Bears and Meanings among Hunter-fisher-gatherers in Northern Fennoscandia 9000–2500 bc

Knut Helgskog

Bears are the most dangerous animal in the north. They are big and strong, eaters of berries, ants and fish, and they can kill both other animals and people. Among circumpolar populations they receive and have received much attention, whether as a supernatural power, a totem or prey (Bieder 2005; Black 1998; Edsman 1994; Hallowell 1926). Rituals and beliefs are known from ethnohistoric descriptions and research in the circumpolar zone from the 1600 s to the present. Among some traditional people the rituals exist as memories while in others rituals are still practised (Siikala & Ulyashev 2011, 90–96). These rituals include specific ‘treatments’ of a bear both before and after killing it, eating the meat and depositing or burying the skeletal remains. In tales they are presented as powerful and are treated with great respect both physically and ritually. Furthermore, bears are painted on drum membranes, represented in effigies and amulets, all probably associated with beliefs and rituals rather than purely for decorative purposes. Early archaeological evidence, including bear effigies (Carpelan 1975; Gimbutas 1956; Zhulnikov 2006), and specific treatment of skeletal remains (Myrstad 1996; Zachrisson 1981; Zachrisson & Iregren 1974) as well as depictions in rock art (Gjessing 1932; 1945; Hagen 1965; Hallström 1938; Helskog 1988; 1999; Lahelma 2008 b; Ravdonikas 1936; Savatejev 1970; Simonsen 1958), indicates that such beliefs and practices are rooted in prehistory. Current research has shown that location as well as features, topography, minerals and colours in the surfaces on which rock art is produced, might have played an active part in the meaning associated with individual figures and compositions as well as the entire panel (Gjerde 2010; Goldhahn 2002; Helskog 1999; 2010; Janik et al. 2007). This is clearly demonstrated in compositions where the bears, sometimes with cubs, leave one den in spring to enter another in the autumn. The tracks of the bear depicted between the two dens illustrate the process of walking through an imaginary or real landscape. In essence, depictions of the yearly cycle of the bear, sometimes combined with social and ritual behaviour of humans who kill the bear, are undoubtedly some of the most expressive and detailed evidence that rituals and stories were associated with bears during the Late Mesolithic and Younger Stone Age1. Yet our knowledge of the prehistoric situation is basically that the animal must have had a special status which required specific types of treatment, whether alive or dead.It would indeed be a great surprise were this not the case, and the variability in the ethnographic record indicates that the human — bear relationships had local variants (Grøn 2005; Pentikäinen 2007, 14–15). The following examination aims, therefore, to explore possible relationships by examining status and meanings associated with bears among prehistoric hunter-fisher-gatherer populations in northern Fennoscandia (Fig. 1) on the basis of beliefs and practices of ceremonialism in the ethnohistoric record from the circumpolar arctic.

Figure 1. Map of northernmost Europe showing locations mentioned in the text. (Map drawn by Dora Kemp.)

The archaeological data in this study come from a region that extends from the coastal area of northern Norway to the forested area of Karelia, the open mountain terrain of interior Norway and Sweden, forested interiors of Sweden and Finland, the coastal area of the Baltic and Gulf of Bothnia, the White Sea, and a large number of lakes and river systems. The majority of the bear depictions are found in Alta, Arctic Norway, and the bone material and effigies are mostly from Finland and western Russia. These three sets of data are unequal in size, through space and time, whether viewed from a local or Fennoscandian perspective. The relationships between the data are uncontrolled owing to the randomness of their discovery and the differences in survival of organic and inorganic matter (in this case stone). In addition they are, in some ways, bound to reflect climatic differences and individual decision-making as well as common norms, within clan, tribal or pan-tribal levels. Each site is, in itself, a local manifestation combined with others which may indicate a regional pattern.


The archaeological record considered here covers a time-span of approximately 10,000 years, while the ethnohistoric record covers a maximum of the last 500 years before present. Of these only the ethnohistoric record provides some direct understanding and a basis for interpreting the archaeological data. The obvious and familiar problem linking the two — without transporting the ‘raw’ ethnography directly onto the prehistoric evidence — is an issue which has been amply discussed (Wylie 2002, chs. 9 & 11). Although, no doubt, explanations can be found in direct analogy, especially in relation to identifying structures and artefacts, it is considerably more difficult to connect symbolism and meanings.From the view of a trajectory from the past to the present, the historic and ethnographic evidence from Fennoscandia might be particularly important as a possible remnant of beliefs that once existed (Lahelma 2007; Zvelebil 2008, 42). The problem is to what extent can the animistic world-view prevalent among people in historic societies in Fennoscandia (where subsistence was oriented towards hunting, fishing and gathering combined with pastoralism and agriculture) reflect prehistoric systems of belief and practice thousands of years earlier. Pastoralist and agriculturalist concepts of spiritual beings are quite different from that of hunters (Bieder 2005). Therefore, using folklore, ethnographic and historic records in Fennoscandia in order to reconstruct and understand the prehistoric hunter-fisher-gatherers is a problem. Given the many similarities in topographic features, habitat and biome to which prehistoric and historic populations related in addition to a possible cultural trajectory, some interpretations offered might yield reasonable explanations. However, this does not mean that evidence from other regions is not important when it comes to understanding content and cultural processes among prehistoric cultures in northern Fennoscandia. On the contrary, comparative perspectives are equally significant, both from ‘similar’ or ‘vastly different’ cultures, when searching for patterns that can be explained by ethnoarchaeology/history (Grøn 2005).

Another set of perspectives are those provided by the bears themselves.From being close to extermination in Scandinavia in the middle of the twentieth century, the present bear population in Norway is approximately 200 animals, in Finland about 450 (in 1994) and Sweden 3200 (in 2008). In western Russia the present estimate is 30,000–33,000 bears. The present bear population is increasing owing to the protection of the bears and their natural habitat (Sandegren & Swenson 1997), although one might assume that bears were more numerous in prehistoric times. Knowledge about the environment of the bears, their behaviour and physiology, is extensive and there is no reason to assume that they did not live in the same types of habitat in the past as they do today. They mate during the summer and cubs are born inside the den in Janu- ary — February. The cubs follow their mother for one or two years. All hibernate during the winter and males are solitary except for a short period when mating (Sandegren & Swenson 1997). Parts of this life-cycle are depicted in rock art and parts can be recognized in faunal remains. Even though the depictions of bears in rock art cannot be regarded as a straightforward representation of the life of bears as understood by the natural sciences, understanding behaviour might provide clues about the content of the depictions and the stories once told.It is from such knowledge, combined with the archaeological and ethnohistoric evidence, that some understanding might be gained of the roles and meanings which bears might have had in prehistory. The physical manifestations are unchanged, but it is likely that prehistoric peoples understood the life of the bear in ways other than in modern science (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The hunt and burial of a bear.
Ossian Elgström’s interpretation of the rituals associated with the hunt, the killing and the consumption of the bear among the Sami.
The story begins in the upper left and ends in the lower right.
The original is at Norrbottens Museum in Luleå, Sweden.

Furthermore, bears possess some traits which are characteristically human such as the ability to stand on their hind legs and use their forepaws rather like humans use their hands; their skeletal structure and physical shape; their footprints; their facial expressions; and their tears. They are omnivores with human-like habits, their excrements are similar and they masturbate. They construct a ‘house’ (a den or lair) and some peoples believed they had the ability to understand human speech (Janhunen 2003; Black 1998; Bieder 2005, 21, 76; Honko et al. 1993, 71; Nelson 1983, 175).It is likely that traits and beliefs such as these attributed a human dimension to bears that created and maintained a connection between these animals and humans in different populations. Among hunter-fisher-gatherer populations, attitudes and respect gradually seem to have disappeared as agriculture and animal husbandry began to dominate. In these societies the bear increasingly became a destructive force, a threat to domestic stock and agricultural fields, no longer an ancestor to be revered but an animal marked for destruction (Bieder 2005, 70–72). In areas such as northernmost Europe where subsistence based on hunting, fishing and gathering continued and the change to agriculture and animal husbandry (with their associated beliefs and rituals) was slow and often combined with hunting and fishing, the role of the bear in myths, legend, narratives, beliefs and rituals survived longer than where the transformation was more rapid. In essence, combining the possibility of some continuity with relational analogies about the variation in beliefs and praxis connected with the bear among Finno — and Ob-Ugric populations and other populations in the circumpolar zone (and neighbours to the south), should give one basis for understanding roles that bears may have had among northern populations in prehistory, and the changes that took place. The roles, beliefs and rituals were many and the bears multivocal.

