12 April 2017

Writing the Ice-Bear II

Polar bear in the Svalbard Museum,
I promised to return to the topic of polar bears and my memory was jogged by the news, a few days ago, that a polar bear was shot in Newfoundland after being deemed 'a public safety risk'. In times of ecological crisis these magnificent animals are driven towards human habitation in search of food and it usually does not end well for them, as a hungry bear is a real danger to humans and it is not always easy or even possible to tranquilise and remove them. These latter options were not really available to people in former times and when polar bears drifted over to Iceland, it could go either way. The Icelandic annals record that, in 1321 a hvítabjörn came on the ice to Strandir in the north-west of Iceland, killing eight people and causing much destruction before he was finally killed on Straumnes. Another annal records that, in 1275, no less than 27 polar bears were killed in Iceland. Presumably, this was not all on one occasion (the bears tend to be quite solitary), but a result of the fact that, in that winter, kringdi hafíss nær um allt Ísland 'sea-ice encircled almost all of Iceland'. That this was an unusual event is suggested by the law in the Christian Laws Section of Grágás which stipulates that, while people are not supposed to hunt and fish on holy days, they can go out to catch a polar pear if one turns up. Another exception to usual practice in this law is that the bear belongs to 'whoever gives it a death wound', rather than whoever owns the land on which it is killed, which is otherwise when, for example, whales are stranded. The owner was then left with a nice pelt, for it is hard to imagine anyone wanting to eat a polar bear (though see below).

Mural in Thon Hotel Polar, Tromsø
Curiously it seems that people did have tame polar bears, most likely caught as cubs (either in Greenland, or having sailed to Iceland on an ice floe) since taming an adult bear is surely an impossibility. Grágás stipulates that a tame polar bear is to be treated like a dog, namely that its owner needs to pay for any damage it does. While such a bear has no immunity if it harms people, if it is itself harmed, then the person who harmed it pays a fine and compensation for the damage to the owner.

Available from the
world's most
northerly chocolatier.
Humans' curious love-hate relationship with bears of all kinds is suggested by the popularity of the name Bjorn, or names with -björn as the second element, then as now, and many stories turn on the human-like qualities of bears. There is a curious reciprocity in a story recorded in Landnámabók (the Icelandic Book of Settlements) about a certain Arngeirr, a settler in the north-east of Iceland and his son Þorgils. When they didn't return from looking for their livestock in a snow-storm, the younger son Oddr goes to search for them and finds them 'lying as food' for a polar bear, as Sturlubók puts it (Hauksbók at this point has a vivid image of the bear sucking the blood out of them). Oddr kills the bear and is said to have eaten it all. In fact, the saying was that he avenged his father in killing the bear, and his brother in eating it. But as a result he becomes evil and unruly, and shape-shifts at night so that the neighbours wanted to stone him to death for being a sorcerer. It's hard to imagine that eating a whole polar bear was very tasty so, while doing this was quite heroic, it does seem to have been in general quite a bad idea.

Another interesting aspect of polar bears in Old Norse texts is how frequently they turn up in dreams. But that is a matter I will leave to another blog.