Tag Archives: Ritual

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.



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.