Bears in ethnohistory

Rites and beliefs connected with bears amongst historic hunter-fisher-gatherers, reindeer herders and some agricultural populations have so much in common that many researchers argue that they have an ancient and common origin (Germonpré & Hämäläinen 2007; Hallowell 1926; Hultkrantz 1991, 9–11; Pentikäinen 2007; Sarmela 2006; Zolotarev 1939). The variation in stories, attitudes and practice (Edsman 1994, 70; Fjellström 1981 (1755); Paproth 1976) is likely to represent the end of a trajectory from the prehistory of northern and circumpolar regions. Therefore, traces of prehistoric social relations and beliefs might be a part of what is recorded in historic times. These beliefs are connected with animism as a world-view, that is, all beings, objects and natural phenomena have a spirit or a soul (Bieder 2005; Harvey 2005; Nelson 1983, 14–32; Shirokogoroff 1935; Yamada 1997). This means that they — whether humans, animals, plants, rocks, winds and so on — are looked upon as having self-consciousness, personal identity, autonomy and will. In an animistic system of beliefs the bear, no less than a human, can understand its surroundings, communicate with other animals and humans, and a hunter might address the bear (or any other animal) and communicate with it when hunting. As such, hunting bears involves a complex set of rituals which might only be understood in relation to the central principles of the beliefs of different groups of people (Hallowell 1926, 53; Black 1998). This includes the ideology of totemism, helping spirits and spirit masters, which at the present shows a great variety due to different social and ecological backgrounds as well as different cultural developments in historic times (Hoppal 1997, 199; Ingold 1986, 256–60; Yamada 1997, 324). Within this framework shamans have a crucial role as a communicator between humans and animals. Even though the nature of shamanism varies, the role of an intermediate is a common feature and the other-than-humans have to be treated with great respect or appropriate behaviour (Harvey 2005; Vitebsky 1995). If this respect is not shown, communication might not produce the desired result. The point is that the widespread belief in an animistic world with an ideology of totemism and helping spirits, and the practice of shamans and shamanic world-view, indicate that it has a long history. As such, the idea of animism and associated practice might connect the populations through time, from prehistory to history. Beliefs, rituals and myth involving bears are, and were, undoubtedly a part.

The roles and significance of bears to human populations in the circumpolar region are described and discussed in multiple written sources (Bäckman 2000; Bäckman & Hultkrantz 1985; Edsman 1994; Hallowell 1926; Honko et al. 1993; Karjalainen 1927; Leem et al. 1767; Nelson 1983; Rheen 1983 (1897), 43–6; Sarmela 2006; Schefferus 1956 (1673); Zvelebil 2008, 48). Some of these populations are pastoral nomads, others resided in coastal fishing villages or settlements where they also tended cows and sheep; some were swidden agriculturalists, and some were mainly hunter-fisher-gatherers. As agriculturalists replaced hunter-gatherers the symbolic power of the bear diminished; they became de-sacred, an impediment to progress and marked for destruction (Bieder 2005, 70, 78). But among some populations in northernmost Europe the stories and respect towards the bear lingered, especially amongst those who practised hunting, fishing, gathering and reindeer pastoralism. For example, according to Sarmela the stories of the bear in the Finnish environment are found in the folklore of the swidden communities but contain details that connect them with the cultures of other Nordic hunting peoples (Sarmela 2006, 3). In historic descriptions of the Sami in Fennoscandia from the sixteenth century onwards it appears that bear ceremonialism gradually disappeared, although the Sami retained and practised important aspects of their pre-Christian religion in the mid-seventeenth century (Schefferus 1956 (1673) ), and some even into the twentieth century. In some Siberian populations ceremonies and rituals connected with the bear are still practised (Honko et al. 1993; Jordan 2003, 115–23; Siikala & Ulyashev 2011), while in other populations the significance of the bear survives only in songs, narratives/tales and myths (Edsman 1994). In others there are no rituals connected with the bear at all.

The variation within the Sami and the Finnish populations can be seen as parallel developments, as if they signified two separate group identities (Edsman 1994, 120). Special attitudes towards the bear also existed among other populations in Scandinavia although, according to Tolley (2006, 94), the occasional presence of the animal in the Norse sources is more as a matter of curiosity than as an object of religious awe. There was an association between bears and the warrior, with the strength and wildness of bears as desirable warrior characteristics. Yet Tolley (2006, 103; 2009) merely finds indications of taboo connected with the bear and no evidence that comparable rites, such as those among the Ob — and Finno-Ugrians, were practised among Germanic tribes. Edsman (1994, 170) has noted that in Germany, bears were preferably killed during the spring and the bear feast became a ceremony marking the begin- ning of a new season, a vegetation rite. In essence, none of the written information from Eurasia is from hunting-fishing societies identical to the prehistoric societies that produced the archaeological evidence, and the evidence varies.

Historical evidence therefore indicates that rituals and beliefs associated with bears were once widespread and commonplace in the northern hemisphere, with local or regional features. This is supported by fourteen common universal features and that the hunting of bears represents a complex ritual (Black 1998 referring to Vasil’ev 1948 and Paproth 1976) consisting of eight phases. The consensus is that similarities in beliefs derive from a common origin, while differences are accounted for through reinterpretation in local ecological conditions, specific historical circumstances, diffusion of concepts from other areas and reinterpretation, erasure of some aspects under new historical conditions, and emergence of new forms in the process of cultural revitalization (necessarily coupled with reinterpretation).

Hunting, souls and reincarnation

The belief that life and some inanimate objects had a soul appears to be an ancient one among populations in the arctic as well as in other regions. An animal that is awake has its soul in place while the soul might have left the body of a sleeping animal. If the soul was out wandering when a bear was killed then reincarnation could not take its course and the future was not secured. According to Sarmela, a Sami noidi (shaman) should be able to capture the soul of the bear in order to take possession of the knowledge the bear had (Sarmela 2006). As in other circumpolar populations, special people such as a noidi had a central role both in the hunt and the distribution and consumption of bears, although the noidi was not present as the natural leader of the hunt, and no evidence to hand indicates that the noidi alone performed any special rites for the divinity of the bears’ spirit or the like before the hunt was undertaken (Hultkrantz 1991, 10). Judging from the rock art in Alta, human or human-like figures whose role was other than killing the bear participated in the hunt. In two of the depictions from 4700–4200 bc in Alta (Figs. 3 & 7), one human-like figure is unarmed as if having a role other than killing the bear.From this perspective the unarmed persons might illustrate someone making sure that the hunt is conducted according to the proper rules. In other cases there is no unarmed person, only the one wielding the spear. Clearly there were variations both in depictions and in practice, perhaps as a difference between those who hunt an ancestor and those who hunt bear or the ancestor of somebody else. Within a cultural group there might be some variation in the deposition of the skeleton and skull of the bears as observed by Grøn (2005) for the Evenks. This variation is seen as an important factor in emphasizing local identity, as there is no strict common rule except to show respect and communicate with the master or the soul (s) of an animal (Grøn 2005). In essence, reincarnation appears to be a major reason why (1) bears were buried in special ways, (2) skulls were hung in holy trees and their bones dug into the ground beneath its roots, or (3) the whole skeleton was buried with all the bones placed in relatively correct anatomical positions. At no stage should the bones of the bear be broken (Edsman 1994; Jordan 2003; Storå 1971, 112–15).

Figure 3. Hunting at the mouth of a den. Note the unarmed human-like figure.
Detail from Ole Pedersen IA, Alta, north Norway.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

Even though bears could be hunted all year among the Sami and other peoples, most hunts were associated with rousing the bear in its den during the late winter and early spring (Karjalainen 1927, 196–7; Nelson 1983, 175–7; Norlander-Unsgaard 1985). This was a once-a-year situation when a bear was easiest to kill: otherwise the bear would be quite dangerous and hard to catch and kill. As a result the bear became a dominant symbol for the transition from winter (cold and dark) to summer (warm and light) when they woke from hibernation and from summer to winter when they entered the den to hibernate (Bäckman 1983, 38). Spring was at the beginning of the new fishing and hunting seasons, when families left the shared winter village for the spring fishing places (Sarmela 2006). Alternatively, among the Mi’kmaq in eastern Canada, for example, winter began when the bears retired into a hollow tree (Le Clerge 16, cited in Hornborg 2008, 20). In Sami beliefs the concept of the bear was a central force giving life to flora, fauna and humans (Norlander-Unsgaard 1985).It was a cult animal that every year was slain, to be reborn, as opposed to killed. In this way nature gradually came back to life, marking the rejuvenation of nature to reinforce the order of life and social relations. If a bear was slain without the shared celebrations and public resurrection rites, the order of the culture was threatened (Sarmela 2006). In other words, rituals served to deter disorder and reinforce the game rules which had to be observed as the acquisition and sharing of food was a main concern and the relationships between humans, animals and their spirits and powers are often close and interwoven.

