to their women. The bear’s yoiks were sung either by the women or the men. Hence, the bear was “holy game” surrounded by a great deal of mysticism. However, Louise Bäckman, after looking at bear ceremonials among other peoples in Siberia, ascertains that not all successful bear hunts included celebrations.
Such extensive, almost religious celebrations were widespread among circumpolar hunting groups from the Sámi and Finns in the west to the North American Indians. Some of the customs connected to the ceremonial, which had the goal of assuring future hunting luck, were sacrifice, prayer, divination, language taboos, exculpation and/or atonement from guilt, taboos for the women such as covering their eyes, peering through brass rings, not eating certain parts of the bear and abstinence from sexual activity. The oldest Nordic depiction of the Sámi bear ceremonial is in the Norwegian royal chronicles Chronicon Regum Norvegiæ from 1606. Thereafter follow a number of descriptions of the ceremony including one by Samuel Rheen in 1671 and one by the Norwegian clergyman Petter Dass in the last decade of the 17th century. One of the most thorough dates from 1755 and is by Pehr Fjellström who lived among the Sámi for some forty years.
According to Sámi tradition and, for that matter, throughout the circumpolar area these elaborate rites of a religious nature owe their existence to the same sacred narrative: a young woman was forced to go into the forest to escape maltreatment from her brothers and she took refuge in a bear’s lair. The bear returned, accepted her and they began a marital relationship. She gave birth to a son and she and the bear lived together for a long time while their son was growing up. Then the bear realized that his time on earth was up and told his wife to instruct the bear’s slayers – her brothers – how to act so as to avoid revenge. This scenario dictated by the bear was then played out during every important bear hunt.
All members of the siida entered into a sacred period at the beginning of the hunt, which lasted until the end of the ceremonial. There were a number of aspects to the whole process, only a few of which will be mentioned here. Ringing in: the man who discovered the lair ringed it in, i.e. marked it in some fashion. It was important that the ringing-in leave an opening through which the bear’s guardian spirit could bring the bear a daily bowl of milk during hibernation and a bowl of blood right before the bear’s death. The hunting party arrived in strict order with the one who discovered the lair first followed by the one who was designated to kill the animal.
Beating with branches: the dead bear was beaten three times with birch branches or the hunters skied over the bear three times. This custom goes back to the original myth where the bear’s son asked for a share of the bear meat but was refused by the brothers. The son then beat the bearskin with twigs threatening to resurrect the bear then and there, after which he got his fair share of the meat. The one who killed the bear made a ring of soft branches and put it around the bear’s nose and lifted it three times. A draft reindeer then pulled the bear back to the siida where preparations had been made – no woman could be on a sled pulled by that draft reindeer for the next year. The hunters announced their arrival with song, explaining that they had an honored guest with them.
The special door or boaššu: after preparing the bear meat the hunters entered the dwelling through a special door, which the women were not allowed to use. The women spat alder bark juice – liejpie in S. Sámi, which also means menstrual blood – on the bear and on the hunters when they came in and when they handed meat to the women. This custom and its meaning have been extensively debated; it was likely an apotropaic measure intended to avert evil. Bäckman says that in the myth the god of the hunt was in a hostile relationship with one of the female gods. Then the eating could begin and it might last for four days or more depending on how many people there were. The men ate the front part of the bear and the women the hind part. During this rite there could be an extensive yoik antiphony as mentioned above. At the end the bear’s bones were buried in a careful order and the men underwent purification and could then return to their wives.
Sámi Bear Tales
Turning to Sámi folktales the bear’s situation is quite different. Granted folk tales and myths are not quite the same thing. Myths are generally pessimistic and reflect adult psychology, whereas folk tales tend to be more optimistic and deal with the problems of childhood. I have only considered a few of the tales and one late myth, but the overall pattern seems clear, viz. a rather ignominious outcome for the bear. Many of these tales were collected by J. K. Qvigstad with the help of a number of Sámi informants and they appeared in Samiske eventyr og sagn I-IV, 1927-29.
“The Fox, the Bear and the Mountain Sámi” begins with an etiological explanation for the bear’s short tail. The bear meets a fox that has acquired a lot of fish. He asks the fox how he too might get hold of some fish – note that he does not simply take the fish from the fox. The fox tells him to stick his tail into a well and wait until it becomes heavy. He does so, and then it freezes. The bear loses his tail beating a speedy retreat after the fox warns the owners of the well. The bear is understandably angry and manages to catch the fox but is fooled once again. The fox tells him about dressing up small birds and the bear becomes envious. The fox gets the bear to dig a pit, fill it with firewood and tie himself up after which the fox burns him to death.
