(c) Niina Niskanen
Bears had extremely important role in daily lives of ancient Finns in pre-christian world.
Bear was one of the first animal gods worshiped.
There is different types of myths how bear came to the earth.
Some of these myths are heavily influenced by Christianity and the older ones are with more pagan origins.
Siberian ostjak tribe's bear myth is also known in Finland. According to myth bear lived in the sky
in the constellation of the big bear and small bear. He lived with his father sky god Num Torum. His son the bear wanted to move to earth and live among people. His father agreed and so bear was landed to the earth from the skies. Bear lived sinful life in the earth. Father god got in rage and let people to kill his son.
Myth where bear's home is originally in the skies and he was landed to earth is common in all Eurasian area. Especially among those people who's ancestor's originally wondered from Siberia (such as Finns). Siberian Vogul tribe has a similar myth but their bear is a female not male.
Second myth tells that bear was born in Tapiola (old Finnish word for forest). Bears parents were sky god Ilmarinen and tree goddess Hongatar. Forest goddess Mielikki who took care of the bear once he was born. She also gave bear it's name and it's purpose. Creature that is both loved, feared and respected. Mielikki named bear KARHU (Finnish word for bear).
Karhu comes from the word karhea meaning rough fur.
Bear was respected god so when people entered to the forest they weren't allowed to say the word bear/ speak god's name loud. It was believed to jinx bear to appear.
In Finnish language there is over 1000 nicknames for bear.
Omena, Omenainen, Metsän omena, hunajatassu, Tapion poika, Tapiolan poika, Metsän kuningas
(Apple, forest Apple, honeypaw, son of Tapio, son of Tapiola, king of the forest ect.)
Bear was a god figure and it was believed that as god in flesh bear could read your mind, bear was a witch, wise one, shaman and a holy creature.
Human shamans could meet bear spirits during their shamanistic journeys and get answers to their questions.
Museum of Huittinen
app. 5170 bce
Kierikki archeological research
app. 5100 bce
There is archeological researchses made in Finland and findings support interesting theory
that some time in ancient Finland there has been two clans living together, clan of the bear and clan of the moose. This theory is supported by statue findings made in Finland representing moose's heads and bear heads.
Idea of clans comes from mythology that some tribes have animal ancestors and people were
related to animals.
When bear is standing it is about same size as human being and their paws are similar to human hand.
Bear is a strong animal, powerful and extremely fast.
People who were part of the bear clan without no doubt identified them selves to the bear
and bear became their holy animal because of it's great qualities.
Same goes with moose and the moose clan.
Bear hunting was important ritual. There was two bear hunts in a year.
Bear hunting was a spiritual process. Men had to live in celibacy for a while before hunting,
wash themselves and wear white clothes. First hunt took place in the spring time. Hunters went to the bear's cave while it was still a sleep they sang to the bear to wake it up and killed it.
Bear funeral was big festival as well. It included drinking, dancing, prays for the bear spirit
and bear plays
.Dead bear was burred in a ceremony that was very similar to human burial.
People believed that spirit of the bear returns back to the skies to it's original home when it was buried properly.
Bear skulls were used to decorate altars or they were put to the top of pine tree to keep the
bear spirit near.
This position as a god in Finland's history has been very beneficial for bears in Finland.
They are not that much hunted in Finland what they are in many other countries in Europe and other parts of the world. Back in 2013 I was in volunteer work in Bear refuge in Croatia.
We had lot's of talk there about the bear situation in Europe. It was quite shocking. I think there was 5 bears in France, 2 in Switzerland, about 200 in Croatia and there is app. 1450 - 1590 bears in Finland (in 2015) it is difficult to give exact number since bears move between borders of Russia and Sweden. Still number is way larger compared to many other countries.
Roles between Finnish forest god Tapio, forest goddess Mielikki and bear god were often mixed because both Tapio and Mielikki could shape-sift themselves to bears. Tapio is also one name for a bear. (Tapio/ Tapiola old Finnish word for a forest).
If you wish to know more about Tapio and Mielikki check out my
Photo (c) Ilkka Jaakola
Bears are still today essential part of Finland's forests and I hope they will always be that way.