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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Teaching Folk Dance at the Moot part 3

In the last great Ice Age, when cave bears roamed the snowy earth, peoples across Europe, Asia, and North America all honored the Bear. Because bears hibernate, they return in the spring, along with the sun, the warmth, and the fertility of the land. It would make sense to do a dance with loud drumming in the spring to wake them up, thus bringing the blessings of springtime, but Tot Ursi is still performed to this day in Romania, and it is part of the winter solstice celebrations. Like winter solstice traditions of burning a Yule Log to keep the light alive while the sun is god, Tot Ursi is danced to keep the Bear spirit alive while the bears are gone. (For further reading on Bear spirituality, see Alan Leddon’s book Religion Laid Bear.)

In Tot Ursi, meaning "All Bears," the dancers can growl and make bear-like sounds, but they also make “brrrrr” sounds, which don’t sound like a bear at all. I think the “brrr” sound may be a form of lalling. Lalling is making nonsense sounds such as “lalala” in a song, or for ritual purposes. Lalling is named after the Germanic god Lollus. I found Tot Ursi while doing genealogical research on my last name (for more info on that topic, see my blog post  Lollus, Löhl, and Ursul din Lăloaia )

When I came across this bear dance, I found great personal meaning in it, not only because I found it in the context of researching my last name, but also because years ago when I learned the art of Bersarkrgangr, and discovered how big a part of the art dancing is, but that everyone used whatever music and improvised steps they personally liked best, I knew there had to be an actual traditional dance with traditional music that had been lost. Tot Ursi is a traditional bear dance with traditional music, and although it might not be the one used by bersarkrs in ancient times, it is certainly very old, and its possible connection to Lollus is intriguing. (For more info on Bersakrgangr, see my paper on Bersarkrgangr: the Viking Martial Art.)

With line and round or circle dances, the oldest ones have only one series of steps throughout the entire dance, while newer dances have an A part and a B part, or several different changes during the dance. However, with procession dances, it’s the opposite. The oldest procession dances have an A part and a B part. The A part is a literal march down a road. The B part is danced upon arrival at the destination.

Tot Ursi has a very basic step for the A part, which is to step forwards in a bear-like fashion, hands in claw pose, swinging the red tassels of the traditional bear suit. During the B part, the dancers stop moving forward. 

The dance Tot Ursi is danced at festivals named after the cities or towns in which they occur, such as Ursul din Asau, Ursul de la Darmanesti, and so forth. Different towns have different variations on the B part, including stepping sideways or performing stunts, but the basic B part is to bend forward and make the “brrr” sound. The drumsong has a definite A part and B part, and there are also whistles blown during the march of the A part in a descending note like the “brrr” sound. The whistles sound in a more whistle-like manner to signal the change between the A and B parts. In some regional variations, the whistles are used to play a melody. During the B part, there may be a single drum song or several different variations. There may be singing, and various blessing actions such as striking with a brown tassel or offering apples to the bears.

Image:   Festivalul de Datini şi Obiceiuri Steaua sus răsare, Piatra Neamţ  

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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.


  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Monday, 26 June 2017

    I suddenly remembered the childhood song: "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" when I got to the last line of this article.

  • Erin Lale
    Erin Lale Monday, 26 June 2017

    I remember that song!

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