The bear is not only a signature species of a still healthy ecosystem, but also a symbol of protectiveness, given the fierce and devoted way a mother defends her cubs. And as bears increasingly suffer at the hands of encroaching civilization, it is us who are called to do the protecting.
It is only recently that we have forgotten as a culture what these great animals have always given us. Our ancestors in both the “Old” and “New World” watched the bear go into its den every winter and emerge every Spring — an obvious herald of rebirth, the return of life to a hungry land and hungry people.
The people of civilized Europe harnessed the bear, and the bear’s mythology, to the purposes of the field and plow. In England they had the “strawbear.” While in Germany he was called the Fastnachtshar: a man dressed up in a strawbear costume who would be led in early Spring to each house of the village.
There the man-bear danced with all of the women. The more enthusiastically they danced, the richer the coming crop would be. Pieces of the straw costume would be snatched by the young girls, and placed beneath their pillows to insure fertility, or placed in the nests of their chickens to encourage the laying of eggs.
The bear has forever represented as going into the self, into the Earth in order to be refreshed, revitalized and reborn again. Those who would be students of the bear, travel the discomforting trail into their inner self, only later returning to the busy surface with the strength and secrets found within. They know that out of the icy sleep of winter comes the regeneration of life.
Entering into an initiation rite is often like going into hibernation. The initiate is likely placed in the dark and isolation of a secluded hut, pit or cave. They may be further wrapped up, blindfolded, or otherwise have their senses and mobility limited as it would be in the womb. As with hibernation, the initiate would seem to die inside, giving up one persona and climbing out in a new, empowered form.
For this reason, the Dakota refer to a boy’s rite of passage as “to make a bear.” The coastal Pomo included both boys and girls in an initiation where the children are symbolically “killed” by the kuksu spirit, with the help of a costumed grizzly bear.
They were then removed to the forest for four days and nights. When they were “reborn” into the tribe, they brought with them the secret medicine songs and plant knowledge learned in their travels to the middle world.
For the Ainu of northernmost Japan, the bear was “The Divine One Who Rules the Mountains.” To the Cree they are the “Angry One” and “Chief’s Son.” The Sami translation is roughly “Old Man With Fur Clothes,” while the nearby Finns say “Old Lightfoot” or “Pride of the Woods.” Wherever they are found they are called “Grandmother” and “Grandfather” out of respect.
Long after adoption of fire-arms in both Europe and America, the indigenous people continued to hunt bears with their
The totemic energy of the bear was invoked by both men and women of one of the select warrior classes of “barbaric” Europe. They got their name “Berserkers” from the bear (“ber”) skins (“serks”) they wore instead of the uniforms and armor of their more civilized antagonists.
Men and women are said to have fought together, biting at their shields, and raising such a tumultuous animal roar that the earliest Roman invaders fled in a total panic. They were famous for their ability to ignore pain, facing unfair odds with uncompromised ferocity.
Among Great Plains tribes of America they were called “Bear Dreamers” and “Bear Warriors.” Known for running head long at their foes, at times with no more than a bear-jaw knife. They believed the bear spirit would protect them, inspiring incredible feats of courage.
The Pueblo name for bear is often the same as for doctor. The bear not only ushers in the spring vegetation, but shows those who watch close enough which plants and roots to eat, and which herbal medicines to gather for their people. In this country the bear showed the people where to find the kinnickinnick (also called Uva Ursi, or “bearberry”), the yarrow and osha root. The Lakota emergence myth describes the people being tricked into leaving the middle earth by the Trickster Iktomi.
For leaving the embrace of the Earth Mother, the people were subjected to disease, cold and hunger for the first time — possibly an allegory for humanity’s progressive disenfranchisement from the rest of the living planet. It was the bear, the doctor, that felt sorry for the wayward humans and showed them the plant remedies they would need to ease their self-inflicted suffering.
Acceptance of the wild bear is tantamount to acceptance of the unbridled wilderness, of the unbroken energies of woman-hood, of an untamed life. It means acceptance of the dualities of nature, of the dark and light, of all sides of the Earth Mother and whole life.
For many thousands of years humankind has looked to the bear as both reality and symbol, seeing many different things in both. A few land-based tribes in Siberia and North America continue to actively revere the mighty grizzly as a worthy rival and invaluable guide.
Conservationists and nature lovers may continue to see them as important aspects of a healthy ecosystem, and some still draw on them for inspiration, example and power. But for most people, the relationship has progressed to one of estrangement, with all wildlife becoming distant curiosities or televised entertainment. They are no longer even trophies to “bag,” let alone threats to avoid at all cost.
To them, the bears are veritable historical artifacts, barely breathing throwbacks to a wilder and more intensely realized time. They’re magic, and they’re indeed disappearing. But they’re also as real as we are. In another way, they’re always here, stalking the edges of our dreams and imaginations, provoking and encouraging us from within.
We still find something distinctly familiar in the great bear today, in the way the mother gently plays with her cubs, and stiffly defends them against all comers, in how she gently sniffs beckoning blossoms or stretches in the sun.
The bear appeals to that part of the human psyche still pondering its own wilder nature and feral desires, resistant to being controlled or appeased, quick to defend what we most love. The bear strokes our Paleolithic sensibilities, fuels our hopes of ourselves becoming wild and powerful and free again.
For this, and for so many other reasons, it is everyone’s responsibility to take a stance on the bruin’s behalf, and our chance to find its unbowed spirit in us. We need only look ahead to see what must be done... and behind, for — encouragement and affirmation — at our increasingly bear-like tracks.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Anima nature-informed practice and the author of seven inspiring books. He and his partners offer empowering online Herbal, Lifeways and Nature Awareness Home Study courses, and produce the acclaimed Plant Healer Journal of Western Herbalism: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com. Awareness readers are invited to the Herbal Conference held Sept. 15-18 near Santa Fe. www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org, and their enchanted Anima Sanctuary for wilderness retreats and personal counsel: the Anima LIfeways & Herbal School: www.AnimaCenter.org