The polar bear, the harbinger of Christmas consumerism and more recently the living symbol of climate change has a much older and more magical reputation in their native range within the Arctic Circle, born from their long established relationship with the Inuit people with whom they have shared their frozen world for thousands of years.
Traditionally the Inuit carved with bone or ivory, and would make small objects such as this polar bear from Baffin Island, Nunavut (the largest island in Canada). We have several carvings of polar bears in our collections, all of which could fit into the palm of your hand and could be carried from camp to camp. The Inuit lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving with the seasons in search of caribou, muskox, seal or fish. The carvings were therefore of necessity small and easily handled, and could be viewed from any angle, they were not ‘scenes’ to be set on a shelf and admired (as with much of modern Inuit art), but instead were transportable objects, of arctic fauna, daily life and myths, created as teaching tools, toys, or for use in religious rituals.
So you can see just how small these carvings are, here’s the same bear with a penny for scale:
…and here’s an even smaller one:
…and here’s a REALLY tiny one:
Culturally the Inuit believed in three worlds – living humans, animals, and spirits – with these worlds often colliding and becoming intertwined. Their religion was based on animism: the belief that all living and non-living things had a soul, and consequently their world was populated with Demons and Deities. They had shamans who acted as mediators between the spirit and the supernatural world, and who could summon spirit helpers, or ‘tornaq’, at will. The Inuit believed that the greatest danger they faced was from the spirits of the animals they had to kill for food and clothing, or from the Demons and Deities whose spirits might take revenge if the animals were not treated with due respect after being killed.
The polar bear, in Inuit culture, was a mystical and spiritual animal, greatly respected for their cunning and for their prowess as a top predator. But the reverence went beyond simple respect of their strength or hunting skills, for in Inuit mythology the polar bear was considered ‘almost man’ and it was believed that the spirits of polar bears and humans were interchangeable. The polar bear was also imbued with many supernatural powers. They were shape-shifters and could transform themselves into ‘human’ form by removing their bear skin, and becoming a bear again by putting it back on. They could also transform into birds or ice to elude hunters. The polar bear’s likeness could also be incorporated into a Tupilak, an avenging monster used by a Shaman to harm his enemies, a much feared curse:
The polar bear was the most prized of the hunt. Legend has it that the polar bear spirit was the most powerful, dangerous, and potentially revengeful spirit after that of the Demon Goddess Sedna, Mother of the Sea Beasts:
The Inuit believed that if they worshiped the polar bear, he would allow himself to be killed by them, and then if treated with due respect, he would encourage living polar bears to allow themselves be killed by the same hunter – and so that hunter would be successful in future hunts. They had a special set of complicated taboos and rituals that needed to be observed in order to be respectful of the polar bear – more so that for any other animal as the polar bear’s spirit was considered very dangerous if offended, and may persecute the hunter or his family with illness or other misfortune. There were many gestures of respect and kindness, for example, the skin of the polar bear had to be hung in a particular place in the hunter’s home for a prescribed period of time; the bear spirit should be offered appropriate spirit tools, and be given water to drink (as polar bears were thought to be perpetually thirsty). It was not always easy to pay due respect as the gestures were many and complicated, and must be done in a prescribed way so as not to cause offence.
Just to confuse matters even further, it was believed that the polar bears’ spirits could also be benevolent towards man, if they chose to be – they might provide captured prey to those who were hungry, or would torment others who would not share their food with those less fortunate. Legend had it that the Inuit’s ancestors learned how to hunt seals by watching polar bears, and the polar bear would often be the tornaq for the Shaman, who would carry a carving of this animal about his person.
The polar bear then, powerful and mighty in the flesh, small and transportable in the hand, was the subject of a whole range of myths and legends in Inuit culture. Comfortable in the water as on ground, inspiring respect as much as fear, the polar bear was central to the Inuit’s belief system for thousands of years. Who would have thought that something so small held so much significance?