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The bear was a holy animal in the old Sami religion and the hunt and burial of the bear had great ritual importance.

To the Sámi, the bear was ìsaivoî (sacred)

“The hunting and killing of such animals is certainly necessary, but at the same time it is frequently a dangerous matter, because in doing so the hunter naturally incurs the anger of the animal killed.”

Karsten, R., (1955), “Religion of the Samek”, E. J. Brill Leiden, p.113

There were seven stages to the Pre-Christian Sámi Bear Ritual:

1, Departure for the forest Bear hunting would usually have taken place during the hibernatory season – i.e. late winter or early spring. A noaidi (shaman) and his drum arrive and they depart for the forest. The hunter who has located the bear takes the lead, holding a staff with a brass ring attached to it. The noaidi followed him and he in turn was followed by the hunter who had been elected to be the first to strike the bear.

2, The Hunt The hunter who located the bear is sent in to awaken it. The Sámi were known to have used spears, bow and arrows, or axes to kill the bear. If a spear was used, the normal custom was to let the bear impale itself as it attacked.

3, Birching the bear After the bear had been killed, it was dragged from the lair and whipped with birch branches. A branch was then twisted into the form of a ring which was fastened to the lower jaw of the bear. This ring was tied to the belt of the principal bear-killer who pulled at it three times, joiking (singing in a special way) that the has become the bear’s master (Karsten op cit p. 116). .

4, The Bear Master returns When the hunters return to the sijdda (Sámi village) their wives greet them by spitting elder bark juice in their faces. The Bear Master then took the ring to his goahti (house constructed of turf), knocking three times at the door. If the bear is female he called out s–ive neit (holy virgin), if the animal is male he called out s–ive olmai (holy man). The Bear Master’s wife would have kept the ring in a linen cloth until after the ceremonial meal.

5, The Bear Feast The men prepared and cooked the bear meat in a specially erected goahti that no woman was allowed to enter. Women had to cover their heads and during the next five days could only look at the Bear Master through a brass ring. After three days, the bear’s skin was stretched out in the centre of the feat area and libations of tobacco and food were offered to its spirit. After a speech apologising for the necessity of killing the bear, the feast would begin.

6, Ringing in the bear After the feast, the birch twig ring was produced and the women and children attached pieces of a brass chain to it. This was then tied to the bear’s tail. After that, the ring was given to the men who buried it with the bear’s bones in a specially constructed grave. Great care was taken to ensure that the bones were correctly placed in their correct position.

7, Protecting the women Finally the bear skin was laid out on a tree stump and blindfolded wives of the bear hunters took turns shooting at it with arrows. This appears to have been a means of protecting the women and children from the bear’s vengeful spirit. It is interesting to note that this last action was peculiar to the Sámi. In other forms of the bear ritual, for example as performed by the Gilyaks (a people of Siberia that are found in the lower course of the Amur river and in adjacent northern Sakhalin Island), this part of the ritual was omitted.

Sami Shaman with drum and a horned hat during a Bear hunt ritual.
image: Forum Rare Books Johannes Gerhard SCHEFFER 1682, Dutch.

Drawing Björnfesten or Bear Feast by Ossian Elgstöm
image; Norrbottens Museums Bildarkiv

Sámi Bear Grave on the island of Spildra in the Kvænangen fiord