by David Legg
The bear has been worshipped, probably as a brother, for many thousands of years. In this it can probably be said to be the oldest human-animal relationship. It can be seen why the bear is regarded as a Brother – they can walk on two legs, are omnivorous and like the same food as humans – honey, salmon, fruit, nuts and meat. There are several species of bear – Asiatic Black, American Black, Spectacled, Polar, Sun, Sloth and the Panda. Here I shall concentrate on the Brown bear and its sub-species.
Brown Bear: Ursus Arctos (sub-species are the Grizzly, Kodiak, European, American, Asiatic, Kamchatka, Syrian and Mexican)
The brown bear is the most widespread bear species. They can be found over most of Europe, North America, and Northern Asia. The most stable populations of brown bear are found in North America and Russia. In North America, they are found mainly in the north-western regions of Alaska, Canada and a few scattered populations in the north-western United States. Only four populations of brown bear remain in central and western Europe: in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, the Pyrenees Mountain Range, the Alps, and the Abruzzo Mountains of Italy. Some populations exist in Scandanavia and in the Caparthian and Balkan mountains. In Asia, the bear population is declining rapidly to extensive hunting for their body parts. However, there is still a large population in the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Brown Bear Appearance
Weight: 130 – 700 Kg (300 -1500 lbs.)
Brown Bears have coats in shades of blond, brown, black, or a combination of those colours; the long outer guard hairs are often tipped with white or silver, giving a ‘grizzled’ appearance. Brown Bears have a large hump of muscle over their shoulders which give strength to the forelimbs for digging. Their heads are large and round with a concave facial profile. In spite of their size, they can run at speeds of up to 56 km/h (35 mph).
Since bears are usually not found in social groups, their vocalizations are rare. The obvious exception would be a mother bear with cubs. Cubs need to communicate, often quite loudly, through cries, whines, and whimpers when distressed, hissing when frightened and a loud humming sound when contentedly nursing or drowsing. Mother bears also have a range of sounds from snorts that call her cubs to follow, scolding growls to correct youthful behaviour and loud woofs that send cubs scrambling up the nearest tree to safety.
Mating season takes place from May to July and the young are born in January and February while hibernation is taking place. Sexual maturity isn’t reached until 4 to 6 years of age. Females produce a litter every 2 to 4 years.
The Brown Bear is primarily nocturnal and in the summer puts on up to 180kg (400 pounds) of fat, on which it relies to make it through winter, when it becomes very lethargic. Although they are not true hibernators and can be woken easily, they like to den up in a protected spot such as a cave, crevice or hollow log during the winter months.
Normally a solitary animal, the Brown Bear congregates alongside streams and rivers during the salmon spawn.
They live for 20 to 30 years (wild), 50 years (captivity) .
Brown Bears are omnivores; they feed on a variety of plant parts, including berries, roots, and sprouts; fungi; and fish, insects and small mammals. Brown Bears are largely vegetarian, deriving up to 75% of their dietary calories from vegetable matter. Interestingly, bears eat an enormous number of moths during the summer—sometimes as many as 20-40,000 in a day—and may derive up to one third of their calories from moths.
Can count to ten – many tribes regard them as our brothers.
Worshipping a bear may have been a religion among the ancient hunter tribes in Eurasia and even of Neanderthal man. Drawings of bear worship have been found in caves in Southern Europe dating back tens of thousands of years. Finnish bear tradition reflects the religious and ideological system of different eras starting from shamanism and ending in the belief of evolution in the Western societies. During the Catholic era St. Birgitta became guardian of the bear. Hunters turned to her so that she would keep her bears under control.There is a cycle (see the Stag / Deer) where by the famous Bear (or Human-Bear) Hunter chases the Stag that steals the sun in order to return it. This would relate the Bear in astronomy to Bootes the Hunter / Herdsman or Arcturus and the returning sun. However there is confusion around whether the legends relate to Bootes or Ursa Minor.
In Finland a bear is thought to be an intelligent and soulful creature. It is no ordinary animal but some sort of human being living in a forest. It can count at least to nine and it can understand the language of man. Even though a bear has the strength of nine men it will not attack a human being without a good reason.
