The very sight of a bear should be enough to make you run a marathon to save your life. So, try imagining someone choosing to keep one as a pet. The amount of effort and time it would take to subdue such a big creature is alone enough to put you off. Still, Vikings chose to keep them. Of course, it wouldn’t be a surprise based on the reputation they built for them.
Keeping bears as pets, however, had nothing to do with their show of boldness. It was because they considered bears as sacred animals. But what made them sacred and significant? In this article, we will explore what bears represented in Viking culture and Norse mythology, along with an example of the most notable one in history.
Bears In Norse Mythology
The bear was considered the most ferocious and powerful animal known to the Vikings. Its massive size, speed, and deadliness made even the bravest of the Vikings back away in its presence. It also had a tough hide and fur that resisted most weapons. It was these attributes that made the animal a fascination to Vikings and why they wanted to emulate it. That was why Vikings kept them as pets, especially Viking sea kings. Some Vikings however, kept them for trading resources. They would export polar bears or their fur to Medieval Europe.
But one of the main reasons the bears were so important to the Vikings was because of their association with Odin, who was believed to view them as sacred creatures. This belief is what inspired the formation of one of the most elite groups of Viking warriors called berserkers. The term comes from two Old Norse words that meant ‘bear skin’, or it could have also been a play on words and instead meant ‘bare skin’. Berserkers were described as Viking heroes who fought with intensity and madness. Based on their name, it is believed that they would go into battle with nothing but the bear’s skin as their armor, or probably just their bare skin. They did not fight in teams but rather advanced before the other warriors.
A berserker was believed to have been bestowed upon, the strength, power, and ferocity of the bear. In battle, they believed they took on the essence and spirit of the animal. That is why they were sent into battle first to destroy the cohesion of the enemies and exploit loopholes in their defenses. They sparked fear and terror in their enemies while inspiring their comrades.
Famous Norse Bears
So now that we understand the importance of bears in Norse mythology, and why they were sacred, let us look at some of the famous Nordic bear names worth mentioning. They are as follows:
- Björn/Bjørn – the most common way of referring to a bear. It is a Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Danish, and Faroese word for a bear.
- Birna – The female variation of Björn/Bjørn and used mostly by the Faroes and Icelandic.
- Bjarne – also Bjarni to the Faroese and Icelandic. It is a variation of the word Björn and a common word for bear in most Nordic nations.
- Bijáš – a variation of Bjarne used in the Sami language which is spoken in northern parts of Norway, Finland, Russia, and Sweden.
- Nanoq – also spelled as Nanok in the past. It is the Greenlandic name used for polar bears.
- Karhu – a lesser-known Finnish word used to refer to bears.
- Otso – a name that has become quite popular over the recent years and originated from the Ancient Finnish word for a bear.
- Bjarnhild – a more recent form of the old Norse word Bjarnhildr and a combination of two Germanic names Björn and Hild. It is mostly used in the Faroe Islands or Norway to refer to a bear fight.
- Bernhard – the word was originally known as a combination of the Germanic names Björn and hard. It is used in most Nordic countries for more than 1,000 years now to refer to a strong bear.
- Bierdna – it is a variant of the word Bienná derived from the Sami language to refer to bear.
The Norse Bear Symbol And Meaning
All animals mentioned in Norse mythology have deep symbolism, and the bare being a sacred creature is no exception. The following are the symbolism and meaning attached to the bear according to the mythology:
The bear represented the Norse gods.
Some Norse deities were known to have the ability to shapeshift and disguise themselves. The bear form was among the popular guises they chose. According to mythology, it is believed that Odin and Thor disguised themselves as bears while they were on Midgard (earth). It was so that people would look at the bears as a symbol of strength, healing, and wisdom. The bear was also a balance of the seen and unseen worlds. The male bear became the symbol of masculinity while the female bear became the symbol of femininity.
As you may know, Fenrir, son of Loki was a mighty wolf. The Norse gods tried to restrain him three times before they managed to do it successfully. Even though the first two restraints were considered strong, the great wolf managed to break free easily. It wasn’t until the third leash that was said to be made of many components, among them being the bear’s skin, that Fenrir was finally trapped. This goes to show how strong and tough bears were believed to be.
Bears are formidable creatures, not just in Nordic Folklore but even in real life. Even the bravest of the brave would shake at their knees when put before the majestic creature. They are known for their brute strength, almost impenetrable skin, and massive build. Fighting with a bear is unimaginable talk less of subduing one into a pet. But the Viking’s fascination with the creature led them to make them pets. They admired the bear’s attributes so much that they wanted to emulate them. It makes sense considering that the bear embodied everything a Viking wanted to be especially in battle.