The Ainu Iomante ceremony (bear sending). Japanese scroll painting, circa 1870

Bear worship (also known as bear cults or arctolatry (with "arctolatry" being a neologism not found in modern dictionaries or derived from earlier ancient sources, but coined for discussions on this subject such as found here)) is the religious practice of the worshipping of bears found in many North Eurasian ethnic religions such as among the Sami, Nivkh, Ainu,[1] Basques[citation needed], Germanic peoples, Slavs and Finns.[2] There are also a number of deities from Celtic Gaul and Britain associated with the bear, and the Dacians, Thracians, and Getians were noted to worship bears and annually celebrate the bear dance festival.[citation needed] The bear is featured on many totems throughout northern cultures that carve them.[3]

Ursine ancestor

In an article in Enzyklopädie des Märchens, American folklorist Donald J. Ward noted that a story about a bear mating with a human woman, and producing a male heir, functions as an ancestor myth to peoples of the northern hemisphere, namely, from North America, Japan, China, Siberia and Northern Europe.[4]

Paleolithic cult

The bear-goddess feeds a bear (1918)

The existence of an ancient bear cult among Neanderthals in Western Eurasia in the Middle Paleolithic has been a subject of conjecture due to contentious archaeological findings.[3] Evidence suggests that Neanderthals could have worshipped the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) and bear bones have been discovered in several cave sites across Western Eurasia. It was not just the presence of these bones, but their peculiar arrangement that intrigued archaeologists.[5] During the excavation, on-site archaeologists determined that the bones were arranged in such a way that could only have resulted from hominin intervention rather than natural deposition processes.[5] Emil Bächler, a proponent of the bear-cult hypothesis, found bear remains in Switzerland and at Morn Cave (Mornova zijalka) in Slovenia. Along with Bächler's discovery, bear skulls were found by André Leroi-Gourhan arranged in a perfect circle in Saône-et-Loire.[5] The discovery of patterns such as those found by Leroi-Gourhan suggests that these bear remains were placed in this arrangement intentionally; an act which can only be attributed to Neandertals due to the dating of the site and is interpreted as ritual. [5]

While these findings have been taken to indicate an ancient bear-cult, other interpretations of remains have led others to conclude that the bear bones' presence in these contexts are a natural phenomenon. Ina Wunn, based on the information archaeologists have about early hominins, contends that if Neandertals did worship bears there would be evidence of it in their settlements and camps.[6] However, most bear remains have been found in caves.[6] Many archaeologists now theorise that, since most bear species hibernate in caves during the winter, the presence of bear remains is not unusual in this context [7] Bears which lived inside these caves perished from natural causes such as illness or starvation.[8] Wunn argues that the placement of these remains is due to natural, post-deposition events such as wind, sediment, or water.[9] Therefore, the assortment of bear remains in caves did not result from human activities[10] Certain archaeologists, such as Emil Bächler, continue[how?] to use their excavations to support that an ancient bear cult did exist.[11]

Eastern Slavic culture

See also: Russian Bear

Bears were the most worshipped animals of Ancient Slavs. During pagan times, it was associated with the god Volos, the patron of domestic animals. Eastern Slavic folklore describes the bear as a totem personifying a male: father, husband, or a fiancé. Legends about turnskin bears appeared, it was believed that humans could be turned into bears for misbehavior.[12]

Siberia

Overview

Bear worship is a deeply rooted aspect of indigenous communities across the northern hemisphere, encompassing spiritual, cultural, and social dimensions. While specific traditions, rituals, and terminologies vary among different indigenous groups, the reverence for bears is a prevalent practice, particularly in Siberia. This spiritual engagement, often termed as "bear ceremony," "bear festival," or "bear dance," reflects a shared connection to the natural world and the significance of bears within these societies. Across vast regions, this communal effort underscores the enduring importance of bear worship as a cultural cornerstone.

