Bears and maidens

There’s always a bear,” declared Dolorous Edd in his usual tone of gloomy resignation. (aCoK, Jon III)

GRRM mentions  or alludes to bears several times, refers to certain people as bears (temporarily or permanently), has an actual bear in a pit fighting a maiden, and a song called “the bear and the maiden fair”. Often the bear elements in the story tie in with sexual tension or even danger for a woman. In order to comprehend the symbolic value, patterns and motifs behind these, a significant amount of background about bear beliefs and how they are reflected in ritual and stories needs to be explained.

Since, I’ve been delving into mythology and how GRRM might have lent from bear lore to incorporate it into aSoIaF, naturally I searched for bears in mythology. The results at first glance seemed quite poorly. While bears were revered, there seemed to be a poor amount of European legends or myths about bear characters, other than the Greek Callysto one, who after being seduced by Zeus, ends up as a star in the Great Bear constellation and her son by Zeus in the Little Bear constellation, which relates to the global belief that the bear’s spirit comes from the sky/heavens/divine. Other than that no legends whatsoever involving an apparent bear as either a protagonist or antagonist can be found. It is as if bears are altogether absent, and yet wolves, snakes, birds, bulls, dragons are heavily featured. Their seeming absence in mythology is conspicuous

Sure, there are areas that had no bears (Ireland, Iceland), but surely Germanic, southern Scandinavian, and continental Celtic mythology ought to have at least one legend with a bear. And then I stumbled upon an article1 that explained why bears seem to be so absent from mythology altogether: they are the most sacred animal as well as the most potent and therefore surrounded by numerous taboos, including naming them as bears.

While the bear was a big taboo, there are nonetheless legends with bears as characters. We just do not realize the legend is about a bear, because the character is not straightforwardly portrayed as a bear. Instead hints and circumstances are given that fit the beliefs of the nature, purpose and sacredness of the bear. The bear is hidden and only hinted at within legends.

Of course, this taboo is lost to us, and George thus initially must refer to bear characters or the animal explicitly, but gradually give us clues to adher to the taboo and include a hidden bear in the books as well. I will first give an overview on subarctic bear folklore and show with textual evidence how George applies and uses it in the series.

The Bear Taboo

The bear was regarded as the king of the woods and game, a guardian of the forest spirit as well as the animals that lived in it. The bear did not hunt the game of the forest, he protected it. A bear’s spirit that originated from the heavens was incredibly potent (certainly sexually), powerful, possibly dangerous and vengeful. The bear was the forest’s spirit as a whole. It is from this that a bear derives his sacredness.

Naming a bear by its original animal name was one of the greatest cultural taboos, globally inthe subarctic and Northern regions. From North America, to Germania, Finnish and Saami, Baltic and Slavic regions, the people referred to bears with euphemistic titles or epiteths, circumventing the use of the proper word for “bear” (whatever it is), and instead using a descriptive word or title. Finnish has over 200 different different euphemisms or epiteths to refer to a bear². In the 19th century, linguists proposed the existence of an unwritten language called “Proto-Indo-European” (PIE) and attempted to reconstruct it through comparison of sounds, words, and expressions in various ancient and modern languages. PIE has been regarded as the common ancestor of many classical and modern languages.

Most Indo-European languages have a word for bear, but the word varies in some languages (mainly northern and subarctic regions) but not in others.

IE language word for “bear” examples of derivations
Latin ursus the adjective “ursine” meaning bear-like, name “Ursula”, star constellations “Ursa Major/Minor”
French ours
ancient Greek arktos “arctic”, meaning “north” and is a reference to the bear constellation that contains the North Star
Sanskrit rkshas
Old Celtic *arto- Welsh word “arth”, the name “Arthur”

From these words linguists have reconstructed the PIE word for bear as *rktho-, *rkto-, *rkso-, or *rtko-.³ But other Indo-European regions (northern continental and subarctic), where bears were more common we find other words for bear that have no relation to the PIE word.