Bears and identity

Because rituals among Finno-Ugric and Ob-Ugric populations reinforced social and religious relations (Mebius 1968, 161), the bear clan ancestor reinforced group identity similar to, for example, elk, reindeer and beaver (Jordan 2003, 100–102). Writing about the present day, Pentikäinen observed that: ‘On all my fieldtrips in Siberia I have noted that the totemistic bear tradition is never attributed to a whole people, but to individual clans and families, groups of a few hundred people’ (Pentikäinen 2007, 14).It appears that every clan has its own version of bear ritual within a basic ideological/cosmological pattern in the northern hemisphere. The small-scale variations/features important for the small-scale group identity were central for cultural dynamics at larger-scale levels (Grøn 2005, 4). In Siberia variations such as these are also seen in some aspects of material culture and language, cosmology/ideology/ ritual, and clan territories are apparently related to the maintenance of group identity at the micro-level (Grøn 2005, 20). Variations such as these can be seen in the archaeological material as well, although the explanation might not always be in accord. When comparing his observation with the prehistoric imagery, Pentikäinen suggests that the paucity of bear images in the rock art either indicates a sense of the animal’s holiness, or that the bear cult and the totemism associated with it occurred in some small communities.

The archaeology of the bear is consistent with what is recorded in the richly recorded traditions of northern peoples in later centuries, and many of the key elements of those traditions were probably already in place millennia ago. Among these may have been the primordial, totemic relationship between a founder of a clan and the bear, or, in other clans, the elk or reindeer (or the large forest deer), now hunted to extinction (Pentikäinen 2007, 14).

From this point of view, bears in the rock art point towards strong local traditions, perhaps associated with people who claimed the bear as an ancestor.From this type of argument the rock carvings signify a place where many clans with different ancestors met.

A clan connection meant that bears might be killed more easily by their human descendants than by others (Edsman 1994, 80–83).

Among Arctic peoples, the myth explains how the bear itself has given the people the right to kill it and determined how the rituals must be conducted in order for the bear to return to life the right of killing by a totemic ancestor (Sarmela 2006).

According to Sarmela (2006), neither the Aunus nor the Vienna Karelians in eastern Fennoscandia appear to have hunted bear, which might mean that at some point in time killing bear and eating its meat became taboo, at least among some kinship groups. The contrast between the elk found in poems in Karelia, and the scarcity of folklore on deer and elk hunting in Finland made Sarmela suggest that the ancient Häme or Finns had the bear as a totem and the Karelians the elk (Sarmela 2006, 22). This is similar to Matti Kuusi’s (1963) suggestion (cited in Sarmela (2006) and Pentikäinen (2007) ), that the presence of elk and bear sculptures reflects the existence of two large clans in prehistoric Finland, one related to the bear and the other to the elk. If clans shared totems, differences between rock-art images of the same animal might signify different clans, such as has been pointed out for some Australian Aborigines (Coleman 2005). There are some differences in the bear figures in the Fennoscandian rock art although it is unclear if these signify differences in group affiliations and/or in narratives and stories.

Gender and identity

It was men that hunted, killed, skinned and butchered bears (Edsman 1994; Honko et al. 1993; Nelson 1983, 176). Women took part in some of the rituals which followed, but in general the rituals appear to have been mainly a masculine domain. In some sources it is mentioned that bears had an ability to transform between bear and human as well as change sex (Bieder 2005; Kailo 2008). The many stories about marriage between a bear and woman (Kailo 2008) and the many (much older) rock-art figures of pregnant bears or bears with cubs, indicate that the female role in stories related to bears was once stronger than the impression given by the ethnohistoric data. Hallowell (1926) focused on the male hunter, yet among aboriginal populations in Siberia, ritual transvestism was associated with festivals honouring the killing of bears and stories about shamans temporarily transforming between bears, men and women (Balzer 1996; Bogoras 1975; Kailo 2008). Discussing transformation and gender roles associated with bear and shamanism led Balzer (1996) to suggest that various degrees and kinds of gender-related symbolism did play a greater role than earlier thought in Siberian definitions of the sacred. Within this, the marriage between a woman and a bear is a representation of the return of fertility, giving femaleness a crucial role in the belief system (Kailo 2008, 261).

For example, the bears on the membrane of drums associated with the Sami are solitary animals, while in the rock art there are also pregnant animals and adults with cubs — in other words female bears.

The solitary bears on the drum membrane and in rock art can be either female or male as the depictions are not gender — or sexually-specific. In the same way as Balzer (1996) argues that gender ambiguity is not the same as full transformation in the rituals, she views them as related phenomena that can help to understand the full range of symbolic, socially constructed meanings for human sexual diversity. The many depictions of female bears and cubs can indicate that, among some prehistoric populations, restrictions towards women seen in the ethnohistoric record might not have been present. In an example from Inuit mythology, bears are prominent and figure primarily where social conflicts cannot be solved. In such cases one of the partners will transform into a (polar) bear.It is always the woman who transforms into a bear, while men will marry bears who fluctuate on the boundary between men and women (Kailo 2008, 207–8). There is a dichotomy between human — animal, living — dead and male — female, each containing the other within it while simultaneously providing a passage between the two. The human — bear transformation might be connected explicitly with shamanism, and the figure that combines bear-man-woman traits (Fig. 4) might illustrate such a transformation, and infer shamanism 6000 years earlier.

Figure 4. A bear-man-woman figure inside a circle surrounded by human-like figures from a panel at Kåfjord in Alta.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

Drum figures as analogy

The widespread use of drums in the circumpolar regions (and elsewhere), indicates its long history as an instrument, even as an instrument connected with ritual performances among arctic populations. Some rock-art figures indicate that circular percussion instruments did exist 4000 years earlier than the ethnographic present, but the concrete physical evidence is lacking. Evidence indicates that the oldest- known drums among the Sami are from the tenth to eleventh centuries ad (Kjellström & Rydving 1988, 4; Zachrisson 1991, 83–9) but they were probably in use much earlier.

The similarity between the historic drums and two rock-art panels that overlap in time, at the mountain called Aldon in Varanger, northern Norway dated provisionally to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ad (Simonsen 1979) and in the mountain region of Badjelánnda dated to the medieval period in interior north Sweden (Mulk & Bayliss-Smith 2006), is that they have simple line figures. This rock art consists of only a few figures and is in no way similar to the structure and compositions on the drums. Furthermore, there is no evidence that sounds were created by striking the rock surfaces. The soft surfaces at Padjelanta are actually incapable of producing anything but soft, mellow sounds that are unlikely to be heard except by those standing close by, while at Aldon louder sounds would have been produced. Furthermore, a connection to Sami rituals makes it probable that sounds were added by beating the drums to catch the attention of the powers addressed.

The figures painted on the membranes or carved into the drum frames, or that hung from the frame, are comparable with the rock art, given that both are sign and symbols connected with communication with other-than-humans. The assertion by Rheen that it was most important that the advice of the drum was asked, through the figures on the membrane, prior to a bear hunt and that the drummer participated in the hunt itself [Rheen 1983 (1897), 43–4] indicates that there was variation in practice. When a bear had been killed, some hunters marked the frame (Friis 1871); in other instances, lines of treads, made of tin, were sewn onto the headdress of those who killed the bear. Nothing is as honourable as killing a bear [Schefferus 1956 (1673), 255, 262] and all the hunters sang a song of thanksgiving after it was killed (Bäckman & Hultkrantz 1978, 83). Singing appears to have been an important part of the rituals after the animal was killed (Edsman 1994; Honko et al. 1993), an aspect that might be rather difficult to recognize in prehistoric evidence such as rock art.

