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Uomini e orsi

Enrico Comba
Daniele Ormezzano

The Bear Rituals among the Sámi

Riti dell’orso tra i Sámi

Juha Pentikäinen


La caccia all’orso tra i Finni, i Careliani e i Sámi consisteva in una serie di eventi cultuali. Un rituale correttamente eseguito avrebbe assicurato che l’orso sarebbe rinato in un altro mondo, dove ci si attendeva che avrebbe avvisato gli altri orsi di come fosse stato trattato con grande onore dagli esseri umani. Le conoscenze di cui possiamo disporre circa i rituali dell’orso dei Sámi provengono essenzialmente dalla Scandinavia meridionale. Testimonianze del Settecento riportano che essi “consideravano tutti gli animali come sacri”, ma l’orso era considerato l’animale più sacro di tutti. Sebbene le relazioni che i Sámi intrattenevano con il mondo animale presentino una molteplicità di aspetti, l’orso manteneva una posizione particolare nella loro cultura, che derivava da una serie di concetti di tipo totemico. Vi era una sorta di accordo tacito che stabiliva le rispettive responsabilità: l’orso doveva trattenersi dall’uccidere gli esseri umani, i suoi discendenti; gli umani dovevano mostrare rispetto nei confronti dell’orso e potevano ucciderlo, ma solo entro una cornice derivante dalle regole stabilite dal mito e con il consenso dell’orso stesso. L’uccisione rituale dell’orso rafforzava gli uomini: i poteri del possente animale e le sue caratteristiche venivano trasferite sui suoi vincitori. La caccia all’orso si presentava così come una sequenza di azioni ed eventi rituali e cultuali.
La caccia non aveva alcun particolare significato nei termini dell’economia alimentare, ma cacciare e consumare la carne dell’orso avevano un intrinseco valore in se stessi. La festa dell’orso fortificava i cacciatori, rinnovava il sistema di valori legati alla caccia e rafforzava lo spirito di comunità. Se condotti correttamente, i rituali dell’orso potevano garantire che l’animale potesse rinascere in sáiva, l’alto mondo dei Sámi, che si trovava sottoterra o sotto la superficie delle acque, dove andavano a finire anche gli spiriti di altri animali sacrificati e dove le anime degli sciamani morti, noaidi, avevano la loro residenza. Qui, nel sáiva, si pensava che l’orso raccontasse agli altri animali quale grande onore fosse l’essere ucciso e festeggiato dagli uomini. Così si confermava la volontà degli orsi di continuare a rinascere dal sáiva sulla terra, per concedersi agli uomini e lasciarsi uccidere. Il culto dell’orso costituiva una fase cruciale nel continuo ciclo in cui gli orsi si alternavano tra questo mondo e l’altro.

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1. Introduction

1The Sámi proved more interesting than the Finns to seventeenth and eighteenth-century Europe; the interests of the Swedish College of Antiquities founded in 1666 by Magnus de la Gardie were directed principally towards the Sámi. In order to achieve a unity of language and belief throughout the realm in the manner decided by the Vasa royal family it was necessary to found Swedish towns and establish Lutheran churches in different parts of the country and gather information about minorities whose languages, beliefs or customs differed from those of the state. The focus was upon the north and the east. The eastern boundary was to be made into a border between the Lutheran Swedish and the Orthodox Russian faiths. Witch persecutions were also a feature of the times. Even though the Lutheran pastors of Sweden-Finland and Denmark-Norway had the task of recording the magic and idolatry of the Sámi with the promise that the shamans would not be persecuted, in seventeenth-century Lapland the time arrived ‘to burn drums or hide them in the ground’. The fascination with the Sámi stemmed from their being such close neighbours to civilised Europeans, yet so culturally remote. In the seventeenth century they still largely adhered to their traditional, pre-Christian beliefs, and shamanism (noaidi, luohta) and bear rituals were central parts of their culture.

2One of the most characteristic material features of Sámi shamanism was the highly decorated drums, some seventy of which have survived the ravages of time (including a number of great fires in Copenhagen, the then capital of Denmark-Norway, where hundreds of drums had been collected).Olaus Magnus and other writers on Lapland’s shamans (noaidi) led continental Europeans to think that the victorious Swedish army made use of noaidi tricks in their battles. The Swedish crown invited the German scholar Johannes Scheffer to Uppsala to write ‘a new and reliable description’ of Lapland and the Lapps, on the basis of the regional reports written by clergymen. As his Lapponia (1673) was soon translated into the main European languages, the Sámi bear ritual became more widely known in Europe than it was at that time in the Nordic countries, where it still took place.

2. The Sámi bear feast

3The bear hunt among the Finns, Karelians and Sámi was a cultic series of events. A correctly performed ritual would ensure that the bear was reborn in the world beyond, where it was expected to tell its fellow bears about how great an honour it had wrested from human beings. The specific knowledge about bear rituals comes from south Scandinavian Sámi. According to Randulf, writing in 1723 on the basis of information relating to the southern Sámi, ‘the Sámi consider all animals holy’, and he continues: ‘but the bear they consider the most holy of all’. Though the relations of the Sámi with animals were many-sided, the bear held a special place in the culture, derived from totemistic concepts. There was a sort of unspoken agreement about what responsibilities pertained to each side: the bear had to refrain from killing people, its descendants; people had to honour the bear, and could kill it, but only within a framework derived from rules established in myth, and with leave granted in myth by the bear itself. The ritual slaying of a bear strengthened men: the powers of the mighty animal and its characteristics came into the victors’ possession. The bear hunt was through and through a series of ritual and cult events.

4The hunt held no essential significance in terms of the food economy, but the hunt and the consumption of the bear flesh were of intrinsic value in themselves. The bear festival fortified the hunters, and renewed the community’s system of hunting values and strengthened the community spirit. Carried out correctly, the bear ritual also guaranteed that the bear would be born anew in sáiva, the Sámi otherworld under the ground or water, where the souls of other sacrificial animals also ended up and where similarly departed shamans, noaidi, took up residence. It was expected to relate in sáiva to the other bears what a great honour it was to be slain by men and feasted upon. Thus it was confirmed that bears would continue to be willing to be born from sáiva on earth and would give themselves up to be slain by men. The bear cult was a critical part of the bear’s endless cycle alternating between this world and the other. At all stages of the hunting and rite of the bear, the Sámi are known to have used a secret language specific to the bear hunters, which contained circumlocutions for all the words needed in this connection, such as the bear’s body parts. This valuable information becomes manifest in the texts quoted below.