In Finnish tradition women had a special relationship with bears. It was imagined that bears were looking for a chance to reincarnate through women. Because of this belief women were supposed to stay far away from a dead bear during a bear’s funeral feast. It was commonly believed that bears would not attack a person they recognised as a female.
Certain beasts, birds, and trees, are held sacred in Finland. In the Kalevala are evident traces of arctolatry, bear-worship, once very common among the tribes of the north, Otso, the bear, according to Finnish mythology, was born on the shoulders of Otava, in the regions of the sun and moon, and ‘nursed by a goddess of the woodlands in a cradle swung by bands of gold between the bending branches of budding fir-trees.’ His nurse would not give him teeth and claws until he had promised never to engage in bloody strife, or deeds of violence. Otso, however, does not always keep his pledge, and accordingly the hunters of Finland find it comparatively easy to reconcile their consciences to his destruction. Otso is called in the runes by many endearing titles as ‘The Honey-Eater’, ‘Golden Light-Foot’, ‘The Forest-Apple’, ‘Honey-Paw of the Mountains’, ‘The Pride of the Thicket’, and ‘The Fur-robed Forest-Friend’.
Our word karhu (bear: describes a hairy fur of the bear, a shaggy creature) was not allowed to be said out loud. That is why there are many euphemisms in Finnish language, which were used when one wanted to weaken or hide the fear towards the bear. Kontio (bruin) describes the way the bear walks. A certain stress was used when Se (it), Itse (self), Hän (he) was said. Metän elukka (beauty of the forest), Otso (the apple of the forest) etc. are usually appropriate code names. When one wanted to flatter one might say Jumalan mies (the man of God), Suuriherra (mighty master), Mesikämmen (lazy honey-pawed one), Mesikkäinen (honey-eater). Words like Kouki, Kouvo, Metsän- vaari (grandpa of forest), Tätinipoika (the son of my aunt) are reminders of the belief that a man and a bear are related to each other. When adults intimidated children by a bear it was called Pöppö, Mörkö (bugbear), Mönninkäinen or Kurko.
Original text in Finnish by Kaija Halme
Translated by Päivi Taavila
Scandinavia / Russia
Many Northern tribes believed that a bear was their forefather. For example, in Russian Karelia as late as in the early 20th century people didn’t eat bear because of the common belief that bears were relatives of man.
Oct 7th in Telemark is Britemesse, in memory of St. Birgitta of Sweden. It is supposedly the day the bear collects heather and moss and goes to his winter den. St Birgitta in English would become Bridget or Bride.
In many countries there are stories about a bear’s and a woman’s relationships and their offspring together. As an adult this offspring usually became a hero. Knuut II the Great, the king of Denmark is said to be a descendant of a bear. Skolts in Lappland call themselves brothers of the bear. Also hunter Indians in North America believe that the most skilled hunter families are a result of such a union.
The Beauty and the Beast cycle of legends come from here. This is an earlier form and is probably related to the Norse Berserks (Bear shirts) who used the Bearskins they wore to increase their savagery in battle.
A soldier, having deserted his regiment in the thick of battle, took refuge in the woods. However, the foes of war were soon replaced by other enemies: cold, thirst, and hunger. With nowhere to turn for help, he was about to surrender to the powers of despair, when without warning an awful spirit appeared before him. He offered the poor soldier great wealth, if he would but serve this uncanny master for seven years. Seeing no other escape from his misery, the soldier agreed.
The terms of the pact were quickly stated: for seven years the soldier was to wear only a bearskin robe, both day and night. He was to say no prayers. Neither comb nor shears were to touch his hair and beard. He was not to wash, nor cut his nails, nor blow his nose, nor even wipe his behind. In return, the spirit would provide him with tobacco, food, drink, and an endless supply of money.
The soldier, who by his very nature was not especially fond of either prayers or of cleanliness, entered into the agreement. He took lodgings in a village inn, and discovered soon enough that his great wealth was ample compensation for his strange looks and ill smell.
A nobleman frequented this inn. Impressed by Bearskin’s lavish and generous expenditures, he presented him with a proposal. ‘I have three beautiful daughters,’ he said. ‘If the terms are right, you may choose any one of them for a bride.’