Some scholars argue that bear worship not only holds significant cultural and spiritual value but also played a foundational role in shaping subsequent religious practices among Siberian peoples. They suggest that the reverence for bears served as a precursor or perhaps even a catalyst for the development of more formalized rituals centered around reindeer.[13] This hypothesis implies a dynamic evolution of indigenous belief systems, where the veneration of one animal gradually transitioned into the worship of another, reflecting the adaptability and continuity of spiritual traditions within these communities. Such interpretations shed light on the interconnectedness of various aspects of indigenous cultures and the complex interplay between different forms of animal worship in Siberia's rich tapestry of traditions.

Some of the most notable indigenous peoples who practice bear worship include the following:

Ritual

Bear ceremonialism in Siberia is characterized by a diversity of traditions unique to each indigenous population. Yet, amidst this diversity, certain common practices define the essence of bear worship across these communities. Central to these practices is the recognition of bear ceremonialism as a sacred undertaking, demanding adherence to established protocols and etiquette that honor the significance of the bear, the focal point of the ceremony. Indigenous peoples observe meticulous rules governing their interactions with bears, ensuring that reverence and respect permeate every aspect of the ritual. This adherence to tradition underscores the deep-seated cultural and spiritual importance attributed to bear worship in Siberia, serving as a unifying thread across disparate indigenous groups.

In indigenous Siberian cultures, a fundamental tenet governing the relationship between humans and bears is the prohibition against hunting bears, except under specific circumstances. Bears are only pursued if they pose a direct threat to human life or property, such as in cases where they have caused harm or invaded dwellings.[17] This strict adherence to non-lethal measures underscores the deeply ingrained belief in a harmonious coexistence between humans and animals, particularly bears, within these communities. The reverence accorded to bears extends beyond the realm of worship, shaping broader cultural attitudes towards these majestic creatures. This principle reflects a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all living beings and emphasizes the importance of maintaining balance and respect within the natural world.

The traditional ceremony begins a few years before the sacrifice of the bear itself. The bear ceremony starts with a capture, whereby male hunters enter a forest to find a bear den, kill the mother bear and catch the bear cub to bring back to the indigenous encampment.[18] The people in the region then raise the bear cub as if the bear cub is one of the tribes’ own children. The duration of raising the bear varies between different cultures, but the process can take anywhere from one to five years, depending on the age at which the bear reaches sexual maturity, as well as the sex of the bear. In most cultures, female bears are raised for a shorter amount of time compared to the male bears that are captured by the indigenous peoples. (A note on the duration of raising the bear cub: As mentioned before, the duration by which villages would choose to raise the bear cub also varies culture by culture. For example, the Gvasyugi choose to raise the bear for one to two years.[19] Similarly, the Ul’chi people of the Amur region opt for a longer period, typically three to four years, before they perform the ritual sacrifice.[20] These differences in duration reflect the diverse traditions and customs found across different communities, shaping their respective approaches to this practice.)

The bear is raised in captivity in the encampment alongside the people’s animals and children. Usually, a family would raise the bear cub before sacrificing it, either within the confines of the family abode until the bear grew too big to be kept inside. According to one account of the Ul’chi bear ceremony, “[the] bear slept with the dogs and came out to play and to be hand fed by the woman of the house.”[21] There have also been records of the bear cubs sucking on female human milk, and indigenous families’ children are reprimanded when they express jealousy toward how bears are treated in the encampment.[22]

Once the bear becomes too large to be kept inside a cage with the family pets, it would be transferred to a special hut until it reached sexual maturity, or was considered ready to be sacrificed — the standards for this decision, however, vary region by region, and, even within regions, culture by culture.

