Bears in myth and legend

Sidebar by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Bears have been revered and respected throughout human history.

The Pawnee of the Plains venerate White Bear Medicine Woman, born with a bear’s spirit after her father killed a bear while she was in her mother’s womb, and known for her healing powers.

The Dene of northern Canada believe that Bear can read — and change — human minds. He has the power to see the future and can disappear at will when displeased by the words of another creature.

According to the ancient Greeks, bears even populate the heavens.

When Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon, fell in love with the mortal huntress Callisto, his wife, the goddess Hera, responded as she usually did to her husband’s philandering: She punished his lover. In this case, Hera changed Callisto into a large bear. She then tried to trick Callisto’s son Arcas into killing the bear. Unable to undo his wife’s spell, Zeus nevertheless managed to avert this tragedy by turning Arcas into a smaller bear. He then snatched both bears and hurled them into the sky where they would be safe — and immortal. Hera, furious at the honor bestowed upon her rival, subsequently persuaded the sea god Poseidon to forbid the bears from descending into the ocean like other stars. And so Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Latin for Greater and Lesser Bear) are the only constellations that never set below the horizon in the northern hemisphere.

Observing bears in hibernation may have lead ancient people to associate the animal with dreams and introspection. Some indigenous North Americans believe that Bear guards the knowledge revealed in dreams until the dreamer awakens and can use what has been learned.

People with “Bear Medicine” are said to be connected to feminine receptive energy. They are introspective and think carefully before making decisions. They may be mystics, shamans, or visionaries. And they may need lots of sleep, which could be Bear working through them — or simply the result of one too many nights on the town.