Bear Ceremonialism

The term "bear ceremonialism" refers to a complex of ritual practices and beliefs found in conjunction with the bear hunt in many areas of the circumpolar North. The older notion of "bear cult"—rarely used today— refers to the same basic set of phenomena. On the other hand, the terms "bear feast" or "bear festival," have a more restricted meaning, confined to elaborate forms of ceremonies that have been historically documented in the Amur River region as well as on Sakhalin and Hokkaido islands, and involve the raising of bear cubs for ritual purposes.

Typically, bear ceremonialism is found in the boreal-forest zone, the main habitat of the various subspecies of brown, grizzly, and black bear. The tundra zone and the coastal regions of the Arctic Ocean, where humans encounter polar bears, are marginal areas as far as bear ceremonialism is concerned. The most typical elements of bear ceremonialism come into play during and after a bear hunt. These include gendered speech and food taboos, the ritual disposal of bear skulls and bones, etc. In addition to holding ceremonies during and after the bear hunt, the Ainu, the Nivkh, and the Tungusic peoples of the Amur-Sakhalin area captured and raised bear cubs specifically for ritual use. These peoples ceremoniously killed and "returned" bears to their spiritual owners in the course of elaborate multiday festivals. Both simple and elaborate bear festivals are rooted in a worldview of hunters, which conceptualizes the killing of animals as both necessary and spiritually dangerous.

Ethnographic reports about various aspects of bear ceremonialism (e.g., Gondatti, 1888; Schrenck, 1881-1895) were abundant during the 19th century. Still, the comparative study of these phenomena is mainly an artifact of the 20th century. Sir James George Frazer made one of the first attempts to place Ainu and Nivkh bear festivals in a broader anthropological perspective. In The Golden Bough, Frazer analyzes bear festivals as a form of "animal worship," thus equating the ritual killing of bears with "killing the god" (Frazer, 1994[1890]: 524-532, 548-549), a central aspect of Frazer's overall approach to magic and religion, which nonetheless had little to do with Ainu and Nivkh views of the bear.

A. Irving Hallowell's (1926) classical treatise "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere" is undoubtedly the most well-known comparative study of bear ceremonies. The author, who had limited experience of fieldwork among northern Algonkian speakers at the time, analyzed most of the available ethnographic literature, primarily focusing on ceremonies conducted after a bear hunt and the disposal of the bear's remains. Hallowell also provided information about the hunt itself, linguistic and cultural conventions of addressing the bear, and folk beliefs associated with bear hibernation. He found a striking number of resemblances among the various practices, especially between northeastern North America and most areas of northern Eurasia. Hallowell also noted that the distribution of bear ceremonialism does not coincide with the geographical distribution of bears, since the latter are also found in areas where bear ceremonialism is absent. From this he concluded that bear ceremonialism cannot be explained psychologically (i.e., by reference to universal modes of human behavior toward bears) or economically (i.e., by reference to the usefulness of bears for humans). Instead, he proposed a "historico-geographical" interpretation, which postulated that bear ceremonialism originated with an Old World "boreal culture" of reindeer/caribou hunters and eventually spread into northern North America. Hallowell's diffuse explanation clearly shows the influence of Franz Boas's anthropology.

Hallowell's study remains the standard work on bear ceremonialism, but there have been several subsequent contributions providing new details or new perspectives. Some of these have added new ethnographic data on individual peoples already known to have practiced bear ceremonialism (e.g., Kitagawa, 1961; Kreinovich, 1969; Vasilevich, 1971; Zolotarev, 1937), while others have documented bear ceremonialism in regions for which Hallowell had little data (for the Turkic peoples of Siberia, see Dyrenkova, 1930; for Inuit groups, see Larsen, 1969/70). The Soviet anthropologist B.A. Vasil'ev (1948) was among the few who placed his own data on the Oroch bear festival into a wider comparative perspective. He concluded that different forms of bear ceremonialism in the circumpolar North represented two different "cultural layers." He argued that the ritual complex tied to the bear hunt was chronologically older than the so-called "Ainu type" of bear ceremonialism, and proposed that the latter form emerged under the influence of Southeast Asian ritual practices. Finally, Vasil'ev considered that the specific Ob-Ugrian (Khanty, Mansi) forms of bear ceremonialism had been triggered by the horse cult from the steppe zones of western Siberia and Eastern Europe. Chichlo (1981) compared bear ceremonialism and shamanism and— unlike other scholars of northern religions—interpreted their relationship as complementary instead of mutually exclusive.

