The Power of the Bear

The collection of the National Museum of Finland include many parts of animal bodies that have been used as magic objects. The most common species of animal in this respect is the brown bear (Ursus arctos). It is the only native species of bear in Finland. The bear has a special place in the mythology of the area and thus it is not surprising that it also had a significant role in magic practices.

A bear claw used as an magic object. National Museum of Finland. CC BY 4.0.

Many different body parts of the bear were useful in magic, for example its teeth, claws, paws, throat pipe, and muzzle skin. Of these, teeth and claws occur most frequently in the collection. These were sometimes used in healing, for example medicine could be scraped from them and given to patients in food or drink.

Most often, however, they were used as protective amulets. For example, a bear canine would be put around the neck of a child “so that the devil could not take him/her” or a bear claw would be put under a child’s pillow so that the “night-crying-maker” (Fin. yönitkettäjä, a night demon) would stay away. Especially farm animals were protected against forest predators by hanging bear teeth or claws from their collars. This was crucial, since cattle and horses often pastured in the forest during summer. All of these uses are also well-documented in archived folklore accounts from the late 19th and early 20th century.

This bear canine has been perforated to be able to carry it as an amulet. National Museum of Finland. CC BY 4.0.

The bear is a strong, powerful, animal and this power was believed to concentrate in its “tools”: the teeth and claws. The power of bear could be borrowed through these parts and even be used against its own kind. A bear would not touch cattle that was protected with its own power.

When the cows are let out to pasture, one should put nine bear teeth on the collar of the bell cow, so that they are visible. When the bear sees them, it will not touch the cattle. (SKMT IV, 1: V 13§, translated from Finnish by current author.)

Even though bear could also be hunted and killed, it was usually treated with great respect. In archived folklore, such as incantations, the bear was addressed as having equal rights as humans, and in its habitat, the forest, the bear had even greater rights.

So that bears do not harm, one measures the pastures’ back lands with bear paws and say: ”This is your track, you will not come here again, here are my cows!”
After the whole back end of the pastures have been measured thus, one says: ”Clean (or pure) living being, keep other paths, the land is common, but food is separate!” 
(SKMT IV, 1: VI 116§, translated from Finnish by current author.)

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