Initiations, Bears, and Rituals Part 1

This series is drawn from the article Initiation Rituals in Old Norse Texts and their Relationship to Finno-Karelian Bear Cult Rituals by James Haggerty. The article itself is a long one, and here I am only discussing selections that are of interest to me. Interested parties will need to read the article for themselves, after all it is not my work.

I wanted to discuss this article because it touches upon a lot of themes and ideas that have been a regular part of this blog. Moving on…

In the article, Haggerty analyses several different narratives, and the possibility that they may represent initiation rituals.

The two Old Norse sources discussed in the article are the Hrólfs saga kraka ok kappa hans and the Völsungasaga. The Hrolf saga is thought to be from the 12th or 13th century, and the Völsungasaga is thought to be based on poetry from the Elder Edda. Haggerty offers summaries of both narratives. To get this series started, here is a stripped down version of the Hrolf’s saga, as a selection from Haggerty’s article.

“Bödvar is the son of a woman and a bear. Bödvar, the younger of three brothers, is the last to leave his mothers home having remained longer to see his dead father avenged. On leaving home he acquires his inheritance, a magic sword, left by his father in the cave where the latter lived as a bear. Bödvar travels onwards and meets first his eldest brother who has the legs of an elk, Bödvar fights his brother amicably and upon losing, his brother instructed him to drink blood from his leg so Bödvar might increase his power. Bödvar continues on his journey and on the way to the hall of King Hrolf he meets the peasant mother of Hottr, a boy she says is being mistreated by Hrolf’s warriors. Having grown in strength, Bödvar eventually arrives at the hall of King Hrolf where he finds the warriors of the king and Hottr.

Bödvar after meeting Hottr takes him from underneath a pile of discarded bones and washes him in a nearby body of water, after which Bödvar sets Hottr on a bench in the hall beside him. When the warriors see this they continue to mistreat Hottr by throwing bones at him and Bödvar, the latter protecting Hottr, catches a large bone and throws it back at the man who threw it, causing his death. This action brings Bödvar to the attention of King Hrolf who makes Bödvar one of his warriors under the agreement that Bödvar and Hottr can sit at the bench nearest to the king.

An animal approaches the hall at Yuletide. Hottr tells Bödvar that this is a regular event and that the beast causes great destruction. Hrolf orders none of his men to go against the animal so they do not throw their lives away. Bödvar, taking Hottr with him sneaks out of the hall in the night to go against the beast, Hottr being too afraid, is left cowering on the heath while Bödvar kills the animal.  After the animal is dispatched Bödvar has Hottr drink of the beasts blood and eat of its heart.

After doing this Hottr feels a new strength and the two prop the animal up as if it were still alive and return to the hall. The next morning, when the king asks who will go against the animal, Bödvar volunteers Hottr for the task. To general astonishment Hottr accepts and proceeds to go against the animal if he can claim a sword named Goldenhilt from King Hrolf. This is agreed upon and Hottr ‘kills’ the animal, while Hrolf reveals he knows the truth, he is pleased that Bödvar has created a strong man out of Hottr. When Hottr has successfully completed the task, he is rewarded by Hrolf with the new name of Hjalti and becomes a warrior of similar standing to Bödvar at the hall.” (Haggerty, pgs 9 – 11)

Bödvar is said to be the son of a woman and a bear. That right there points to animism already present in this story, as well as a connection with the bear. However, it is Hottr that Haggerty thinks is going through an initiation. He starts off symbolically “dead”, being under a pile of bones. He is a man of no social worth, and is the subject of mockery and contempt. However, with Bödvar’s help, Hottr become a man of knowledge and strength, after drinking the animal blood. This earns him his worth, and a place in society. It even earns him a new name, Hjalti. I think the new name, is one of the clear indications that this might be an initiation.

In the next part of this series I will turn to the story of Sigurd from the Völsungasaga. Bear (see what I did there?) with me, as this series is going to be a longer one. I will be looking at narratives, ritual, initiations, and you guessed it, bears.

 

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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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