In general, the figures are seen as different mythological characters from Sami religion, and the understanding of the figures is coloured by the theological background of the interpreters. Both of these aspects need to be acutely considered and accounted for (Bäckman 1975, 38–42; Rydving 1991, 35). The drums have two different types of frame. The figures subdivide the membranes differently and on some there appears to be no obvious specific subdivision. Within each of these there is much variation. In essence, like the rock-art panels, no drums are identical in terms of the figures and their position on the drum membranes, yet certain figures have a fixed position on the membrane, particularly on the drums of the southern type. For example, on these the Maderakka figures are often positioned on the lower edges, reindeer corrals on the lower centre, the bears mainly on the left side, and Peive, the sun goddess in the centre (Manker 1950). But, as a whole, the drums appear to be individual and the lack of an overall pattern makes it hard to interpret the drums as representing a common religious belief system (Bäckman 1975, 57). On the other hand, their individuality might simply represent the identity of the maker, user and group within a common system of belief. Rock-art panels from the same period display similar individuality, and are more likely to represent specific group identities, ritual practice and stories rather than different systems of belief.

Bears in the early prehistory of Fennoscandia

The earliest settlements in northern Scandinavia were in the coastal area dated to c. 9000 bc. The sites were small and scattered, consisting of a lithic tool assemblage (Bjerck 2009; Blankholm 2008; Olsen 1994; Skandfer et al. 2010; Tansem 1999). The settlements in the interior appear to be slightly younger, and house structures and organic remains are extremely rare (Rankama 2003). The only indication of a ritual relationship with animals is indicated by approximately full-size animal figures ground into rock surfaces along the coast of northernmost Norway (Fig. 5). Among these are figures of bears (Gjessing 1936; Simonsen 1958). None of these figures can be connected to specific Mesolithic settlements but they are dated on the basis of a consistent altitudinal relationship to the ancient sea level (Gjerde 2010; Gjessing 1936; Hesjedal 1994 b). During the following Late Mesolithic and Younger Stone Age, open surface sites and aggregations of house sites are found in the coastal and fjord area of northern Norway, northern Russia, Sweden and Finland as well as in the interior areas (Baudou 1995; Helskog 1978; Halinen 2005; Helskog 1984; Lobanova 2009; Olsen 1994; Renouf 1989; Savatejev & Vereschagin 1978; Shumkin 2007; Simonsen 1961). Archaeological data indicate that there were some differences in house type and size, in social structure as well as in the organization of subsistence practices, technology and techniques, while there is a general continuity in the resources present and used. The interior regions were less accessible than the coast-fjord areas, and probably more ‘isolated’. Possibly it is in such areas that traditions were maintained the longest.It is fair to assume that contacts between populations in different settlements were connected with social gatherings and rituals, marriage, cooperation in subsistence and barter (Hood 1988). Furthermore, the external cultural influences on the populations of northern Fennoscandia were fairly extensive, and increased with growing population, trade, exploration and immigration from the earliest settlements onwards.

Figure 5. The ground animal figures (in full size) at Leiknes, north Norway.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

Bear bones

Bear bones are either completely absent or rare in Mesolithic and Younger Stone Age refuse contexts where we find bone or other organic material from other animals.Bears could not have been a mainstay of subsistence but, with the large number of bears in the forests, they could certainly have been an important part. Furthermore, the differences can be explained both by contrasting population sizes through time from the coastal area of the North Atlantic and Barents Sea to the large population in the vast forested areas of the eastern interior, and by a special ritual treatment and deposition of bones (Bogoras 1975; Hagen 1965; Hallowell 1926; Honko et al. 1993; Sarmela 2006).

Viewed from a wide Fennoscandian perspective the few bones found at Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Metallic Period sites in Karelia, and the Kola Peninsula in western Russia (Savatejev & Vereschagin 1978; Lobanova 2009) indicate hunting, while those in the graves at the Mesolithic cemetery of Oleni Ostrov (Lindqvist 1994) indicate ritual significance. The fragmentary evidence in the Finnish and Swedish Mesolithic provide no clear indication of ritual association (Baudou 1995, 77; Lindqvist 1994, 122, fig. 25.4; Pentikäinen 2007, 14; Ukkonen 2004; Welinder 2009, 68, 231, 329).From the last part of the Younger Stone Age (2200 bc) and the early part of the Early Metallic Period/Bronze Age (1700 bc), a few bones of bear have been found in excavations of houses and middens on the north coast of the Kola Peninsula in northwest Russia (Gurina 1997; Helskog et al. in prep. ). In essence, bones are rare and fragmentary. The Mesolithic and Younger Stone Age material does not point towards deposits connected with rituals, while the lack of bones can, in a way, indicate the existence of types for preferential burial.

In later prehistory, evidence of bears in Iron Age graves in the southern part of Fennoscandia, especially from the Roman Iron Age and the Migration periods ad 200–600, indicates that the species played a central role in beliefs associated with death at this time (Hagen 1976, 83). Among the early Sami populations in interior northern Sweden and Norway, special bear graves dated to ad 300–1600 (Grydeland 2001; Myrstad 1996; Zachrisson & Iregren 1974), and in house 4 at Grundskatan dated to 1000 ±45 bp in a Sami dwelling (Broadbent 2010, 180–84) in the Gulf of Bothnia, are a continuation of belief and practice that began much earlier. But, as a whole, the material is still small and scattered.

Effigies and amulets

As can be inferred from the ethnographic record, it is likely that animal guardians, helping spirits and ancestors connected with the acquisition and regeneration of game (Hallowell 1926; Jordan 2003, 118–19) were represented in effigies and amulets.Such representations are few although they have been found in all main regions of northernmost Europe, in refuse heaps associated with house structures, near panels with rock art and in graves. Some are made of bone and antler, others of wood and stone (Carpelan 1975; Gimbutas 1956). The main Mesolithic evidence is the 128 bear canines found in 48 of the 170 graves on the island of Oleni Ostrov, in Lake Onega in Karelia; some clearly necklaces, possibly amulets, indicate that they had a special position in beliefs and life after death (Gurina 1956).From the Younger Stone Age — Early Metallic Period a few effigies, including a bear, are found on the north coast of the Kola Peninsula (Gurina 1997; Helskog et al. in prep. ), and in the far northeast of Norway (Simonsen 1961; Simonsen & Odner 1963). A bear-shaped pendant of amber has been found under water in front of the paintings at Astuvansalmi in Fin- land, dated to the Younger Stone Age (Lahelma 2008 a, fig. 10), one of a few artefacts to have been associated directly with rock art. Axe heads sculptured as bears in Finland are described by Carpelan (1975). In Sweden, west of the Gulf of Bothnia, effigies of bear are rare. The two bear heads at Hälsingland and Lemnäeset in central and northern Sweden, dated to the transition between the Younger Stone Age and Early Metallic Period/Bronze Age (Baudou 1977, 91), have been suggested to represent the gradual introduction of the bear cult from eastern Fennoscandia during the Younger Stone Age and Early Metallic Period/Early Bronze Age (Lindqvist 1994, 245). However, the much earlier rock art on the North Atlantic coast to the west and north indicates that explanations might be considerably more complex.

Bones and amulets in graves, especially in the Late Iron Age (ad 800–1200) in the southern regions of the Nordic countries, indicate that symbolism connected with bears was associated with more settled agricultural populations. For example, the differential occurrence of organic pendants in men’s graves and metal pendants in women’s graves in southwest Finland suggests adherence to protective magic (Kivikoski 1961). Those worn only by women could be connected with fertility and sexuality and a special relationship between the bear and the female (Asplund 2005, 25–7) or a symbolic interplay between culture and its environment (symbolic control over the forest or wilderness) (Kivisalo 2008). As such, bear-tooth ornaments in southwest Finland indicate a special cultural connection and identity. This also seems to have been the case in Estonia and Livonia (Pentikäinen 2007, 13). In essence, bear effigies and amulets appear to have been present in Fennoscandia from the Late Mesolithic, although the evidence is scattered and might not be representative in space and time. As such, the evidence is in itself insufficient to distinguish clear patterns through time and space during the Late Mesolithic and the following Younger Stone Age.

