Initiations, Bears and Rituals Part 5

Haggerty discusses the presence of animism in some of his sources, and that is something I do want to discuss.

As Haggerty points out, by proxy of the work of other scholars; “…The wearing of masks allows an individual to ritually take on characteristics of an animal or of a god – whatever the mask represents. There is little reason that this cannot extend to the wearing of animal skins, which is evocative of Sigmund and Sinfjolti running as wolves. Jennbert argues that the line between humans and animals in Old Norse texts appears to be “…ambivalent and capable of being stretched in various ways.” She goes on to suggest that “Hybrid beings and the symbiosis between animal and human could this be expected to play a highly concrete role in rituals…” ” (Haggerty, pg 52)

Ah, so we are talking about animism and shape shifting here. Curiously, I have a couple of deer skins awaiting tanning in my garage right now. From my perspective as an animist, these skins retain a part of the spirit the original animal. As I view things, the body is part of the spirit, the physical part. As such, the skin still retains a connection to the spirit of the animal it once belonged to.

As Haggerty points out; “In both HSK(Hrolf’s Saga) and VS ( Völsungasaga) there is a strong animistic thread running through the narratives. It is the animism which first draws Byock and Sarmela to mention that there could be a connection between the sagas and the ancient Bear Cult. The animism in VS is mostly centered around the narrative episode of Sigmund and Sinfjotli, which occurs earlier in the saga than the slaying episode. Sigmund is Sigurd’s father and Sinfjotli is both Sigurd’s half brother and his cousin. In the story of these two characters there is a theme of animism especially related to wolves. A wolf kills Sigmund’s brothers and provides the means of his escape from capture. The most prominent instance is of Sigmund and Sinfjotli wearing magic wolf skins which transform them into wolves.” (Haggery, pg 50)

To bring the point home, a quote from the actual story translated from Old Norse; “Sigmund and Sinfjolti put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before: they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds.” (Haggerty, pg 50)

Tada! Shape shifting. Yet, it is not as simple as simply acquiring an animal skin. Sure, as I hunter I have a few skins, I’ve said that already. But here is another consideration. What happens when the spirit has already come to you, and strictly restricts use of its physical remains? The mask idea then becomes more interesting, as some masks are made of things like wood, and not necessarily parts of the animal in question. Connections to spirits are pretty complex, and as much on their terms as on ours. Artifacts, of many types, are just as complex and varied. Sometimes, it is not the material that matters, but the connection the item creates.

That is something worth considering more in the future. As things are, this series is coming to an end. This is the last post in the series, so now would be an appropriate place to reflect. I have put out my thoughts on this source and the ideas it contains. Do any of my readers have any thoughts, questions, or things you would like me to elaborate on?

Let me know!



Initiation Rituals in Old Norse Texts and their Relationship to Finno-Karelian Bear Cult Rituals by James Haggerty


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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