Initiations, Bears and Rituals Part 4

The second source I wish to discuss from the article is the Viitasaari Text.  As Haggerty points out himself points out  the Viitasaari Text is a seventeenth century narrative in which a local bishop describes what he has witnessed of local cultic practices. From this text, and a few poems from other sources, we get the basic idea of how bears were hunted. Note the similarities between this basic narrative structure and that of the Kalevala.

” It (the hunt) was done by approaching the lair of the bear and preparing to kill it upon awakening it from its winter hibernation. Once the hunters are prepared the den is broken open and the bear is killed by a single thrust with a spear or later a single shot from a bow or gun.

It is thought that the bear is dazzled by the sudden bright light and shock, which awakens it making the kill relatively devoid of danger if preformed correctly.

The location of the bear is tracked by the hunters while it is near their village. If the bear then makes a winter den nearby, the hunters mark this so they can find the bear later.

It is thought that this practice helped associate the bear hunt, kill and subsequent ceremony with midwinter. The bear also acts as a living source of guaranteed food in the harsh northern winters.”(Haggerty, pgs 43 – 44)

This is a good lead into another piece I stumbled across recently, concerning the bear hunts. It also discusses the bear in context of the Sami.  The author of the article is Brandon Bledsoe. I love the quote he prefaces his article with.

“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)”

Bledsoe then goes into a discussion of how the bear rituals serves multiples functions in a society; ”

  1. Religious Level – The bear ceremony is a form of communication with the supernatural world…
  2. Economic Level – This belief-system is the result of a perceived need for reciprocity with nature. Success in hunting and fishing is dependent on the good will of the bear that rules over the reproduction of animals (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.”

Then the author sets out the hunt as performed by the Sami; ”

  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. Birching 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. “A 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 master” (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.”

Really, what can I add here? This article is already kind of long…

The next part of this series will be coming next week.

References;

http://www.utexas.edu/courses/sami/diehtu/siida/religion/bear.htm

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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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