5Bear graves associated with the cult have been found over a broad area of Norwegian and Swedish Lapland. The oldest grave from the Norwegian area is dated to the third century ad, and the most recent to the eighteenth (Zachrisson - Iregren, 1974, p. 37; Myrstad, 1996, p. 46).The most important source for the Sámi bear cult from the time while it was still living is the description from 1755 by the Swede Pehr Fjellström, the rector of the Skytteanske Skolar, a seminar founded in Lycksele for the training of Sámi boys to serve their communities as ministers, entitled Kort berättelse om Lapparnas Björne-fänge, which is based on the customs of Ume, Pite and Lule Lappmark; the overall bear-hunting rite consisted of the following stages:

1. Encircling the bear, after the first snowfall, often with the help of an oracle from a shaman drum.

2. The formation of a hunting party. In Scandinavia the hunt appears to have been a noticeably social event; the encircler held a party, whose participants were obliged to take part in the hunt. According to information from Finnish Lapland the hunt and ritual were small in form, and more family-based (Itkonen, 1946, pp. 365-366).

3. The slaying itself in early spring. Again a prognostication of the success of the hunt was sought by means of the shaman drum. A few days of celibacy preceded the hunt day, along with washing and fasting, and each of the hunters left his own home through the sacred back entrance, the boaššu. The bear’s den was approached in a festal procession. In Scandinavia the order was encircler, drum-player, slayer and other hunters in order of rank. Before the slaying, the bear was woken, so that its soul, possibly straying outside its body, could return. If this did not happen, the bear’s soul would be left to wander, as an enraged and dangerous soul without abode, and the very purpose of the bear ritual, the return of the bear to sáiva, would be unfulfilled. The actual slaying was effected with a special bear spear. The bear was left in its place until the following day, ‘facing death’. The meaning of this may have been the same as that of the bear’s awakening.

4. The move back to the village. The reindeer which drew the bear had a brass ring as a protection against the bear’s dangerous otherworldly power, its väki (like the Polynesian mana). This reindeer was then tabu for women for a year. During the ceremony the women could also not cross the return path of the hunting company.During the journey the first bear song was sung. Unfortunately no complete western Sámi bear song has been recorded; only Gabriel Tuderus’s record of a song from Kemi Lapland, translated into Finnish, is preserved. In the village the women came to meet the hunters by looking at them through a brass ring and sprinkling them with red alder sap. The former was again aimed at neutralising the bear’s väki, the latter relates to the name of the divine guardian of the bear, Leaibeolmai, ‘alder man’. The red, blood-like alder sap forged a connection with this hunting god. Songs were sung again, and in these the bear was called by the name saivo olmaior saivo neit, ‘man/girl of sáiva’, with its otherworld associations.

5. The cooking and eating of the bear’s flesh: the bear feast proper. The bear was skinned and cooked by men, at least in Scandinavia, in a house specially erected for the bear feast; women were not allowed in. In Finland, the women appear to have been present. While the bear was being skinned, it was sung to, and assured that its death was not caused by the hunters. It was explained that the animal itself had accidentally slipped down a slippery hillside or that some foreigner or stranger had killed it: ‘A man came from Sweden, Poland, England, France’. This may be considered a shadowy reminiscence of the bear myth, in which the bear forbade his own son to kill him, but where he nonetheless gave himself up to be slain by his wife’s brothers.In dividing up the meat special care was taken that no bone was broken, and the bones were carefully taken into safekeeping. The bear’s flesh had to be cooked without salt; this rule may point to the bear rite’s great antiquity, to a time when the inland Sámi did not use salt. The cooking was a critical event in which the pot could not boil over, but where cold water could also not be added to prevent it. This again contains a reminiscence of the bear myth, in which the bear’s son threatens to rouse his father and the pot begins the boil furiously over. In Scandinavia the men brought prepared meat to their homes and the women could eat it too, though only flesh from the front or the rear (accounts vary) of the animal. Again, as a precaution they had to eat the meat through a brass ring.

6. The purification rites and carnival. The men present at the slaying of the bear were purified with strong birch-ash lye, which in Scandinavian tradition appears to have been followed by erotic group games. This indicates how erotic concepts with a totemistic background surround the bear.

7. The bear’s funeral. The bear’s bones, kept intact, and the skull were buried in strict anatomical order. According to the Sámi concept, both human and animal could receive a new body in the otherworld, as long as the skeleton was kept intact. This also enabled the bear to be reincarnated on earth. A bear which had attacked men and had therefore behaved in an unbecoming fashion did not receive a funeral, but its right paw was cut off and thrown away; thus its skeleton was no longer intact and the bear’s cycle came to an end then and there (Itkonen, 1946, p. 365). According to some information a pair of skis could be placed in the grave, or a flute, a knife, a piece of brass etc. This reaffirms the strong connection between bear and man.

8. The shooting of the pelt (in Scandinavia). The bear’s pelt was stretched on a frame and the women of the village could shoot it, eyes closed. The husband of the woman who first struck the pelt with her arrow was to be the next bear slayer, or if the woman was unmarried, her hitting the pelt presaged her gaining of a great bear hunter as husband. This was again a carnival stage.

9. The final stage in the ritual assemblage was a three to four-day period of celibacy for the men. After this the bear’s väkiwas viewed as neutralised, and it could no longer pass from the hunter to his wife through sexual intercourse. In all stages of the bear ritual the relationship between the bear and the village women was critical. There were two dimensions to this: the sexual threat of the bear to women and the threat caused by women to luck in the hunt and the equipment. The latter was a general Sámi concept, but among the Scandinavian Sámi the sexual dimension appears to have been more emphasised than among Finnish or eastern Sámi. The conclusion cannot, however, be drawn from this that the bear’s totemistic status was more shadowy among them, for certain other facts indicate the closeness of the relationship between bear and man among the eastern Sámi, for example bears were a typical east Sámi tradition. The fundamental notion behind the bear ritual may, however, be this: the bear was the most powerful beast of the natural world, with whom men wished to be in a good relationship, but whose powers they at the same time wished to share; in ritual, this power of the bear became part of the Sámi’s own power. The ritual realisation of the Sámi bear celebration may be compared to Ob Ugric animal ceremonialism; it was a comprehensive ritual drama in which the whole Sámi community took part in different roles. The avoiding of the bear, the skiing and the slaughter at its den were particularly sensitive matters fenced round with tabu rules and florid expressions, in which the bear was asked for forgiveness for the events. However, it had to take place, within an eternal cycle of birth, death and return between the earth and heaven. The bear was spoken of with reverence as a god and as a member of the human race. A shared characteristic of Finno-Ugric cultures, and one that distinguishes them from the habits in the rest of Scandinavia, was the careful interment in anatomical order, which enabled the bear to rise again and be reborn. In Swedish Lapland the bones of the bear with its head and teeth were buried in a special bear’s grave. The Finnish-Karelian bear ritual took place in a forest milieu reached its climax in the raising of the skull into a pine, reflecting the map of the northern night sky with its headless great Bear, which explained why the head had to remain on earth, as part of the annual cycle and ritual life of the community. The Sámi have continued to respect the bear up until recent times. Olavi Korhonen, Professor Emeritus of Sámi Language at Umeå University and my field work companion since 1965, has in his linguistic and ethnographic recordings recognised the abundance of esoteric bear names in various Sámi languages, as well as the reminiscences of a special secret language of the bear hunters. His archival studies have revealed that the rights to hunting the bear were shared between siidas (communities) engaged in killing deer and breeding reindeer. The bear cult existed as part of the Sámi justice system relating to fell land and waters occupied by the siidas. The clan and family units organised the encircling and killing of the bear, and took care of the proper measures and manners to be used. Men were purified before and after the killing; women were kept away from the main ceremonies, but were invited to take part in some prophesying and other activities related to the hunt and good fortune.