The most recent comprehensive study of bear ceremonies in the circumpolar North was carried out by the German anthropologist and historian of religion Hans-Joachim Paproth. His "Studies of Bear Ceremonialism" focuses on the Tungusic peoples of Siberia, but nonetheless provides the best available summary of sources ranging from Russian to Hungarian and Japanese (Paproth, 1976). With a far superior database than Hallowell had at hand, Paproth was able to conclude that bear ceremonialism is a more or less homogeneous cultural complex covering most areas of the circumpolar North. As far as the ceremonies involving captured and "domesticated" bears in the Amur-Sakhalin-Hokkaido area were concerned, Paproth concluded that their religious basis coincides with circumpolar bear ceremonialism and that it also includes certain southern or agricultural elements (such as keeping the bears in cages).

Practitioners of bear ceremonialism in general— and of bear festivals in particular—experienced severe attacks by Christianity and state authorities during the 20th century. Nevertheless, even the openly hostile attitudes of antireligious Soviet authorities could not suppress all aspects of bear ceremonialism (e.g., Balzer, 1996; Chichlo, 1985). More recently, there have been attempts to actively revive bear ceremonies and festivals in different parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East. At the same time, a growing number of nonindigenous northern residents have come to understand that bears demand awe and respect, whether for religious reasons, because of ecological considerations, or out of the shear instinct for survival.

Peter P. Schweitzer

See also Ainu; Boas, Franz; Mythology of the Inuit Further Reading

Balzer, Marjorie M., "Sacred genders in Siberia: shamans, bear festivals, and androgyny." In Gender Reversals and Gender

Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, edited by S.P. Ramet, London: Routledge, 1996 Chichlo, Boris, "L'ours-chamane." Etudes mongoles, 12 (1981): 35-112

-, "The cult of the bear and Soviet ideology in Siberia."

Religion in Communist Lands 13(2) (1985):166-181 Dyrenkova, N.P., "Bear worship among Turkish tribes of Siberia." In Proceedings of the Twenty-Third International Congress of Americanists, New York, 1930, 411-440 Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994 [1890] Gondatti, N.L., "Kul't medvedia u inorodtsev Severo-Zapadnoi Sibiri (The bear cult among the natives of northwest Siberia)." Trudy etnograficheskogo otdela Imperatorskogo obshchestva liubitelei estestvoznaniia, antropologii i etno-grafii, 8 (1888): 74-87 Hallowell, A. Irving, "Bear ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere."American Anthropologist (n.s.), 28(1) (1926): 1-175

Kitagawa, Joseph M., "Ainu bear festival (Iyomante)." History of Religions, 1 (1961): 95-151 Kreinovich, E.A., "Medvezhii prazdnik u ketov (The bear festival among the Ket)." In Ketskii sbornik. Mifologiia, etno-grafiia, teksty, edited by V.V. Ivanov, V.N. Toporov & B.A. Uspenskii, Moscow: Nauka, 1969 Larsen, Helge, "Some examples of bear cult among the Eskimo and other northern peoples." Folk, 11-12 (1969/70): 27-42 Paproth, Hans-Joachim, Studien über das Bärenzeremoniell. I: Bärenjagdriten und Bärenfeste bei den tungusischen Völkern, Uppsala: Tofters tryckeri, 1976 Schrenck, Leopold von, Die Völker des Amur-Landes, 3 volumes, St Petersburg: Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1881-1895

Vasil'ev, B.A., "Medvezhii prazdnik (The bear festival)."

Sovetskaia etnografiia 4 (1948): 78-104 Vasilevich, G.M., "O kul'te medvedia u evenkov (About the bear cult among the Evenk)." In Religioznye predstavleniia i obriady narodov Sibiri v XIX-nachale XX veka, edited by L.P. Potapov &S.V. Ivanov, Leningrad: Nauka, 1971 Zolotarev, Alexander M., "The bear festival of the Olcha." American Anthropologist, 39(1) (1937): 113-130

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