Bear: Myth, Animal, Icon
Wolf D. Storl, North Atlantic Books, 320 pages, 2018. $21.95
“Hardly any other animal has left such a strong and lasting impression on the people of the northern half of the globe as the bear has,” Wolf D. Storl writes near the end of his latest book. “Its archetypical image has engraved itself deeply into their souls. Contrary to many wild animals that populate the world of fairy tales and fables, furry Bruin — with a few exceptions — appears as a good-natured, snuggly, and contented being. From a safe distance, he is seen more as a friend than a threat. One likes him and would like to be close to him.”
But, he reminds us with caution a few sentences later, “One tends to forget that bears can hardly be tamed and can be very dangerous.”
These words fairly well summarize what Storl explores throughout his frequently enchanting “Bear: Myth, Animal, Icon.” A widely traveled cultural anthropologist and ethnobotanist from Germany, Storl is steeped in mythology and ancient lore, and it is through these lenses that he views the complex relationship between humans and bears that stretches back to the Stone Age. Rummaging through myths, legends, and folk tales, as well as archaeological finds, he shows how the varied peoples of the three continents composing the upper portion of the Northern Hemisphere have come to know and regard their ursine neighbors.
In most regions above the tropics, the bear is king. Bears are one of the few animals capable of killing and eating people, although curiously, despite this clear advantage, they rarely do so. Among wild animals, bears are more like humans than most: intelligent, omnivorous, skillful. And when skinned, their bodies resemble ours so closely that in some cultures killing bears was taboo. And as Strol demonstrates, wherever bears historically wandered, the humans who lived alongside them incorporated the animals into their mythologies.
Archaeological evidence shows the presence of a bear cult having existed 10,000 years ago in what is now Switzerland. Relics from Neanderthal sites indicate that bears played a role in the spiritual cosmology of those long-extinct human relatives. And mighty Thor, Storl says, was at least partially patterned on bears.
Wandering about the northern tier of the globe, Storl finds creation myths in numerous far-flung regions that involve the bear as key player in bringing about life. Pre-Christian Celts viewed the Earth as a goddess, and the bear as her lover. Virile in summer and dormant in winter, the bear’s life cycle mirrors the seasons, and when bears emerged from their dens in spring, they were seen as the source of fertility for the goddess.
Across the Pacific, the Shasta people living in what today is California told of humans descending from the union of a bear father and the daughter of the Great Spirit. Stories of bears mating with women are a common theme in many of the legends Storl recounts. It seems to be something of an Ur-myth that often emerged in cultures that dwelt in close proximity to bears. Again and again stories tell of fair maidens either kidnapped by bears, or else following one by personal volition. Taken to his cave, the woman gives birth to the bear’s child, who in turn becomes father to the people telling the myth, or perhaps a great warrior.
The bear as fighter was also long revered, and harnessing its power an objective of combatants. In early medieval Europe, men clad in bearskins would not simply march into battle, but hurl themselves into it, fighting with the complete abandon of the animal they wrapped themselves in. They were known as “berserkers,” a term still with us, which Storl tells us was drawn from the merging of two Old Nordic words, “beri,” meaning bear, and “sekr,” or robe. To wear the bearskin was to become a bear. In warfare the power of the berserker was revered. But in peacetime those same men, unable to conform to society, lived wretched lives beyond the outskirts of villages and towns.
Another recurring theme is the complete merger of bear and human. In varying ways, men — and sometimes women — shape-shift between the two species, either through magic or by curse. In one story, Snow White and her sister, Red Rose, along with their mother, take in a bear for the winter and care for it. Come summer the bear departs for the woods, and the two sisters repeatedly encounter a foul-tempered dwarf. As the tale unfolds, it is learned the dwarf himself turned a prince into the bear who had lived with the family, and with the aid of the two, the prince regains his form, after which he and his brother marry the two peasant girls.
Bears figured prominently in pagan mythologies, and according to Storl, as Christianity swept across Europe, the ancient beliefs were subtly incorporated into the new faith. Stories abounded of saints who tamed bears with the power of God. It was a power shared by other gods as well, including Krishna, who in India successfully battled a bear for possession of a divine jewel.
It was communism, not Christianity, that finally squelched the last bear cults, lasting in Siberia into the early 20th century. Elaborate sacrificial rituals were practiced long enough for early anthropologists to document them before they vanished in the ensuing political upheaval.
Meanwhile, even as bears have been pushed into ever-shrinking corners of wilderness, they continue to expand in popular culture. In his final chapter, Storl pays homage to Winnie the Pooh, Smokey Bear, Gentle Ben, and other icons. And, he notes where children’s rooms once held bear paws for protection, they now contain teddy bears. The bear remains a guardian.
Storl’s book takes bears out of the scientific and ecological realms, and places them squarely in the boundless worlds of human imagination. In Alaska, where bears still roam freely, his stories remind us that we are made more fully human by this uneasy cohabitation. We would lose an irreplaceable part of ourselves without them.