To prepare the bear for its sacrifice to the masters of the taiga, the people of the village may take different approaches depending on the culture. Importantly, bear ceremonialism is one of the few practices in indigenous cultures in Siberia that discourage and subvert the central role that shamans generally play in pagan societies in the northern hemisphere. This is particularly noted in bear ceremonialism practiced in the Amur region. Regarded as spiritual mediators between humans and spirits in Siberian cultures, the bear ceremony prohibits seances performed by shamans as this worship represents one of the few practices where humans are able to communicate directly with spirits without necessitating aid from a third party agent.[23][22]

Before the sacrificial ritual, the people of the village generally invest a lot of effort into traditions that serve the purpose of “amusing” the bear. For example, some people would pour water on each other, or the men would wrestle one another in a show of strength in order to make the soon-to-be-sacrificed bear happy.[22] Other means of entertaining the bear also include dog races and games.[22] The purpose of amusing the bear is to ensure that the bear’s sendoff is pleasant, guaranteeing good fortune from the spirits following the bear’s later sacrifice.[22]

In some societies, the bear is then taken from home to home of the village in order to say final goodbyes before the bear is guided to a location in the forest that is not too far away from the encampment (generally the location of the sacrifice is situated within a mile of the village encampment itself).[24] During the sacrifice, it is crucial that the bear is shown respect. Some means of disrespecting the bear would include, for example, being barefoot or using a gun to shoot the bear.[25] As such, the bear has to be killed with a bow and arrow, knife, or spear. Also equally important is the vocabulary used to describe the act of sacrificing the bear. It is common for indigenous peoples to use euphemisms such as “I obtained a child” to convey killing a bear, as using direct language can offend the sacred animal, as well as the gods and spirits presiding over the environment.[26]

The bear is sacrificed with an injury to its heart, after which the people at the ceremony follow a ritual of skinning the animal, cooking it, and feasting on the bear meat.[27] As a celebration following the sacrifice, many activities can take place. Children put on plays, women play musical instruments, and specific dances, myths, and songs are performed as part of the bear ceremony.[22] Some scholarly records additionally indicate that the bear head is often separated from the rest of the body and used as a protective ornament in the home of the family hosting the celebratory feast.[27] Meanwhile, the tongue is gifted to the eldest male of the village as a sign of respect in the culture.[27]

Variation Across Cultures

It is crucial to note that although most indigenous peoples generally follow the same rituals and practices in executing ceremonies for bear worship, some populations also adopt unique versions of the practice with different spiritual, cultural, and social implications across various regions.

History

Colonial Period

As a pagan practice, tsarist Christianizing efforts often sought to suppress bear ceremonialism in Siberia due to it undermining Russian Orthodox hegemony at the time. Until the early eighteenth century, the Russian tsardom did not necessarily seek to propagate Christian Orthodoxy among indigenous Siberian populations.[32] Native Siberian paganism was not perceived as a faith altogether up until this spiritual worldview began to be perceived as a threat to the legitimacy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Soviet Period

Similarly, Soviet control of the Russian state also led to repressive attitudes toward bear worship among indigenous Siberian peoples. Although religion was tolerated in theory, the socialist state sought to limit paganism as this practice was antithetical to the ideal of Marxist-Leninist atheism adopted as the official attitude toward religion and spiritualism more widely in the Soviet Union. Bear worship, and paganism more generally, was also perceived as a threat to Marxist-Leninist ideology with regards to humans’ relationship with their surrounding natural environment. According to Stephen Dudeck, an anthropologist specializing in indigenous Siberian cultures, “The opposition between the ideological place of nature as a force to be conquered according to Soviet ideology, and the complex and negotiated social relationship with the environment reflected in Indigenous rituals, should not have gone unnoticed (even if people like Steinitz might have ignored this). On a practical level feasting was blamed for distracting workers in the newly created state-controlled enterprises from disciplined work (Slezkine 1994).”[27]

Present Day

Indigenous Siberian populations have had a contentious relationship with the Russian state since the beginning of the colonial era. However, in the modern day, the sources of cultural contention have had economic implications as well. The act of raising a bear cub in a village is now deeply costly for the participants of the ceremony, for example.[33]

