In the Field

The Cultural and Historical Significance of Bears

The Cultural and Historical Significance of Bears

As those of you who are regular visitors to this website or my YouTube channel have no doubt noticed by now, I love bears! Over the years I’ve photographed thousands of bears, written books about them, collect them, and even had them on my wedding cake!

wedding cake bears
My wife and I like bears so much that we had them on our wedding cake. After all, we were married on Kodiak Island!

Few other creatures summon forth such fear, wonder, awe, and respect as the mighty bears that inhabit our planet. Encountering one of these magnificent animals in their natural habitat instantly fills one with a profound sense of both wonder and intense caution. For indeed, the bear is both a beauty and a beast! Photographs of loving mother bears caring for their cubs warm our hearts, while children sleep peacefully throughout the night as they cuddle in the protective arms of their favorite stuffed teddy bear. Meanwhile, in popular movies and books, snarling, snot-slinging beady-eyed monster bears roar and charge through the forests, aggressively pursuing another meal of human flesh! In reality, the true nature of the bear cannot be found at either extreme. They’re not accurately represented by harmless Disney characters who dance merrily in the woods and share a pot of tea, nor are they justly portrayed as the bloodthirsty savages of horror films that roam the rivers and woods in a relentless hunt for their next victim. The truth is a balanced complexity of behaviors and characteristics.

grizzly bear attack
Bears are often portrayed as nothing more than savage, bloodthirsty beasts! Which is an unfair representation.

Over the centuries, humans and bears have had a multifaceted relationship. Many cultures throughout the world, especially those of Siberia, Northern Japan, Scandinavia, North America, and even as far back as the Paleolithic Neanderthals, have all bestowed great honor upon the bear, placed religious significance on them, and even worshiped bears as deities. In Chauvet France, for example, there’s a 30,000-year-old Paleolithic “bear altar” with 30 bear skulls surrounding it, giving witness to this phenomenon. These ancient cultures of the northern hemisphere believed that bears were intercessors between the earthly world and the spiritual realm, as they appeared to have supernatural powers. This was mostly due to the hibernation behavior of bears. It was believed that sleeping was an activity in which one entered the spiritual realm. Thus, since bears slumbered away so much of their time, it naturally followed that they were highly spiritual creatures. Even more impressive to the people of these cultures was the bear’s perceived ability to resurrect itself from the dead each year. As bears were seen digging their dens for hibernation and entering them as winter approached, it was thought that the bear was carrying out its own burial and death. And, when spring arrived and the bears emerged, it was perceived as a resurrection from the dead. No doubt, it was a mind-blowing phenomenon for more primitive peoples. Based on this belief system, some of these cultures also thought that a bear was possessed by an evil spirit if it did not hibernate and was instead active during the winter.

brown bear digging a bear den
A brown bear digging its winter den. Primitive cultures saw the bear’s hibernation activities as the ability to die and resurrect itself from the dead each year.

Perhaps one of the most well-documented forms of bear worship is that of the Ainu of Hokkaido, Japan. In this culture, the mountain god, Kim-un Kamui, was believed to be a liaison between the spirit world and humans, and as a part of their religious practice, a bear cub was caught in the den and raised as an honored guest among the people. The cub lived in the village and was an integral part of daily life for a couple of years, after which the bear was then lead to a designated place, and ritualistically sacrificed according to an elaborate Lomante ceremony. The bear carcass was then offered generous gifts as the Ainu respectfully ate the meat, which they believed released the bear’s spirit so it could return to the other mountain gods and tell them how wonderful the humans were.

In most Native American cultures, bears were not only revered spiritually, but there was also a great sense of kinship with the bear. It was observed that bears and humans both forage and hunt for their food in the same places. Bears have a similar body structure, dexterous hands, expressive faces, can stand and walk on two legs, and nurse their young in a familiar manner. Bears possessed many of the virtues and characteristics that native peoples strived for. Much like a noble warrior, the bear was thought of as a peaceful, free spirit, but also a creature that could instantly summon explosive, courageous power and relentless tenacity. Mother bears served as an example of a good parent: thoughtful, cautious, protective, and resourceful in the midst of challenges and difficult times. Bears were also associated with the power of healing, as they foraged on what was believed to be medicinal plants and were able to emerge seemingly unharmed after incredibly violent, savage battles with other bears.

bear worship and religion
Native peoples felt a great kinship with the bear and highly honored them in their culture.

While the people of many native cultures, especially those of Alaska and the continental United States, hunted bears for food and used their fur and body parts for clothing and other items, the bear was ritually honored before, during, and after the hunt. Offerings were made to the spirit of the bear, the skull and hide were treated with great reverence. It was believed that if a bear was treated respectfully after it was hunted and killed, that it would grant the hunter good luck on his future efforts. Likewise, if the bear was treated disrespectfully, the hunter could expect bad luck in the future and even possible attacks by other bears. It’s interesting to note, too, that some of our modern-day bear safety procedures have their roots in the practices of these native cultures. Before one would enter into the woods, it was a common routine to speak in a loud voice to the bears who may be present, prayerfully and humbly asking their permission to enter into their domain, granting safe passage, etc. In our more modern day, making noise while passing through bear country by means of talking is still one of the simplest and most important, and most effective safety measures that one can take.

In regard to bears and spirituality, they have also made appearances in the Christian faith. St. Corbinian (d. 730), the Catholic Bishop of Freising (Germany), had a legendary encounter with a bear which is referenced on the Papal Coat Arms of Pope Benedict XVI. In a similar manner, Saint Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833) and Saint Herman of Alaska (d. 1836), of the Orthodox faith, had many interesting experiences with bears during their lives. Throughout the history of Christianity, both East and West, many holy men and women have had otherworldly interactions with bears, who in some cases came to the aid of these saintly individuals, and in other instances were apparently tamed in the presence their sanctity.

St. Seraphim of Serov and a bear
St. Seraphim of Serov and a brown bear.

Today, the bear continues to be a striking symbol of power, perseverance, and all that is wild and free. Bears are still an important part of cultural practices throughout the world and will forever remain both a beauty and a beast.

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How to photograph bears. Photography book. Joseph Classen.
To learn more about bears, check out my book, How to Photograph Bear – The Beauty of the Beast.