The ritual and custom within the song “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
The Hunting ritual
In the bear and the maiden song the first three stanzas seem to follow the lore about ritual bear hunting. The shamanic bear hunter would choose and select which bear to hunt at which den. The first stanza of the song is like a shaman’s shout out, “That bear! I know the bear we should hunt!” He is described by color (black and brown) and texture (hairy).
1. A bear there was, a bear, a bear!
all black and brown, and covered with hair.
The bear! The bear!
At the den, the shaman would prod the bear awake, lure him out. They would talk in a manner that would keep their actual intentions undisclosed, a type of ritual speech. The second stanza of the song involves a conversation of somebody inviting the bear to a fair. Fairs are feasts, held at villages. This means, the somebody went to the den, woke the bear up, and attempted to trick the bear into believing they have the best intentions and just want to join them to the fair.
2. Oh come they said, oh come to the fair!
The fair? Said he, but I’m a bear!
All black and brown, and covered with hair!
In the third stanza the bear dances to the fair or village with three boys and a goat. But when we read the third stanza closely in comparison to the second stanza, there seems to be something odd, almost as if there is something missing. While the boys invited the bear to come to the fair with them, the bear’s response was not, “Sure, I’d love to come.” Instead he says, “The fair? But I’m a bear!”
Of course before the bear could be carried to the village preparing for the annual bear-hunt feast, with the whole village feasting on the bear meat for several days, the bear had to be killed at his den. The hunters would then carry the bear with drums, pomp and ceremony to the feast, pretending to take the bear along as a companion who believes himself to be alive, rather than a slain kill. So, there is a missing stanza between the second and third. By censuring the killing of the bear, the song jumps from waking him up to carrying the hunted bear to the village.
3. And down the road from here to there.
From here! To there!
Three boys, a goat and a dancing bear!
They danced and spun, all the way to the fair!
The fair! The fair!
The hunt was performed by three hunters, and there are three boys in the song. The song calls them “boys”, not grown men. There might be a boy-man coming along for some manhood initiation, but not all three (that would be suicide). But in the introduction I explained how the hunters attempt to trick the bear-spirit of the killed bear into believing they are innocent as they carry him back to the village. In words they would deny having anything to do with the kill, proclaiming it was some accident, and in some cases even blame someone else for the killing, shouting they were “men of Sweden/England/everywhere else. Boys are innocent, not deadly bear-hunters. Meanwhile, the goat is their scapegoat to blame the kill on. If the bear would ask the 3 hunters, “Why did you kill me?”, they would answer, “We did not kill you. We are mere boys. It was the goat that did it.”
The scapegoat concept is also featured at Craster’s. When Jon arrives at Craster’s in aCoK, he notices a bear skull at a gatepost, with bits of flesh still clinging to it. On the other gatepost though hangs a ram’s skull. Craster is scapegoating a ram for killing the bear.
On the southwest, he found an open gate flanked by a pair of animal skulls on high poles: a bear to one side, a ram to the other. Bits of flesh still clung to the bear skull, Jon noted as he joined the line riding past. (aCoK, Jon III)
The goat also reveals the probable origin of the bear-hunt ritual and song in aSoIaF – Qohor. If we ever learn of an actual proper bear-hunt ritual, it is most likely performed in the vast Qohor forest that would be teeming with bears. Qohor has a vast forest at the east of it, requiring two weeks to travel through, and the Qohoric are mostly famed as hunters and foresters.
Beneath the standard of a black goat with bloody horns rode copper men with bells in their braids…[cutout]…At their head was a man stick-thin and very tall, with a drawn emaciated face made even longer by the ropy black beard that grew from his pointed chin nearly to his waist. The helm that hung from his saddle horn was black steel, fashioned in the shape of a goat’s head … [cutout] … “Who are they?” she asked.
… “They’re sellswords, Weasel girl. Call themselves the Brave Companions. Don’t use them other names where they can hear, or they’ll hurt you bad. The goat-helm’s their captain, Lord Vargo Hoat.” (aCoK, AryaVII)
Vargo Hoat’s nickname was the Goat, and banner of the Bloody Mummers/Brave Companions is the Black Goat with bloody horns of Qohor. Weese uses him as a boogeyman. Tywin uses the Bloody Mummers and Vargo Hoat as the scapegoat to do the dirty work he does not wish his family members to soil their reputation with.
“It won’t be no beating, oh, no. I won’t lay a finger on you. I’ll just save you for the Qohorik, yes I will, I’ll save you for the Crippler. Vargo Hoat his name is, and when he gets back he’ll cut off your feet.” (aCoK, Arya VIII)
The Black Goat is the god the people of Qohor worship and he demands daily blood sacrifice (mostly lifestock animals, sometimes condemned criminals, and times of crisis the children of nobles). That banner makes for a perfect scapegoat for the Qohoric bear-hunter to say, “Wasn’t me. It was the Black Goat. See the blood on his hoarns.”
It is claimed the Qohoric meddle in dark sorcery and sacrificial blood magic, though there is no proof for it. They have managed to preserve the knowledge of reforging Valyrian steel, and Valyrian swords are highly sought after. So far, we only know of one man who can reforge Valyrian steel in Westeros – Tobho Mott, who claims to have learned it as a boy in Qohor, and his door boasts a hunting scene. Since Qohor is also know for tapestry making and wood carvings, the hunting scene is most likely Qohoric, and Tobho’s posting sign to say “I know how to reforge VS steel.”
The double doors showed a hunting scene carved in ebony and weirwood. (aGoT, Eddard VI)
Tobho had learned to work Valyrian steel at the forges of Qohor as a boy. Only a man who knew the spells could take old weapons and forge them anew. (aGoT, Eddard VI)
Thus, we have all the ingredients – famed hunters, vast forests, hunting scenes, magical coveted swords and smithing – for a candidate where they have proper ritualistic bear hunts, and where the “bear and maiden song” originates from.
