Bear worship

The Ainu Iomante ceremony (bear sending). Japanese scroll painting, circa 1870.

Bear worship (also known as the bear cult or arctolatry) is the religious practice of the worshiping of bears found in many North Eurasian and North American ethnic religions such as the Sami, Nivkh, Ainu,[1] and pre-Christian Basques and Finns. There are also a number of deities from Celtic Gaul and Britain associated with the bear, and the Dacians, Thracians, and Getians were noted to worship bears and annually celebrate the bear dance festival. The bear is featured on many totems throughout northern cultures that carve them. Bear worship may have been practiced as far back as the palaeolithic period amongst Neanderthal societies.[2]

Palaeolithic cult

The existence of an ancient bear cult in the middle paleolithic period has been a topic of discussion spurred by archaeological findings.[2] Ancient bear bones have been discovered in several different caves and are believed by some archaeologists to be evidence of a bear cult during the paleolithic era. It was not the mere presence of these bones that intrigued archaeologists, but their peculiar arrangement.[3] Upon excavation, archaeologists on site determined that the bones were found arranged in such a way that it was not naturally possible.[3] Emil Bächler, a main supporter of the argument for the presence of an ancient bear cult, found bear remains in Switzerland and at Mornova Cave in Slovenia. Along with Bächler’s discovery, bear skulls were found by André Leroi-Gourhan arranged in a perfect circle in Saône-et-Loire.[3] The discovery of designs such as those found by Leroi-Gourhan suggests that these bear remains were placed in their arrangement intentionally; an act which has been attributed to H. neanderthalensis and is assumed to have been a part of some sort of ceremony.[3]

While some of these findings have been interpreted to indicate the presence of an ancient bear cult, certain analyses and discussions have led to contradicting results. According to Ina Wunn, based on the information archaeologists have about primitive man and bear cults, if Neanderthals did, in fact, worship bears, there should be evidence of it in their settlements and camps.[4] Most bear remains have been found in caves, however, and not within early human settlements.[4] This information has implied the non-existence of an ancient bear cult and has instigated the development of new theories. Many archaeologists, including Ina Wunn, have come to believe that since most bear species reside and hide their young in caves during the winter months for hibernation, it is possible that their remains were found in the caves because caves were their natural habitat.[5] Bears lived inside these caves and perished for various reasons, whether it was illness or starvation.[6] Wunn argues that the placement of these remains, whether it appears to be an identified pattern or not, is due to natural causes such as wind, sediment, or water.[7] Therefore, in Wunn’s opinion, the assortment of bear remains in caves did not result from human activities and there is no evidence for a bear cult during the Middle Paleolithic era.[8] Certain archaeologists, such as Emil Bächler, continue to use their excavations to support that an ancient bear cult did exist.[9]

Nivkh Bear Festival

A bear festival by Nivkh around 1903

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.[10] 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 bear's spirit returns to the gods of the mountain 'happy' and rewards the Nivkh with bountiful forests.[11] 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.[12] The Bear Festival was suppressed in the Soviet period; then the festival has had a modest revival, albeit as a cultural rather than a religious ceremony.[13]


The Ainu

The Ainu Iomante ceremony around 1930

The Ainu people, who live on select islands in the Japanese archipelago, call the bear “kamui” in their language, which translates to mean god. While many other animals are considered to be gods in the Ainu culture, the bear is the head of the gods.[14] For the Ainu, when the gods visit the world of man, they don fur and claws and take on the physical appearance of an animal. Usually, however, when the term “kamui” is used, it essentially means a bear.[14] The Ainu people willingly and thankfully ate the bear as they believed that the disguise (the flesh and fur) of any god was a gift to the home that the god chose to visit.[15]

While on earth – the world of man – the Ainu believed that the gods appeared in the form of animals. The gods had the capability of taking human form, but they only took this form in their home, the country of the gods, which is outside the world of man.[14] To return a god back to his country, the people would sacrifice and eat the animal sending the god’s spirit away with civility. This ritual is called Omante and usually involves a deer or adult bear.[15]

Omante occurred when the people sacrificed an adult bear, but when they caught a bear cub they performed a different ritual which is called Iomante, in the Ainu language, or Kumamatsuri. Kumamatsuri translates to mean “the bear festival” and Iomante means “sending off”.[16] The event of Kumamatsuri began with the capture of a young bear cub. As if he was a child given by the gods, the cub was fed human food from a carved wooden platter and was treated better than Ainu children for they thought of him as a god.[17] If the cub was too young and lacked the teeth to properly chew food, a nursing mother will let him suckle from her own breast.[17] When the cub reaches 2–3 years of age, the cub is taken to the altar and then sacrificed. Usually, Kumamatsuri occurs in midwinter when the bear meat is the best from the added fat.[17] The villagers will shoot it with both normal and ceremonial arrows, make offerings, dance, and pour wine on top of the cub corpse.[17] The words of sending off for the bear god are then recited. This festivity lasts for three days and three nights to properly return the bear god to his home.[17]

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.

The Greek goddess, Artemis, has a bear form.

The Dacians, Thracians, and Getians regarded the bear as the messenger to the dead ancestors, or perhaps as the incarnation of their ancestors.

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 Christian Saint Ursula may be a holdover from these traditions.

The Nivkhs in Russia, the Haida of North America, and many peoples of central Asia regard the Bear Mother as their ancestress.

The Hebrew Bible includes metaphoric depictions of God as a mother bear, fiercely protecting her cubs. Hosea 13:8 (KJV) "I will meet them as a bear that is bereaved of her whelps, and will rend the caul of their heart, and there will I devour them like a lion: the wild beast shall tear them."

The Swiss Saint Saint Gall is traditionally associated with a bear who followed him and was his faithful companion. Robertson Davies, in his book, The Manticore, suggests that this legend is a survival of prehistoric bear worship long antedating Christianity.


  1. ^ Bledsoe, p. 1.
  2. ^ a b Wunn 2000, pp. 434-435.
  3. ^ a b c d Wunn 2000, p. 435.
  4. ^ a b Wunn 2000, p. 436.
  5. ^ Wunn 2000, pp. 436-437.
  6. ^ Wunn 2000, p. 437.
  7. ^ Wunn 2000, pp. 437-438.
  8. ^ Wunn 2000, pp. 438.
  9. ^ Wunn 2000.
  10. ^ Chaussonnet 1995, pp. 35,81.
  11. ^ Sternberg & Grant 1999, p. 160.
  12. ^ Chaussonnet 1995, p. 35.
  13. ^ Gall 1998, pp. 4-6.
  14. ^ a b c Kindaichi & Yoshida 1949, p. 345.
  15. ^ a b Kindaichi & Yoshida 1949, p. 348.
  16. ^ Kindaichi & Yoshida 1949, pp. 348-349.
  17. ^ a b c d e Kindaichi & Yoshida 1949, p. 349.

See also


External links

  • Arctolatry - A website outlining historical forms of arctolatry throughout the world with maps and time lines.

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.
  • Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology (The Masks of God, #1), Penguin Arkana 1991 (first published 1959).
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