Bearskin named a sum that was acceptable to the nobleman, and the two set forth to the palace to make the selection. The two older daughters made no attempt to hide their repugnance of the strange suitor, but the youngest unhesitatingly accepted her father’s will. Bearskin formalised the betrothal by removing a ring from his own finger and twisting it into two pieces. One piece he gave to his future bride; the other he kept. Saying that soon he would return, he departed.
The seven years were nearly finished, so a short time later Bearskin did indeed come back for his bride. Now freshly bathed, neatly shorn, elegantly dressed, and riding in a luxurious carriage, he was a suitor worthy of a princess. Identifying himself with his half of the twisted ring, he claimed his bride.
Beside themselves with envy, and furious that they had squandered their rights to this handsome nobleman, one of the bride’s older sisters hanged herself from a tree and the other one drowned herself in a well. Thus the devil gained two souls for the one that he had lost.
France / Switzerland
Artaius or Artio was the bear god in Gaul (France), particularly in present-day Switzerland. The Romans had identified Artaius with Mercury. Bern, the capital of Switzerland is named after the Bear.
According to one legend, Berthold V of Zähringen named Bern after the first animal killed during a hunt when the city was founded in 1191.
Some scholars believed that King Arthur (Arth is Welsh for Bear) may have originally been a god, and was derived from the Gallic god Artaius. Though, Artaius had also been identified with another Welsh figure, named Gwydion.
The female form of this deity was Artio or Dea Artio, the bear-goddess. There’s a Roman statue of Artio, now housed in the Historisches Museum, in Bern. The statue depicts the goddess seated, facing a bear – unless of course the bear is the goddess and the woman a supplicant.
In Greek myth Boötes is said to be Arcas, whose mother Callisto was transformed into a bear by the jealous Juno/Hera. Arcas, whilst out hunting one day, discovered his mother in her bear form and pursued her into the temple of Jupiter/Zeus. Jupiter, to prevent Arcas from unwittingly killing his mother, took them both into the skies where Boötes is now seen following the bear – in fact the two bears, around the heavens. In this we see an interesting reversal in his role as he passes from the land to the heavens. Upon the land he was as Arcas the huntsman pursuing the bear into the forest, or the Land, and on into sacred space, the temple. At the point where he would have killed his Mother who gave him life, he is rescued by the Father God, and in a spectacular exchange of energies his role as hunter is changed into that of Guardian or Keeper as he enters the realm of stars. In another version of this story Jupiter also transforms Arcas into a bear, and places them both in the heavens as the Great and Little Bear. So the Great Bear of the Northern skies may be regarded as a she-bear, the Earth-Bear Mother.
Callisto, meaning ‘most beautiful’, was a charming nymph and handmaiden to Artemis. In honour of the goddess, Callisto took a vow to be a maiden. However, this vow was abruptly violated when Zeus fell in love with her. Zeus disguises himself and seduces Callisto.
From this point, there are several different versions of the story. Some tales claim that it was Artemis who, in retribution for this transgression, changed Callisto into a bear. Other stories attribute the transformation to Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife or Zeus himself trying to protect Callisto from Artemis/Hera.
Regardless of the details, the result is the same – Callisto lived the rest of her life as a bear. The great Roman poet Ovid wrote that Callisto and Arcas, her son by Zeus, were together turned into the constellations known as the Great Bear and the Little Bear. And so together this pair shines from the night sky.
There was in Ireland in the 2nd Century a high king named Art Oenfer ‘Art the Lonely’, or Lonely Bear. In 825 according to one chronicle, and 827 according to another, Art, son of the Irish king Diarmait, was beheaded. From the name of this man Art comes the name Ua hAirt, who we encounter in the Chronicon Scotorum under the dates 1012, 1083, and 1095. Today one says O’Hart, which means ‘grandson of the bear’. One finds also Mac Airt, ‘son of the bear’, that is to say, son of the bear god.
England / Wales
The Anglo-Saxon epic hero Beowulf may be named after the Bear. His name is often translated as meaning ‘Bee Wolf’; as a Bear attacks bees for their honey. That fact that he is a huge man and strong as a bear would tie in with this. He was the inspiration for Tolkien’s character Beorn, the man who shape changes into a bear, in the Hobbit.
