Bear ceremonialism and implications for further comparative research

Åke Hultkrantz was fascinated by the concept of circumpolar proto-mythology, claiming that it stems from the worship of animal ceremonialism, totemism and bear ceremonialism (in particular), as well as an animist worldview regarding trees, stones and other sacred sites, and finally the practice of shamanism. He notes that mythological motifs such as the world pillar must be also rooted in these practices and may have developed in the arctic and subarctic ecology and environment (Hultkrantz, 1996, p. 31). Similar conclusions were reached by Anna- Lena Siikala (2002, p. 292) between the mythic-ritual complex of both the Saami and the Evenk in central Siberia, locating the practice of shamanism to the subarctic and forested regions of Eurasia.

As mentioned by Eliade, scholarly research has clearly placed an emphasis on the shamanistic elements within the greater context of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer tradition (Eliade, 1964; p. 503), however, animal-ceremonialism and hunting-rituals are not always part of shamanic rituals. This may be due to the fact that the practice of “shamanism” as it is often understood has undergone ecological transformations, perhaps particularly connected to the Neolithic and the later adoption of nomadic pastoralism, potentially identifying the role of the shaman as the sole negotiator and healer as the result of a later socio-religious development (Hoppál, 2013, p.41 – 43).

However, Siikala has emphasized the relationship between animal- ceremonialism and shamanism (1981), particularly its reflection in bear-ceremonialism, bear feasts and a set of cognate myths known as “the cosmic hunt”. The bear and the elk are reflected in both myth, ritual and folklore across Eurasia and held in high regard and thus may be reflections of the predominantly animal-oriented animist worldview of hunter-gatherers and hunter-fishers as (Siikala, 2002; p. 26).

This may also have multiple implications for further study of shamanism. Shamanism and bear ceremonialism are often linked (Chichlo, 1981; Paproth, 1976) and the practice of bear ceremonialism has attracted much interest, both because of its deep-time signature and its implications for the anthropological study of shamanism and the evolution of shamanic practice. Early encounters bear ceremonialism achieved great interest during the 18th century, but were rarely put into a comparative context. Comparative research began most notably with Sir John George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, who equated the killing of the bear as a type of animal-ceremonialism among the Japanese Ainu and Nivkh bear festivals (1994, p. 524 – 532).

The importance of the bear and the regard of the bear as a sacred companion, even as an elder and close ally to humans, has been noted in various ethnographic accounts (Chichlo, 1981, Paproth, 1976). Indeed, the mythic-ritual complex regarding the bear reaches across the entire northern hemisphere, underlining possible historic connections between Asia and the Americas and the time-depth of the rituals and mythological motifs involved. As such, notable Anthropologists began to speak of a common evolution of northern traditions. The term “Circumpolar” was coined by Norwegian Archaeologist Gutorm Gjessing in 1944 and refers to the common historical evolution of northern traditions. One of the first and perhaps most important pieces of comparative research regarding the practice of circumpolar bear ceremonialism was undertaken by A. Irving Hallowell, who emphasized that the practice of bear festivals cannot be explained psychologically or ecologically, as the mythic-ritual complex regarding the bear is even present in environments where bears are not typically found.

Furthermore, he stressed that the variants of bear ceremonialism should be regarded as reaching deep into a paleolithic-mesolithic hunter- gatherer cosmology, offering insight into the cognitive world of boreal and sub-arctic hunter-gatherers that eventually crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska. (Hallowell, 1926, pp. 25, 163). The processions of the bear feast follow a similar pattern across the northern Hemisphere, from the hunt to the feast and the disposal of the remains. While there are of course many variants and local adaptations, a similar narrative is portrayed in both the myth and the bear ceremony. Most importantly, great honor and respect is paid to the bear remains, particularly the skull.