Meanwhile, bear hunting has led to conflicts between indigenous SIberian cultures and the Russian law as well. For instance, the Khanty have subsistence hunting rights in their traditional region, but the Russian legal framework imposes a heavy financial burden on this indigenous Siberian culture by mandating “expensive and difficult to procure individual species licenses for non-food hunting and trapping.”[34] According to reports by Wiget and Balalaeva, recently, there have been records of Ob-Ugrians being arrested for hunting bears that have previously posed a dangerous threat to people in the village, which is a central pillar of “revenge on the bear.”[35] The “revenge on the bear” constitutes one of the beliefs in bear worship, whereby bears are never to be hunted unless they harm the humans first. This practice is particularly characteristic of societies living in the Amur region of Siberia.

The financial burden on indigenous populations by the Russian Federation is additionally exacerbated by ecological deterioration. The ecological deterioration has been caused by the state’s exploitation of natural resources in Siberia, especially recently. Notably, the Russian oil and gas extraction industry has greatly undermined the state of bears’ natural habitats in the Siberian taiga, leading to the animals’ increased wandering into human villages and potentially attacking the inhabitants.[36] Due to longstanding and deeply rooted custom, these inhabitants must then hunt and kill the trespassing bears. As a result, attacked inhabitants sometimes illegally practice acts of bear hunting due to the legal framework underlying this act within the borders of the Russian Federation. One member of the Khanty indigenous Siberian group remarks: “We protest the destruction of the natural environment in our area, which is turning into our own destruction. We understand that the country needs oil, but not at the expense of our lives! All local industrial works operate as if we weren’t here, as if our ancestors weren’t here, as if our existence were over. Where are the principles of government policy toward Native peoples?”[37]

Revival in Recent Years

Centuries-long state repression of cultural traditions and spiritualism has led to an overall decline in bear worship among indigenous populations in Siberia. Throughout the 20th century, bear ceremonialism in Siberia became a rarely observed phenomenon.[27] The Ob-Ugrian intelligentsia began the revival process for bear worship in the 1980s and 1990s, when state repression measures of indigenous cultures had been relieved. Since then, the participation of tourists in Khanty bear ceremonies has also increased in the modern day.[38]

Bear ceremonialism has thus taken on an economic significance for indigenous subsistence in modern times as well as tourists would pay to see bear worship in action. Revival activities often come about through state support, as well as televised through state-sponsored media channels. As a result of governmental support, bear worship across various cultures in the northern hemisphere has seemed to “account for both some convergence of forms and some variations (Moldanova 2016; Wiget and Balalaeva 2004a) …. especially okrugwide festival programs in Khanty-Mansiĭsk, probably accounts for the convergent use throughout the northern regions of festival shirts, decorated with rickrack, and felt hats, decorated with traditional symbols.”[39]

Significance

Cultural Significance

Bear ceremonialism practiced among indigenous Siberian peoples holds a spiritual significance as this tradition is a manifestation of paganism in Russia. Believing that everything has a soul, bear worship thus represents a spiritual worldview, wherein humans are meant to live in harmony with the natural environment around them, rather than attempt to conquer it. Paganism promotes a relatively more egalitarian structure of existence, compared to the hierarchical one that lays the foundation for the modern extractive economy of the Russian Federation, which is based on oil and gas extraction, and previously, the politico-economic ideology of the Soviet Union.[40]

Although each culture has different myths associated with the origins of the practice. The Khanty, for example, believe that the bear represents some form of ancestral kinship with the indigenous peoples. Dudeck observes that: “The relationship between the Khanty and the bear is based on their likeness, and on how both are related in a hierarchical relationship with the heavenly father and are linked with each other in a relationship of respect and reciprocity.”[27]