3. Lars Levi Laestadius: bear ethnography in xix Century

6This paragraph presents the ethnographic accounts of Sámi bear customs as recorded by a Lutheran minister working in Swedish Lapland, Lars Levi Laestadius of Karesuando, as assembled and commented on by Laestadius itself in his Fragments of Lappish Mythology (1842, translated by Börje Vähämäki):

§53. Lappish customs relating to killing a bear are closely related to the sacrificial customs, and therefore it may be reasonable to introduce them here. In addition to other writers, Pehr Fjellström has provided a thorough description. This respected and industrious teacher was the pastor of lycksele, which is a part of Ume Lappmark. He has translated many Christian books into the Lappish language, and his research on bear hunting was printed in Stockholm in 1755. I will include some parts of it here in addition to material by other writers on the same topic. First of all the writer gives us information about the bear from the naturalist’s point of view. He also tells us about ways of hunting it prevalent in Lapland. Among these is the rather important piece of information (p. 8) that ‘nobody has killed a female bear which has living cubs because as soon as it smells a human it will abandon the cubs – whether they are big or small – and eat them’. Then he repeats Samuel Rhen’s information which appears in Schefferus, according to which a Lapp who has made a circuit around a bear will invite his closest relatives and friends to a kind of party as the moment for the kill approaches. There they beat the drum in order [to get the bear]. But the writer, Fjellström, observes that drumming the bear was no longer the custom in his time. This does not, however, mean that drumming of the bear could not have been a custom 50-60 years earlier when Schefferus wrote his book. The writer considers the drumming to be pointless once the bear has been circled. ‘Because if the purpose of the drumming was to inform others about the location of the bear, it could take place only when the bear had not yet been circled.’ – But this is not quite accurate; even though the bear had been circled, there was much to be done before the bear’s den could be found inside the circle. The Lapp might be asking the divination drum to give him an answer to that. Note: For the benefit of those readers who have no idea how a bear is hunted in the Scandinavian North, it may be best to explain what is meant by circling a bear. It is well known that a bear is an animal that does not need any nourishment in the winter; it merely lies in its den and sucks its paws. In the fall, old and cautious bears habitually go to their dens before the first snowfall. Occasionally it happens that the snow surprises the bear before it has had time to crawl into its winter den, and therefore the Nordic hunters usually look for its tracks. When they see the tracks, they will know that the bear is not going to go very far before it will lie down to sleep, and they will not follow the tracks any farther, but make a circle around the mountain or area where they think that the bear will make its den. If the hunter, after walking around the circle, notices that the bear has not gone outside the circle, he will make another circle around it. The diameter of the inner circle is much smaller than that of the earlier one. For example, if the diameter of the first one is half a league and that of the inner one fourth of a league, the hunter can make a circle around the same area up to the point where the presumed bear den will be at the centre of a small circle, the diameter of which may be 3/8, 2/8, or 1/8 of a league. This is called circling the bear. The hunter makes a careful note of the location and leaves the bear in peace until the time when there will be more snow. Then he can get the bear on skis when the snow is hard enough to carry its weight even in the event of the bear’s escaping from his den before it is killed.


§54. Fjellström further observes that Lapps do not refer to a bear by its proper name while they are getting ready for a bear hunt. They use special, secret words for the bear itself and everything associated with it: ‘They show great respect for the bear, they consider it as the most sacred of animals, and therefore it is called passe vaisje “sacred game”, puoldekats “little man of the hill”, puolda-pådnje “hill-man”, puold-aja “old man of the hill”, puoldossek, or rather puoldussek “mountain-scab, or rather hill-scab”, or the same as puold-tsuobbo “mountain toad”, or rather hill-toad, ruemsek, properly rumsek.’ This is one of the mystical names of the bear which Fjellström was not able to translate, and those words are not found in the Lappish language dictionary: it may be related to the Finnish word runsu, slarfvor ‘a rag; pl.’, trosor ‘a piece of fabric; pl.’, bass ‘straw bedding’, which refers to the bear’s habit of making himself a bed out of all kinds of forest debris and tarfok‘moss gatherer’, which comes from the fact that a bear gathers bear moss (Polytrictrum commune Lin.) out of which it makes for itself a soft bed, etc. Leem adds, ‘they never call the bear by its own name, qvuowtja,so that it will not harm their cattle but they call it by the name muodd-aja, “fur-coat Grandpa”’ (Leem, p. 502). In Lule Lappmark the bear is called muoddekis “the furry one”. The hunters’ term for an old male bear is änak, a female bear is called estev, a young bear which its mother no longer allows to nurse is called tsabmek “the whipped one”, because a bear weans the cubs by hitting and whipping them.


§55. Not only the bear itself was honored with various kinds of respectful names; there was also a special language, formulated for bear-hunting, which was used and understood only by experienced bear-hunters. Fjellström remarks, for example, that the bear song, which ordinarily is juoikem, was siggemin bear-hunting. In ordinary language ‘ear’ is pelje, but in hunting language it is auros. Eye, tjalmeis nastein hunting language. Skin, nakke, correspondingly was låtek; heart, vaimo, was jalos,etc. Bear-hunting language was like Arabic to the uninitiated, and as well versed as Fjellström was in the Lappish language, he was not able to translate many of the words in the hunting language. This kind of new language, which lacks both etymology and grammar, is very difficult to translate, which in itself is proof of its creators’ inventiveness. Leem, like Fjellström, says that Lapps used a special language incomprehensible to others when they hunted bear. For instance the word ‘to cook’ was in ordinary Lappish language vuossjetbut in hunting language guordestam. As we see, the language of Lappish bear hunters was really ‘abracadabra’, and was probably understood only by old and experienced bear-hunters.


