Although I have a pretty strong relationship with Odin’s corvid, snake and wolf spirit allies, for several years now He has been urging me to get to know another one of His animal allies, one that people don’t talk about quite as much: Bear. Two of His heiti (or by-names) refer to this ursine connection: Bjorn and Bruni, both of which mean “bear” and derive (like the word “bear” itself) from the Indo-European *beron, literally “the brown one.” (The Greek word arktos names the bear more directly, but this word is believed by linguists to have been replaced with a euphemism in Northern Europe because of a taboo against speaking the name of this powerful, dangerous animal.) In addition to this linguistic evidence, some of the 7th century valknut picture stones found in Sweden and England depict the valknut, human sacrifice, and other Odinic motifs accompanied by bears, and the name of one of the most famously fearsome warrior corps associated with Him, the Berserkers, or “bear-shirts,” was so named because they cloaked themselves in bear fur as well as for their unyielding ferocity in battle.
Bears have haunted the human imagination for thousands of years, and I am no exception; something about Bear has always called to me, even before I was aware of the Odinic associations. Unlike social wolves, bears are primarily solitary, except when mating; one of the largest predators on land, they are not physically graceful, but they are swift and very strong, and once they have you wrapped in their embrace they can be deadly. During the cold winter months, they withdraw to underground shelters, caves and burrows hidden away deep within the forest. It is the bear’s hibernation, I suspect, that has always lent it a strangeness in people’s minds, a mystique: what is the bear doing, during all of that time spent in the dark? Is he sleeping? Dreaming? What does the Bear dream of? What secrets does he bring back with him when he emerges from his sojourn in the underworld? If Odin relates to His people much as an Alpha Wolf relates to His pack (a description I feel is pretty apt), and if He communicates much as does a Raven and glides through the worlds very much like a Snake, then Bear is who He is when He is alone, seeking the mysteries; Bear is who He is as a shaman.