Bear Feasts in a land without wild bears: experiments in creating animist rituals

Harvey, Graham (2020). Bear Feasts in a land without wild bears: experiments in creating animist rituals. In: Harvey, Graham ed. Indigenizing movements in Europe. Equinox, (In Press).



Reception of academic debates about animism have led to an increase in the number of people who self-identify as “animists”. This is part of the diversification of contemporary Pagan identities, practices and self-understandings. As many Pagans seek to promote a universal or global vision of their religion, several new “animist networks” explore an indigenising trajectory. In the UK, the Bear Tribe is one of these experimental groups. The “tribe” was set up in 2007 after the founders had read several academic publications concerned with the “new animism” (i.e. ontologies in which the world is treated as communities of persons, most of whom are other-than-human persons). Although there are no “wild” bears in the UK, the Bear Tribe founders proposed that a yearly ritual of “compassionate gratitude” towards all sources of food (“food persons” perhaps) could make creative use of pan- Arctic and sub-Arctic bear hunt and feast myths and rituals. They collected songs and ritual repertoires from ethnographies about diverse nations (including Ainu, Anishinaabeg and Sámi) along with folklores from Britain, Finland and elsewhere to form a resource for ritual improvisation. They identified a location in southern England in which the first few annual Bear Feasts could be held in relative privacy and comfort at midwinter. The location also enabled them to source venison from local red deer herds as well as organic vegetables (enabling people with diverse diets to participate). The Feasts proved a success and a “neo-tribe” has developed, including with a closed Facebook group. Midwinter Bear Feasts are now held at a number of venues across Britain, from the Orkney islands to England’s south coast. While there are pragmatic reasons for this (easing travel in midwinter), the proliferation of venues is also ideologically motivated as an element of the strong localising / indigenising commitments of participants. This chapter will outline the ideas and activities of the group. It will consider the tension between a desire to promote a potentially global message (“respect those you eat”) and a commitment to localism or regionalism. Tensions between learning from others and the danger of appropriation are similarly evident. One distinctive theme raised by the Bear Tribe experiment is the effort to revitalise the doing of ritual after 500 years of denigration of ritual as “vain / meaningless repetition” in Britain and other Protestant Christian influenced countries. Thus, this animist movement provides scholars of religion with valuable resources with which to explore a range of critically important themes of current interest: ontology, indigeneity, embodiment, consumption, appropriation, globalisation and creativity but, above all, indigenising.

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