In another tale “The Bear Shows the Lion A Human” a man meets a bear that wants to take him. The man says: “Wait a second! We should castrate each other. I’ll castrate you today and you can do me tomorrow.” The bear agrees to this, and the following day the man sends his wife to meet the bear. The bear notices that it is a woman and says: “Others have already castrated you, but I’ll fix that up, for they haven’t done it the right way.” As if that weren’t enough, later on the bear becomes frightened when a hare tells him that the wife has farted loudly.
In “The Fox Frightens the Bear and the Lion” the fox receives a visit from the bear and the lion and is afraid they will kill him. The three begin to talk about how strong they are. Then the fox tells them he knows someone stronger. The fox fetches a house cat. The bear and lion each climb a tree from which to glimpse this powerful creature. There is also a pig at the fox’s place that digs in under one of the trees, keeping an eye open to view the strong creature. The cat, not knowing why he is there, chases a mouse under a tree and spots the shining eye of the pig and proceeds to scratch it out. The pig howls shaking the ground so that the dirt flies. The cat becomes scared and jumps up into the tree where the bear is. This frightens the bear, who believing the cat has killed the pig, quickly takes flight.
In “The Fox Frightens Wild Animals” a fox, a cat and a ram live together and nearby live a bear, a wolf and a lion. The fox overhears the bear tell his comrades that they should chase the fox, cat and ram away. The fox asks his comrades how they can protect themselves against such mighty enemies and comes up with a plan: the ram is to butt an empty barrel while the cat is supposed to sit on the stove, hiss and extend and retract his claws. The fox lies on the floor pretending to be terribly tired. Somehow they manage to frighten the three large animals. The fox is not yet satisfied and he and his two comrades pay a visit to the bear, wolf and lion, getting them to abandon their house with the bear losing an eye to boot.
Finally, “The Man and The Bear” is clearly a myth. Two men hunting grouse become separated in a snowstorm. One falls down a hole and when he lights a match he discovers he is in a bear’s den. He doesn’t expect to survive, but someone whispers into his ear that he will not die there. When he becomes hungry he notices that a hulder or gufihtar (subterranean) woman brings food to the bear. The man falls asleep, but when he awakens he feels full. Eight weeks later the bear sticks his paw through some pine branches creating an opening to the outside. The man returns home and reports what has happened. His neighbors urge him to lead them to the lair where they shoot the bear. In his death struggle the bear kills the man who had shared his lair. Later an old woman asks why they hadn’t come to her, for she knew the bear would recognize this man. The feeding of the bear during hibernation is related to the ringing-in of the bear’s den at the beginning of a bear hunt as discussed above.
Transition to Herding
The bear’s loss of status was due primarily to two factors: the colonization of Sápmi by outsiders, including the enforced conversion to Christianity; this in turn gradually led to the depletion of the fur-bearing animals and the end of the wild reindeer hunting culture. The emerging nation-states, Denmark-Norway, Sweden-Finland and Novgorod (later Russia) considered Sápmi to be terra nullius, a land without owners. Using the traditional state-building alliance between church, king and settlers they began to make inroads into Sámi territory. Churches were built around the Gulf of Bothnia beginning in the 12th century and later along the Arctic coast. A church was consecrated at Vardø in East Finnmark in 1307 followed by a royal fortress, and Christian missionary activity began. Conversion was a lengthy process especially in the interior of Sápmi, for it wasn’t until the latter half of the 17th century that the clergymen actually resided at the inland siidas.
The veneration of the bear had been an integral part of ancient Sámi hunting culture, which now came under attack as stocks of wild game diminished. It was a long process that accelerated toward the end of the 16th century. Since there were no borders north of Jämtland prior to 1595, the Sámi were taxed by as many as three nation-states, all of whom were vying for valuable Sámi territory. The Sámi paid their taxes in pelts. On the European continent there was a large appetite for such, and from the middle of the 16th century prices jumped dramatically. In Sweden Gustav Vasa forced the birkarls (merchants controlling trade with the Sámi) to pay more to the Crown from 1553 on. His son Karl IX issued a decree in 1602 requiring the Sámi to pay their taxes in reindeer and stockfish: pelt prices had now fallen and the army needed meat. In 1607 the tax burden increased to two live reindeer per family, 150 pounds of stockfish as well as every tenth reindeer calf. There were no large herds of domestic reindeer in the 16th century, hence a crisis loomed for the Sámi of Sweden. The only way out for many was to increase the size of their domestic reindeer herds rapidly in the first decades of the 17th century.
