Feast for a Fallen King
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.
Nevertheless, despite the obvious pull I felt, I am always reluctant to approach the glamorous predator animal spirits directly without invitation, even the ones that are connected to Him; I think this is only good manners, since so many pagans are very grabby when it comes to these spirits, eager to appropriate them to make themselves seem more powerful and magical. (And ignoring the fact that the smaller, less obviously impressive animals have powerful magic too—but I digress.) At any rate, the only direct mundane-world experience I’d had with Bear (outside of zoos) was when my ex and I used to take my daughter camping at state parks in the summer in central Pennsylvania. On one such occasion, a bear was hanging around the campground, and during one of our forest hikes it briefly—and terrifyingly—managed to get between us and her on the path. But there had been nothing besides that, so I hung back—and then, a few years ago, had a dream that I was trapped in a cabin with a bear. Panicking and unable to escape, I ended up being seized, but instead of claws rending my flesh I was held close and enveloped in soft, dark fur. Okay, message received.
A year or two after that, I acquired a bear claw and tooth necklace, which I wear often, but still no specific devotional practice for Bear emerged. And then on her blog last November I saw her post about a book, The Bear: History of a Fallen King by Michel Pastoureau. Excited, I rushed to get it from our local university library. It turns out that the bear was widely revered throughout pagan Europe, from the neolithic area straight through to the early middle ages, as the king of the beasts (a place later usurped by the lion). As such, it was considered the most appropriate animal for kings to gift to one another for their private menageries, and many of the royal and noble houses sought to associate their lineages with Bear in some way, some of them claiming literal descent from a bear. Then as now, Bear’s power was feared as well as admired—particularly by the Church, which felt obliged to do all it could to wipe out the Bear cult with its mysterious shamanic practices; bear worship was so widespread that they saw it as a threat, particularly in the northern regions which were already resistant to conversion. As a result, they subsumed two of the important feasts for Bear by positioning saints’ festivals on those days: Martinmas (November 11th), which was the festival marking the start of the bear’s hibernation (and which fits in very well with the beginning of Wild Hunt season), and Candlemas (February 1st or 2nd), which originally marked the bear’s emergence from hibernation. That’s right: the original “groundhog” was a bear.
Since I had already missed November 11th by the time I read the book, I decided at that point that I would begin observing these dates with Candlemas this February. And so, the morning after our Ewemeolc celebration, I removed the sheep-related items from the hearth shrine and substituted the bear card from the Animals Divine tarot deck, some sprigs of fresh-picked uva ursi with its bright red berries (it grows abundantly in my neighborhood), a crystal bear sculpture I inherited from my mother, and a little beehive-shaped cup I had found in a thrift store, which had graced Odin’s altar before I recently bought a new one for Him. I filled the cup with hazelnuts and made a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, mixed berries, and honeycomb, of which I offered a generous portion to Bear. Bears are omnivores and especially love honey, nuts and berries, including the berries of the uva ursi plant. We used the rest of the goat’s milk to do a faining for Bear, both in His own right and as an ally of Odin, and I hailed His strength and power and invited a deepening of my connection with Him.
This is one more thread of a trend I have observed in my practice for the past six months or so, in which I am being called to forge connections with more primitive and ancient spirits. Given that Odin is three-quarters frost giant by birth (the neolithic era is regarded in the northern tradition as the period when the giants held sway and were widely worshiped), I am not very surprised by this, and it will be interesting to see where it leads!
My Candlemas altar for Bear:
Bear’s plate of treats:
My bear scarf in progress, knitted from handspun Moorit Icelandic wool, which I processed myself from the fleece: