Polar Bear Legends
Bears seem to be all that everyone talks about this time of year. Elsewhere (probably in this publication) you will have the opportunity to read general polar bear facts and about polar bear safety. In this article I would like to tell you a little bit about the relationship that the Inuit have traditionally had with polar bears.
First of all, it is important to understand this belief of the Inuit: “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls. All the creatures that we have to kill and eat, all those that we have to strike down and destroy to make clothes for ourselves, have souls, like we have, souls that do not perish with the body, and which must therefore be propitiated lest they should avenge themselves on us for taking away their bodies.” (Quoted by Knud Rasmussen.)
The Inuit also believed that Nuliajuk (also known by a variety of other names, including Sedna), the mother of the animals and mistress of the land and sea, who ruled through ordinary and evil spirits, made the animals either visible and easy to hunt, so that people have enough food and clothing and warmth, or she made them disappear so that humans would be hungry and cold. Because of these beliefs, the Inuit had a complicated set of hunting taboos that they needed to observe to be respectful of the animals that, by necessity, they needed to hunt, in order to not offend Nuliajuk, and to ensure that future hunting would be successful. Various gestures of respect and kindness to the souls of animals were considered to be encouragements to the animal to reincarnate into another body and, out of gratitude, allow itself to be killed again by the same hunter.
The polar bear spirit was considered to be the most powerful, dangerous, and potentially revengeful spirit after that of Nuliajuk. The Inuit believed in tornaq, which is the spiritual guardian or helping spirit of a particular individual. The shaman often had the polar bear as his or her tornaq, and often carried a likeness of this animal from a belt or pendant.
The polar bear is the most powerful and dangerous of all the animals, so the killing of one was a major event. Traditionally the Inuit did not go out for the sole purpose of bear hunting. Bear hunts were usually accidental. If, while out seal hunting, fresh bear tracks are found, the hunter would set out with his dogs on the leash, armed only with his sealing harpoon. The chase was a strenuous one that could go on for days. When finally the hunter caught up with the bear, and the dogs had rounded it up, the fight was with the harpoon alone. (In the times before contact with the Europeans, the Inuit only had shorter harpoons of horn rather than longer harpoons of iron, or firearms.)
This was a hazardous fight, fought close to the bear, and often resulted in injuries, ranging from relatively innocuous scratches to wounds and broken bones that scarred the hunter for life.
The taboos surrounding the bear hunt were particularly detailed, and therefore particularly difficult to follow. The Inuit believed that when a bear had been killed, its soul remained at the point of the harpoon head for four days if it was a male bear, and five days if it was a female bear.
The soul of the bear was very dangerous during the days that it stayed in the weapon that killed it, and if it was offended, might become one of those evil spirits that persecutes people with illness or other distress. This time period was considered to be sufficient time for the bear’s soul to return to its family.
The hunter who has killed a bear and returns to his house must take off all of his outer clothing, including his outer mittens and kamiks, before entering the house. For a whole month, he must not eat of the meat or blubber of the bear. Since bears are always thirsty, it was thought to have a positive effect on their souls to give them drinking water once they have been brought into the house. (There is a prescribed way of doing this too.)
Other death rituals (observed for four or five days, depending on the sex of the animal) surrounding the polar bear include taking the skin, with the skull intact, and hanging it, hair side out, by the nostrils in the snow hut.
Inside, the skin, the bear’s bladder, spleen, tongue, and genitals are hung together with presents that are being made to the soul of the bear. For a male bear, various men’s implements such as knives, tools, harpoon heads, etc. must be hung up near the skin. If the bear was female, similar women’s implements (cooking utensils, an ulu, etc.) are hung up. The bear is given human tools because it was believed that bears could sometimes change themselves into humans. These gifts are similar to the possessions left with the dead because it was believed that like humans, male bears need their hunting weapons, and female bears need their domestic tools.
As long as the death taboo for the soul of the bear is being observed no man’s or woman’s work may be done, including gathering fuel or sewing new clothing (only the most necessary of repairs to clothing is allowed.) As soon as the taboo is over, children must throw the gifts to the bear’s soul on the floor and afterwards compete in picking them up again. The one who can collect the gifts most quickly will be a skilled bear hunter. There are other rituals that needed to be observed, too many to go into here.
Why such particular care about the soul of the polar bear? It was thought that the spirits of humans and polar bears were interchangeable. Why was this?
It could quite possibly be because bears have many “human” traits. They can stand up and walk on their hind legs. The Inuit have observed how the standing bear looks like a human (albeit a much taller, much heavier human!). It walks on the soles of its feet the way humans do (unlike most other animals), and leaves full footprints when it walks. It can use its forepaws like hands to carry food to its mouth. It can sit and lean against something as if it is resting and thinking.
The polar bear eats many of the same foods that humans do. The Inuit respect the bears’ hunting skills, and some stories state that their ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears. They respect the bears’ strength, patience, inquisitiveness, speed, and the maternal devotion to their cubs. The Inuit also respect the intelligence of polar bears. Some Inuit believe that polar bears have an intelligence matching or exceeding that of humans.
The fact that may garner the most respect is that a skinned bear carcass has an eerie similarity to the human carcass. Many Inuit stories have polar bears that become humans by removing their fur coats, and then become bears again by putting their coats back on, or are human in their houses, but bears outside of them.
Or it may simply be that the Inuit are wary of the meat. Eating uncooked or undercooked bear meat could lead to trichinosis (just like undercooked pork), and the liver has such high concentrations of vitamin A (up to 15,000 to 30,000 units per gram – up to three times the recommended maximum daily allowance) that it is toxic.
- submitted by Cathy Widdowson
(“Carved from the Land” is the name of the book written about the Inuit artefact collection of the Eskimo Museum. The title suggests the close cultural and spiritual connections of the Inuit to their land. We use this heading for the bi-monthly columns submitted by the Eskimo Museum staff)