We are joyfully anticipating thunderstorms where I live, the reprieve from a rare drought. As the dryness has delayed summer berries, bears have raided campsites and cabins for food. If the bears don’t get fat enough over the summer, they will starve during hibernation.
Though I eagerly await the storm, I am prepared to spend time comforting a frightened cat. The instinctual fear of thunder seems to afflict most animals. The goddess Mielikki (MEE-uh-lick-KEY) used this fear to her advantage when putting the finishing touches on her prize creation, the bear. She made the trembling animal kneel before Ukko (OO-koh), the sky god who wields his hammer so sharply that light flashes. She told the bear she would not give him claws or teeth unless he swore to Ukko that he would never misuse them. The bear made his vow to the terrible Ukko.
Mielikki is not only guardian of the bear, but of the whole forest. Finnish hunters used to pray to Mielikki for all types of game. If the timing of the hunt was auspicious, Mielikki would appear wearing gold bracelets, gold earrings, and her signature gold buckle. If the hunt was ill-advised, Mielikki appeared to the petitioner in rags. Mielikki holds the wealth of the forest — not only the animals but the trees and all the plants. With her child gods and her husband Tapio (TAH-pee-oh), who has a twig hat and a moss beard, she manages the health of the forest.
Mielikki undoubtedly favors the bear of all her creatures. Bears are called “Mielikki’s dogs” because they are so dear to her, and because only she can truly control them. Mielikki traveled far into the sky, far past the moon, to gather the materials from which she made the first bear. She sewed the fragments of wool together and placed the bundle in a birch basket, which she tied with gold chains to the highest pine tree. There she rocked the basket back and forth until the little bear stirred with life.
The idea of the bear coming from the sky is the opposite of the Greek story of Callisto, who was banished to the sky after breaking her vow of chastity to Artemis. She became the Ursa Major or Great Bear constellation, and her child became Ursa Minor. Many have wondered at the similarities between Artemis and Mielikki. I think forest goddesses naturally develop a special relationship with the bear. If the lion is “King of the Jungle,” the bear is Queen of the Forest. She stands regally on two feet when she chooses, and she has a mighty roar. She is large and scary, with no predators in adulthood, other than humans. Her main enemy is hunger. That and maybe lightning, if she isn’t careful about those claws…
Abercromby, John. Magic Songs of the West Finns, vol. 2. 1898. At Sacred Texts. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ms2/index.htm
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Lonnrot, Elias. The Kalevela. John Martin Crawford, trans. 1910. At Sacred Texts. http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvtitle.htm
Stone, Merlin. Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991.