§56. According to what Lapps have told us, this bear-hunters’ language and all the strange and clownish bear-hunting activities are based on the following story (Lycksele Lapps told it to Fjellström, p. 13): ‘Three brothers had an only sister whom they hated so much that she had to flee to the wilderness. Totally exhausted she finally arrived at a bear’s den and crawled into it to rest. A bear also came to the den, and after they became better acquainted, he took her as his wife and had a son by her. When after some time the bear had grown old and the son had grown up, the bear said to his wife that, because of his advanced old age, he did not want to live any longer and that he wanted to make tracks on the new-fallen snow this fall so that his wife’s three brothers could see his tracks, circle him, and kill him. Even though the wife did everything she could to stop him, the bear was not to be persuaded. He did as he had said so that the three brothers could circle him using his tracks. In addition, the bear ordered that a piece of brass be placed on his forehead. This was to be a sign to distinguish him from other bears, but also to prevent his son, who was off somewhere, from killing him. ‘When a deep snow had fallen, the three brothers started off to kill the bear, which they had circled earlier. Then the bear asked his wife if all the brothers had been equally nasty to her. The wife answered that the two older ones had been worse, but that the youngest one had been somewhat kinder. ‘When the brothers arrived at the bear’s den, the bear sprang out and attacked the oldest brother, biting and wounding him very badly. The bear himself was not wounded, and he went back to his den. When the second brother came, the bear attacked him too, injuring him in the same way as the previous one, and went rus, p. 233; Fjellström, p. 15; Högström, Ch. 11 §32.) ‘After the bear is killed, the bear-hunters strike up a song. He who has the branch in his hand is the conductor (leads the music). The song begins with these words: Kitulis puorré i skada (tackamiss) såbbi jala saiti,“Thank you very much! You did not damage a ski pole or a spear.”’ (Schefferus’s Anonymous.)
Note. It often happens that a bear knocks a ski pole from a hunter’s hand with its paw, which is disastrous because the hunter is then rendered defenceless. That is the reason why the bear song started with the words cited above. The custom of hitting the bear with a twig originates, in Fjellström’s opinion, in the above story in which ‘the bear’s son hit the bearskin with a twig’.


§58. ‘When the bear has fallen, all who have been involved put their skis over the animal as proof that they have defeated it, and also because – if this is not done – a bear might become so arrogant as to run over their skis. Then they twist a willow branch and put it as a ring in the bear’s lower jaw. The best of the bear-hunters then ties a belt to it, at which he jerks three times, and in a strange voice sings an oddly worded song declaring that he is the winner. Some take a spear and shake it three times at the bear for the same purpose, singing the same song. Then the bear is covered with spruce branches, and left to lie there until the following day. This is done even when the place where the bear is killed is so close to their dwelling that it could be dragged home the same day and skinned.’ (Fjellström, pp. 16–17.) ‘As they come to within hearing distance of their homes they start a song dedicated to this event, which lets those at home understand that a bear has been killed. Then all the women put on their festive clothes and silver decorations, after which they join the men in singing, welcoming both the men and the dead bear. That song is called the sides song. The man who acted as leader of the hunt will twist a soft branch, forming a loop at the end of it. This branch is söive risse. With it he will strike the outside of the dwelling three times and say: söive ålma (“söive’s man”) if a male bear has been killed. If they have killed a female bear, he will say söive neit(“söive’s daughter”). Some also give these names to the bear slayer and his wife.’ (Fjellström, p. 17).
Note. Neither sidenor söivecan be found in any dictionary but iwould assume that sideis a southern Swedish way of pronouncing seide; söivein turn may be the same as saiva. Thus the sides-song would mean a song in honor of the seita god. Söive ålmaand söive neitwould refer to the bear’s sacred nature as an animal originating from saivo; söive ålmais ‘saivo’s man’ and söive neit‘saivo’s daughter’ or ‘saivo’s maid’, that is underworld man and underworld maid. It was also believed that a bear would be resurrected and would get a new life in saivo. For that reason, in the bear-hunters’ flowery language, a bear was referred to as saivo ålmaor saivo neit.


§59. After these preliminary ceremonies – Fjellström tells us – ‘all bear hunters will step into a kota, not, however through the usual entrance but through a påssjo raige. Also all the dogs that have participated in the hunt are let in through the same entrance. The women, who are now wearing their silver decorations and festive garments, cover their faces, all at the same time, with a broadcloth or linen covering. When they look at the bear slayers, they do not, however, have their heads covered, but every one of them takes a brass ring, holds it to one eye, and looks through it. At the same time they spit chewed alder bark at the faces of the hunters. The dogs which have participated in the hunt are also dyed reddish with juice from the alder tree bark. In ancient times the women had also used colored dyes and made signs of the cross on themselves with the alder-bark solution. ‘After this sprinkling the women decorate all the men with brass rings tied in strings and chains, which they tie to their neck and one hand and foot. All this is called kaltek. Kaltekis a bear-hunters’ term, which is not in the dictionary. I don’t know the meaning of the word either unless it has to do with what will be related later concerning the prohibition forbidding the bear hunters from having intercourse with their wives for four or five days. In that case kaltekmeans “gelded”. The decorating of bear-hunters with brass rings is in many ways reminiscent of what was told earlier about those who performed sacrifices. ‘The twisted branch mentioned above is now left in the care of the söive neit “the wife of the best bear-hunter”, and she will keep it inside a linen cloth until the bear has been cooked.‘After all this has been done, favorite foods are carried in. The bear-hunters eat together, and the women eat together. Nothing more is done that day, but everybody goes to sleep, each wearing the decorations that he has got. They do not, however, sleep with their wives but each one separately; this will be done for three nights. Schefferus says that no Lapp can come to his wife for three days, and the one who has the branch and the ring (the one who circled the bear) is not allowed to approach his wife for five days and nights.’ (Fjellström, pp. 18-19.)


