The Baltic Bear
by Margaret Odrowaz Sypniewska


This is a Finnish epic from the old Karelian poems (an oral history). It comes from a region that straddles the border of eastern Finland and north-western Russia, including areas around the Baltic Sea (Estonia, Latvia, etc.). These tales are more archaic than Beowulf.

This information is from Tales of Kalevala by Elias Lonnrot, which was published in Helsinki in 1835. Kaleva poetry was usually sung to tunes on a pentachord, a sort of zither. Kalavala poetry has neither rhyme or stanza.

Louchi, the gap-toothed hag of the North
raised a bear to attack the livestock
of Kalevala.

Vainamoinen asked the smith Ilmarinen
to forge him a new spear of three
edges with a copper shaft to kill
the bear who had killed
his geldings, mares, and cattle

Vainamoinen then recites:

Beast, apple of the forest
chucky honey paw
When you hear me coming, a
real man stepping
tie you claws up in your fur
so that they never touch me
When you lunge!

My beastie, my matchless one
honey-paw, my handsome one
slump down upon a hummock
upon a fair rock...

Vainamoinen kills a bear, in his den, with his spear. He invites the bear to his home and sings along the way, as he transports him. When Vainamoinen reaches his home, all his family welcomes the bear whom they call by names other than bear.

They chant:

Be thanked God, be praised
alone, Creator, that you
gave the Beast for my portion
the backwood's gold for my catch!

My Beastie, my matchless one
Honey-paw, my handsome one
don't be angry without cause!

They take the dead bear to the diniing hall and tell him not to be afraid. They they skin the bear, cook its meat, and serve a great feast.

The People greet:

In the golden one walking
the silver one wandering
the precious dear stopping, the
pennyworth picking his way.

Then his family and relatives ask Vainamoinen to tell how he killed the bear. He answers that he did not kill it. "It fell and stumbled," he relates. Dead branches broke its breastbone and twigs split open his belly. His family eats the bear meat and drink the grease from the cooking. All during this feast they sing and perform small ceremonies.

Welcome here too, God
Under the famous roof beam
under the fair roof!--
There shall I leave my charmer
put dowm my shaggy bundle?

The Feast:

the golden dishes
for a sip of mead
for a draught of beer
Of pine the table was made
and the bowls cast in copper
The spoons in silver
the knives wrought in gold
the cups all are brimming over,
the bowls to the bulwarks
With the forest's pleasant gifts
with the dear backwoods catches

Of course, this is all in their imagination, unless they were of the Finnish nobility. However, these words are to show the bear how important he is to their mere exsistence.

This great account resembles the Cree hunt.

The Finns hunted the "Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos)" while the Crees hunted the "Black Bear (Ursus americanus)." The Algonkin-speaking groups and Athapaskans did much the same rite.

They began with the naming of the bear and called them "Grandfather" or "Grandmother," while the Finns called them "Blue-tailed." "Honey-eater," or "Glory of the Wilderness." Other Native Americans called them "The Angry One," "Big Hairy One," or "Sticky Mouth." They never just called them bear, because it was thought that they should treat the bear as one of their friends who they knew by name.

Finns also called brown bears "the Apple of the Forest," and "Snub Nose." The Lapps called them :Old Man With a Fur Garment." The Estonians labelled them "Broadfoot." In Siberia, they were called "Owner of the Earth," and "Great Man."

Typical Bear Hunts:

Step 1: finding the location of the cave

Step 2: men return to the den in early spring for the kill, when the bear is thin and weaker from the winter hibernation, using spears, clubs, and axes.

Step 3: divination was used with the scapular bones of a previously killed bear, along with its paws, and its hide. One man might wear the bear hide and paws and the other men would pretend to kill him.

The Cree people have their Memekwesiw, Spirit Boss of the Bears. They usually came to them in their dreams and told the dreamer the location of the bear cave. If the people treated the dead bear well, The Owner of the Animals was pleased and game would be plentiful.

Step 4: Atonement - giving apologies for the killing. They tell the bear: "I am sorry. Don't be angry! I killed you only for food and clothing."

Step 5: Offerings - offerings were given to the dead bear. They decorated the body before it was butchered and cooked with scented flowers and items of wealth. A sort of offering to the bear. The men then ate the head, heart and front paws which stood for the knowledge, courage, and strength of the bear. The women and children ate the other parts. The men were the hunters therefore they were to be instilled with a little of the soul of the bear.

Step 6: A feast - a feast is held in honor of the kill, much like the original Thanksgiving.

Step 7: Effigies in the trees - the skulls were hung in the trees with other bones of the bear for protection. The bear spirit was powerful.

The Germanic/Viking tribes had their berserkers. They were strong. like the bear. They painted their bodies black and attacked their enemies at night, like predators. Berserks sometimes were naked except for their bearskins. Berserkers worshipped war gods, who they thought made them immortal.

Like the Native American bear shaman, berserks were shape-shifters, who could change into bears at will (at least in mythology).

The legendary warrior, Bodvar Bjarki, served Denmark's King Hrolf, and battled in the form of a terrible bear.

Bjarki would fall into a trance-like state and he would become a bear. He would fight with rage and kill everyone.

Tales of women marrying bears were common in both the Old World and the New World. One such woman gave birth to a child with bear ears or one with a large half-human form.

Lokis was written by the French writer, Prosper Merimee, and is about a Lithaunian count who's mother was raped by a bear. The count thus has a very bearish nature. He loves to climb trees, terrifies domestic animals, is violent at times, and embraces his wife with a crushing hug. He murders her on her wedding night and she is found with teeth marks on her throat.

In Europe, it is thought that bears exit their caves after hibernation with the first spring thunderstorm. The "Thunder god" and "Bears Spirits" are often synonymous.

Both Native American Indians and Europeans thought the bear was a healing beast. European bears ate medicinal plants too. Socrates even mentions using Zalmoxis (bearskin) healers who gave him medicines and spells to cure his headaches.

"Straw bears" were common in Europe. They were much like the English "Wicker Men." Men dressed as Straw Bears visited in spring to dance for successful plantings. In England, this rite fell on Plough Monday, the first plowing of the year. On both sides of the Atlantic, bears were considered gods of vegetation, much like the Celtic Green Man.

Candlemas (February) is the day when the bears emerge from their hibernation. In the Americas this is called "Ground Hog Day." In Poland and Austria it is known as "Bear's Day."



The Celtic Bear

The Bear Clan


Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevala. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rockwell, David. Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear. Niwor, CO.: Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1991.

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