Social Significance

The bear ceremony is a heavily and strictly gendered practice, as men and women play distinct roles throughout the entire process. Only men are allowed to hunt and ultimately kill the bear, while women play a caretaker role for the bear cub, allowing it to suckle on the human female milk and raise the bear as if it is one of the village’s own children, entertaining it with music and dance. One account of a bear ceremony performed by the Ul’chi people describes the following established gender roles on the day of the bear sacrifice: “Two men would guide the bear on two chains around an ice hole in the river. It is a good omen if the bear takes a drink. Then they went along a corridor of poles with wood streamers on them, about one kilometre to the place called arachu, prepared for the killing. Women played special rhythms on a musical instrument made of a hollow log. The women dance the part of the bear.”[41] Additionally, the bear ceremony holds a special significance for men, who are the designated hunters of the village, as the practice is a means of ensuring future success in hunting. After sacrificing the bear in the forest, each male hunter in the Ul’chi culture must touch the skin of the dead animal in order to obtain the taiga’s blessing for a fruitful hunting season.[42]

Volos (also called Veles) in the background of the Millennium of Russia Monument

Altaic peoples

In 1925–1927, Nadezhda Petrovna Dyrenkova made field observations of bear worship among the Altai, Tubalar (Tuba-Kiji), Telengit, and Shortsi of the Kuznetskaja Taiga as well as among the Sagai tribes in the regions of Minusinsk, near the Kuznetskaja Taiga (1927).[43]

Finns

Further information: Otso

In Finnish paganism, the bear was considered a taboo animal, and the word for 'bear' (oksi) was a taboo word. Euphemisms such as mesikämmen 'honey-palm' were used instead. The modern Finnish word karhu (from karhea, 'coarse, rough', referring to its coarse fur) is also such a euphemism. In the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, the bear is called Otso, which is the sacred king of animals and leader of the forest, deeply feared and respected by old Finnish tribes.[44][45] Calling a bear by its true name was believed to summon the bear. A successful bear hunt was followed by a ritual feast called peijaiset with a ceremony as the bear as an "honoured guest", with songs convincing the bear that its death was "accidental", in order to appease its spirit. The skull of the bear was raised high into a pine tree so its spirit could climb back into its home in the heavens, and this tree was venerated afterwards.

Spain

There are annual bear festivals that take place in various towns and communes in the Pyrenees region.

In Prats de Molló, the Festa de l'ós [ca; fr] ('festival of the bear'; also known as dia dels óssos, 'day of the bears') held on Candlemas (February 2) is a ritual in which men dressed up as bears brandishing sticks terrorize people in the streets.[46] Formerly, the festival centered on the "bears" mock-attacking the women and trying to blacken their breasts (with soot), which seemed scandalous to outside first-time observers. But according to the testimony of someone who remembered the olden days before that, the festival that at Prats de Molló involved elaborate staging, much like the version in Arles.[47]

The Arles version (Festa de l'os d'Arles [fr; ca]) involves a female character named Rosetta (Roseta) who gets abducted by the "bear". Rosetta was traditionally played by a man or a boy dressed up as a girl. The "bear" would bring the Rosetta to a hut raised on the center square of town (where the victim would be fed sausages, cake, and white wine). The event finished with the "bear" being shaved and "killed".[48][47]

There is also a similar festival in the town of Sant Llorenç de Cerdans: Festa de l'ós de Sant Llorenç de Cerdans [ca].

These three well-known festivals take place in towns located in Vallespir, and are known as «Festes de l'os al Vallespir» or «El dia de l'os/dels ossos» [fr; ca].[47]

Andorra, in an entirely different Pyrenean valley, has some festivals dedicated to the she-bear, known collectively as Festes de l'ossa [ca]. These include the Ball de l'ossa [ca] ('she-bear's dance') in Encamp, and Última ossa [ca] ('the last she-bear') in Ordino.

There is also a bear related festival in the Valencian town of La Mata, named Festa de l'Onso de la Mata [ca].