Germanic Slavic Baltic
English bear Russian medved Lithuanian lokys
Dutch beer Czech medved Latvian lacis
German baer (now spelled “bär”) Polish niedzwiedz Old Prussian clokis
Old Norse bjorn Old Church Slavonic medvedi
PIE root *bher- = “brown” PIE root *medhu- = “honey”; *ed- = “eat”, thus “honey eater” PIE root *tlakis = “hairy, shaggy”

The Germanic, Slavic and Baltic speaking peoples inhabited and hunted in northern boreal climes and forests and were presumably in frequent contact with the bear. None of them use its common name. Instead, they used a circumlocution in the common language that is still so prevalent in modern day languages that no trace of the original *rkto- word remains, except as borrowed words from Greek or Latin:

  • “the brown one” referring to its color
  • “the honey eater”, referring to habit, rather than his color
  • “the hairy one”, referring to the texture, rather than the color, of the bear’s coat.

There is also a suggestion that the original PIE word for bear, *rkso- is itself descriptive, meaning “destroyer” (a cognate word in Sanskrit is “rakshas”, meaning “harm, injury”). If the bear’s standard PIE name did mean “destroyer”, we can see why it would not have been used lightly by anyone familiar with the bear, for fear it might inspire or encourage the bear’s destructive tendencies. Even today, we need only think of careless campers in National Parks who leave food in their cars or tents.

Language may not be able to derive the reason for the taboo of the proper word for “bear”, only observe its existence in the subarctic regions the world over, but legends may help us derive the probable reason for it. Both in Native American legends as well as subarctic and Germanic myths bear characters can speak and understand human speech and either skinchange into men or are human characters. The bear would be a man living by himself in the forest or wilderness in a house or a cave, who sits or sleeps on bear skins (‘brown’ skin), or bear steaks roasting on the fire, staying inside during winter, but leaving his home with spring in search for an absent wife. If you skin a bear, it actually looks like a man. Bears were believed to be a skinchanged man wearing bear skin outside of the den, but being a man inside the home, his den. Bears therefore could understand human speech. Hence, people would refer to a bear with euphemistic titles, such as “Lord of the forest/faeries” or “King of the forest”, in order not to provoke it or let it know the intention of hunters.

The Bear Hunt

The belief that a bear was a skinchanging man also made killing a bear taboo as well. It was equal to murder/manslaughter. However, as “Lord of the Forest”, the bear was also a guardian of the forest life and a provider of game. And people believed that within proper context and adhering to proper ritual, hunting, killing, eating and disposing of one bear would ensure a village of good luck with hunting and foraging all through the year. So, bears were hunted, but in highly ritualized circumstances, in the proper season once a year, and with rules what to say and do around a bear, even after he was dead. The bear had to be given respect and placated and his spirit had to be sent back to the heavens, his spiritual home. These rituals and language customs served to protect the hunters, unwed women and maidens (including even girl children), the village as a whole. In that sense, a bear hunt was not a murder, but akin to a human sacrifice, like a corn king who could wed and bed any girl of his choosing, but would be sacrificed at the end of the year to ensure a good harvest.

Each picked hunter had a certain task. The first hunter would play shamanic drums and decide or discover the bear chosen for the hunt. The second one was to wake the bear in the den with a prodding stick and a protective ring around it. When the bear would come out, the third hunter was to strike him dead with one blow or throw a spear or shoot an arrow, outside of his den. Once the bear was dead, there would be a mime conversation between the bear and hunter at the den, where the hunters invited the bear to his wedding, and carry him with much aplomb to the village. There another mime conversation would be enacted between the chieftain and the dead bear regarding the maiden he was given as a bride.

Though the bear’s physical form was dead, his man spirit was not, and this spirit was one of the strongest, most sexually potent and dangerous spirits around. Even as a spirit, his wrath and revenge could be devestating. So, under no condition was the spirit allowed to become aware that he was killed, let alone by whom. The ceremonial, festive march to the village served as a pretense the bear was still alive. The hunters would lie about their identity. For example Finnish bear hunters would claim they were “boys from Sweden”. And if the bear was to discover he was dead, they had to pretend he had killed himself in an accidental fall.

