As we slowly drift into fall it is worth reflecting on this season from the perspective of the majestic and noble bear; those of us lucky enough to live close too or near mountains or forests will experience this creature at first hand this time of year. The gradual approach of winter alerts the creature to the necessity of building up its weight for a long hibernation, and it is frequently found scavenging and roaming amidst human settlements for tasty morsels. The relationship between bear and human is a long epic, full of myths, fantasy, amazing adventure and struggle. And so, before our tired eyes begin to falter before the slowly fading Harvest moon I will recount some of the great legends of our gentle forest cousin.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (believe it or not) the mighty and majestic bear once roamed all across Europe, dwelling in the dark forests of oak and ash… free and plentiful. It was the inspiration for many legends and tales amongst the Celts and Scandinavians, its strength and stamina was imitated through heroic deeds of valor. In ancient pagan Norway there were specialized bands of warriors called ‘Beserkers’ or ‘bear-shirts’ because they donned the hides and furs of the bear, adorned themselves with their teeth, claws and bones, and were always the first furious combatants in battle… invoking the strength and ferocity of their totem beast. Such fearless warriors were in high demand as body-guards for the nobility and persons of the highest rank. The Norwegian term bjorn was one of the titles of Thor, the mighty god of thunder.
Fionna MaCleod recounts an ancient Irish Celtic legend of the Pole Star; the youthful Finn mac Cumhail went bear hunting beyond the western mountains. Together with his two faithful hounds Luath and Dorch they discovered an immense bear and chased him all the way to the icy North-lands to an everlasting rainbow, across which the bear climbed. It was met in the middle by the two hounds and all seemed to have brought to a conclusion when it crashed to the ground, mortally wounded it seemed… but not! It started running again. The ‘All-Father’ the Great Creator watching this spectacle from the heavens decided this escapade was more than enough and so he hoisted the bear by means of a rope noose into the pitch dark sky where it raced around Arcturus the ‘North Star’ or ‘Northmen’s Torch.’ Finn didn’t give up, with the hero’s leap he mounted the rainbow, then again onto the hill of heaven and gave eternal chase to the divine beast. Here the magnificent northern lights we see are said to be the spears of Finn, forever being hurled at the Great Bear… forever in pursuit.
In ancient Ireland there were two names given to the bear; art which is cognate with the Greek arktos and the name of the star Arcturus, and math or mathus which is the origin of the name mac-mathghamhna or the ‘bear-club clan’ of the Mac Mahon’s. In Pagan Irish tradition the bear possessed a unique divinity and was often regarded as a god of the heavens, forming a triplicity in the night sky with Arcturus as the ‘Bear-Guard’ or ‘Fort of the Bears’ and the two smaller bears sleeping around it, called Ursa major and Ursa minor. There is another myth that these sleeping bear gods will arise from their hibernation and come to the aid of their people when called, and this obligation is borne by the bear-tribe of the Mahon’s.
Bears still existed all across Western Europe as late as the fifteenth century, although they had become extinct in Britain by the 10th century. They were frequently caught, imported and used in games and entertainment, for public spectacle. In 16th century Elizabethan England fighting bears were common; famous bears such as ‘Harry Hunks’ and the ‘Great Sackerson’ became national idols, fighting at the Paris gardens in Southwark London every Sunday. By the beginning of the Spanish civil war in 1936 bears had almost completely disappeared in Western Europe, only in the eastern parts of Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Transylvanian mountain ranges do they still live in considerable numbers. In the Apenusi mountains is the ‘Pestera Ursilor’ or Bears-Cave where the 15,000 year old skeletal remains of an ancient family of 140 bears has been discovered. Even when the bear is no longer with us in a physical way, we can always sense its powerful spiritual presence, like the invocation-song of Vainamoinen in the Kalevala:
Autumn weather is slippery, winter days are dark.
My bear, my darling, honey-paws, my beauty,
You still have ground to cover, heath to clamber upon.
Start, splendid one, to go, glory of the forest, to step along.
We cannot fail to recognize the primitive importance of the bear to our sense of being, when our lives as children begin with old tales like ‘Goldilocks.’ In the original oral tradition the young fair girl was a silvered widow, and before that a crafty fox called Scrapefoot… when we dig deep we become wild creatures living in the dark deep forest just like the bears, then we stole their food and now they repay us likewise. Beware; before you scream in fear remember he is just a prince with a fur-coat!
I send my blessings to you all this fall Equinox, and pray your harvest and hibernation during the dark months be a peaceful one, deep, relaxing and refreshing.