If the song actually describes the ritual, but follows the taboos, it is a type of codex that gives the instructions by example how to respect the bear. It may seem strange that a properly moral ritualistic bear-hunt would involve lies and deception. But this is not unprecedented in Saami and Finnish bear hunts. In fact, there is a story where a woman wintered in a bear den, not daring to reveal her brothers were hunters. Later, the hunters kill the bear, risking the bear’s revenge. When their sister finds out, she asks them why didn’t come to her, because the bear had instructed her how to do it properly. From this a poetic story followed as a hunter behaviour codex. So, basically, those bear-hunt instruction stories were said to have been passed on by the bear itself – the bear gave instructions how to deceive him. At least the first half of the “bear and the maiden song” fits the mold of such a type of hunting instruction.
This also suggests the possibility that despite the rumors about dark arts being performed at Qohor the free city is actually being scapegoated and slandered. Vargo Hoat may be the biggest scum that ever walked around in Planetos, but does that mean that all people in Qohor are Vargo Hoats? That he even reflects Qohoric culture and attitudes? Vargo Hoat is a sellsword far away from Qohor. Generalizing how Qohoric people are based on Vargo Hoat is like assuming a banished Westerosi sellsword can be taken as example to determine what Westeros people are like. Vargo Hoat might very likely be a complete red herring, and as a sellsword half a world away most likely is.
The hunt ends with the arrival in the village where the bear is presented to the maiden chosen for him. In the fourth stanza the bear meets the maiden. An unwed woman was usually selected to serve as a ritualistic bride to perform a wedding with the bear. And the bride must be pure and innocent – a maiden true.
4. Oh, sweet she was, and pure and fair!
The maid with honey in her hair!
Her hair! Her hair!
The maid with honey in her hair!
The wedding customs
The next phase of the song describes wedding customs as well as expected proper maiden behaviour and mating. When we remember Thormund’s tale about stealing his she-bear, it seems as if the song describes a custom similar to the “stealing of a woman” as done with the free folk. Hunter and gather societies are more egalitarian and each member of the village is of value. But fellow members of the village are often regarded as kin, even if they are not really, and therefore off limits to marry or have a sexual relationship with. This means that women marry a man of another village and leave the community where they grew up to join the other one. Not only does this mean an emotional separation from their home, but a loss of a valuable member for the whole village. And as nobody possessed more than what a man or woman can carry and there was no monetary system, the village could not truly be compensated for the loss of a member they tutored, trained and fed for years. Her husband and his family would profit from her productiveness and skill. The daughter was then said to be “stolen”, without implying violence or even male domination.
The bear/man is driven wild with desire by the female scent. Here the bear is described as a testosterone filled man. The fifth stanza ends the previous hunting ritual codex, as the bear approves of the chosen bride for the bear wedding. But it is also the start of the cultural wedding custom between a man and a woman. It is therefore a bridging stanza.
5. The bear smelled the scent on the summer air.
The bear! The bear!
All black and brown and covered with hair!
He smelled the scent on the summer air!
He sniffed and roared and smelled it there!
Honey on the summer air!
Even if the unwed woman desires the man herself, she must protest against him. She must be a reluctant bride – reluctant to leave her home, village and community – by refusing him. This reluctance of the bride against being stolen from her home is expressed in stanza six.
6. Oh, I’m a maid, and I’m pure and fair!
I’ll never dance with a hairy bear!
A bear! A bear!
I’ll never dance with a hairy bear!
Despite her verbal protests, the groom-bear picks up his bride to carry her off to bed in the seventh stanza. He steals her.
7. The bear, the bear!
Lifted her high into the air!
The bear! The bear!
The eight stanza instructs the maiden to keep protesting, even while she’s being carried off. She wanted a knight, a perfect man, and instead she gets a bear -a savage beast. A woman should be demanding.
8. I called for a knight, but you’re a bear!
A bear, a bear!
All black and brown and covered with hair
In the ninth stanza she physically protests. First she has to say “no”, then she must make “demands” and finally she must “fight”, requiring the man to prove his strength. The woman must kick and scream and scratch and put up a fight, and the man is required to sexually please her. Licking the honey from the maiden’s hair is a hokum stanza, alluding to orally satisfying the maiden, and reminds us of the Slavic reference to bears as “honey lickers”.
9. She kicked and wailed, the maid so fair,
But he licked the honey from her hair.
Her hair! Her hair!
He licked the honey from her hair!
When the maiden is sexually satisfied, she can finally give in to the “happy match”, for this strong beast puts her needs first.
10. Then she sighed and squealed and kicked the air!
My bear! She sang. My bear so fair!
And off they went, from here to there,
The bear, the bear, and the maiden fair.
The song in its totality first describes the hunting of the bear by three hunters, involving trickery, lies of innocence and scapegoating. This is followed by a bear-wedding, a marriage between a maiden and a beast, according to the custom of stealing a woman as well as pleasing a woman sexually.
2 thoughts on “The Song”
I was wondering if you have ever read the Earth Children’s book series. The first book features a bear hunt exactly as how you describe it.
Yes. I read them over and over and over. I wasn’t enchanted by the 5th book and I refused to ever read the last, 6th book, though because of the imo deplorable writing in the 5th (plot, read like first draft, etc). And yes, Auel used the bear-cub raising hunting ritual for the “Others” cult surrounding the Cave Bear. Since the PIE word for ‘bear’ itself is a euphemism, it’s speculated that the bear taboos are some of the oldest taboos and that the hunting ritual for game success must be a very old one.