§60. ‘On the second day they make preparations for bringing the bear home. some of the bear hunters remain at home and build a new shed out of split planks which are then covered with spruce tree branches. This hut is called quartek. The other hunters bring the bear home. Also, the reindeer that is to haul the bear is decorated with strings of brass rings and chains fastened around its neck. When the men come home, the women sing: “Blessed are you who bear such decorations.” Schefferus tells us that the men sing along the way as they bring the bear home: i paha talkev ådtjo, i paha talkev faronis,that is “he will not have bad weather, he will not bring bad weather with him”.’ (Fjellström, p. 19.) Samuel Rhen has another piece of information about the song they sang when they brought the bear home. He has not given us the Lappish words, but merely included the following translation: ‘Then they begin joyfully singing the bear song, which reads thus in translation: they thank God who has created this animal for their profit and granted them the courage and might to prevail over such a cruel and powerful creature.’ It is a pity that the writer [Schefferus] did not learn the words of the bear song. Only Tuderus has written them down, and his version is said to be the Kemi Lapps’ bear song. However, it is written in broken Finnish and it looks more Finnish than Lappish. In addition, Tuderus’s publisher has not known either Finnish or Lappish, and, therefore, has not been able to correct the gross mistakes in the original Finnish text. It is thus difficult to make out the song. [Here Laestadius cites Tuderus’s poem and comments on it. However, given the poor state of the text available to him, the poem is discussed in the next chapter.]


§64. When the slain bear has been brought with song and rejoicing to the Lapps’ dwelling place, ‘it is brought into a hut or wooden shed that is decorated with rings woven out of Lappish shoe grass (Carex Vesicaria Lin.). The bear is placed lying there supine with a birch-bark box or cone containing chewed alder-tree bark under its nose. Before the bear is cut open its back is also sprinkled with chewed alder bark. Knives, axes, cups and all the dishes that are used on this occasion are decorated with brass (rings, plates, or discs). Also the bear’s head is decorated with brass rings and chains.’ (Fjellström, p. 20.) ‘There is no silence during the skinning; people sing about many things, such as where the bear has come from. Then they will sing poems about near or faraway places, lands, mountains, lakes, etc. Schefferus says (according to information provided by Samuel Rheen) that they sing Ålmai påti Sverjis landest, Polandest, Englandist, Frankrikist, i.e., “The man came from Sweden, Poland, England, France, etc.” Schefferus says that such things are also sung when the bear meat has been boiled and two men carry it to the women. Then also the women answer by singing: Ålmai påti Sverges landest, Polandest, Englandist, Frankrikist.’ (Ibid.) these words have undoubtedly been created at a later time because Poland, England, or France cannot have been known to the Lapps before the arrival of Christianity. Fjellström says further: ‘They sing of the respect they are now demonstrating to the bear, and they ask that he tell other bears about it so that they, too, will surrender willingly. They sing of what they guess those in their everyday homes are doing. A correct guess is regarded as a good omen. The children tell of their activities – they are allowed to run between the bear hunters and the homefolk – but the women are not allowed to come close, not even to see what they are doing; only children, and girls not yet of marriageable age, are allowed to.’ ‘No woman can, for one year, drive the reindeer that hauled the bear home nor can it be transported along a road along which a woman has walked. No woman is allowed to walk across the bear hunter’s tracks nor along them as long as this ceremony lasts.’ (Fjellström, p. 19.)


§65. ‘When the bear has been skinned, to the accompaniment of singing, and its meat has been chopped and cut away from the bones – in such a way, however, that no vein or sinew, as they understand them, is cut – all the meat is boiled at the same time, if the pot they have is big enough to hold it. Otherwise the bear is skinned only enough to get as much meat as will fit into the pot, and skinning will be continued only after this meat has been cooked. The blood, which is drained from the bear as soon as a cut large enough for the purpose has been made, is cooked first of all; then a small amount of suet is added to it. When that is ready, it is eaten before anything else is cooked. The head is skinned last. The windpipe and all the innards are allowed to dangle from the head until the rest of the meat is done. When the head is skinned, the thin, hairless skin of the snout is peeled off. The person who skins the head will tie this skin on his face. Then the head and all the innards, which have been mostly cleaned, are lifted into the pot to be cooked, with the inner organs still dangling from the head, not having been cut loose.’ (Fjellström, p. 22.) Schefferus writes: ‘As the bear meat boils, the bear hunters sit on two sides of the fire in a set order: no one is allowed to sit in another’s place. First of all sits the one who circled the bear, next the one who beat the drum, and next to him the one who first shot the bear; on the left sit the woodchopper and the water carrier.’ (Samuel Rheen, on Schefferus, p. 236.) Fjellström says that he does not know if this really happens in Southern Lappmark.‘Bear hunters must be careful to check that the pot won’t boil over and that no liquid will spill into the fire because this is considered a bad omen. The contents of the pot must not, however, be diluted with cold water nor must it be taken off the fire. The man in charge will send somebody to find out if something inappropriate is going on in the kotawhere the women are assembled during this solemn occasion. If no fault is found in the women which could have been the cause for the rapid boiling of the pot, the leader strikes up a song especially composed for this eventuality, and the seething pot begins to boil properly.’ (Fjellström, p. 23.)


§66. ‘The front part of the bear was boiled in a separate pot and the back in another pot, for a woman was not allowed to eat any of the front part, and of the back part roughly only from the spot her hands would reach if she hugged the bear.’ Schefferus’s assertion that ‘a woman is not given any part of the bear’s back but only its front’ is in Fjellström’s opinion either a misprint or a misunderstanding; ‘It seems to contradict the primary cause for the superstitions associated with the Lapps’ bear hunting.’ (Fjellström, p. 24.)
Note. The idea above seems to be based on an error in writing by Rhen, or else he has actually misunderstood the Lappish narration. Samuel Rheen has correctly observed that men ate the front part of the sacrificed reindeer and the home folk ate the rest; thus, since the bear was also considered a sacrifice, the same should apply to it.‘After the meat is cooked, it is divided between the men and the women. The Lapp who has the branch and the ring, as well as the drum beater, are allowed to do the dividing.’ (Anonymous and Samuel Rheen; Schefferus, p. 236.)‘Two representatives of the bear-hunters are sent to take the women’s share to the women’s tent. They announce their approach by singing: Olmai påti Sverjis landest Polandest,etc., and the women answer in the same way. The bear grease is strained; all the dishes in which the grease is strained have to be fitted with brass. If only one bear has been killed, the container has to be fitted with one piece of brass, if more bears have been killed, the grease cup also has to be fitted with several pieces of brass.’ (Samuel Rehn, Schefferus, p. 237.)As the representatives of the bear hunters enter the everyday kotawith the women’s share, ‘the women look at them through a brass ring and sprinkle chewed alder-tree bark on them and on the bear meat’ (Fjellström, p. 25). Schefferus’s Anonymous adds that women receive the representatives with this song: Ålbmai, (mi) påti Svergis Landest, Polandest, Englandist, Frankrikist, kalka ruopsis laigit ruoidi tjatnat, which means ‘A red woolen cloth is placed round the thigh of the man who came from Sweden, Poland, England, France’, and the women proceed to do that. ‘They also look through the brass ring at the children who have been in the bear-hunters’ hut and say: sjalest mo!i.e., “decorate me!” (or rather “purify me”), because the brass ring is the symbol of purity’ (Fjellström, p. 25). ‘The woman either has to drop the first piece of bear meat through a brass ring or hold the brass ring in front of her mouth and put the first piece into her mouth through it.’ (Ibid.)


