Gnosis Diary: Life as a Heathen

My personal experiences, including religious and spiritual experiences, community interaction, general heathenry, and modern life on my heathen path, which is Asatru.

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Honoring the Bear Spirit

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I wanted to honor the bear spirit this year. As long time readers of this blog may remember, Odin activated my bear to protect me from dangerous spirits. I wanted to honor my bear specifically and also the great bear spirit generally. My housemate also had a relationship with a bear spirit, and of course there are various gods and goddesses with bear forms, and I wanted to honor them as well. 

I happened to have an unusual opportunity to have access to fresh salmon through an online grocery outlet box company. I ordered enough for the whole kindred to have one small piece each during ritual. As it happened, a household with a lot of members had illness, and other households were otherwise unavailable, so we had an overly authentic Bear Day because only those who live here showed up and we ended up eating all the salmon, berries, and honey ourselves. Bear Day turned into Bear Weekend as we stuffed ourselves with salmon until I didn't want to see another fish until next year. I got way too in touch with my inner bear and was definitely ready to hibernate afterwards.

I had a bear candle on the main house altar, and it turned out to be practical because just as it was starting to get dark the power went out. I went around lighting candles and turning out the battery operated bottle lamps I'd made, and it was pretty and looked special. I sat watching the bear candle burn, full of salmon and blackberries, and I embraced my bear. He was full and full of power and ready to defend me with extra power now. 

When I talk with my inner bear, he understand what I say in English but he responds with a sort of sign language. It's unlike any human sign language. For example, he expresses yes answers, which include satisfaction with what he has been given, acceptance of a proposed gift, and acceptance of a plan, question or request, by wagging his tail. When he wants to express that he specifically means that he has been given enough food gifts, he wags his tail, holds his paws together to the side of his face, and briefly closes his eyes. 

I picture him in a bear paradise of a woodland where it's always summer and there is always enough to eat. There are green trees, and the sound of a stream, and there is a clearing where warm sunlight falls on his dark fur. This evening, for the first time, it occurred to me to talk about where he will go when I die. Bear the great bear spirit is eternal and outside of me, but this specific bear is my bear. In the terms I learned when I studied Bersarkrgangr, he is a fylgia. He is passed down the ancestral line. I inherited him and someone will inherit him from me. I mentally spoke with him about who that should be.  

Unexpectedly, all four of the animals spirits I once embodied when I studied martial arts showed up-- not just the bear, cat, and wolf from when I studied Bersarkrgangr in my 20s, but also the mantis I had once seen in the mirror when I was studying kung fu as a teenager. I mentally extended acceptance and gratitude toward them all, and apologized to mantis for having gotten scared when I saw him back then and not pursuing the relationship.

I realized then that I actually had kept a relationship of sorts with the spirit of mantis, because I had felt fiercely protective of mantises when I saw people online talk about them. I knew that I had always taken joy in seeing mantises in my garden, and was always careful of their egg cases, and once had gotten to see the tiny mantises emerge, but I had always just thought that was part of my general delight in most things I find in my garden. Mantis the spirit seemed to be satisfied with that and did not seem to want to change or expand our relationship except to acknowledge that it existed.

Of course I have always had a relationship with cats and cat spirits since early childhood. And I now have 2 cats in my house to feed, pet, and love. There were no surprises with the cat spirit. 

I was surprised when Odin appeared in my mind and told me I was allowed to grow closer to wolf again. He had previously told me to restrict my relationship with wolf to concentrate on my relationship with bear. But I am allowed to expand my relationship with wolf again. I suppose I did what I needed to do to cement my relationship with bear and can now think more about the other spirit beings again. 

The next morning I woke up thinking about the word for bear. In English "bear" means "the brown one." It's a euphemism like saying "the Good Folk" to mean fairies, so as not to draw their attention or ire. That implies that early English speakers considered physical bears to be the same being as the bear spirit or bear god, or at least its avatar or representative, so that saying the word could summon it like a spirit. Using euphemisms like this is still practiced in some branches of heathenry today, which is why the founder of Theod, Garman Lord, taught his followers to refer to Loki as "the L-God," so as not to draw his attention. 

It's fairly obvious what the real word for bear would be in English. The word for bear in various Indo-European languages is derived from Proto-Indo-European *rkto- which gives us Greek arktos and Latin ursus. The word should be arth.

Naming conventions in northern lands put an -r after some masculine names, hence frey (lord) becomes Freyr, and bald (bold) becomes Baldr, written Baldur. The name that follows that naming convention is Arthur. 

hmm... there's a pretty famous Arthur in English mythology. The King Arthur story could be a standard hero tale of the time except for the part where he doesn't really die when he dies. The story goes that he was taken to Avalon where he is sleeping until his kingdom needs him, and then he will return. Let's read that again the way that people of his time period would have understood his name. King Bear is sleeping in the island of apples and someday he will wake up and return.

This is a Bear God story. The mythology of Bear Gods is about hibernation. The Bear God sleeps in the winter and wakes up in the spring. The Saami Bear God explicitly has to wake up and be freed from his cave by a shaman for spring to return. If he doesn't wake up there is no spring. If Arthur doesn't return there is no springtime for England. So the story of King Arthur is the story of King Bear.

A few days after Bear Day, as I sat drinking my morning coffee in the chill of the first first cold day of fall, I was appreciating my house and how it kept out most of the extremes of weather, I suddenly had an insight. When human beings first starting worshipping a Bear God or Bear Goddess, both bears and humans lived in caves. A cave is inside-- inside the earth. Inside a mountain or hill. When we're in a house we're also inside. We made an inside, like a cave. A cave keeps out the extremes of weather too, especially if it's large enough to have rooms away from the entrance. It has rooms, like a house. It has tunnels and branches connecting rooms, and a house has corridors and hallways connecting rooms. A cave and a house can have one level or many levels. A cave can even have running water. One can build a fire near the entrance to a cave, or sometimes in other places within depending on air holes. Houses are replica caves.

We made our own caves. We're still living in caves, just caves made of wood and brick and glass and cement. We made our own caves with rooms and branches, levels, running water, and a place for making fire. We even put art on the walls like primitive people drew art on the walls of caves. We are still far closer to our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors, and closer to bears and the Great Bear, than we realize.

Image: bear honoring altar, photo by Erin Lale. The two fiber art works of a bear are also by Erin Lale.

Stay tuned for my upcoming post, Blessing at Pagan Pride Day!

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Erin Lale is the author of Asatru For Beginners, and the updated, longer version of her book, Asatru: A Beginner's Guide to the Heathen Path. Erin has been a gythia since 1989. She was the editor and publisher of Berserkrgangr Magazine, and is admin/ owner of the Asatru Facebook Forum. She also writes science fiction and poetry, ran for public office, is a dyer and fiber artist, was acquisitions editor at a small press, and founded the Heathen Visibility Project.


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