Alternatively, some subarctic people abandoned hunting a grown bear, but went out to capture a bear cub who was kept alive for a year. The bear cub would be treated like a little favorite child, getting plenty of food and attention.  But as its time was up, it would be taken unaware for a last tour around the village for a goodbye and blessing, and eventually to a field or location where hunters would be waiting with bow and arrow to shoot it down.

The Bear Wedding

Since the bear was the forest’s spirit, he was the most sexually potent animal/man. No girl child or unwed maiden was allowed to look at the bear being brought in the village without certain magical protection – rings or teeth hung from the belt to protect the genitals. Women had to eat the bear meat by pulling it through a ring first. The sexual potency and danger between women and bears was so strong, that it was also believed to work in the reverse – when a woman lifted her skirts and showed her genitals at a bear, she could scare him away.

The bear wedding was both the lure and enticement to placate the bear spirit, as well as safeguard maidens. A bride amongst the marriagable maidens was chosen for the bear and a wedding ceremony performed. Even the march of the hunters carrying the bear into the village resembled that of a groom being carried to his wedding. This bear-wedding tradition was also reflected in actual weddings between a couple who would would be seated on bear skins and referred to as bears with bear-euphemisms. The bear-wedding ritual with the maiden would later on be used to claim totemic bear ancestry for a bloodline. When the maiden was actually married and had children, she could claim a bear was their ancestor.

A bear burrial

Once the wedding was done and the bear was eaten, the remains of the bear would be ritually burried. In some areas it would be a human burrial in a casket even, including gifts. This was done to free the bear’s spirit, so it could fly off to the heavens like a bird. The village then hoped the bear would tell the other bear-spirits how well he had been treated, what a wife he got to marry, etc, so that the other bear-spirits would choose to live in the area when they incarnated into the world. This way the village could hunt a new bear the following year and ensure another year of prosperous hunting. And so on.

The legend of Wayland the smith

What the legend really is about

The best known and last remaining legend of Germanic origin (Germanic “Wayland” and Norse ‘Volund”) about a bear is a warning of what may happen if the bear-hunt-ritual goes wrong. Indirectly, the legend tells us that the bear is killed in his sleep in his den (which is foul murder), then denied his bride (a princess) and his spirit kept as a prisoner to extort game from him for years by a greedy, evil king. The king also steals his ring and sword, giving it to his daughter, the princess, and thereby making her a shieldmaiden. Eventually the bear-spirit manages to escape and exacts his revenge on the king who abused him so. He kills the king’s heirs, seduces the king’s daughter and he only flies off as a bird (his spirit form) after he has their promise that the princess’ child will be the recognized heir, thereby establishing a totemic bear ancestral bloodline.

The layers hiding the bear

Of course, if you read the legend itself, you seem to be reading about a smith, whose swan-wife has flown off south (winter season), living by himself in middle of the forest. He has a stash of 700 rings and a sword (representing the riches and game of the forest and his protection of them), and is renowned for the amount of treasure he makes. He falls asleep on a bear skin (winter sleep) and wakes to bear steaks roasting on the fire, and discovers he’s been taken prisoner (he’s already dead, and being roasted, but the man spirit doesn’t know it). He is brought before the queen, who proclaims him too low of birth to be married to her daughter, the princess. Then he is hamstringed (a euphemism for being emasculated) so he can’t run away, and ordered to continue to make riches and jewels for the king. When he can have his revenge, the beheading of the king’s sons restores his hamstrings (his balls), after which he seduces the princess in a type of mock marriage and gets her with child, to then fly off as a bird.