The bear was regarded as the king of all animals. Arthur is described as the mighty bear, and as a god and hero. Among the rural population about eighty years ago it was customary to call the Great Bear ‘Arthur’s Plough’. People said that in the dead of the night, if anybody cared to listen, the plough and waggon of the Great and Lesser Bear could be heard turning. The little, almost invisible star just above the middle one in the tail of the plough was called the ‘plough-man’, or ‘driver’. The Morris dancers never went forth in former times without a man wrapped in a bear-skin. Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, contains Polaris the North Star. This is the pillar around which the night sky turns, although with precession in 14,000 years time it will be another star, Vega. However if the Great Bear is ‘Arthur’s Plough’ this could make the Little Bear Arthur.
The Ainu, a distinctly different people, to the north of Japan practised an elaborate bear cult into the 1920s that immediately calls to mind the Palaeolithic bear cult. The Ainu captured a bear cub, nurtured it for months and then sacrificed it during an elaborate ritual. They are the only people to have retained a full fledged bear cult into the twentieth century and the Palaeolithic elements are unmistakable; the Ainu are truly amazing from a Western anthropologist’s viewpoint.
The Evenk have a Bear Myth. A girl went to the woods, got lost and wintered in a bear’s den. In the spring she came back to the village and in due time gave birth to a bear cub. Later when she married a man from her village, she had a son. The two brothers—one a bear-boy and the other a man-boy—grew and one day, playing and fighting, the man-boy wounds his bear brother. Dying, the bear explains to his boy-brother the rituals that should be followed when hunting bears and burying them. Since then the Evenks hold a big ritual to honour the bear. Inuit Bear Myth tells of a woman who has a human husband and a lover who is a bear.
When from the Tropic, or the winter’s sun,
Thrice twenty days and nights their course have run;
And when Arcturus leaves the main, to rise
A star bright shining in the evening skies;
Then prune the vine.
The Bear being the keeper of Great Medicine
The Bear is one of our oldest role models. It can be seen from the cave paintings at Chauvet in France through to the Ainu Bear ceremony in the 20th century. Even today, with the Bear relatively scarce and threatened with extinction in many places, it is one of the most dominant creatures for people across the world. Our childhoods are littered with Teddy Bears, Pooh Bears and many others. To our children the Bear represents a strong, stabilising and comforting force to the darkness and chaos (factors outside their control) within their world. In the Tao of Pooh he is recognised as our natural way of being. In Russia, California, Bern in Switzerland and many other places they are proud of their symbolic relationship with the Bear. In the night sky the Great Bear and the Little Bear point us to Polaris – the pillar of the night sky.
Often the Bear is associated with danger and aggression. Yet they are usually only dangerous when provoked, other than that Bears are the archetypal gentle giant. How many large, gentle men are likened to a Bear? The Great Mother is often symbolised as a Bear, this could be shown through the Norse gods where one of Thor’s associations is the Bear and his mother was Mother Earth. In this Bears are often symbolised as the violence that can be tamed. The Bear is also a determined and protective mother, when pushed very aggressive, but her calm strength allows diplomacy. Many peoples regard her as the mother of all animals.
In psychological terms seeing Bears in dreams may represent introspection or depression. This may also represent the Healing power of the bear where the person has retreated in order to regenerate and grow. This is much like the Chipewyan story of the Bear who stole the sun, causing winter, and it took the other creatures to break into his cave and bring the spring sun back. The cave can be like a womb. However Native Americans say that dreaming of bears is a sign of receiving the wisdom of the ancient ones. They revere the Bear for helping man find herbal help as the Bear is the only creature not afraid of man and the only one who shows man kindness.
Perhaps it is that their behaviour is so like ours that they are regarded as Brother Bear. It has often been the case of Bears nurtured by Humans and in past times it has been the other way round. Symbolically the Great Bear is Mother to us all.
