December 3, 2021 — Bears were deeply revered in the Viking Age, a tradition hailing from pre-historic animism and warrior-hunter initiation rituals of ancient Scandinavia and Finland — the Greeks called these mysterious lands in the far north “Thule”. Historical sources point to a thriving bear cult attested by the many berserker (Old Norse: “berserkr”) poems in Snorri’s Icelandic literature.
“A polar bear was an impressive and potent Yuletide gift to Viking kings and chieftains in pre-Christian Scandinavia and Finland, the mystical lands called ‘Thule’ by the Greeks.”
The Viking Age clans and rulers who lived in Gotaland (today Sweden) also wrote of champions and berserkers in their “Law of the Western Goths”, which is the oldest historical document in Sweden dating from 1250 CE, although it is written in Latin and not Old Norse. The Gothic law book, known as Västgötalagen, describes legal matters concerning man-to-man duels known holmgång (Old Norse: “hólmganga”), a form of justice to settle disputes, where combatants were allowed to let a berserker or “champion” fight in their place.
The Norse, much like the Sámi, considered bears sacred animals with powerful spirits. Thus, a polar bear was an impressive and potent Yuletide gift to Viking kings and chieftains in pre-Christian Scandinavia and Finland. For consistency, I will use the “Thule” when referring to the geographical area of ancient Fenno-Scandinavia. Thule is a Graeco-Roman term handed down to us from Pytheas, a remarkable Greek mariner from antiquity. Pytheas set out on an exploration voyage in the early 400s BCE, sailing from the Greek colony of Massalia (Marseilles in France) to discover Thule.
The Icelanders were especially intent on maintaining good relations with the rulers of ancient Norway; to them, gift-giving was an absolute necessity as 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 a rather brutally enforced conversion to Christianity.
On at least one occasion, the Icelandic settlement literature describes how polar bears (hvíta-birnir) were captured alive and then provided as royal gifts: 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, mother and cubs alike, and brought them all the way to Norwegian King Harald Fairhair (Haraldr inn hárfagri). The text does not conclude how King Harald reacted to the daring and unexpected tribute, but if you ask me, I’d say King Harald was both surprised and impressed.
There are at least four accounts in the Norse literature where bear encounters are described as ritualized. Interestingly, the majority of these events take place in the far north of ancient Thule, corresponding to the regions of the northern-most parts of Norway and Sweden and north-western Russia. In my opinion, these faraway lands correspond to Hálogaland, Finnmǫrk, Kvenland, and Bjarmaland, historical toponyms of ancient Thule.
Bear Hunts Described in the Sagas
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 is paraded before being flayed.
In Orvar-Odds saga, and in one passage of Ólafs saga Tryggvasonnar, Viking hunters are described as killing bears and raising them on poles, a practice that can be linked to a pre-Christian Fenno-Ugrian ritual act of attaching bear-skulls to trees (Pentikäinen, 2007: 93).
It is interesting to note that the 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 berserker warrior cults and human to bear shapeshifting transformation (bjǫrnhamr.)
Bear Trivia & Anecdotes
- Common Viking Age names include Bjǫrn/Björn which means, you guessed it, “bear” in the Norse language. Three examples follow below.
- Ásbjorn — translates to “Bear of the Æsir”.
- Bjǫrn — plainly means “Bear”.
- Þórbjǫrn, a male name combining bear with the Norse god of storm and thunder, Thor. Literally, Þórbjǫrn translates to “Thor-Bear” and more indirectly to “Thunder-Bear” or “Thundergod-Bear”.