Rock art

The main evidence of possible beliefs associated with bears is displayed in rock art. Rock art is found in all the main regions of Fennoscandia (Gjerde 2010; Goldhahn 2006; Hagen 1976).It is dominated by depictions of animals, particularly elk (Alces alces) and reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), a few bears (Ursus arctos), smaller animals and birds, some human-like figures, boats and geometric figures. Normally several figures are depicted on the same surface but it is difficult, at times impossible, to decide if they were made as part of myths or rituals, for example, even though some of the compositions are quite narrative. The earliest figures were made by hunter-fisher-gatherer populations perhaps as early as 9000 bc.

The majority of bear figures occur in the western part of northern Fennoscandia, in the coastal area of northern Norway (Lindqvist 1994, 31, fig. 2.4). The oldest figures might be dated to an early phase of the Mesolithic and are outlined in approximately full size, while the Late Mesolithic and Younger Stone Age figures are, with few exceptions, comparatively small in size. The oldest depictions of bears — given a late Early Mesolithic — Late Mesolithic date (Gjerde 2010; Gjessing 1932; 1936; 1942; Hesjedal 1993; 1994 a) are from the province of Nordland and are ground, in full-sized outline, onto the rock surface (Fig. 5). At Skavberget, outside Tromsø, there is a large bear possibly dated to the Late Mesolithic. The full-sized, Early — Late Mesolithic animal figures in Nordland county include nine bears, while among the many rock-art sites in Trøndelag county 1000 km to the south of Alta there are only five, none in apparent compositions (in the panels called Bardal, Homnes, Honnhammer and Bøla: Bakka 1988; Gjessing 1936; Sognnes 1981). All of these are in the coastal area, except for Gjerde in the interior mountains just east of the Norwegian — Swedish border, a somewhat ambiguous figure between elk (Alces alces) and bear (Ursus arctos). In essence, depictions of bears in the first part of the Mesolithic are a west Scandinavian feature. The full-sized figures cannot be connected with specific settlement sites.

In the Late Mesolithic and early Younger Stone Age smaller carved figures began to predominate. Only a few large animal figures were made, although none was as close to their natural adult size as were the earlier examples. North of the Arctic Circle there are 105 bears in Alta, plus 17 bears at other north Norwegian sites. In Finland 120 localities (99 per cent in the southern half of the country) with red-ochre paintings are found but not a single engraving. Among the painted figures there are three bears (Lahelma 2008 b), while the focus is on elk, anthropomorphs and boats. In northern Sweden, with both engravings and paintings, the focus is on elk, and there are a few dogs or wolves and bears, while in northern Norway both reindeer and elk appear to be fairly evenly represented and there are more bears than in any other part of Fennoscandia.

Further east, elk is the most frequently depicted animal in the Kola Peninsula panels, where we also see beluga whale but only three bears (Kolpakov 2008; Kolpakov et al. 2008). Among the 1200 figures seen at Zalavruga, there are just 20 bears while elk and beluga whale predominate. On the east side of Lake Onega the most frequently depicted animal is the swan, followed by elk and just eight bears.

These differences indicate some variation in the use of bear figures in narratives or stories and possibly rituals, but the numbers alone are not evidence for differences in time and space. With such a small number, relationships can change quickly (as exemplified by the discovery of art in Alta since the early 1970 s), although the discovery of new rock art in north Sweden, Finland and northwest Russia has not significantly changed the relationship between the figures in those areas.Bears are still as rare as before. A skewed sample might, therefore, not be the sole explanation.


The bear images in the rock art of Alta are particularly important because they are the only examples of compositions that focus on bears. Some of these illustrate stories that we know bears could not have been engaged in, except in legends and myths, while others illustrate either bears that are being killed or female bears that are walking with their cubs. As such, elements of stories can be recognized, although understanding their meanings is quite another matter. But, I will argue, at times it is possible to construct a plausible interpretation of what can be seen and recognized. For example, in one of the best-known compositions at Alta the bear moved between spring and autumn dens, as well as between the different dimensions of the universe — the sky, the ground and under the ground (Helskog 1999; 2010).Bears emerge from or enter cracks and pools of water, and some have walked across large parts of the rock surface, apparently connecting figures and surfaces at different parts of the panel. Recently, a new set of tracks was discovered that continues downwards from the hunt scene to end inside a small marked circular depression/anomaly in the rock surface, as if the mouth of a cave (Fig. 6).It is as if the bears survived or were killed, they or their soul continued into hibernation. Seen in relation to the den which the bears left, this is the den it entered during the autumn to hibernate. There is no obvious unarmed person connected with the hunting scene, although there are unarmed people in the vicinity. There is also a person behind the hunting scene who is lifting an elk-headed pole, as if there could be a connection between the elk and the bear. In this composition the tracks of the bears continue upwards towards a pregnant bear and a young cub before they continue onwards above another figure with bow and arrow. In essence, there is much in the compositions that can be recognized as something that existed and happened: the bears and their tracks, the hunt and the hunters and the performers, and the movement though space from spring to autumn on a surface that could have been recognized to represent the environments through which bears moved.

Figure 6. The large bear composition at Bergbukten I, Alta, where the tracks of the bears both connect
the three main dimensions of the universe, and the den which bears left in spring with the den
to be entered in the autumn. The red colour is a modern addition to increase visibility.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

In another composition a bear in a den is speared in the chest while facing the opening as if ready to leave the den in spring (Fig. 7) (Helskog & Høgtun 2004). Outside the opening there is also an unarmed person and a dog. When looking closely at the rock surface, the den, the human figures and a watching bear are all contained within a dark surface structure that has the shape of the head of a bear. The position- ing cannot but be intentional and it is an excellent example of how a composition is integrated with features in the rock surface — in this case a ‘gigantic’ bear in the rock itself.

Figure 7. a) The composition Bergbukten VII in Alta. b) A detail from the central part where a human figure is spearing a bear in a den.
Outside the opening there stands a cub, a ‘charging’ dog and an unarmed human figure. This part of the composition is carved
inside the head of a large bear that is formed by the structure and colours in the rock surface and, as such, is a good example of
how the rock surface may have played a role in the stories told and meanings given. The story narrated is basically a variant of that in Figure 3.
(Perspective drawing: Ernst Høgtun; photo: K. Helskog.)

In two cases there are unarmed human-like figures standing with spread legs and arms. In one case the arms are bent inwards over the shoulders. In another the arms are stretched out. Why does an unarmed human-like figure participate in the killing of a dangerous animal, when killing a bear when it is aroused in its den might not be that dangerous? When coming out of hibernation the bear is hungry, ‘weak’ and possibly confused, and is either pierced with a spear when trying to force its way out, or it can be hit on the head with an axe. Ethnographically, a shaman might participate in the hunt in order to care for the soul of the bear to secure reincarnation (Friis 1871; Sarmela 2006), to pay respect to the bear and to make sure that the kill is made in the right way. If so, what is depicted might be such a person who performed in order to secure reincarnation, not only of the bear but also the reawakening of nature during spring.

That bear tracks are connected to cracks and depressions, some of which fill with water, and that in one case a vertical set of tracks ends in the middle of a slope within the contemporaneous high tide level, indicates that bears also represented a being/ power that had the ability to travel under water. An illustration of this is the depiction of a long-legged animal facing a halibut that has bitten onto a hook on a line from a boat with two human figures (Fig. 8). The long legs of the animal are reminiscent of an elk, while the feet are more reminiscent of paws than hooves, the body perhaps more elk than bear, and the head more similar to the other bears from this period of time. The animal is possibly a hybrid, and the composition might represent a myth that includes catching a halibut, an interaction between human, elk, bear, halibut and water/ocean.

Figure 8. A bear communicating with a halibut
that is caught by two people in an elk-headed boat.
Up on the left there is a small elk and an ‘amulet’.
(Photo: A. Icagic. )

At another panel, which slopes towards the west- northwest, lines of bear tracks connect large parts of the panel (Fig. 9). In the upper middle part there is a group of human-like figures sticking spears into a den, figures with bow and arrows, and bears on the outside.From the den, lines of bear tracks extend upwards, across and downwards on the surface. One line crosses an unusually large bear, continues to the top of the panel where there are only figures of bear and tracks, and a small reindeer corral inside which there are reindeer and some bear or reindeer-like figures (Helskog 2011). (This small corral and a bear with cubs are actually depicted on a short surface that slopes towards the east-northeast from the top.)

