Polar Bears, Yuletide, and Berserkers

December 22, 2019 — Bears were deeply respected animals in the Viking Age, a tradition that likely hailed from pre-historic animism and warrior initiation rituals of ancient Scandinavia and Finland. Historical sources point to a thriving bear cult attested by the many berserker (berserkr in Old Norse) poems in the sagas, as well as several occurrences of dueling champions (hólmgǫngr.)

The Norse people considered bears sacred animals with incredibly powerful spirits. Thus, a polar bear was an impressive and potent Yuletide gift to a Viking ruler in pre-Christian Scandinavia (on a side note, I prefer using the name Thule to describe ancient Fenno-Scandinavia, which is a term that has been handed down to us from a remarkable Greek mariner called Pytheas, who sailed in the early 400s BCE from the Greek colony of Massalia, present-day Marseilles in France. Thule is a more accurate geographical descriptor for historical matters and diffuse myths shrouded by the mists of time. Thus, when the subject calls for it, I use Thule and Scandinavia interchangeably.)

The Icelanders were especially intent on maintaining good relations with the rulers of ancient Norway; to them, gift-giving was an absolute necessity since the settlers of Iceland needed to maintain peace while securing lucrative trade arrangements with their former homeland (the Icelanders had begun emigrating from southern Norway in the 870s CE for a variety of reasons, including the avoidance of Christianity.)

On at least one occasion, the Icelandic settlement literature describes how polar bears (hvíta-birnir) where captured and gifted. One day in the late 800s, a hunter by the name Ingimundr the Old came across a female bear and her two cubs on the ice of lake Húnavatn on Iceland. Ingimundr managed to capture the three bears alive and brought them all the way to Norwegian King Harald Fairhair (Haraldr inn hárfagri.) The saga doesn’t conclude how King Harald reacted to such a magnificent and highly prized tribute. That said, I consider it plausible Harald was both surprised AND impressed!

There are at least four accounts in the Old Norse-Icelandic literature where bear encounters are described as somewhat ritualized. Interestingly, the majority of these events take place in the far reaches of Thule, corresponding to the northern regions of present-day Norway and Sweden, as well as north-western Russia. In my opinion, these regions correspond to HálogalandFinnmǫrkKvenland, and Bjarmaland, all of which are historically attested Old Norse toponyms for northern Thule.

Detailed information can be found in Finnboga saga ramma, the Saga of Orvar-Odd (Ǫrvar-Odds saga,) and Ólafs saga Tryggvasonnar (Ólafs saga Tryggvasonnar in mesta.)

In Finnboga saga ramma, the Icelander Finnbogi travels to a village in Hálogaland in northern Norway, where he hunts and kills a bear in a nearly ritualistic manner. Finnbogi is described to approach the bear’s cave walking backward, and when encountering the bear, he starts talking to it — as if it was human! Shortly after, Finnbogi casts his weapons aside and kills the bear BARE-HANDED. He then returns to the village with the bear carcass, where it’s paraded before being flayed.

In Orvar-Odds saga, and in one passage of Ólafs saga Tryggvasonnar, Viking hunters are described killing bears and then raising them on poles, a practice which can possibly be linked to the pre-Christian Fenno-Ugrian ritual act of attaching bear-skulls to trees (Pentikäinen, 2007: 93).

It’s interesting to note that the Old Norse narratives of the ritualized killing of animals are uniquely associated with bears. Although other animals including wolves, deer, and elks are mentioned too, they are rarely killed. Likely, the ritual bear hunts mentioned in the sagas are related to the berserker warrior cult and human bear-transformation (bjǫrnhamr.)

Trivia:

  • Viking male names often included Bjǫrn (Björn) which is the Old Norse word for bear.
  • Three historically accurate examples, as follows; 1) Ásbjorn which translates to “Bear of the Æsir,” 2) Bjǫrn that plainly means “Bear,” and last but not least, 3) Þórbjǫrn, a name that manages to combine bear with the Norse god of storm and thunder. Literally, it translates to “Thor-Bear,” and with some artistic license and imagination, the meaning “Thundergod-Bear” is conceptually true.

Will our upcoming game Serpents in the Mist include polar bears? We’ll let you know in 2020! Until then, merry Yule, from myself and Legendo Entertainment, to everyone who follows and supports us!

Björn Larsson
Artisan executive, game developer, music supervisor, and renegade historian. I lead Legendo's game-planning efforts (while our talented software engineers build gameplay, tools, and proprietary engines), supervise all artwork and branding, and manage Legendo Music. I also find it impossible to not co-author story arcs for our animation, games, and comic book projects. Though few are listening, I occasionally speak my mind on Twitter.






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