The disposal of the skull and remains was particularly important after culmination of the feast, as it was believed that it contained the spirit of the animal, and the spirit of the bear can reincarnate, coming back to life again in its hunting grounds. Among the Finns, a special tradition called Karhunpeijaiset has been preserved, where a bear skull is attached to a pine tree called honka, beer is drunk from its skull, and the bear was regarded with great honor while also it would be told that its death was an accident (Hallowell, 1926; p. 135; Pentikainen, 2007, p. 63 – 64).

The disposal of the bear’s bones are treated as taboo; they are regarded as both powerful and sacred among many northern Eurasian cultures (Ivar, 1963). The correct disposal of the bones may aid the bear in its journey to the upper heavens, and finally to be reborn in its hunting grounds. During the bear feast, the bear would often be put on a bench, or a seat, from which the bear can see all the participating members. This is the case during the Khanty Bear Festival (Milosvky, 1993), among the Saami in Fennoscandinavia (Holmberg, 1964; Pentikainen, 2007), the Ostyak-Ket on the Yenisei River (Vajda, 2010, 2016; Sokolova, 2000), and many other northern Eurasian and Native American tribes.

SUK_35_36_565by Artturi Kannisto.

The bear remains, particularly its skull, appears to receive special attention during and after the bear feast. It has been noted in many ethnographic studies that the bear receives a funeral that is similar to that of a revered human member of the tribe. Among the Evenki, the bear skull would be put in a forked branch of a birch tree, while the funerary processions for the bear would be similar to that of a human, it being buried on a wooden platform (Grøn, 2003, p. 209). Similar funerary practices have been observed among the Saami, where bear graves are similar to human graves (Karjalainen, 1927) and the Khanty western Siberia. The Evenk would also put the skull of the bear inside the fork of a designated tree (Grøn, 2005, pp. 22, 24). In northwestern Alaska, on little Diomede Island, after the bear feast (called a qagri) the polar bear skull is firstly placed on a bench, and is then brought outside to the sea ice, as it is believed that if the arctic sea ice makes a cracking sound the bear spirit has departed from the bear feast and left the community (Engelhard, 2017, p. 129 – 130). In another example for the disposal of the bear remains, the Ostyak-Ket would eat the bear’s eyes before the feast and place the lungs of the bear back in its den (Vajda, 2016).

Particular respect was also paid to the snout of the bear, sometimes via the removal of the lips, and similar rites are observed among the Khanty, Saami and the Mansi (Vasilev, 1948). However, despite these similarities, a common origin of the bear-ceremonial has been concluded to be unlikely by Håkan Rydving (2010) and the idea of a North-Eurasian origin of the bear-feast. Instead, he concludes that close resemblances of the bear feasts between, for example, the Khanty and Saami point to cultural contact between two ritual-myth complexes (Rydving, 2010, p. 43), while other resemblances are to be found in many other hunting rituals.

One interesting ethnographic detail is that in parts of Siberia neither the shaman nor the community partake in shamanic rituals during bear feasts, and it appears that hunting rituals were later modified into sacrificial rites (Siikala & Hoppal, 1998, p. 63; Hultkrantz, 1975, p. 374). In addition, neither the shamans of the Ket nor the Evenk near the Olenyok River in Siberia hold any specific function during the bear feast (Vadja & Groen, pers. comms.). The shaman, it seems, is on equal terms with the community. The bear, however, can have shamanic qualities that can be those of a healer, an elder or an ancestor. 

Bear ceremonialism may thus stem back to a pre-shamanic stage of hunting ceremonials, where the bear possesses the necessary shamanic qualities without the presence of a human shaman. On the other hand, there are also ethnographic accounts of the Evenk that describe how the tools of the ritual were available to all members of the community and everyone could potentially “shamanize”. (Jacobson, 1993, pp.179 – 190, Animisov; 1963, p. 116).

The link between shamanism and bear ceremonialism could potentially give further insight into the cognitive and cultural evolution of shamanism and the role of a “bear shaman”, who is often to believed to be more powerful, more knowledgeable than humans throughout Eurasia.


To be continued…


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