Mythology and folklore of the bear

Bear folklore is widespread, especially in the far northern hemisphere. Bears have been venerated in many cultures and our relationship with this awesome animal goes back a long way. The incredible paintings in the Chauvet cave in South-eastern France include images of bears. This artwork depicts the now extinct cave bear and is around 30,000 years old! Brown bears were part of Britain’s native fauna until around the sixth century when hunting and habitat loss drove them to extinction.

Bears played a central role in many shamanic practices of the north and there is archaeological evidence of rituals surrounding bear hunts. Remains such as skulls and skins seem to have been treated with great reverence.

Bears were often seen as a symbol of motherhood. They are known for being fiercely protective of their young, and their milk is particularly rich. Celts venerated the bear goddess, Artio. Like a mother bear they believed she offered protection. Her name has even been incorporated into some Welsh place names. The bear god Artaois is linked to the warrior-king, Arthur. With his legendary strength and fighting prowess, Arthur’s name and emblem both represent this animal.

The Gaelic for bear is mathan. Celtic families would often have their own animal totem, a tradition that is still evident in the family name McMahon, which means ‘son(s) of the bear’.

Viking warriors were famous for working themselves into an insane battle frenzy. They invoked the bear spirit, even donning a bear skin, to imbue them with superhuman strength and fury. These were the Berserkers, their name being derived from a Norse word meaning ‘bear shirt’.

In Greek legend, Zeus fell in love with the huntress Callisto, and she bore him a son named Arcas. In a fit of jealous rage, Zeus’s wife turned Callisto into a bear. Time passed, and one day Arcas was out hunting. How was he to know that the bear he was stalking was his own mother?! On seeing that Callisto’s life was in danger, Zeus whisked her up into the night sky out of harm’s way. She can still be seen in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. In another version, Arcas is also sent skywards, and becomes the adjacent Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. The Big Dipper, or Plough, is one of the more familiar groups of stars within this constellation. The Druidic name for this group was Arthur’s Plough, and the constellation was also seen as a bear in Native American and Hebrew tradition.

Bears play a prominent role in Native American mythology. They are often symbols of strength, wisdom, healing and medicine. Bear appears in many stories as a moral figure who dishes out punishment to animals and humans for improper or disrespectful behaviour.

Human fascination with this animal has not always worked in the bear’s favour. The bear appears in the names of many English pubs, and this is thought to be a hangover from the days of bear-baiting – medieval ‘entertainment’ which involved tying a bear to a post and setting dogs on it. Scottish bears were even taken to the Colosseum in Rome as part of the games.

In 1902, U.S. President Theodore (‘Teddy’) Roosevelt was on a hunting trip along the Mississippi. He was struggling to find a bear, so his attendants caught one with hounds and tied it to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot. He refused to do so, deeming it unsportsmanlike, although he could have easily taken it as a trophy. The story of this act spread quickly, and the Teddy Bear was born.

Bears still make an appearance in recent literature, including Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear. Beorn in Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a man who could take the shape of a bear, echoing ancient shamanic practices. There is also wise old Baloo, the teacher of the wolf cubs from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and who could forget Paddington Bear (think marmalade sandwiches and hard stares), or Winnie the Pooh? Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh uses this unassuming bear to illustrate the Taoist principles of modesty, simplicity, and down-to earth wisdom. In Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights, the heroine, Lyra, befriends the polar bear king, Iorek Byrnison, helping him to regain his throne.

Selected sources and further reading