Korean mythology

According to legend, Ungnyeo (Korean웅녀; Hanja熊女, literally 'bear woman') was a bear who turned into a woman, and gave birth to Dangun (단군; 檀君), the founder of the first Korean kingdom, Gojoseon (고조선; 古朝鮮). Bears were revered as motherly figures and symbolized patience.[49]

Nivkh people

A bear festival by the Nivkh around 1903

The bear festival is a religious festival celebrated by the indigenous Nivkh in the Russian Far East. A Nivkh shaman (чам, ch'am) would preside over the Bear Festival, which was celebrated in the winter between January and February, depending on the clan. A bear was captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, who treated the bear like a child. The bear is considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form. During the Festival, the bear is dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume and offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans.[50] After the banquet, the bear is killed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. The festival was arranged by relatives to honour the death of a kinsman. The bear's spirit returns to the gods of the mountain 'happy' and rewards the Nivkh with bountiful forests.[51] Generally, the Bear Festival was an inter-clan ceremony where a clan of wife-takers restored ties with a clan of wife-givers upon the broken link of the kinsman's death.[52] The Bear Festival was suppressed in the Soviet period; since then the festival has had a modest revival, albeit as a cultural rather than a religious ceremony.[53]

Ainu bear worship

Main article: Iomante

The Ainu Iomante ceremony around 1930

The Ainu people, who live on select islands in the Japanese archipelago, call the bear “kamuy” in the Ainu language, which translates to mean "god". Many other animals are considered to be gods in the Ainu culture, but the bear is the head of the gods.[54] For the Ainu, when the gods visit the world of man, they don fur and claws and take on the physical appearance of an animal. Usually, however, when the term “kamuy” is used, it essentially means a bear.[54] The Ainu people willingly and thankfully ate the bear as they believed that the disguise (the flesh and fur) of any god was a gift to the home that the god chose to visit.[55][56]

The Ainu believed that the gods on Earth, the world of man, appeared in the form of animals. The gods had the capability of taking human form but only in their home, the country of the gods, which is outside the world of man.[54] To return a god to his country, the people would sacrifice and eat the animal sending the god's spirit away with civility. The ritual was called Omante and usually involved a deer or adult bear.[55]

Omante occurred when the people sacrificed an adult bear, but when they caught a bear cub, they performed a different ritual which is called Iomante, in the Ainu language, or Kumamatsuri in Japanese. Kumamatsuri translates to "bear festival," and Iomante means "sending off."[57] The event of Kumamatsuri began with the capture of a young bear cub. As if he were a child given by the gods, the cub was fed human food from a carved wooden platter and was treated better than Ainu children for they thought of him as a god.[58] If the cub was too young and lacked the teeth to properly chew food, a nursing mother would let him suckle from her own breast.[58] When the cub reached 2–3 years of age, the cub was taken to the altar and then sacrificed. Usually, Kumamatsuri occurred in midwinter, when the bear meat is the best from the added fat.[58] The villagers would shoot it with both normal and ceremonial arrows, make offerings, dance, and pour wine on top of the cub corpse.[58] The words of sending off for the bear god were then recited. The festival lasted for three days and three nights to properly return the bear god to his home.[58]

See also

References

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Sources

Further reading

  • Berres, Thomas E.; Stothers, David M.; Mather, David (2004). "Bear Imagery and Ritual in Northeast North America: An Update and Assessment of A. Irving Hallowell's Work". Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. 29 (1): 5–42. doi:10.1179/mca.2004.002. JSTOR 20708205.
  • Rydving, HåKan (2010). "The 'Bear Ceremonial' and Bear Rituals among the Khanty and the Sami". Temenos - Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion. 46 (1). doi:10.33356/temenos.6940. hdl:11250/3094500.
  • Shepard, Paul; Sanders, Barry (1985). "Celebrations of the Bear". The North American Review. 270 (3): 17–25. JSTOR 25124641.
  • Young, Steven R. (1991). "'Bear' in Baltic". Journal of Baltic Studies. 22 (3): 241–244. doi:10.1080/01629779100000121. JSTOR 43211693.