The swan-maiden

The Wayland legend starts with Wayland and his two brothers coming across three sisters, maidens, washing, after they took off their swan-garb. The swan-maiden motif usually involves a seduction first, where not only the man is smitten with the maiden, but the maiden falls for the man just as well. But the man then proceeds to hide the swan’s garb to prevent her from skinchanging into a swan again and fly off. The swan-wife would remain with her husband, even giving him children, but will cry about being stuck. Either the children or some other person will find her swan-garb, which she will promptly don to fly off, leave even her children behind, and is never seen again. The man may look for her, but it’s usually a fruitlous journey.

This typical swan-maiden motif can be used in relation to Wayland-bears, but in actuality, the 3 sisters stay with the 3 brothers voluntarily for 9 years. Their feathered garb is not hidden or stashed away by the brothers. Once they do fly off, his brothers go in search of their wives, whereas Wayland remains. He knows that his wife must return one day: swans go south for the winter, but they come back north by spring or summertime.


Berserkers were warriors who would get mad with fury before engaging into battle. The name derives from the Old Norse berserkr. This expression most likely arose from their reputed habit of wearing a kind of shirt or coat (serkr) made from the pelt of a bear (PIE ber-) during battle. The bear was one of the animals representing Odin, and by wearing such a pelt the warriors sought to gain the strength of a bear and the favor of Odin. In later times were known to wear “wolf pelts”, and were otherwise bare chested. They were in any case dedicated to Odin.

Tolkien’s Beorn

Tolkien incorporated the bear beliefs in the Hobbit with his skinchanging, black haired bear-man Beorn. In the Old English Beorn we recognize the Old Norse Bjorn for bear. Beorn lives by himself in a great house in the middle of a forest, and later becomes a warrior leading the Beornings (woodmen) which hints at the conflation of a bear as a warrior in the berserker, in between the Battle of the Five Armies and the War of the Ring, and keeps the passes free, and later is followed by his son. Beorn’s a gigantic tall man, and very very strong.

Synopsis (tl;tr)

There are common pre-christian beliefs in the sub-arctic area, from the Inuit to mainland Europe as well as Northern America about bears. They have celestial spirits and believed to be “lords of the forest” who protect the game, and basically their spirit = forest. They are believed to be skinchanging men, because a naked bear (skinned) looks like a man, and thus could understand human speech. Because of the latter euphemistic names and titles evolved for bears, as well as certain hidden ways to talk about hunting intentions, because it was feared the bear could otherwise understand them. The bear’s potent nature was a possible sexual danger to the unwed women or girl, and wards were used by women for protection.

Bear hunts were highly ritualistic once a year events, involving false verbal representation of intentions, to avoid the bear-spirit from both knowing he would be/was killed and who the culprits were. They’d pretend to carry him to a wedding like a groom, and a ritualistic wedding between a chosen maiden and the killed bear would be performed. The woman’s later bloodline could then claim a totemic bear ancestry. Finally, the bear-spirit would be freed through burrial, and then it would take the shape of a bird to fly back to its brothers and relate how well he was treated. This hunt was done to ensure a yearlong blessing on hunting all other forest game.

If a bear was hunted out of season, in his sleep in the den, this was an evil regarded as manslaughter. Capturing a bear, abusing it, imprisoning it and not giving it his bride, to extort game and succesful foraging from him year after year was an evil and would risk the wroth of the bear. The bear’s revenge can be total and finish off a male bloodline. An example of such a thing happening is the myth of Wayland the Smith (who’s a bear).

A bear is both a protector as well as a provider. In legends therefore we often see a bear character as a warrior-smith with a legendary sword and treasure crafted by himself, but coveted by others.

Notes and sources

  1. Source article, more reading: Volundr and the Bear in Norse Tradation a blast from the past
  2. In 2007 Auli Oksanen of Helsinki University did etymological research regarding the numerous ‘names’ for bear in Finnish.
  3. An asterisk simply marks a word as being a hypothetical reconstruction. The alternative forms show that the reconstruction of Indo-European root words is not always an exact science.
  4. Source article, more reading: the deceptiveness and type of lies of the bear hunters
  5. (referenced by Lady Dayne) More on bear-goddesses on a Youtube video: king arthur and the great bear (expands to Artemis, etc)

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