Note: Another assignment turned into an article. This was never published.
Since before recorded history, man has been fascinated with bears. This fascination has been with good reason. Bears have the ability to stand erect and use their forepaws in much the same way humans use their hands. Also, much like humans, bears have an inquisitive, playful nature. They are the largest omnivorous on earth and possess strength that all humans view with awe and a touch of fear. A bear’s face is remarkably expressive, and when skinned, a bear’s carcass has an uncanny resemblance to a human being. Even bear excrement closely resembles that of a human. It is easy to see why a primitive person would see a bear eating fruit from a tree or rolling around on the ground in a scent that it found appealing, he would see an animal he admired and shared a close kinship with. It is no wonder that virtually every society that had regular contact with bears attached special symbolism and rites to them.
Bears are found on all continents except Antarctica, and exist in the cultures of all people. Even in regions that do not currently have bears, the indigenous mythologies contain stories that have been passed through the generations about species of bears that are now extinct; not only because of the shear strength of the bear, but because of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that bears display. In fall or early winter, a bear goes into a cave or hollow tree, the place of its birth, and hibernates. As spring arrives, the bear awakes and emerges from its tomb in a symbolic renewal of life.
This cycle of life, death, and rebirth gave rise to the Bear-Mother myths that all share a commonality of a Bear-God imparting to humans wisdom and rituals for killing bears. The basic scenario is a woman is taken captive by a bear and forced to become his wife. Children, usually twins that are half bear and half human, are born. Then members of the woman’s family come to rescue her and kill the bear. Before the bear is killed, he teaches the woman and children the songs that must be sung when a bear is killed, and gives them instructions to teach mankind the songs that when sung after killing a bear will ensure success in future bear hunts.
The Ket, a tribe of Siberian Ostyaks, were one of the many peoples around the world that thought of the bear as divine and worthy of extensive ritual when killed. When someone of the Ket tribe found a bear’s dens, he returned to his tribe and alerted the rest of the clan. He would do this in a peculiar way. The divinity of the bear allowed him to hear and understand all languages, so the hunter would pound on his snowshoes with a stick to indicate his tribe what he had discovered. Even when speaking of the bear, the terms “bear”, “hunt”, and “kill” were never used since uttering them would scare the bear into hiding. Early the next morning, the hunting group would build a fire at the opening of the cave and shout “Come out, Grandfather!” References to bears as “grandfather”, “uncle”, and “brother” were very common in the bear hunting cultures. These references to the bear as a member of the clan show the level of respect that this animal held in their society, and furthered the sense of kinship between man and bear. After killing the bear, its right forepaw was cut off and flipped onto the ground with a series of “yes” and “no” questions in order to determine what clan, and possibly which member of that particular clan, the spirit in the bear was from. After the use of the claw as a divination tool, it was often kept by one of the hunters as a good luck talisman that was worn around the neck. The bear was then eaten in a great feast that occupied two and sometimes three days. Afterwards, the head of the bear was placed on a pike or in a tree not as a trophy, but to protect it from scavenging animals since the head was considered the dwelling place of the spirit. All of these acts were done with the utmost of ritualistic respect in order not to anger the bear and cause him to not return.
All through the process, the bear was begged for forgiveness by the hunters for killing it. They asked that the bear not be angry with them, and each hunter explained that it was not his blow that had killed him. It is interesting to note that in several of the bear cultures, the women threw snowballs and water at the returning hunters. In a few, the hunters would take plunges into lakes and rivers in symbolic purification rituals the hunters performed after the unclean act of killing the sacred bear.
A common variation of the bear-killing rituals that is found among the North American cultures was the use of tobacco. After the feast, the hunters would gather around in a circle and pass a pipe around from which everyone in the circle smoked. The bear also participated in this ritual with his severed head placed in the position an honored guest would normally occupy, and the pipe placed in his teeth so he could smoke along with everyone else. This act has major significance since the hunters never went so far as to smoke a pipe with any other animal they had just been killed. The reverence held for the bear can also be seen in that no society that had bear-related rituals ever allowed dogs or other scavengers to eat any part of the bear. Great care was taken not to break or cut the bones any more than necessary, and they were usually disposed of by burying or placing in the trunk of a tree. Here again is the motif of continuing the cycle of life, death, and rebirth by returning the dead bear to the place from which he was originally born and is reborn at the end of every winter.
Man’s history has been inextricably intertwined with that of the bear since men first saw the giant creatures lumbering around in the wild. All cultures have at one time or another come across a bear, and have taken away from the experience a fear, a natural awe, and even an admiration of the furry beasts that remind us of ourselves. With the bear’s immense strength and seemingly human behavior, they have worked their way into the human psyche and have been honored with special rites and symbolism that have been attached to then through the ages.