There had been tame reindeer for many centuries, both females used as decoys and males used as draft animals. The first type of herding developed among the forest and mountain Sámi of Northern Sweden, perhaps as early as the 16th century. This semi-nomadic form of herding was “intensive” in the sense that during spring, summer and fall the herd was confined to a rather small area and herding was combined with other activities such as reindeer milking as well as fishing and hunting of small game. Then during the 17th century under the pressure of taxation herding gradually spread to other Sámi regions. In the mountainous areas of Sápmi reindeer herding was “extensive” or fully nomadic with long spring and autumn migrations.
The gradual move to reindeer herding in most areas of Sápmi spelled the end of the traditional hunting culture and weakened the rituals that were part of it. The intimate relationship of the hunters to the bear was now gone and bear ceremonials slowly faded away. Some of the bear customs survived into the 19th century in the form of wedding songs where the bear was treated as an honored guest. “Such remnant songs speak of an age when the fates of men and nature were seen as clearly tied.”
Christianity and the Missionaries
The church also played a significant role in lowering the bear’s status. Once clergymen began to dwell among the Sámi at the inland siidas in the latter half of the 17th century they became zealous and brutal in their effort to eradicate the old Sámi worldview: noaidis (shamans) were killed, magic drums were burned and yoiking was discouraged. The Church considered all yoiking “to be inherently ‘heathen, if not downright evil.” In order to survive, the old religion, which had been such an important part of the hunting culture, was forced to go underground. These early hunters believed that the gods influenced hunting luck and they relied on their noaidis to help locate wild game. Sacrifices were made at sieidis (sacrificial sites) to bring continued hunting success. But now the Sámi discovered that their traditional methods no longer worked; since resources were dwindling rapidly sacrifices were of no avail. The Sámi came to understand that it was outsiders who were to blame for all the hard times, and they began to strike back the only way they knew – with their language.
The Sámi Language As Weapon
The bear as a formidable adversary of the Sámi was gradually replaced by outsiders; however, the Sámi’s method of communicating so that the bear would not understand did survive. This use of noa words and metaphorical language provided the model for what Gaski refers to as “two-part communication where one transmitted a message to Sámi listeners and an entirely different message to outsiders.” There were three stages in the evolution of this metaphorical system: 1) Preventing children from using the name of the bear; 2) Turning this idea on the younger people themselves so as to communicate only part of a message, intentionally or otherwise. For example, in the myth “The Son of the Sun’s Courting In the Land of the Giants” the narrator had “to maintain a double communication, so that the children mainly understood the denotative content of the texts, while the grownups could enjoy a connotative level that sustained several meanings. This was especially challenging perhaps in erotic narratives, then as now.” Or, Gaski writes: “As a little boy I remember one time witnessing two older men having a discussion with each other in a language I didn’t understand, even though it was Sámi, and I understood the words they used. But the words were put together in a way that made them foreign, at the same time as there was a strange sound to them – a song, poetry, but I didn’t know it yet at that time.And finally 3) Communicating with outsiders in this fashion. This new system of double entendres and figurative language was necessary for the exchange of coded information among the Sámi in the presence of non-Sámi.
The Sámi were no longer concerned with tricking the bear; now they had to trick outsiders. Just as the bear’s grasp of the Sámi language had been basic, limited to non-figurative utterances, now there were missionaries, agriculturalists, birkarls, and other representatives of the nation-states who were beginning to learn the Sámi language for various purposes, whether it be to gain a deeper understanding of the Sámi worldview in order to eradicate it more readily, to resolve disputes with the Sámi or to trade with them. The Sámi resorted to their skills in communicating on several levels at one time.
Returning to the bear tales, we may have an example of what Lassi Saressalo calls defensive ethnic folklore. Perhaps in the end the bear became the outsider, the stallu, who was doomed to fail in trying his wits with the fox, the Sámi.
Rolf Kjellström & Håkan Rydving. Den samiska trumman. Stockholm, 1988: 26. Kjellström, though, interprets fewer of the figures on the drum skins as bears than does Ernst Manker in his Die lappische Zaubertrommel 1 from 1938.
Carl-Martin Edsman. Jagaren och makterna: Samiska och finska björnceremonier, Uppsala, 1994: 91-92 and Uno Holmberg. Lapparnas religion, Uppsala, 1996 (Swedish translation of Lappalaisten uskonto, 1915): 1.
If Bo Wickman is right guovπa and bierdna may originally be noa words too. guovπa may be related to Finnish kontia “to creep, to crawl” whereas bierdna is a loanword from Swedish björn. “The Origins of the Lappish Hunting and Fishing Terminology” in Harald Hvarfner (ed.) Hunting and Fishing. Norrbottens Museum 1965: 504.
“Folk Wisdom and Orally Transmitted Knowledge – Everyday Poetry In Adages, Rhyme and Jingles.” Forthcoming in Gaski, DuBois and Weinstock, The Thief and the Shaman: Sámi Interrelations With Home and Neighbors, ºállid Lagadus.