Bear Worship - Finns


Further information: Finnic mythology and Rock carvings at Alta

The bear was an important cult animal in Finnish paganism. The pre-Christian Finns believed the bear to have come from the stars and that it had the ability to reincarnate. After a successful bear hunt, a celebration called karhunpeijaiset (literally "celebration of the bear") was arranged in honour of the slain bear. The purpose of the ceremony was to placate the bear and to convince its soul that it was greatly respected by the people. The bear was so feared that some of the songs sung during the ceremony were meant to convince the bear it hadn't been slain by the hunters, rather that it had killed itself by accident. The people presiding over the ceremony tried to make the bear's soul happy so that the bear would want to reincarnate back into the forest. After the bear's meat was eaten, the bones were buried. The skull, however, which was believed to contain the bear's soul, was placed high upon the branches of an old pine tree. This tree, kallohonka (skull pine), was probably a symbol of the world tree and the ceremony was meant to deliver the bear's soul back to the heavens, from where it had originated. From the heavens, 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 suggested that the bear was such a holy animal that it was forbidden to depict it. Moreover, it was forbidden to use the word for bear in casual conversation, so many euphemisms were developed. In fact, the current standard term for bear, karhu, is originally a euphemism (from karhea "rough", referring to the rough fur). The oldest known and possibly the original name is oksi, preserved in many place names. The euphemisms were used because it was believed the bear would appear if its real name was called. Modern Finnish still contains many euphemisms for the bear. A similar thinking is behind the euphemisms for wolf (susi), such as hukka ("loss").

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