§67. ‘Last of all a bear’s stubby tail which has been boiled in its grease without skinning is carried to the women. Söiwe neidor the wife of the best bear-hunter, who has had the above-mentioned birch-tree loop wrapped up in a piece of cloth, now takes it out. All the women and children present put a brass ring or a chain on it. After eating what there was to eat, and after sucking off all the grease stuck to the bear’s tail fur, they tie the tail onto the same branch loop, which is now decorated with brass rings. This they hand over to the bear-hunters, who preserve it together with all the bear bones.’ After this all the women cover their faces. Then their husbands kiss them and thank them for allowing them to honor the bear undisturbed. Nothing more is recited at the table either when they sit down to eat the bear meat or when they leave the table, and no salt is used.When all this has been done, the men go to the place where the bear was cooked. They rest there until they get the permission to come to their wives, which cannot take place without purification.The purification is performed in this manner. ‘All the men who have been participants in the killing of the bear wash themselves with a strong lye made from birch ash. Then they run three times around the iron chains to which the pots of bear meat had been attached, through the real door to the everyday hut, and immediately out through the påssjoor back door. While they run, they imitate the sounds a bear makes (a noise that sounds like muttering and growling; one can still hear that sound from some old bear-hunters). Then the wife of the man who shot the bear has to catch them with mittens on her hands and ask: “How long”, i.e., how long is it going to take before the next bear is killed? They answer: “Until next spring”. If the wife now says: “It is too long”, they will then say: “Let it happen this spring then.”’ (Fjellström, p. 27.)


§68. ‘The others run around the everyday hut. First, however, it has to be decorated with spruce branches (inside and out). Then they go inside the hut and run (three times) around the fireplace. Those who do not run around the hut go through the påssjo, run over the fireplace in the center, and out through the regular door, then roll over three times on the ground. Then they have to be caught in the manner described above.’ (Fjellström, ibid.) Samuel Rheen says: ‘When after three days the Lapps are again permitted to go to their wives, one after another they take hold of the chain on which cooking pots are hung, then run three times over the fire and out of the kotadoor in single file. The women then sing: tådna kalkah kunav ådjot,that is, “You’ll get ashes.” Thus the men become purified in a way before they are allowed to go to their wives.’ (Schefferus, p. 242.) Schefferus remarks that this ceremony means atonement for killing the bear: Because they believe that the bear’s wife is sad and mournful over the bear’s death, the Lappish women also pretend to participate in this sorrow and the bear hunters have to purify themselves with ashes.


§69. ‘Just as none of the bear’s bones can be broken or cut, so are they not to be thrown away like the bones of other animals; they are collected carefully so that not even the smallest bone is lost. Then a bear-sized hole is dug in the spot where the bear was cooked. At the bottom of the hole they put very soft and fine birch twigs as a kind of bed. All the bones are placed in the hole, in the same arrangement as in a living bear. The piece of skin that was cut or skinned off the bear’s nose and worn by the one who skinned the bear’s head is now put in its correct place over the snout where it had been. The above-mentioned stubby tail is also set in its proper place in the skeleton. The brass rings and chain links that the women had attached to the branch loop when they received the bear’s tail are, however, taken away. These brass ornaments are preserved to become implements and decorations of the divination drum. The birch-bark cone that had been filled with alder-tree bark is also placed down in the grave beside the skeleton. Lastly the grave is covered with split logs the same length as the grave, over which they spread spruce branches so that no predator can disturb the bones. Some do not dig the grave horizontally but vertically as deep as the height of the bear. Then they place the bones (or the skeleton in a vertical position) in order, starting from the bottom and continuing upwards (proceeding little by little) to the head and snout so that the alder-tree cone is topmost. If some Swedish settlers, to whom the Lapps’ ceremonies do not matter, have taken part in the hunt, the Lapps take just the bones that are their share and bury them properly, leaving empty spaces for the missing bones. When all the bones are in place, they address the bear, asking him to tell other bears about the great honors that have been accorded him so that they will not resist capture.’ (Fjellström, pp. 28-9. Cf. Samuel Rheen, in Schefferus, p. 240; Leem, p. 502; and Högström, Ch. 11 §32.)


§70. Almost all writers tell of the ceremonial burial of the bear, which leads us to conclude that Lapps in general believe that the bear, like other animals, will be resurrected in saivo. Högström remarks: ‘If a dog happens to get hold of or takes away one of the bear’s bones, the dog’s bone is taken instead. In some places it was customary to bury also, in addition to the bear’s skull and skeleton, a pair of skis, a plane, a knife, a piece of brass, etc., with which it would no doubt manage well in the other world. It is lamentable that these people – who are very doubtful about their own resurrection – nevertheless believe that the bear will be resurrected and will live in another world.’ The entire ceremony is concluded with target shooting at the bear skin of which Fjellström writes: ‘Up to now (while the other ceremonies were taking place) the skin has been in its place, covered with spruce tree branches, and with brass rings and brass chains on its head and neck. None of the women has been allowed, nor will be allowed, to see it until the next ceremony has been performed. ‘The skin is nailed onto a long pole and stretched to the sides with small sticks. It is then sprinkled with alder bark and placed on a snow bank, or leaning against a block of wood a short distance from the hut. Then all the women must blindfold themselves, and when they come out, a bow and arrow or an alder stick is placed in their hands. With these they must shoot (or throw the stick) at the skin as the target; they do not see it but are told in what direction it is. The woman who hits the bearskin is considered the worthiest, and it is surmised on these grounds that her husband will be the one to kill the next bear. If the woman who hits the bearskin is unmarried, this is considered an even greater honor for her; it is assumed that she will marry a great bear-hunter. Then the cloth is taken from their eyes and all are allowed to see the bear through a brass ring. Only then are the mandatory ceremonies considered complete. The rings attached to the skin are not taken away until the skin has dried.’ (Fjellström, p. 30.) Samuel Rheen has added the following: ‘The woman who first hits the bearskin has to sew onto a cloth as many tin crosses as there were bears killed at that time; these crosses must be hung round the necks of all those who participated in the bear hunt. The Lappish bear-hunters must wear these crosses until the sunset of the third day. In the same way they hang a sewn cross round the neck of the reindeer that has hauled the bear home, where it will have to stay until it wears off.’ (Samuel Rheen, in Schefferus, p. 241.)


