This is the Werebear Mini-FAQ, compiled by our own Gary Coulbourne. Eventually, I'd like to have mini-FAQ's representing all of the were-phenotypes... if you know a lot of folklore and fact about your own were-animal, or just feel an urge to do some resea
rch and writing, put something together and mail it to me.
What are some historical legends associated with werebears?
In Scandinavia, there was a firm belief in the ability of some people to change into or assume the characteristics of bears. Our English word "berserk" comes from this legend. It was thought that if a warrior was to don a bear-skin shirt (called
a bear-sark) which had been treated with oils and herbs, that the warrior would gain the strength, stamina, and power of the animal. These people would be driven into a frenzy in battle and were said to be capable of biting through the enemy's shields or
walking through fire without injury. No matter how much of the legend is true, the thought of a group of rabid Vikings made up as bears is sobering.
The pre-Classical Greeks also believed in the ability of men to become bears. One of the most commonly told stories is that of Callisto, who bore a child of Zeus' -- Arcas. Hera, Zeus' wife, became jealous and transformed Callisto into a bear as punishmen
t. Arcas, out hunting, came upon his mother and shot at her. Zeus, taking pity on the mother and son, changed them into Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the two great bear constellations. From this one myth comes a whole score of others. For instance, Arcas' na
me comes from the Greek word for bear--Arctos. By extention, the "Arkades" of Arcadia are supposedly decended from Arcas. Their name means bear-people.
The Callisto myth also blends very well into the werewolf myth of Lycaon. According to legend, Callisto was Lycaon's daughter. Arcas was the individual who was supposed to have been served to Zeus as a test of the god's divinity, but he managed to escape.
Even one of the synonyms for bear used by the Greeks, bee-wolf (for the bear's love of honey), managed to make it into legend. A legend, in fact, which was the first great work of the English language.
The story is titled "Beowulf". And almost every high school English class reads it. It is basically the story of a Geatish hero who vanquishes several evils from the world. Beowulf supposedly had the strength of thirty men in his left hand. He i
s a powerful swimmer and has tremendous endurance. All these traits are commonly associated with the bear.
The Native Americans
These are not the only legends of bear shapeshifters. In fact, one of the earliest legends in human experience concerns a bear-shapeshifter. This legend, that of the Bear Mother, is found in the traditions of many peoples throughout the world, including s
everal Native American tribes.
The cleanest version of it comes from the Haida people of British Columbia. According to this version, some women from the tribe were out gathering huckleberries. All but one of them were singing to appease the bears. She chattered on about her own concer
ns, and it angered the bears--they felt that she was mocking them. So as the berry-pickers headed home, the chatterbox was the last to go, for she had spilled her berries and had to gather them up again.
As she worked, she was approached by two men wearing bear-fur robes, who looked like brothers. One of them offered to help her if she would go with him. She agreed. She followed them to a large house. Inside were several people, all of them dressed in bea
rskins. One of them told her that she had been taken to a bear den and that she was now one of them. She noticed that she too was wearing a bearskin robe. The chief of the bear-people took her as his wife and she gave birth to twins which were half-human
One day, her brothers came looking for her. They found her, and murdered her husband. Before the Bear Husband died, however, he taught her the songs that her brothers must use over his corpse to bring good luck and speed his soul to the afterlife. The Bea
r Sons lived with the tribe as humans until their mother died. Her death ended the twins' connection with humanity; once again they became bears and returned to live with the Bear People.
For some peoples, this myth was extended into that of creation itself; some myths went so far as to say that the entire human race was decended from the children of the Bear Sons. And many, many peoples believed in deep spiritual connections with bear
What are some spiritual beliefs about bears?
It really depends on whom one asks. Almost universally, the Bear is represented by the constellation Ursa Major, the Great She-Bear. It is composed of fourteen stars, seven of which shine with extreme brightness. Most of us in the west know the constellat
ion better as the Big Dipper--the rump of the bear appears to have a long "tail" extending from it, which looks exactly like the handle of a saucepan. This "tail" no longer exists in modern bears, but the cave bears had them and to the
early peoples there was nothing at all strange about the shape of the sky-bear. Many people used these stars as an indication of the seasons. As winter drew near, the Bear would slowly dip lower in the sky, looking for a place to "bed down." Th
ese stars would slowly spiral around Polaris, the north star, following the same path night after night. They acted as a clock that was so accurate that many indigenous peoples still use them to tell the time.
