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The Bear Doesn’t Understand Metaphors

On Sámi Names For the “Old man of the Wilderness.”

Harald Gaski

Tr. John Weinstock

Everyone who speaks Sámi knows that “várri” means mountain and that “balvvat” means clouds, but probably very few have any idea that “várri” can also characterize the head of a bear and that “balvvat” can be a synonym for the bear’s lungs. It is no doubt better known that “áddjá” (grandfather) and “áhkku” (grandmother) in their meanings also encompass the image of a good-natured old man of the forest who in spite of his awesome strength all the same can and should be understood as a close and friendly older relative. To turn the bear into ones grandfather or grandmother, at the same time as one in other contexts almost deifies it, was certainly part of a process of giving “luođuid eadni” (the mother of the wilderness) a kind disposition toward people.

For the Sámi have really respected the bear, perhaps more for its strength than for its wisdom and divinity. The relationship seems somewhat ambivalent. We know from folktales how the fox often fooled the bear (…as the smaller, but wiser Sámi so often fooled Stállu…), but we know too from Sámi mythology that even if one honored “meahcce-áddjá” (grandfather in the forest), he wasn’t worshiped. The Sámi did not for example sacrifice to the bear, and the place where it was buried never became any sort of holy place. Nevertheless, it was the object of ritualizing, and was viewed as the holiest of the animals. But the honorary designation it got was among other things “God’s dog,” a somewhat dubious honor when one compares it with the dog’s status among the Sámi as the one who itself came and offered to be a servant.

The respect also seems to have been mutual. The bear probably knew about (or more correctly: the Sámi thought that the bear certainly knew about) the strong kinship ties among the Sámi. In an old yoik, of which there are several versions, the general theme in all of them is that the bear himself admits that he would rather fight with eight or nine unfamiliar men than with two brothers, because the two brothers would never give up. Either one would give up his life to save the other one, so the bear knows that he too will get his death wound in such a fight. – No, he concludes, –I’d rather fight with eight or nine persons from different families, for in such a fight I’ll get out of it with my life. (Implied: the strange man will flee the bear’s immense strength.)

In the introduction to the yoik, moreover, the bear is referred to as “lavdnji” (turf), which probably alludes to the color of the hide and the bear’s figure.

For that matter, this is a common designation for bear; we find derivations of “darfi”, “ruomsi” and “eana” (all mean either moss, turf or earth) as metaphoric names for bear. Also compounds with “muoddá” (an old worn-out reindeer jacket), “bealdu” (meadow), “buolda” (grassy hillside, hill), “meahcci” (forest) and “várri” (mountain) are common in circumlocutions of the bear name. A word that often recurs as a synonym for bear is “suohkut” (the thick-haired one).

And the name that one wanted to avoid using was “guovža” or “bierdna”, two dialectal variants of the real name for “bear.”

Why all of these circumlocutions? Louise Bäckman says that respect for the bear was not only evident in ceremonies and preventative rituals, “but also in daily speech.” Therefore, one could not use the bear’s real name, neither in referring to it nor to parts of its body. Accordingly one chose circumlocutions. But by so doing one disclosed the limitations of what one thought the bear could understand. Here the border was thus drawn, unconsciously or consciously, between the human intellect and the animal’s nature. It is only humans who are capable of playing with language: creating new meanings by bringing together words from widely separated linguistic domains in such a way as to create new meaning. In other words the metaphoric use of language is reserved for humans, and with the help of that language we also have power over the animals and could trick them.

The very joy of using metaphoric language as a part of artistic activity in a way of life where there was little time left over for purely aesthetic ventures, one must absolutely take into account as an important reason for the widespread tradition of circumlocutions in Sámi cultural history. One finds it in various connections, most clearly in the literary tradition where old myths, legends and poems almost swell with allusions, figurative meanings and symbols. Parts of the Sámi’s yoik poetry and folk poetry about bears can also be read in such a context. Of course, the ideas of religious and hunting magic taboos were important, maybe most important, for the circumlocutions. A successful bear hunt was completely dependent on the message that the hunt was in progress in no way be communicated to the bear himself. If the bear was all-hearing –with the sole limitation that he did not understand figurative meanings – he would of course immediately understand that he was hunted game if someone directly mentioned the word bear hunt. Then the bear could easily take precautions and hide or even make a surprise attack and cause great harm to the bear hunters (“skuorggat”).

The Sámi are well known for a great multitude of names with a background in observable differences in appearance, composition, age and sex, and as an example here one can mention the rich profusion of names for reindeer, seal and salmon. But these names have a defining effect in relation to what they designate, while the circumlocutions for bear and wolf are supposed to be concealed from the one being characterized, but understandable to the users of the names. Hence the function of the metaphor: to be private at the same time as it belongs to the public sphere, to show linguistic inventiveness on the part of the user at the same time as others are given insight into what is of concern.

But to understand this, more than a bear’s wits are required…


J. Qvigstad. “Lappiske Navne paa Pattedyr, Krybdyr og Padder, Fiske, Leddyr og lavere Dyr.” Separataftrykk af Nyt Magazin f. Naturvidensk B. 42, H. IV, Kristiania, 1904.

Louise Bäckman. “Kommentar” til Kort Berättelse, om Lapparnas Björna-Fänge av Pehr Fjellström. Faksimileutg. av original fra 1755, Umeå, 1981.

J. A. Friis. Ordbog over det Lappiske Sprog. Kristiania, 1887 and various other dictionaries.

J. Fafner. Retorik, klassisk og moderne. København, 1977.

My own studies at Folkeminnearkivet in Uppsala and at Folkeminnesamlingen, Blindern, Oslo.