Figure 9. The Ole Pedersen IA panel where the bear tracks connect all parts of the surface. Note the hunt in front of the den in the middle left and the tracks of the bear that extend upwards and downwards on this slanting panel. On the top there are only bears. On the lower part there are six or seven bears standing around a bowhead whale. Two of these bears have come out of cracks in the rock surface. (Tracing: K. Helskog.)

One of the horizontal lines of tracks from the den leads into a depression that fills with water, while another dips downwards on the side of a humpback whale and also downwards beside whales that appear to be diving. This is the richest part of the panel, with a large herd of reindeer and two boats further to the right. Just beyond the end of the line of tracks, a new set of tracks emerges from a crack and leads to one of two bears standing on the back of a humpback whale. The tracks from another bear show that it has arrived from the opposite direction. Under the whale there is also another, smaller bear, in front two bears and a human-like figure facing the whale and behind yet another bear. The composition appears as a story where bears wander through the world, from its highest to its lowest point, from and to the world above and below.It should also be noted that with the exception of the one elk above the large bear, all the other depictions of elk are on the lowest part of the panel. A similar distribution is seen on other panels in the area. One explanation might simply be that elk are particularly connected with the underworld, and as such possibly the world of the dead (Helskog 2010). This could also indicate that the boats with the head of an elk on the prow were somehow connected with death, both in killing game and fishing, as well as birth and regeneration. The powers of the bear seem to be similarly inclined, although the compositions do indicate that the bear was believed to move around more in the universe than the elk.It must also be noted that the altitudinal difference between the top and the bottom of the panel is approximately 350 cm which means that it could have been made within the entire zone from low to high tide, or above the high tide limit but probably within the zone that would have been affected by spring tide and splashing water when strong winds came from the north. The lowest figure is an outline of the hip to foot region of a human figure, a figure which, if contemporaneous with those higher up on the panel, sets a terminal date of approximately the earliest part of the third millennium bc for most figures on the panel.

At the locality at Kåfjord in Alta there are six compositions with bears, tracks and dens. All these bear figures are 15–20 cm long. The most complex composition at Kåfjord II has been described and interpreted as a narrative in which the bear moved between different seasons and worlds of the universe (Helskog 1999; 2010) with the location on the shore playing an active part. However, adjacent to the right, another composition with bears was later discovered. This is of a den and tracks which appear to be part of another story or stories or an expansion of the former. Sections of the rock surface are miss- ing; some parts are fairly extensively eroded and other parts shifted both vertically and horizontally. Therefore some of the figures are difficult to see, incomplete and not in alignment (Fig. 10). However, when ‘readjusting’ the rock surface and ‘replacing’ the missing parts it appears that the broken lines of tracks were once a part of an interconnected system which represents another example of the movement of the bears. In this case there are three ‘parallel’ sets of tracks which appear to originate under the peat on a surface not yet opened and studied. The profile of this particular part of the rock surface is slightly ‘V’-shaped with the bears, the den and the human-like figures with elk-headed poles on the left and a set of tracks appearing to come from below to the right. The bear inside the den indicates spring or autumn. On the outside, to the left and above, there appear to be two more bears. The shape of the bears is different from that of the composition earlier described, as if they signify different bears, identities or artist. A line of track connects the bear inside the den with bears to the left that are facing away from the den as if they have left. If this is the case, the time is spring. The set of tracks connects with a second line of tracks from below (the south). To the left there are two ‘parallel’ lines of tracks which run downslope (to the south), one of which continues upslope (to the north); only remnants of the upslope track farthest to the left have survived. These can be seen behind and above the reindeer to the left and connect with the former set of tracks. To the right there is a composition of human- like figures that face each other and each lifts a large elk-headed pole over their head. There are two and a half pairs, part of the third being either not finished or completely eroded away. Where paired, the elk head on the right displays an internal line pattern, while those to the left do not and the human-like figures on the right side are smaller than the two on the left.It is as if different identities are depicted, such as female (smaller) to the right and male (large) on the left, each carrying elk-headed poles that also signal different identities. The lack of antlers and beard indicate that both elk staffs are female but such physical traits might have been unnecessary if the pronounced differences depicted are statements of identity, male, female or something else.

Figure 10. At the panels Kåfjord II in Alta there are 30 bears, several clearly connected with other figures in some sort of story.
This is another composition where the bears walk from one den in spring to another in autumn, also with tracks that extend down
into a dimension under water and upwards into a dimension in the sky, and human figures that appear to perform a ritual
under symbols of the sun and the moon (see Helskog 1999). To the right there is another composition where bear tracks come
from several directions including from a den. Some of the tracks are depicted adjacent to human-like figures that are lifting elk-headed poles,
as if they also are a part of the story. (Scanning by METIMUR; tracings by K. Helskog.)

In another composition two bears face in different directions, each at the end of a vertical set of track that joins in a long line that slopes gently downwards (Fig. 11). They pass a small circle that could represent a den or opening and then continue towards hunters with bows and arrows, spear, elk, a geometric fringed figure, and a bear, behind and to the left. A set of tracks appears from a den, passes a crack and continues all the way to a human figure with large and detailed snowshoes. A little higher on the surface, another set of tracks connects to a crack and, at the other end, a small bear appears to be standing in an elk-headed boat. Further on, another set of tracks emerges out of a crack and connects to a bear standing inside a den, facing inwards as if having arrived and ready to hibernate. All these compositions are within an altitudinal difference of 140 cm which would be within the difference between mean tide and mean high tide. This again might reinforce the argument that figures were mainly produced in the zone affected by the changing tides. The bear tracks also connect to a small boat. In the prow there appears to be the head of a female elk and there is a small protrusion at the stern.It is as if the elk also symbolizes the boat or the boat the elk. In the boats one can see a small mound or rise which, for example, may represent transportation of a dead person to be buried. Ethnohistorically we know that such burial customs existed. In addition, there are two much larger bears, both at the lower and possibly younger part of the panel. The lower one is a 55 cm long pregnant bear that is roaring at a large and escaping reindeer.

Figure 11. A section of the Kåfjord II panels where bears and tracks are moving as much horizontally as vertically,
perhaps in relation to the tidal zone at the time. The bears and tracks are coloured differently for recognition.
(Scanning by METIMUR; tracings by K. Helskog.)

Multivocality is demonstrated in a figure that appears to be a combination of bear, man and woman, inside a circle as if inside a den or opening. The head is that of a bear, the body is human-like, it has a penis, a vulva and two protruding breasts. Around it is a circle of 19 human figures holding hands as if engaged in a ritual, as in a story or myth (Fig. 4).It is a therianthrope between several dimensions, those of man and womanhood, bear and human, the underworld and the middle world of living humans.It might be a version of the belief that bears can change sexuality and transform between the shape of a human and a bear (Balzer 1996). Or is it a human being or a bear in the process of transformation?

The possible connection between bear — elk (Alces alces), bear — elk — human-like figures observed at this and other rock-art panels in Alta appears not to be coincidental. The bears connect with stories, legends, myths and rituals conducted by human-like figures of either gender.It is an animal of many contexts and associations and, as such, is multivocal.

Figure 12. Solitary large bear figure at Kåfjor III. (Photo: K. Helskog.)

In the later part of the Stone Age bears appear to be more solitary, even though some are being speared by human-like figures; the panel content is just as complex as in the earlier period. For example, on the lower and younger panel there are two approximately 80 cm long bears that do not seem, visually, to be connected to other figures by action. But there are other adjacent figures (reindeer and elk) and obviously they might all be part of a story or activity (Fig. 12). In two cases bears are killed with spears; once there is an internal organ such as a life-line to a heart or a stomach, and once there is a female with a cub walking behind her, and a bear with reindeer antlers combining attributes of the two animals (Fig. 13). Even though there are fewer bears than previously, the fact that they are depicted as both solitary animals, with cubs and being killed indicates that the bear is still an animal of reverence. Stationary bears appear to be integrated with other figures but less active than in the former period.

Figure 13. Despite the antlers the animal to the left has the body form of a bear
rather than a reindeer, as if transforming between the two.
Alternatively it has disguised itself to kill the reindeer to the right.
Stories and beliefs like this are probably associated with the figures and,
as such, this could be an illustration of the ability of the bears to change shape.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

North of Alta, on a small boulder on the island of Sørøy, there are five bears which may be part of compositions consisting of elk, boats and human-like figures (Fig. 14) (Hesjedal 1993). In the fjord west of Alta there is a large bear on a boulder but the next bear figure is at least 400 km away.Beyond Alta, in other panels dated to between 5000 and 3000 bc in northern Norway, bears are relatively rare. The contrast is striking as is that between the numerous depictions of bears in Alta and northwest Russia, Sweden and Finland. The difference is particularly striking as the number of bear figures and associated compositions is significantly smaller.

