In the far North, the aurora borealis shimmers and blazes, in bright contrast with a frozen, white world below. But life can be found in the most polar of regions, and human encounters with these breathtaking Arctic animals have inspired folktales around the globe.
Many tales and legends tell of the great, white bear, who wanders the Arctic realm. In the Norwegian fairytale, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a white bear comes to the door of a peasant, asking for his youngest daughter in exchange for wealth and riches. The maiden goes with the creature to an enchanted castle, and each evening when darkness falls, the bear transforms into a man and climbs into bed next to her. One night curiosity overcomes her, and striking a candle, she shines light upon his face, only to find a golden-haired prince lying asleep. Drops of melted tallow fall on his skin, and he awakens with a cry. If only she had lived with him for one year as a white bear, he tells her, he would have been free of his curse. Now he must marry the troll princess, who lives in an ice palace east of the sun and west of the moon. The castle and prince vanish, and the maiden sets off on the long journey north in search of her white bear.
Inuit traditional stories also make reference to polar bears who transform into men, shedding their thick fur upon entering their winter dens. Perhaps it is the human likeness the animal displays when it walks upright that inspire the stories of this revered white bear.
Herds of caribou have sustained the Inuit people for centuries, providing them with nourishing food and warm clothing. One of the oldest Inuit deities, the Caribou Mother, is an all-encompassing figure who holds the people and caribou on her giant body. Caribou, the larger cousin of Eurasian reindeer, live in North America and Greenland. Many of the indigenous Sami people of Lapland are semi-nomadic reindeer herders. One of their traditional stories describes a glowing, golden-horned reindeer, who, if caught by a hunter, will cause chaos to engulf the world. Another folktale tells of the sun god’s daughter, who brings a dowry of reindeer to the Nordic people after marrying a Sami man.
Santa’s eight reindeer were introduced to the world in the famous 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”). Santa Claus himself has Scandinavian origins, in part descended from the pagan deity Odin of Norse myth. During the Yuletide celebration of the winter solstice, Odin, white-bearded and cloaked in blue, would fly on the back of his white, eight-footed horse Sleipnir, delivering gifts to children of the North.
The cunning, white fox is steeped in folklore. In Finland, legends tell of Arctic foxes racing across snowy mountain peaks, their bushy tails brushing up snowflakes that reflect the moonlight, or igniting sparks that cause the blazing aurora borealis. In this sparkling Finnish Lapland, the northern lights are called “revontulet,” which translates to “fox fires.” The Dene First Nations people of Canada’s Northwest Territories have a traditional story in which Fox saves the people from hunger. During barren times, villagers notice that Raven, who visits daily, always seems well fed. One day, Fox follows him and discovers Raven has been keeping the caribou hidden away. Fox brings caribou to the people, who celebrate and share food.
In the Shinto religion of Japan, kitsune are pure white foxes who have up to nine tails, growing in number as they age and gain further magical abilities. They are powerful shapeshifters who sometimes aid mortals as the celestial messengers of Inari, their kami (deity). Shrines and temples to Inari are found throughout Japan. Statues of the kitsune are adorned with scarlet votive bibs, and the foxes hold special items in their mouths and paws, such as jewels, keys, scrolls, or small fox cubs. Worshippers appease the spirits by leaving offerings of rice and sake, as well as inarizushi (rice stuffed into fried tofu pouches), the pointed corners of which resemble a fox’s ears.
Perhaps most recently known for its role as the faithful letter-carrier Hedwig in the Harry Potter series, owls have been regarded as messengers around the world, either as bringers of prophecy or omens of death. It is small wonder that these entrancing creatures have been associated with witchcraft and sorcery throughout history, as they fly silently on the wind, glowing ghostly in the moonlight. In a land frosted over by ice and snow, the snowy owl blends into its landscape, using its impressive talents to survive and hunt on the Arctic tundra. The emblem of Minerva, Roman goddess of wisdom, the owl’s intellect has long been known.
One Inuit story tells of Snowy Owl and Raven, who are both pure white. They decide to make each other more colorful, and Raven paints gray crescents on Owl’s white feathers. But Raven will not sit still while Owl paints him, and in frustration, Snowy Owl pours lamp oil onto Raven, turning his feathers black as night. Transformed, the Raven cries, “Oh, you sharp-clawed, keen-eyed owl, what have you done!” Snowy Owl’s brightness remains unmatched.
Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Popular Tales from the Norse, translated by George Webbe Dasent (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859), no. 36, pp. 266-80.
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