Where was the bear born?

Where was the beast made?

By the moon,

with the day,

on the shoulders of the Plough

Then lowered on silver chains,

let down on golden cords


The bear (karhu in Finnish), King of the Forest, was the most respected animal of the ancient Finnish forests and still is today. The Birth of the Bear is a very old, probably paleolithic myth having it`s roots in totemistic relationship between the powerful animal and the primitive man.

As such the bear was the symbol of the whole tribe and a sacred animal. For this reason in some areas it was never hunted. Shamanism was also closely connected to the bear and sometimes the bear was seen as the spirit of a shaman.

The most ancient myths of the Northern peoples tell of the marriage of the bear and the primordial Mother of all men. This relationship was later reflected in the rite Karhun vakat or Karhun peijaiset meaning the feast which was held after a succesful bear hunt. At this feast the bear was re-united to its family through a symbolic wedding.

We have a very detailed description of the bear-feast from the 16th century:

The bear was killed and skinned in the forest after which the meat and the hide were taken to the village. Ale was brewed and the meat of the bear was eaten as a sacred meal. The feast was held in a large building. A girl and a boy were then elected as the symbolic wedding couple. During the feast the skull of the bear was carried on a plate to the room.

The plate was given a place of honour at head of the long table. The bride and bridegroom sat at the other end.

After the meal there followed a customary prayer:

I, just a little boy

not yet a man

I made the arrow

I drew the bow

to kill this golden king of the wilderness

Not strong enough was he for me,

just a little boy

You came from Hongikko,

your family from Hongotar

Now I chant the Birth of your Family

I, just a little boy

I shall fetch my pot

I, the youngest of my family

I shall fetch the meat from the woods

I shall fetch my pot to make it

Before you noticed

under the spruce

you lay dead

Now I shall prepare my holy pot

Now I shall bless the holy pine

with silver branches

The skull of the bear was then carried in a procession to a sacred tall pine and fixed high on a branch among other bear skulls. At this point there followed a chant as a dialogue between the killed bear and the primordial Mother of the Bear who was called Hongotar.

In the chant the bear regrets its fate. The bones of the bear were then buried under the pine. One important function of this rite was to pinerevent the skull from decomposing.

The skull of the bear was a holy object and to destroy it was taboo. It was strictly forbidden to remove the skulls from the tree.

The idea of this conservation was to make it possible for the spirit of the bear to return to earth to be killed again.

An old photo of a sacred pine with a bear skull.