Name/ Meaning/ Language
Arthur/ Bear-man /Bear-son Welsh
Bjorn, Beorn, Bruno/ Bear/ Norse, German
Bernard/ Bold as a Bear/ Old English
Nita/ Bear/ Choctaw
Avonaco/Lean Bear/ Cheyenne
Honaw/ Bear/ Hopi
Orsen, Orson, Orsini/ Little Bear/ Italian, Old French
Ursula/ Little Bear /Latin
Tokens and Artwork:
One only needs to see the ancient cave paintings and sculptures of the bear.
Many children had a favourite Teddy Bear or were influenced by childhood bears such as Pooh, Little Bear, Paddington or the many others that are special across the world.
The Bear Paw is another great symbol of those who seek Bear Medicine.
The most sacred time will be the time of the Alban Arthuan, the Light of Arthur. This is the Winter Solstice, Yule or the Wheel of the Year. Arthur is the great leader, the Beowulf, with the strength of ten men and the wisdom of how to use it. In the ancient tales this would be when the Bear-man travels into the dark places, that we are scared to go, and retrieves the sun from the Stag, son of the Heavenly Doe.
Where was Bruin given birth
the bear’s cub brought up?
In a little woollen box
in a little iron box.
Where was Bruin given birth
the bear’s cub brought up?
On the peg of a small cloud.
How was he let down to earth?
On a nameless, quite untouchable string.
(A Finnish folk poem)
A way is to find a great, shaggy coat (I can’t condone Bear skin) to don. This is what the Bear Sark (Bear Shirts) Viking warriors did before battle. They would then invoke the spirit of the Bear and become incredibly strong and so hungry for battle that they would bite their shields. Going ‘Hamr out’, spiritually shape shifting, like this is not to be done lightly. It can tear the physical body with its strength. Boðvar Bjarki fought in the form of a bear while his body lay in trance (HrolfKrakisaga), his story is similar to Beowulf’s.
Prophecy and Divination
Ailim is actually the Old Irish word meaning, ‘to rear, educate, train, nurture’. This would tie in with the Bear symbolism. Although Airt/Art is not described in the Ogham texts Ailm is also named ‘ardam iactadh’ or ‘the loudest groaning’ which seems appropriate to the bear.
The bear could mean any of the following depending upon the context:
Being bearish, pessimistic, negative or under performing.
A strong and potentially aggressive force, maybe a paternal one.
It may represent a need to withdraw or go within, to hibernate or be introspective.
Something that represents a heavy load, too much to bear.
Or maybe something cuddly, loveable, childlike.
The Bear Posture, in shamanic works by Felicitas Goodman, is a great healing and visionary posture, which asks for the wisdom of Grandparent Bear to lead us to healing.
In Whittelsey, Cambs UK, on Twelfth Night, they have resurrected the custom of the Straw Bear. A ploughing custom (note the time and plough reference) ‘the `straw-bear’ was a man completely swathed in straw, led by a string by another, and made to dance in front of people’s houses…’
The Bear can often appear as the guardian in trance work. The bear is the gatekeeper that only allows the traveller through when they are ready to go. In this it is a symbolism of strength and protection. When discovered, at first, we can fear the bear, rather than the darkness behind the gate. When the person is ready they will be able to proceed through the gate, the bear may not even be there anymore.
The hibernation of Bears in caves is also a powerful route to healing and a rebirth from pain. Retreating to a cave to sleep and heal is an instinct that is often not followed. A Taoist saying is ‘the sage sleeps when he is tired’.
However the greatest healing the Bear has led us to is honey. It is not known when people became aware of the healing power of honey but it has great anti-septic wound healing powers. It can be used on open wounds to promote healing, reduce swelling and provide an anti-bacterial agent plus promoting new skin growth. For sore throats and stomach ulcers, Manuka honey in particular, has been proven an effective remedy.
The Bear Paw: this is a sign of direction and power. It is a Good Omen and to follow it is to walk a safe path.
Thor’s Rune / Thurisaz: the thorn that protects and stings. Use it to attack, or to actively defend from known enemies. Just like the thorn bush, or a Bear’s claw, it would protect and guard those within it, and attack those attempting to pass through it. It makes people afraid, it makes people sicken and it drives people insane. It is good for tests, or to represent a test.