Karhu – the bear – King of the forest. The bear was the most respected creature that roamed the ancient forests of Finland.
When the ancestors of the modern Finns carried out a bear hunt, it was an event that was planned many months in advance, and was performed in multiple stages, each stage as important as the one before. It was vital that the bear was shown the utmost respect, for it was never a good thing to have another disgruntled spirit in the forest.
This is my first bear hunt.
But my father, and my father’s father
have told me so much I feel as though
I have been on hundreds before.
We marked the bear’s den in autumn,
when the leaves were dead and gone,
and the sun was sinking lower each day.
When the first snows had fallen,
we marked the place with slivers of bark.
It was strange, so strange knowing that
under the ground slept the king of the forest.
It was strange knowing that the next time we would
be here we would be bringing him out and killing him.
Before the hunt, we gather our strength,
we cleanse ourselves in the sauna.
We dress in clean clothing and avoid
all contact with woman.
We gather in a crowd at the home of the man
who found the den in autumn.
He is proud. His chest extends far.
We ski to the den in silence.
The snow is hard, we move easily
through the ancient pines that creak
under the weight of winter.
The pines have a connection with the bear,
and I wonder if their roots are telling him
to move, urging him to get up and run away,
away away through the snow and far from all men.
At the den, we eat – bread, meat.
We make a fire and leap through it.
These rituals will promise a successful hunt.
We cannot kill the bear inside its den,
it needs to be out. The shaman told us so.
I can remember the story, I was a child.
He told how the bear’s soul may be on a journey,
and that if we kill it while its soul was not in its body,
it would become an evil, restless spirit.
And we have already too many of those in the forest.
The iron spear we use has been hardened
We rouse him, and when he emerges
drowsy, the spear is buried deep and true.
He makes no noise.
We skin him there and then, cut off his claws.
His soul has been removed and is now in our possession.
We carry his pelt and meat through the forest,
back the way we had come and we sing.
The bear is eagerly awaited. We lay him at the family alter,
put precious things before him, praise him for his gifts.
The grain has been gathered and the beer has been brewed,
the benches have been washed and the people
are in their best clothing, hair brushed, all to meet the bear.
His head is the first thing to come to the table.
We pick it clean, detach the teeth,
to share with the bear slayers.
And this year…this year I am one.
I am bear slayer.
We eat the brain, take on the sight,
smell and hearing of the bear.
We take on the power of his paws.
We are rich men.
The feast moves through seven days.
The bear is our guest of honour and for him,
jokes and songs and dances are performed.
For our friend who ought to have been sleeping,
but is now travelling new salmon grounds,
late winter is his time. The start of a new season.
After several days we take the skull
outside. Everyone rises from their seats,
mouths greasy, hair tangled, bellies
taught with meat.
There is a procession to the skull place.
We sing loud. We suspend the skull from
the branch of a pine and bury the bones at the roots.
Our journey back is silent.