Bear worship

Bear worship (also known as the Bear Cult or Arctolatry) is the religious practice of the worshiping of bears found in many North American and North Eurasian ethnic circumpolar religions such as the Sami, Nivkhs, Ainu, [ Bledsoe, p.1] and pre-christian Finns. There are also a number of deities from Celtic Gaul and Britain associated with the bear and the bear is featured on many totems throughout northern cultures that carve them. Bear worship may have been practiced as far back as the Middle paleolithic period amongst Neanderthal societies.(Wunn, 2000, p. 434-435)

Nivkh Bear Festival

The Bear festival is a religious festival celebrated by the Nivkh. A Nivkh Shaman (ch'am) would preside over the Bear Festival, celebrated in the winter between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women treating 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. [ Chaussonnet, pp.35,81 ] After the banquet the bear is killed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. The festival was arranged by relatives to honor the death of a kinsman. The bears spirit returns to the gods of the mountain 'happy' and rewards the Nivkh with bountiful forests. [Sternberg and Grant, p.160] 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. [ Chaussonnet, p.35 ] The Bear Festival was suppressed during soviet occupation though the festival has had a modest revival since the decline of Soviet Union, albeit as a cultural instead of religious ceremony. [Gall, pp.4-6]


The bear is a prominent worshiped animal in Finnish Paganism. The Finns before Christian influences believed the bear to have come from the sky and have the ability to reincarnate. A celebration called "karhunpeijaiset" (literally "celebration of bear") was arranged to honor the bear, which was then sacrificed for a banquet. The belief of the bear ceremony and sacrifice was to convince the bear's soul that they were greatly respected by the people. The people presiding over the ceremony tried to make the bears soul happy so that the bear would want to reincarnate back into the forest. The sacrifice was meant to continue the bears existence in the woods. Bear meat was eaten and the bones were buried. However the skull, which was believed to contain the bear's soul, was placed high on a venerated old pinetree. This tree, "kallohonka", was probably a symbol of a world tree and placing a bear skull meant sending the bear's soul back to the sky, from where it had originated. From the sky, the bear would come back and reincarnate to walk the earth.

Bears were not typically featured in early petroglyphs, like other animals such as the elk. It has been proposed that the bear was such a holy animal that it was forbidden to depict. Moreover, the name for bear was forbidden to say in casual conversations, so many euphemisms were developed. In fact, the current official term for bear, "karhu", is originally a euphemism (from "karhea" "rough", referring to the rough fur) and the original name has probably been forgotten.

Other cultures

Greek: In his book, "Dawn Behind the Dawn", Geoffrey Ashe explores the association of the Greek goddess, Artemis, with bears. In one myth she transforms Callisto, one of her maidens who has angered her, into a bear and then assigns her to the heavens as the constellation Ursa Major. At the temple of Artemis in Brauronia, during a festival held every five years, two young girls aged five and ten wore yellow bearskin robes and performed the bear dance. Ashe postulates that Indo-European tribes brought from the Northern countries the image of a bear goddess, associated with the Big Dipper, who became Artemis in Greece. Archaeologists have claimed that the bear is the oldest European deity, based on the niches found in caves across Europe which hold the bones and skulls of bears, arranged with evident care. Fact|date=March 2007

Throughout all of Celtic Gaul and Britain, Artio, the goddess of wildlife, appears as a bear along with similar deities such as Artaius, Andarta and Matunos. The Greek goddess, Artemis, has a bear form.

The Ainu in Japan, the Nivkhs in Russia, the Haida of North America, and many peoples of central Asia regard the Bear Mother as their ancestress. The Great She Bear, Ursa Major, watches over us from the sky.



*Blesoe, Brandon (retrieved Nov. 2007) [ "The Significance of the Bear Ritual Among the Sami and Other Northern Cultures"]
*Chaussonnet, Valerie (1995) "Native Cultures of Alaska and Siberia". Artic Studies Center. Washington, D.C. 112p. ISBN 1560986611
*Gall, Timothy L. (1998) "Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life":Nivkhs. Detroit, Michigan: Gale Research Inc. 2100p. ISBN 0787605522
*Shternberg, Lev Iakovlevich and Bruce Grant. (1999) "The Social Organization of the Gilyak". New York: American Museum of Natural History. Seattle: University of Washington Press 280p. ISBN 029597799X
#wikicite|id=idWunn2000|reference=Wunn, Ina (2000). "Beginning of Religion", Numen, 47(4).

ee also

*Animal Worship
*Great Bear
*Rock carvings at Alta

Further reading

*Ashe, Geoffrey, Dawn Behind the Dawn, Holt 1992
*Johnson, Buffie, Lady of the Beasts, Harper San Francisco 1988
*Shepard, Paul and Barry Sanders, The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature, Arkana 1992

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