§71. Finally, Fjellström remarks that the superstitious ceremonies associated with bear-hunting were beginning to be rare in his day, and that if a few followed the old ceremonies it was out of habit rather than superstitious belief. The last ceremony of this kind that I have heard mentioned took place in Dunkjock in the 1780s. A minister’s wife who was present took part in the game because her husband had participated in the bear-hunt. Otherwise, all such ceremonies have ceased nowadays. I do not know of anything derived from the old superstitions if we don’t consider the belief cherished by old bear-hunters that the bear understands human speech. Some Lappish women believe that a bear is angrier towards a woman who is pregnant with a girl baby. If a bear should ever bother a woman, she can remedy the matter by lifting her skirt and displaying her organ to the bear. The animal will feel ashamed and go away.
Note. Leem comments on a matter related to what was mentioned earlier, which I overlooked as I was writing. I am adding it here so it can be compared with what Fjellström reports. Leem says (p. 502): ‘The dead bear is triumphantly carried home. The bear hunters spend three days in a tent especially made for this purpose. No woman is allowed to visit them during that time. After the bear meat is cooked, the women are handed some of it through the påssjodoor, but nothing from its hind quarters. After the meal the bones were buried in the ground.’ This information of Leem’s agrees with what Fellström says, except for the detail that women were not allowed to eat the back, as samuel rhen has also told us. It is very strange that the writers’ information is contradictory in this regard, and one is led to think that customs and beliefs are different in southern and northern parts of Lappmark. It is impossible for me to decide which information is correct because most Lapps have forgotten the customsof their ancestors.‘The killer of the bear usually drives a brass nail into his gun or hangs around his neck some such token as a badge of honor either for having done such a deed or because of some superstitious notion.’ (Högström, Ch. 11 §32.) ‘One who had killed a bear never allowed anyone to walk behind him.’ (Leem, p. 502.)People still have a respectful attitude towards the bear. Its teeth are hung as decorations, or perhaps amulets, in belts and spoon bags. In northern Lapland people (not women, however) generally wear bearskin neckbands with bear claws, which are considered more valuable than those without claws.When a bear sleeps too long in the spring it can be awakened with the following verse: Puold ajam! tjuodjele, tjuodjele; lasta lä stuores ko snjeratja pelje,which means ‘Grandpa in the hill! Wake up, wake up; the leaves are already as big as little rats’ ears.’

4. ‘Metzän dyris voitettu’ – the breaking of the Sámi bear cult

7The missionary of Finnish Lappmark, Gabriel Tuderus – Tuderus, tuo Herran pappi, jota pelkäs Lanta ja Lappi (‘Tuderus, that pastor of the Lord, feared alike on Farm and Fell’) – sent a text for inclusion in Scheffer’s Lapponia (1673) on the bear hunt, composed in Finnish, which he had previously recorded. It arrived too late, but was later published by Petrus Bång in 1675 (in Priscorum Sveo-Gothorum Ecclesia, Åbo), whence it was copied by Gabriel Arctopolitanus (i.e. of Pori) in his thesis published in Uppsala in 1728, De Origine ac Religione Fennorum; the text also appeared in the published writings of Tuderus, which appeared in 1773 as Två berättelser om Lapparnas omvändelse ifrån deras fordna vidskapelse och afguderi (Stockholm), whence it was copied by Laestadius. The text is corrupt in both published lines, but particularly in the latter. Fortunately, Tuderus’s writings were edited anew in 1905 in the Svenska landsmålen series; even so, it appears that tuderus himself was unable to understand what he heard sufficiently well to produce a flawless text, and many ambiguities remain. In this edition it runs:

  • 1 Or, reading iloisesti, ‘gladly’.
  • 2 Not, as sometimes taken, ‘like a torch’ (following Itkonen’s interpretation: see below).

Medzän dyris woitettu

Defeated darling of the forest,

Tuo meil täyttä Terweyttä,

bring us perfect well-being,

Aitta wastan salihita.

bring a catch to the storehouse.

Tuo tuhatta tullesassa

Bring a thousand when you come,

Saata sata salihixi.

a hundred as prey.

Julki tulin Jumalista

Openly I came from the gods,

Cansa saalin iloisesta,

with prey from the delighted one1,

Joka ilman ihmet, waiwat

who without wonder, without trouble,

Annon andoi, rahan andoi.

gave a gift, money he gave.

Coska tulen cotihijn.

When I come home

Colme yötä Jlon pidän.

I’ll celebrate for three nights.

Jlos tulin, ilos lähdin In joy

I came, in joy I set off

läxi laxot, wuoret, waarat,

over valleys, hills, mountains,

Aia Paha edellänsä.

he drives evil before him.

Pertos tuli Päiwän tulo

Charmingly2 came the coming of the sun,

Päiwä tule wielä pertos

come, sun, charmingly again.

Cunnioitan suu iälistänstä

I will honour you hereafter

Wuosi wuodeld Saalihixi.

year upon year as prey.

Etten unhoidz Octhon wirren.

Lest I forget Ohto’s (the bear’s) verse,

Sitä wast wiel toisti tulen.

I will come yet again.

8Hautala (1954, p. 40) was of the opinion that this song was not genuine; this is certainly true from a linguistic point of view, but it was nonetheless probably genuine in that it was gathered from the indigenous people of Kemi and Sodankylä among whom Tuderus worked, who were already bilingual. The poem is a curiosity which illustrates the collapse of the bear cult from many different angles.Kemi Lapland had been settled by inroads of Finns even before Karl XI gave them official permission to do so in 1673. The same process as that which later on, a little to the north, brought about the mixed Finnish-Sámi culture of Sompio (in Sodankylä) may lie behind this linguistically rather mixed offspring of a Kalevala-metre bear poem. Although Tuderus himself intended the poem as an example of Sámi bear worship, for some reason he wished to publish the poem in Finnish; however, it contains words of Sámi origin (such as pertos, cf. Inari Sámi peärtus, noted by Itkonen 1946, p. 214). Another possibility is that someone recomposed a Sámi joik in Finnish. Supporting the first suggestion, however, is the fact that the poem contains many forms characteristic of tuderus’s own variety of south-western Finnish (as pointed out by Itkonen 1944). Haavio did not believe the poem to be a genuine folk product, but rather an imitation of a folk poem (1967, p. 155). His opinion, expressed in his guise as the poet Mustapää (his assumed pseudonym), holds true: the path of the poem from the mouth of a folk singer to the pages of a published book is without doubt a powerful witness of the time when both Sámi and Finnish-Karelian bear culture was breaking up, both as a result of missionary efforts and of dialogue between different peoples. In the same process the hunting culture of Lapland changed as a result of the new settlement and agriculture to one based on farming. Just as Lapland was divided up among the ruling powers, so the land was divided up into landed estates. The forest became a common possession, and the concept of the Wilderness, the sacred ‘land apart’ (erämaa), shifted to one of ownership. When the bear’s Lebensraumdwindled away, ‘the forest’s darling was defeated’.