Figure 14. Bears on one of the boulders at Slettnes, on the island of Sørøy, north of Alta, north Norway (Hesjedal 1993).

Northwest Russia

The greatest similarities to Alta are seen in compositions and the number of bear figures in northwest Russia. On the Kola Peninsula to the east, engravings are found in two areas: at Chalmnivarre (Gurina 2005; Shumkin 1990) on the river Ponoi and on small islands at Lake Kanozera. At Ponoi the animals depicted are elks and reindeer. At Kanozero elk and reindeer dominate the approximately 1200 engravings, followed by smaller whales such as belugas and pilot whales. Only three bears have been discovered and one of these stands at the end of a line of tracks and one is speared (Fig. 15) (Gjerde 2010; Kolpakov 2008; Kolpakov et al. 2008; Shumkin 1990). Among the Fisher Peninsula paintings no bears have been recognized.

Figure 15. The large panel from Kameni 7 at Kanozero with tracks and a large bear on the right
(Kolpakov & Shumkin 2012.

Further south, in the republic of Karelia, engravings are concentrated in two areas; at the mouth of the river Vyg in the southwest corner of the White Sea and in the central part of the east coast of Lake Onega. The figures at Besovi Sledki (four bears) and the younger Zalavruga sites (20 bears), dated to 3700–1700 bc (Gjerde 2010, 291–300; Janik 2010), indicate that the majority of the compositions with bears might be younger than the majority of those in Alta (Gjerde 2010; Savatejev 1970, 78). Some bears are associated with human figures in elk-headed boats, who harpoon beluga whales. For example, five bears stand adjacent to a scene in which a beluga whale (with a baby to the right?) has six harpoons in its body, each on a line from six different-sized and manned boats (Fig. 16).It is as if they all are part of the same scene, plus two large harpoons or spears, a human-like figure with a bow and arrow, a swan or goose, and further down a row with three bears. The whale is located in the middle of a slight depression where water runs from a small rainwater basin, water that can cover the whale and boats, spears and bears (Gjerde 2010; Savatejev 1970, 239, fig. 48) (Fig. 16). If there is some ‘earthly’ reality behind the number of bears, it is as if bears were waiting around for the catch, competing with the hunters. Alternatively, they symbolize a power that participates, or it is simply a story of a hunt. Perhaps bears congregated at the lower parts of the river or the river mouth as it runs into the sea in order to catch salmon in much the same way as they do today in Alaskan rivers; or they may have been scavenging scrap from the hunt or even killing an occasional whale.

Figure 16. The bears and the beluga hunt. Novaja Zalavruga (Savatejev 1970, fig. 48).
The water seeping over the area adds the natural element of water, as if the whale is swimming up a river when harpooned.
(Photo: K. Helskog.)

At the site of Novaja Zalavruga there is a bear which has climbed to the top of a tree, with seven or eight arrows in its body.Below it stands a large hunter on snowshoes or short skis (Savatejev 1970, 200, fig. 35 p) (Fig. 17). Furthermore, as there are no clear depictions of bears with cubs, the distinction between male and female, as in Alta, appears to be lacking.

Figure 17. Three scenes where bears are killed in a large composition at Novaja Zalavruga.
The bear in the middle has climbed to the top of a tree, studded with arrows from the large hunter on skis,
Novaja Zalavruga (Savatejev 1970, fig. 35).

Among the many panels on the east side of Lake Onega there are only 10 bears among 1200 figures, three of which are on a small island at the mouth of the Black River (Lobanova pers.comm. ; Lobanova 2009; Poikalainen 2007, 75; Zhulnikov 2006, 115–17, 206).

Comparing the panels there are distinct differences between the sites and the compositions in which bears are involved. For example, in Alta the compositions that show bears moving between spring and autumn dens are unique while at the lower Vyg river sites the association with hunting beluga whales from boats is equally unique and indicates summer. Yet the panels in the two areas and at Kanozero on the Kola Peninsula share elk-headed boats and recognizable compositions, while the content as a whole is quite different. Another difference is the fact that the activities in the petroglyphs at the sites in Vyg focus more on hunting and killing whales, elk, bears and humans; at Kanozero emphasis is on the killing of whales, while in Alta depictions of killing are relatively rare.It is as if the groups of panels represent different identities, groups of people, at the same time as they share general traits.

In the coastal area of northern Norway, there are both elk and reindeer, although elk bones are absent from the midden material. In northern Sweden 99 per cent of the animals depicted are elk. The case is similar in Finland and northwest Russia; elk dominate the engravings on the Kola Peninsula while, in the outlet of the river Vyg, elk and beluga whales dominate (Kolpakov & Shumkin 2012). In engravings on the shores of Lake Onega swans and elk dominate (Poikalainen 2007). There are differences between and within panels within all areas.Bears are rare except in northernmost Norway.

Northern Sweden

Among the approximately 1500 engravings at Nämforsen, northern Sweden, there may be a couple of bear figures among the predominant elk (Alces alces) (Hallström 1960; Lindqvist 1994, table 9.5).

No bear is clearly observed with other figures and chronologically they all appear to belong to panels located above 78 m that can be dated to the earliest period of making rock art (Lindqvist 1994, fig. 16), between approximately 5000 and 3500 bc according to the shoreline discussion presented by Gjerde (2010, 351–8). A solitary painted image of bears at Flatruet, and possibly at Fångsjön further to the south, might be younger (Hallström 1960).


In Finland, to the east-southeast, there are, as previously noted, approximately 120 small rock-art panels with paintings. The majority of the panels are in southern Finland and the elk is the predominant animal.Bears appear to have been depicted only three times (Kivikäs 2009; Lahelma 2008 b, 27, 195–9). According to Pentikäinen (2007, 13) there are some clear profile rocks with features resembling bears. In essence, bears are almost never depicted in the paintings.

Discussion and conclusions

It is unlikely that the ethnohistoric evidence of beliefs and rituals connected with bears passed unchanged through millennia of cultural change to directly explain prehistoric evidence. Yet prehistoric effigies, amulets, special burials of bears and their presence in rock art in Fennoscandia indicate some connection. This is despite the fact that the distribution of bear imagery, bones, amulets and effigies is highly uneven and might not be representative through space and time. There is not necessarily any connection between the three classes of material, yet they form large-scale patterns. For example, bones of bears are not found in midden material from the Stone Age in northern Norway. The same is the case in northern Sweden. However, in the Younger Stone Age in Finland, the Kola Peninsula and Karelia they have been found at sites of all periods.

The figures and stories depicted in rock art not only strengthen the argument that many meanings and rituals were attributed to the bears, but the elements depicted open up possibilities for the interpretion of part of the content of the stories. In this respect the large compositions might illustrate a story from the beginning to the end, as well as only a part, with individual or small groups of figures more likely to illustrate only a part. In all cases the story is in the head of the narrator, the ritual leader or any persons who had a direct relationship to the figures. As such, the differences within and between regions can reflect the combination of imagery and oral traditions, individual as well as of groups of people. When the combinations were broken, meanings and stories changed or disappeared. The sometimes very distinct differences in the content of rock art through time and space, from the Early Mesolithic into the Iron Age, illustrate not only changing or different stories and rituals, but clearly also beliefs. The best example of the latter is the contrast between the art of the hunter-fisher-gatherer populations and the more hierarchical communities of Bronze Age farmers.

Images of animals, people, spirits, powers, churches and lakes on Sami drums, the sound and words and occasion when used, probably had a similar function to the figures in rock art (Helskog 1987). The regional differences in drums and associated positioning of figures on the drum surfaces can be interpreted as differences in identities, although the main concepts of the system of beliefs and practice appear to have been shared. Similar large-scale regional differences are apparent between the rock art on the northern Norwegian coast, in northern Sweden, the Kola Peninsula, Vyg and Onega. Furthermore, within each region there is large variation both in content and size of the different engraved and painted panels. In essence, no two panels are identical even though the choice and constellations of figures may be similar. This means that panels have different identities and might be associated with different stories/legends/myths and/ or rituals and groups of people at the same time as they are a part of a regional identity. The variation might reflect some sort of boundaries and differences in beliefs, although we know little about ‘boundaries’ between populations and groups of people and the criteria on which they were based. The distribution of remains of bears, effigies and figures in rock art is equally diverse, which indicates that there was no detailed pattern to be followed by all populations in northern Fennoscandia. Rather, there appears to have been much regional variation in space through time.

