The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Bears are conspicuous in witchcraft lore by their very absence. They are the creatures so sacred that many fear to mention their name.
This is no exaggeration. Bears are the animals of shamanism par excellence. Throughout Northern lands, whether North America, Europe or Asia, bears are the original sacred animal, sponsors and symbols of shamanic healing societies. They are the teachers and perhaps originators of shamanism. Because bears dig in the Earth, they are also understood as the original root-workers and possess profound connections with healing, herbalism, and root magic. Bears are simultaneously sacred and dangerous creatures, benevolent and frightening, possessing powers too strong for the uninitiated to withstand.
Shamanic religion is often synonymous with bear religion. In traditional shamanic cultures, bears were worshipped and venerated. These bear cultures (some survive; there once were many, ranging across the entire far Northern hemisphere) typically never utter the name “bear”: that would be like taking the Lord’s name in vain or maybe like not calling the devil so that he won’t come. Euphemisms are substituted: “Big Brother,” “Old Honey Thief,” and the like. (In a similar manner, ancient Greeks never mentioned the name of the Lord of the Dead; Hades, which names his realm and Pluto, meaning “The Rich One,” are both euphemisms.)
Bear religion is among Earth’s original religions. Fairly soon after people began worshipping mothers, they began worshipping bears, too. Sometimes both were worshipped simultaneously. Paleolithic goddess statuettes depict huge mother bears nursing petite human infants.
Bears possess a great resemblance to humans. They stand upright and eat a similar diet. In a Native American story, a boy abandoned in the woods far from other people discovers that out of all the forest animals, the only animal that he as a human can live with comfortably is the bear.
Ursus spelaeus, the cave bear, appeared on Earth approximately 300,000 years ago and was physically very similar to the modern brown (grizzly) bear. Other than slight anatomical differences, the major distinction was size: cave bears were huge, weighing up to one ton. They were perhaps 30 percent taller than brown bears.
Cave bears hibernated, unsurprisingly, in caves, where they also gave birth and frequently died, leaving their skeletons behind. Remains have been found throughout the European mountain chains (Alps, Ardennes, Carpathians and Urals). The bones of at least 30,000 cave bears formed a deep layer of bone in the Dragon Cave near Mixnitz, Austria.
Not all bones were left as they fell. Among the very first indications of human spiritual traditions are ancient cave bear shrines. In Alpine grottoes dating to c.100,000 BCE, cave bear skulls are marked with red ochre and then carefully arranged alongside ritual hearths. Bear skulls were also arranged on stone slabs and placed in wall niches. The caves contain altars, flagstone flooring, benches, and tables. This is literally Neanderthal religion; Neanderthal people built these shrines.
Bear religion didn’t end with the Neanderthals; similar traditions still exist amongst some tribal peoples. Nor were these caves restricted to the Alps. In one bear cave discovered in south-western France, one crawls on hands and knees through a long, dark, narrow passage leading to a cul-de-sac where a bear’s skeleton awaits.
Vestiges of the sacred nature of bears survive in place names, like Berne, Switzerland, city of the bears. Europe is now largely devoid of bears. They have lost virtually all of their former territory in North America as well. There is a mistaken belief that no bears ever existed in Africa. This is true south of the Sahara, however Atlas bears once ranged from Morocco to Libya; the last Atlas bear is believed to have been shot in 1840 in the Tetuan Mountains. Bears of one type or another are indigenous to all continents except Australia and Antarctica. (Koala bears are not true bears.) A healthy adult bear has no enemies other than people. Wherever bears survive, they are endangered because of loss of habitat and because they have been exterminated as a competitive species and for sport and museum collections. Because various parts of bears’ bodies are valued in East Asian medicine, poachers place a high price on bears even though this hunting is largely illegal.
The ancient Norse associated bears with the shaman god Odin. Warriors who fought under his protection were known as “berserkers” (berserk means bear shirt). They fought naked but for bear skins, ritually channeling bear power—temporarily incorporating the bear’s spirit—in order to become fierce, formidable, and virtually unbeatable, striking terror into their opponents as they went berserk. (In a sense, they become temporary were-bears; their comrades, also under Odin’s protection, were wolf warriors.)
Bear-centered spirituality survives wherever traditional Northern shamanism survives, particularly among Native Americans. Native American bear doctors and bear societies still exist. Among the few explicit linkages of bears to witchcraft occurs in the Ojibwa tradition of bear-walking, a form of shape-shifting sorcery.
Bears were sacred in warmer climates, too. The Greek goddess Artemis’s name may derive from her affiliation with bears, which were among her most sacred animals and sometime her alter-ego. Her young temple priestesses were known as “bears.”
The few references to bears in European fairy tales usually tell of men doomed to wear the bear’s form because of unhappy encounters with witches, as in Snow White and Rose Red and some versions of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. These stories read negatively if one assumes that transformation into a bear’s shape is negative; reading between the lines, if one understands wearing the bear’s skin as a secret reference to shamanism, different conclusions can be drawn.
See DIVINE WITCH: Artemis; Odin.