Leib-Olmai: The Elusive Bear God

Updated on May 7, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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The unforgiving forests in Lapland yielded no mercy. If the freezing weather didn’t get you, the beasts that hid under the icy foliage would. This was no place for the faint of heart. Even the brave hunters of the Sami people knew they needed all the help they could get, especially, when they competed against their most feared adversary – the bears. That type of help came in the form of a common tree in the northern Scandinavian lands.

Before the hunt, these hardy men performed a ritual in which they sprinkled themselves with a brownish-red mixture made up of grounded up Adler tree bark and water. They believed the trees possessed a deity that would protect them from the hated bears. Ironically, this protective deity often showed up in the form of a bear.

Still, they believed Leib-Olmai, the forest deity in question, would grant them luck on the hunt, as well as protection against skirmishes with the bears.

Literally translated as “alder man”, Leib-Olmai lived in the bark of the Alder tree. Legend has it that he went by other alias such as “bear man” or “bear god”. In addition, he took on the role of a good spirit that helped the male hunters of the Sami.

Leib-Olmai was unique in the annuals for folklore and mythology. Unlike the mythological gods from another Scandinavian culture (the Vikings), written and oral traditions for Leib-Olmai barely exist and lack any definitive narrative. He existed as the religious entity that shamans called upon to be a patron for hunters.

Leib-Olmai’s status as a good spirit or forest god – let alone a mythological deity -- stayed within isolated areas of the Lapland.

The Little Known Good Spirit

The Sami People (better known as the Laps) culminated in several tribes that resided in the Sampi region of Lapland, which incorporates the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and portion of Russia. Despite covering a large area of land, the Sami differed from one another, in terms of language and religious beliefs.

They had a few things in common. Even the belief in Leib-Olmai could be traced to a sector in or near present-day Finland (and to be noted, the Finns that called portion of this area home were a different culture).

Leib-Olmai’s status as a good spirit or forest god – let alone a mythological deity -- stayed within isolated areas of the Lapland. Surprisingly, oral traditions don’t expose a narrative that best tells of his origin or interaction with other gods. It’s possible that the variety of beliefs and dialects within the entire Lapland region seemingly muted much of his story.

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Finding Leib-Olmai

Finding information on Leib-Olmai proved to be nearly elusive. Sites such as Godchecker.com, Wikipedia, Britannica, and Oxford Reference have pages between 125 to 200 words each! In addition, they slightly contrast with one another on several details.

A few sites suggest that there were written accounts of the forest deity. However, these ancient accounts (as some sites suggests) came from documentation made by Christian missionaries in the region during the Middle ages. In the past, such documentations were often transformed into stories that reflected Christian ideals rather than detailing an accurate account of the mythology it meant to replace. In additions, gods such as Leib Olmai would most likely be vilified. Many "pagan" gods of Europe met this fate. Still, there’s no definitive account verifying this happened or that a written account exists.

However, there were a few commonalities gleaned from artifacts and surviving oral traditions to piece together some semblance of the deity. Possibly the most important information centered on Leib-Olmai’s primary function for the Sami people.

He materialized before humans as a bear.

The details pertaining to Leib-Olmai that all these sites agree upon are:

  • Leib-Olmai was a patron for hunters ;
  • He prevented hunters from “getting into skirmishes with bears”;
  • He was a “good” spirit whose main power was to give hunters good luck on their hunt;
  • He lived inside the Alder Tree;
  • He materialized before humans as a bear;
  • He is a protector of wild animals; and
  • He belonged to an ancient “pagan” tradition known as the bear cult, in which societies practiced rituals centered on bears or other apex predators.

A Male God for Males

Britannica.com offered another more misogynistic view of Leib-Olmai. According the site, Leib-Olmai was a god for male hunters only. In the Sami tradition of the time, women were excluded from hunting. It was a male’s only club.

In fact, according to the site, women were banned from handling hunting gears and weapons and were not allowed to be present when the rituals for Leib-Olmai were being conducted.

Source

The Ritual

All the sites agree that the most important aspect of Leib-Olmai was the ritual. There were ceremonies for pre and post-hunting outings. Often, the Sami hunters sought a variety of animals such as deer and fowls. However, some sites mentioned that the Sami people hunted bears, as well.

The pre-hunt event (listed as the bear festival or feast in some accounts),was when the Alder tree bark mixture was used.

The post-hunt, on the other hand, took on a slightly different ritual, despite using the same tree. In this case, they used red “juice” or sap of the tree to douse the hunters after they returned from a hunt. Indication suggested that this ritual was likely used when they returned with a dead bear.

Why the Bear?