The drums, sound and the figures painted on drum membranes were integrated into the ritual performed, while concrete evidence for integrating sound produced by the performer with rituals involving rock art does not exist. On the other hand we should not expect rituals to have been totally silent. Prehistorically, it is also possible that the sounds produced by the forces of nature themselves, such as wind, thunder and rivers, or other than humans such as animals, could have influenced, or even been a part of the rituals involved in, the production of sounds in rituals (Goldhahn 2002). There is no concrete evidence that drums existed during prehistoric times, except for some figures that might be interpreted as drums in the rock art. In addition, topography, colour, min- erals and cracks of the rock surface might have been meaning-giving factors connected with the rock art, while (red) colour is only seen in the figures on the drum membranes. In essence, some physical similarities are present, although the surfaces are different. A good example is seen when natural patterning within the rock surface reflects the shape of a bear’s head. Within this a hunting scene is carved. Similarly there are anthropomorphic faces in the cliffs associated with some of the paintings in Finland (Lahelma 2008 a).

All people must have had special knowledge about human, animal and spiritual life in the areas where they lived, exploited resources and interacted. Some of this must have been shared knowledge within Fennoscandia — about the differences in rock art within the region. Given that there was contact, and long-distance movement between populations within the region was possible, much knowledge must have been shared. Yet there is distinct difference in regional choices of motif in the rock art. There is selection in the rock art, bones, effigies and amulets that does not completely reflect the natural presence of the animals. For example, the emphasis on repre- sentations of the larger animals such as reindeer, elk and beluga whale not only connect simultaneously to subsistence and beliefs but indicate focus on different animals in different regions. The beliefs that humans, animals, natural objects, features and phenomena were, or could have been, animated, that they have a soul and interacted with each other and humans, seem to be depicted in the rock art in the sense that in some compositions both animals and humans appear to be communicating with each other and some seem to depict the different dimensions of the universe. At the same time the spirits and powers were probably gendered, although perhaps not as in the general model suggested by Gimbutas (1956, 192) where reindeer, elk, water birds, reptiles and heavenly bodies connect with the sky and masculinity while those connected with the earth are female represented by water, rocks and plants. If so there is practically no female symbolism in the effigies and rock art, but given the significance of rebirth and regeneration, and the morphological characteristics of figures, this model does not work. The bear figures for example appear to represent both female and male animals, while the impression given by the morphology of the reindeer and elk figures is that female animals dominate. At the same time it is likely that bears could have been a metaphor for strength and power, no matter which sex or gender is represented, depicted in various stories and associated rituals connected with rock art. As such the bears, as well as the rock art, are multivocal. Some representations of animals might connect with the clan totems, guardian spirits, spirit helpers or powers, and witness the special position these animals had at the time. Furthermore, the skewed distribution might reflect inter-regional differences.

Given that rock art is a part of communication between humans, and humans and spirits, the depictions also reflect communication in the different areas within this large northern region, communication that is similar in the sense that depictions are a part but different in the sense that the individual depictions and compositions are different. Indeed, it can be claimed that no two figures or compositions are identical, in size, shape, colour and content, and, therefore, that all that is communicated is different. However, when allowing for individual artistic differences and figures as identity markers it appears that the content of many figures and compositions are similar. If we compare only the types of animal observed, the similarities obviously increase and the special identity of figures is masked, thereby reducing the visual variation in the content of the narratives. In essence, one point is to find level (s) of detail which might best explain the figures through time and space. The bears that are carved are distinctly different from many elk and reindeer figures in the sense that lines sectioning the body are never added. All bodies are integrated wholes whether outlined or fully carved. This pertains to all the carved bears except one which has a so-called life-line from the mouth to a circular figure, often interpreted as a heart or a stomach, inside the body. The differences in the bears are related partly to form, depicted in contour or completely picked out, some are exceptionally large, many are contextualized with other figures, and some are solitary animals. The largest number and greatest variation are found at Alta in northernmost Norway, both in terms of individual figures and compositions. Several of the composi- tions are obvious while in some cases it is not that clear which figures are connected. In relation to the idea of depicting bears, either when being killed or when they appear to be engaged in some sort of action, there are similarities between north Norway, the Kola Peninsula and Karelia, particularly similarities to panel Novaja Zalavruga at the mouth of the river Vyg in the southwest corner of the White Sea. Seen in relation to the surfaces on which they are depicted there seems to be a consistent repetition in specific micro-topography, colours and other features although they were used as a part of the composition. Rather, the figures were positioned to interact with the surfaces and the figures that were possibly already depicted there, but rarely if ever are two surfaces identical. This does not mean that certain features were not important but that features in the rock surface could be different and selected to be used as a meaning-giving part. This trait pertains to both carvings and paintings.

The differences between the bears and the compositions might reflect what was represented in stories, ritual performance and identities, and how. Undoubtedly size and shape were significant parameters but it is unclear if larger bears are more important than their smaller counterparts, even when located on the same rock surface or appearing to be a part of a single composition. At the same time it must be emphasized that bears not only relate to other bears but also to other figures. Sometimes bears are solitary but most often they are depicted together with other animal, human and geometric figures — and even boats. In some compositions the association both appears obvious and depicts a ritual and a story, although our present perception might be far from correct. In a sense, to understand a composition it matters where one suggests the story began and ended.

Furthermore, the depictions with bears walking from den to den, represents the entire season from early spring to late summer, from the sun reappearing above the horizon until it dips below the horizon in the arctic, above the arctic circle. (The further north, the longer it stays below the horizon. ) The bear could have been a significant marker for the awakening and regeneration of nature in the spring as well as the changes in the autumn and winter when the sun disappeared below the horizon. Adding that bears are depicted as both male and female (pregnant or with cubs), the associated human-like figures could be both male and female as they have no obvious physical male or female attributes. This implies that if sex was important then it is signalled by the activities depicted or the activities were associated with both men and women. In the case of the latter the historic androcentric descriptions of hunting bears, and the associated rituals, deviate from prehistoric practice. Furthermore, if bears were associated with regeneration it is likely that female animals, as the givers of new life, might have had a more central role in associated rituals, beliefs and stories than the males. Adding the observation that elk and reindeer figures appear to emphasize female rather than male animals, females, those who secure the next generation, were a stronger focus than male animals in rituals and beliefs associated with rock art.

Seen as a whole — from rock art, effigies and bones — bears were both hunted and ritualized, but there is no uniform pattern in the archaeological evidence in northernmost Fennoscandia. Although there is reason to believe that bears were always an animal to be wary of, wherever they lived, there is also reason to argue that there was some variation in how they were hunted and killed, and also in their importance in rituals and beliefs. The variation in the evidence, partly caused by where research was conducted, by types of research and by the survival of evidence, supports to a greater degree the idea of local identities within a general system of beliefs rather than a uniform fixed pattern among the hunter-fisher-gatherer populations of northern Fennoscandia.


This is a paper that has been long in the making and along the way I have appreciated useful comments and information from the following colleagues: Anne-Sophie Hygen, Nadezhda Lobanova, Antti Lahelma, Jan Magne Gjerde, Kalle Sognnes and Ericka Engelstad. Thanks to them all: they kept me going. I am also grateful to two unknown referees for their constructive comments.


  1. The Younger Stone Age refers to the period between the Mesolithic (approximately 10,000–5000 bc) and the Bronze Age/Early Metallic Period which began approximately 1700 bc. The period is also referred to as the Late Stone Age. The populations in northern Fennoscandia were solely hunter-fisher-gatherers.

Knut Helskog
Tromsö University Museum
University of Tromsø
9037 Tromsø


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Author biography

Knut Helskog is Professor of Archaeology at Tromsø University Museum, Tromsø University, Norway. Responsibilitiesinclude the management of the Norwegian Cultural Heritage Act, salvage archaeology, archives, collections, museumexhibitions, popularization and research. His researchinterest is oriented towards hunter-fisher-gatherer populations in northern Fennoscandia with a special focus onthe interpretation of rock art.