The symbolic role and position of the bear is very prominent in many of the world’s cultures and peoples, but none more so that in Finnish mythology and folklore. Prior to the influence of Christianity, the bear was an integral part of religious practices, rites and ceremonies, including the ancient religious practice of bear worship. Even today, the bear is designated as the country’s national animal.
The ancient Finns believed that the bear embodied the spirit of one’s forefathers, and was held in highest respect. Shamanistic traditions held that certain animals, as well as earthly and planetary elements such as the sun and moon, were in fact deities and guardian spirits, and the bear played a preeminent role in this mythology.
In ancient Finnish folklore, the bear, along with the other prominent forest animal of the culture, the elk, served as a tribal emblem and totem animal, holding a position of both respect and fear as well. Although the bear held sacred status with the people, it was also hunted and killed. If a man killed a bear, this was regarded as both a sign of status and prestige within the community.
In Finnish, the word for bear is karhun, or “king of the forest”. Because the bear was considered such a sacred animal, the ancient Finns were very careful, reticent, and even unwilling to orally verbalize and refer to the bear “spirit” directly in speech. There is an ominous and foreboding element to the folklore of the bear; the bear “spirit” might be referred to as “friend”, but among many etymological substitutes for the word “bear” in the culture were such names as mesikämmen, or “honeypaws.”
Superstition was a fundamental element in this primitive culture. In some Finnish traditions, the bear was regarded as the reincarnation of a relative who had fled the community, and had been mystically changed into its current form by the “power of the forest”.
Karhunpeijaiset – Celebration of the Bear
Karhunpeijaiset was an ancient ritual/feast honoring the bear, and took place at the conclusion of a bear hunt. The bear was “sacrificed” as part of the ceremony, and was honored at this sacred banquet. The purpose of the “Celebration of the Bear” was to demonstrate the high level of respect and profound esteem with which the bear’s spirit was held by the people.
One of the purposes of the ritual was to entice the bear’s spirit back to the forest from which it came. After the feast, the bear’s skull, which was thought to embody the soul of the bear, was attached high up on a pine tree, called a kallohonka. This sacred tree was similar to a totem pole in Eskimo culture. In placing the skull on the tree, the people believed that this would release the bear’s spirit back to the sky from where it originated, and then return to the earth and to the forest.
Bear Worship, Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear_worship#Finns)
Finnish Mythology, Introduction (http://molly.kalafut.org/mythology/Finnish/finnish.html)
The Ancient Religion of the Finns (http://finland.fi/netcomm/news/showarticle.asp?intNWSAID=25814)
Finland‘s national nature symbols (http://finland.fi/netcomm/news/showarticle.asp?intNWSAID=25582&LAN=ENG)
Finnish Mythology, Animals & Nature (http://molly.kalafut.org/mythology/Finnish/animals.html)
The Ancient Finnish Myths (http://www.finnishmyth.org/p5bear.html)