It’s a mystery why Leib-Olmai appeared as a bear to the hunters. One can surmise that it came out of a respect the hunters had for bears, one of nature’s most brutal beasts. While they feared and despised it; and in some cases hunted it, the hunters may have been in awe of the bears ferocious strength.

The Significance of the Alder Tree

There’s no doubt the Alder tree was crucial to the rituals. As mentioned, Leib-Olmai dwelled in the Alder trees. In addition, it was believed that its byproducts contained his “power”. In fact, the “Leib” portion in his name translated to mean “blood”. The red sap, the Sami believed, was the “blood” of this forest god.

The Sami mythology may state the tree has magical powers; however, in reality this may not be too far fetch. The Alder tree, which has several species and span three continents in the northern hemisphere, is considered to have a wide range of uses, including medicinal purposes.

One species that comes to mind is the red Alder tree of North America. According to the website undertheseeds.com, Native Americans used the bark to treat numerous ailments such as headaches, rheumatoid pains, and diarrhea. It’s plausible that the Alder tree species that were found in the Lapland region had the same qualities, thus giving it a sense of reverence that was fit for myths and legends as well as the sami shamanism that dominated the area.

Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org
Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org | Source

The trees are abundant, considering they can grow in moist soil with poor nutrient (thanks in part an adjoining bacterium called Frankia almi). They are also known as a pioneer species, meaning they can populate an empty plot of land and attract other plants and animals to it. They, in a sense, create an ecosystem…much in a way a mythological god creates “a new world.”

Its use among Lapland societies, as well as Native Americans, was diverse. For example, according to undertheseeds.com, the indigenous people of their respective territories used the byproducts of the trees to do the following:

  • Create black dye for leather;
  • Help smoke fish or other foods to help preserve it for consumption;
  • Assist in pest control (the leaves had a sticky substance on it. They were placed on the floor to capture fleas).

Actual Medical Use

There is no doubt that the Alder trees historically were used in shamanistic rituals and as folk remedies to treat pain maladies; however, researchers, drug makers and doctors are not going to dismiss it as a magic elixir. It appears that medical science has verified its medicinal values.

Researchers discovered that the tree consists of a chemical called salicin. Upon consumption, salicin will decompose and become salicylic acid in the human body. This is closely related (but not the same) to the properties of aspirin – a commonly used painkiller.

Other Modern Uses for the Alder Tree

Besides medicine, the tree is still used to smoke food and provide heat for fireplaces. In addition, modern industries use it for:

  • Creation of fiber-boards;
  • Wooden planks (for construction); and
  • Manufacturing paper

Ovda wandered the forest as a naked human being; however, his feet were turned backwards

Possible Connection to Other Myths?

Leib-Olmai is clumped in with another deity from the region (but from another society). The ancient Finn had their own version of a forest deity; however, this one wasn’t so nice.

Ovda wandered the forest as a naked human being; however, his feet were turned backwards. Sometimes, he would appear as a woman, too. He killed people by enticing them to dance or wrestle, and then tickled or danced them to death (answers.com, 2010). At best he was an assailant for woodsmen, but everyone else, including hunters were not safe from his twisted tricks.

Some sites suggests there’s a direct link between the two. They were assumed to be antithesis of each others. Other sites don’t make that connection, at all.

It’s possible that Leib-Olmai and Ovda may have shared the same mythological realm. On the other hand, the two deities may have been the same entity, despite having very contrasting powers and purposes. This is not unusual to find in mythologies from neighboring cultures. Often, there were such “exchanges”. Still, the scant evidence, does not verify this. This is pure speculation.

Final Thought

As it stands, Leib-Olmai was a deity the Sami hunters worshipped. In addition, to sprinkling the Adler tree mixture upon themselves, they gave up one bow and arrow to appease the god and ensure their hunt will go well.

While Leib-Olmai may not have a narrative in terms of mythology, he had a following and he was the comfort the hunters needed as they ventured into the unknown.

By Hannah Lee Stockdale: Leib-Olmai and hunter
By Hannah Lee Stockdale: Leib-Olmai and hunter | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Dean Traylor

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      • MizBejabbers profile image

        Doris James MizBejabbers 

        3 months ago from Beautiful South

        Dean, I find this article very interesting because this Scandinavian religion is unfamiliar to me. One of my interests has been in learning about other religions ever since taking two courses in world religions in college. The statements about the alder tree as a source of healing are also very interesting. The Native Americans and also the European settlers in America used the bark of the birch tree as a source of salicylic acid for healing back before aspirin. Perhaps the healing and pain relieving properties of salicin were known world-wide. Good information here.

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