Many of these same peoples looked at the bear as "brother," or "great grandfather." To them, the bear was very human in its manners and ways. It could stand on its hind legs and walk like a man, it ate the same food they did, walked th
e same trails, and cared for its cubs in a fiercely protective way. The skeleton of a bear, if stretched out, looked very much like that of a man. The bear became a companion in the path of life and a model for the living of it. This oneness of man and be
ar is clearly represented in the Grizzly Bear Song of the Tlingit Indians:
So you say
Whu Whu Whu!
You're a fine young man
You Grizzly Bear
You crawl out of your fur.
I say Whu Whu Whu!
I throw grease in the fire.
In a spiritual sense, the Bear is seen as a totem of healing, or of strength and introspection. She is the Spirit of the West. She represents rebirth and regeneration. In an imitation of death, the bear goes into her den and is gone through the cold month
s of winter. Then, as spring comes, she returns, reborn. Usually, she comes out with cubs, serving as a symbol of birth. The Shaman would often dress in the skin of a bear, and call upon Her medicine to heal the sick or guide him to what herbs should be u
sed to cure an ailing tribesman.
Today, followers of modern Shamanism look to Bear for the same reasons. As Spirit of the West, She is one of the Four Great Powers. She encourages Her followers to consider their actions, to think about the decisions that they are about to make.
What about books about werebears?
Well, in the fictional realm, there are several authors who have written of characters who could change into bears into their novels. Most notable is the late J.R.R. Tolkien. He created Beorn, who turned the tide in the last battle of The Hobbit. There is
also Dennis L. McKiernen. McKiernen wrote The Eye of the Hunter, a story about a group of heroes on the trail of an ancient evil. One of the characters, Urus, is called a "cursed one" because he can change but has no guarantee that he will be a
ble to change back. Finally, there is David Eddings. In his Belgariad series, there was a character, Barak, who was fated to turn into a bear whenever the protagonist was in danger. Even in comic books there are characters who can become bears, or at leas
t, bear-like. In the Image title "New Men," there is a character named Kodiak who can turn from a geeky teenager into a huge, bearish humanoid. Marvel has two. The first is Ursa Major, a Soviet government agent who can change into a large bear-m
an. The second is Ephraim Dees, whose power manifests itself as a spectral bear superimposed over his aura. Neither one of them is well portrayed or even worth the time to look into. They are mentioned here for the sake of completeness.
Fiction's good, but what about fact?
There are a number of good books on mythology. The non-fiction works make for much better reading. The ones that I recommend, both on bears and werebears, are:
*Shepard, Paul and Barry Sanders. The Sacred Paw.
New York, NY: Arkana, 1985.
This book is, without question, the best book on the subject. It explores, in great detail, the biology of the bear, the spiritualism that many peoples associate with the bear, and bears in literature. A fabulous read with the most complete bibliography o
n the subject there is. Also has some great stuff on spiritualism and shamanism in general.
*Brown, Gary. The Great Bear Almanac.
New York, NY: Lyons & Burford, 1993.
*Elman, Robert. Bears: Rulers of the Wilderness.
Stamford, CT: Longmeadow, 1992.
*Savage, Candice. Grizzly Bears. Vancouver, British
Columbia: Sierra Club, 1990.
*Rockwell, David. Giving Voice To Bear. Toronto, Ontario:
Roberts Rinehart, 1991.
These four are all very good books on bears in general, with a heavy emphasis on the symbolic. Savage's work is a brilliantly executed photo essay that covers mythology as well as truth. Brown's work is an encyclopaediac reference to little known bear fac
ts including mythology. Elman's work is another photo essay, but the pictures are wonderful. Not quite as nice as Savage's work, but they cover a wider variety. And Rockwell explores Native American beliefs about the bear.
*Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak. St. Paul, MN:
Llewellyn Publications, 1994.
*Meadows, Kenneth. The Medicine Way: A Shamanic Path to Self-Mastery.
Dorset: Element Press, 1990.
These two books are good references for information on shamanism. And not just for information about bear as a totem, either. There is information on quite a variety of totems and their meanings.