Bear ceremonialism

Bear ceremonialism – Among many Native American, Northern European, and Siberian communities, many rituals form part of a complex of “bear ceremonialism.” Marjorie Balzer, for example, draws out the diversities and social tensions involved in what she describes as the complex’s most elaborate form, as practiced among the Ob-Ugrian peoples of Western Siberia and the groups living along the Amur River, which forms the border between Siberia and China. She writes, “In both regions, the skin and head of a ritually killed bear are placed on a sacred bier and fêted for multiple days.” Carnivalesque celebrations, including satirical plays, cross-dressing, uncharacteristic female license, and general bawdiness provide a context in which social tensions are played out, if not resolved. Although shamans are forbidden to shamanize during the festival as celebrated on the Amur, probably because their role as mediators between humans and otherworld persons is diffused throughout the community, they indicate auspicious timing for the event. Leadership in ritual and communal events, including engaging with other-thanhuman persons, is taken by elders, while the events illustrate the broader animist ritual and social context in which shamans work. Juha Pentikäinen presents important discussions of bear cults and folklore in both Finnish and Saami cultures. He notes, for example, that there are more than 200 synonyms for bear in Finnish, but the actual word was rarely spoken since to do so might provoke an assault by bears. As elsewhere, such taboo restrictions are part of the broad animist context in which shamans are employed.

Similar bear ceremonial and discursive complexes could be illustrated with reference to many Native American cultures. Bears play significant roles in Ojibwe initiatory and healing rituals such as the Midewiwin, for instance. This involves bear impersonation by both the shaman presiding over the ritual and initiates, and also participation by otherworld bears as initiators and tempters. In their tricksterlike ambiguity, bears reveal their kinship with shamans and creative beings. Gerald Vizenor extends traditional storytelling into urban contexts in a number of his stories about shamans, bears, and “postindian” mixed-blood people. Ojibwe bear narratives and ceremonials (like those that include other animals) arise from a wider totemism. “Bear shamans” among California indigenous communities may be either shamans who impersonate bears by wearing a costume including a bearskin or shamans who gain the ability to transform into bears. Sandra Holliman is particularly interested in these shamans’ roles as agents of social control, due to the fear inspired by their reputations and uncertainty about their identities or whereabouts. However, she also alludes to other, more positive, abilities, including the fact that they are considered doctors.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007