Bears and the Ancient North

It seems Mondays may be the best days for posts, as my week is generally busy/crazy otherwise. With that in mind, I am going to try and keep a regular schedule with posting every Monday or every other Monday.

In honor of this might-be tradition, I bring you this post.

I have been doing a lot of reading lately, and I mean a lot. My living room is scattered with books and articles, much to the wife’s dismay. Personally I find it a glorious temple to knowledge, but that is just me.

My recent reading is an article with a mouthful of a name; “Bears and Meanings among Hunter-Fisher-Gatherers in Northern Fennoscandia 9000 – 2500 BC” written by Knut Helskog.  Ok, so that sets up the region, which is modern northern Norway/Sweden, Finland and eastwards into Karelia and Russia. We are talking about the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, but the evidence indicates that this was likely the case through out the land, its just the south was more prone to be superseded by other cultural influences from central Europe (farmers, Indo-Europeans, that kind of thing.)

Suffice to say, that the hunter-fisher-gatherer (hence abbreviated as HFG) cultures persisted the longest in the northern most lands of Fennoscandia, and it is here we find rock art, artifacts and even some ethnohistorical evidence that may shed some light on how HFG’s lived in the long ages of the Mesolithic, after the ice sheet retreated and humans colonized Scandinavia.

Quite a bit of evidence remains that can tell us how the HFG’s lived, but it is also important to remember that quite a bit (more) has been lost, and cannot ever be recovered. This is important thing to keep in mind as I summarize Helskog’s article.

The ancient HFG’s of Scandinavia most likely had an animistic view of their surroundings, that is they view all things, human, plant, animal, stone as being imbued with a spirit of some kind.  As Helskog puts it;

“These beliefs are connected with animism as a world-view, that is, all beings, objects and natural phenomenon have a spirit or a soul. This means that they – whether humans, animals, plants, rocks, winds and so on – are looked upon as having self-consciousness, personal identity and will. ” (pg 212 of the article)

The bear and the reindeer/elk had a large part to play in this context, and the evidence points to the fact that the ancient HFG’s of the north structured their entire lives around these animals, and the hunt of them. As a modern person, and a modern pagan, it helps me to think of it in this way. Most of the pagan/heathen holidays are structured around the agricultural year. Samhain is a harvest festival. Imbolc and Beltaine are fertility/sowing festivals. Winter is the part of the year when the crops are fallow. The year also follows the progress of the sun, which is important for agriculturalists.

HFG’s structured their year a little differently, with their major points of the year being structure upon the hunt, or the seasonal availability of food in a given area. Here is what Helskog has to say about the bear in this context;

”As a result, the bear became a dominant symbol for the transition from winter (cold and dark) to summer (warm and light) when they woke from hibernation and from summer to winter when they entered the den to hibernate. Spring was at the beginning of the new fishing and hunting seasons, when families left shared winter village for spring fishing places.” (pg 214)

Spring, summer and winter are still warm and cold respectively, no real change there. But it is the hunting and fishing seasons that define life for the HFG’s as much as which plants are available. In my own context, who is to say that deer season is not the start of my year? Here in Michigan archery season starts Oct. 1. It feels like the start of a new year to me, and the hunt is the official start of fall in my book.

Lastly, there is the important matter of the shaman in all of this. Let me start out with another quote;

“In animistic systems of beliefs the bear, no less than a human, can understand it surroundings, communicate with other animals and humans, and a human might address the bear (or any other animals) and communicate with it when hunting. As such, hunting bears involves a complex set of rituals which might only be understood in relation to the central principles of beliefs of different groups of people. This includes the ideology of totemism, helping spirits and spirit masters…” (Pg 212)

And this leads to the role of the shaman. I touched a little on my own rituals for hunting in my post “The Hunting Heathen”. I can speak from experience that there is quite a lot that needs to be considered from the practical and the spiritual perspective.  However, the role of the shaman should not be considered absolute, and there is a variable spectrum on the specialization of the shaman across time and space. From the rock art, scenes can be pointed to where there is an unarmed person accompanying the armed hunters, a specialist of sorts, a shaman. In other scenes, there is no such figure, and all the hunters are armed, seemingly the hunters can do their rituals without a specialist. This seems to indicate that the shaman may or may not be a specialized occupation in every case. The idea of the hunter-shaman emerges here, one that has equal skill on the hunt and in the spirit world, one that can ensure the hunt is conducted properly in the physical world and the otherworld. One last quote from Helskog to bring it together;

“Within this framework shamans have a crucial role as communicator between humans and animals. Even though the nature of shamanism varies, the role of an intermediate is a common feature and the other-than-humans have to be treated with great respect or appropriate behavior. If this respect is not shown, communication might not produce the desired result” pg 212.

And that is one of the most important parts about all this, proper respect and communication. There is a connection between hunter’s and the land, a different sort than that of farmers. Most of my my own rituals revolve around getting permissions from the spirits to hunt in their realm, getting aid in the hunt, and most of all, communication between myself and my intended prey. The last is by far the hardest. “Hi, I intend to kill you.” Says I. “Ok. That is perfectly acceptable.” Says the deer. Nah, it just doesn’t happen like that.

That is where I am going to leave off for now.





About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

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