Animals and plants also had their guardian spirits. The guardian spirit of each animal or plant, was thought to be the elder, or the primal mother of the species; all the existing animals or plants were considered to be her sons and daughters. This mythic mother was called ’emuu’, from the word ’emä’ or ‘mother’. The name of the species’ ’emuu’ was usually somehow related to the qualities, the behavior, or the environment of the animal in question. For instance, the bear’s ’emuu’ was called Hongotar, which is a combination of the ‘-tar’ suffix denoting ‘female’ and consequently ‘motherhood’, and ‘honka’ which means ‘pine tree’. After every bear feast the bear’s skull was lifted and placed on the top of a pine tree so that the soul of the bear could return to heaven.
People turned to the ’emuu’ when they had something to do with its living descendants. Hunters prayed that the emuu would allow them to hunt some of her “boys” and asked for her forgiveness after the kill was done. It was believed that since the ’emuu’ protected and guided her own sons, if insulted she would hide them away from the hunter’s guns and arrows. It was especially a grave insult to kill a sleeping animal, since the animal’s soul was thought to be out of body, and the soul could lose its direction if the body was killed. This kind of traumatized animal soul could haunt the hunter and drive him to insanity. Hence the hunters always whistled before killing an animal that was sleeping.
Bear worship has been a crucial part of the religious practices of the northern peoples since ancient times, and the Finns were no exception to this. The bear, the biggest predator and undisputed king of the Finnish forests, was a sacred animal for them. Like many other Finno-Ugric peoples, the Finns imagined the Big Dipper as a golden basket in which the very first bear was lowered to the earth, thus signifying that the bear had his origin in the heavens.
In modern Finnish the bear is called ‘karhu’, but his original name was ‘Ohto’. Karhu is a euphemism indicating the roughness of the bear’s hide (‘karhea’ means rough in Finnish). Yet ‘karhu’ is by no means the only euphemism for the bear, in fact, hundreds of different names have been collected, including the venerable ‘He’. This demonstrates that the real name of the bear was a taboo, and people refrained from using it not only out of respect for the divinity of the animal, but also because they did not want to lure the bear near their cattle. Similar taboos have been associated with other divine beings; one example of this is the use of the honorable title ‘Ukko’ rather than the sky-god’s real name, Ilmarinen.
Ancient Finns believed that the bear had a strong connection with the human race, and that this was obvious even from the outward appearance of the animal. The bear was thought to be able to understand speech and even to read minds. Bears were also thought never to harm women, possibly because of the mythic marriage between a bear and a woman who were the founding ancestors of the bear clan. This story is known amongst many Finno-Ugric tribes. In Karelia, people did not eat bear meat as late as the early 20th century as it was regarded as a form of cannibalism. It was also believed that some humans could take the form of a bear.
In terms of the cycle of the year, the bear was associated with both the midwinter and midsummer. Midsummer was traditionally celebrated on the 13th of July and was called ‘The Day of the Bear’. This was also known in Estonia, where July was called ‘the Month of the Bear’ and the 13th of that month, the mythic birthday of that animal. Midwinter was in mid-January, and according to Kustaa Vilkuna, this was the time when the bear was killed, and a feast was held.
The Finns were famous for their arctolatry; when hunters killed a bear, a great celebration was held during which the bear was treated as a guest of honor. The ancient marriage between the woman and the bear was also symbolically repeated. In eating the bear’s flesh, the people took on a part of his soul and qualities, a practice not completely unlike the Holy Communion practiced by Christians. When the feast ended, the bear’s soul was to be returned to the heavens, and so the bear’s skull was raised to the top of a great pine tree called ‘The Bear Skull Pine’ (Karhunkallohonka) to the accompaniment of farewell songs. The scholar Arvo Oja speculated that, in ancient times, the bear hide was placed in the sacred grove after the feast. The bear cult was very strong in Finland and continued until modern times. There is evidence that in rural areas of Central Finland bear skulls were being put on top of old skull pines until as late as in the 1930s.