5. The bear on the shaman’s drum

9Sámi drums form a cognitive map symbolising the cyclic shamanic world view. Bear images were painted with alder sap in the circles of heaven and earth on the drum. The heavenly bear appears in the upper region of tripartite drums. In relative size it is painted larger than the realistic bear appearing in the realms of man on the rim of the drum.The Sámi drum in the Pigorini Museum in Rome is a seventeenth-century specimen from the province of Väster Norrbotten in Sweden. Its cosmic system is based on the three-level concept of the world. The sun (beaivi) and the holy hearth (boaššu) of the Sámi home act as a symbolic centre symbolising the shaman’s holy position; both take shape out of the pillar which supports the firmament. In the upper section of the drum above the images of the heavenly gods a whole celestial hunting drama is depicted. The hunter (cf. Orion), with the hat of the four winds on his head, points his bow at the bear (Ursa Maior), with an immense antlered beast (cf. Perseus) above him. In the human section hunting is represented by a bow and arrows. The four-pointed hat worn by the hunter on the drum was for centuries forbidden as a pagan symbol; it may have indicated a noaidi (shaman) hunting as master of the four corners of the world, travelling in the celestial fields of the Milky Way, the path of the shaman in Sámi and Siberian myth.According to Siberian shamans the drum has two sides, a public outer membrane and an inner, hidden side, which the shaman looks at as he performs. The inside of the drum is the heart of Siberian shamanhood. On the inner surface of the drum belonging to Khanty shaman Ivan Stepanovich Sopochin were the features of a bear, which he looked at as he drummed. It appears that the Sámi also painted the inside of their drums, for animal images are to be seen there on the Pigorini drum, as was revealed for the first time in the author’s picture taken in 2004.The oval form of the drum represents a cyclical world view. On many Sámi drums the yearly cycle of the seasons is painted around the rim. The bear’s spring outing back to its den is indicated by dots, which may indicate its route and way of hunting, or its power, its väki. The southern drums are the richest in their bear imagery; as many as four bear figures may appear on them. On the rim of the drum illustrated appears a bear’s den and a lure for bears and elk. The design, with the bear surrounded in dots and the elk with a man below, may represent the celestial hunting drama, a theme which this sun-centred drum otherwise lacks. Similar signs, indicating the bear’s trail to and from its den are found in the petroglyphs both in Alta, Norway, and on Lake Onega.


Fjellström, P. (1981), Kort berättelse om lapparnas björnafänge [1755], facsimile, Norrländska skrifter 5, Umeå.

Haavio, M. (1967), Suomalainen mytologia, Porvoo, WSOY.

Hautala, J. (1954), Kansanperinteen tähtitaivas, in Tähtitiedettä harrastajille III. Ursan julkaisuja IV, Porvoo.

Högström, P. (1980), Beskrivning öfver Sweriges lapmarker [1747], repr. Norrländska skrifter 3, Umeå.

Itkonen, T.I. - Itkonen, T.I. (1944), Tuderuksen karhuruno “Metzän dyris voitettu”, in «Virittäjä», pp. 329-332.
– (1946), Heidnische Religion und späterer Aberglaube bei den finnischen Lappen, Helsinki.

Leem, K. (1767), Beskrivelse over Finnmarkens Lapper, Copenhagen.

Læstadius, L.L. (1997) Fragmenter i lappska mythologien, ed. J. Pentikäinen, NIF Publication 37, Åbo.
– (2002), Fragments of Lappish Mythology, ed. J. Pentikäinen, trans. Börje Vähämäki, Beaverton.

Myrstad, R. (1996), Bjørnegraver i Nord-Norge. Spor etter den samiske bjørnekulten, Hoveduppgave thesis, Tromsø.

Rehn, S. (1897), En kortt Relation om Lapparnes Lefwarne och Sedher, wijd-Skiepellsser, samt i många Stycken Grofwe wildfarellsser [1671], in Wiklund, K.B., Bidrag till kännedom om de svenska landsmålen och svenskt folkliv, XVII: 1, Uppsala.

Schefferus, J. (1673), Lapponia, Frankfurt, Christian Wolff.

Zachrisson, I. (1973), På det att björnen skall åter stiga upp och låta skjuta sig ånyo, in «Västerbotten», 1, Umeå, pp. 27-38.


1 Or, reading iloisesti, ‘gladly’.

2 Not, as sometimes taken, ‘like a torch’ (following Itkonen’s interpretation: see below).


Professore di Etnografia Nordica presso l’Università della Lapponia di Rovaniemi e l’Istituto per la Cultura Nordica. È fondatore del dipartimento di Religioni Comparate dell’Università di Helsinki, dove è professore emerito. Orientato al lavoro sul campo nel suo approccio allo studio delle tradizioni religiose, si interessa soprattutto di storia orale, di lingue, religioni e culture indigene. La sua ricerca – che nella maggior parte dei casi si svolge in gruppi di ricerca interdisciplinari, coinvolgendo popoli indigeni, minoranze, gruppi di emigrati finlandesi e altri – ha spaziato in tutti i continenti con lezioni svolte in oltre 100 università. È vincitore di molti premi, tra cui nel 1999 la terza medaglia onoraria della società internazionale delle ricerche per la carriera spesa come studioso dello sciamanesimo. Dal 1960 le sue pubblicazioni includono 30 libri, 250 articoli scientifici e 15 film. È stato titolare di cattedre in Europa e in America, e ha tenuto molti interventi di apertura a convegni e conferenze. Nel 1995 è stato nominato membro dell’Accademia Finlandese di Scienze e Lettere.
Tra le sue numerose pubblicazioni sono disponibili in italiano La mitologia del Kalevala (San Donato Mil., Ediz. Per Sempre, 2013) e Sulle tracce della renna del cielo. Scritti sullo sciamanesimo nordico (con Anna-Leena Siikala, Bulzoni, Roma, 2007).


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