Through time immemorial, bears have been fascinating to humans. As demi-gods and demons, friends and foe, they have infiltrated the mythologies and belief systems of almost every society in the Northern hemisphere. They appear in literature, art, and decorative disciplines alike as terrifying beasts, benevolent allegories, and symbolic lords of the forest.
Ancient cultures were struck by the similarities of bears to humans: they stood fully erect and they shared our omnivorous diet. Thus, in cultural terms, the animal became a sort of paradoxical alter-ego. At once venerated and killed, caressed and tortured, respected and despised.
The bear was seen as man’s link with nature. Native American tribes revered bears as the spirit of their forbearers, and gave their hides and fur sacred significance. In early Christian legend, St Corbinian was even able to tame a bear after it had killed his horse on a long trek. This notion of the bear as an anthropomorphised relation, capable of cooperation, is often recapitulated in modern culture. We might examine stories such as The Beauty and the Beast, originally published in France in the 18th century and made famous by the Disney adaptation.
A parallel tradition shows the bear as man’s feral rival: visceral, violent, dangerous, and powerful. Nepalese legends of the Himalayan Yeti elucidated huge hairy beasts, which snatched children from their mother’s clutches. In Scandinavia, Finnish ‘beserkers’ were maniacal warriors clad in bear skins, prone to fits of irrepressible bestial rage, and said to have inherited the traits of the animal.
By the Middle Ages, the cultural role of bears had become more symbolic. In England bear-baiting surged in popularity. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I favoured it as a medium through which they could assert their dominance over the natural world. In Russia, the creature became a national emblem: ‘Misha’ – a bear-cub – was even the mascot for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Bears also held significance in Germany: Berlin is a rough approximation of “Bärlein”, which translates as ‘Little Bear’, and the animal still features prominently on the city’s flag and coat of arms.
In contemporary culture, the iconography of the bear has softened further. That grizzly monster of medieval legend has given way to an avuncular glutton immortalised in children’s books and toys. Rudyard Kipling’s Baloo, the wise and caring star of the Jungle Book gave way to A.A.Milne’s docile honey-guzzler Winnie the Pooh, who was in turn followed by the famous Paddington. Since then, we have seen Yogi Bear, Fozzie Bear, and Seth Macfarlane’s irreverent Ted. There can be no doubt that this creature will continue to fascinate and amaze our creative consciousness, and further flood popular culture as lord of the forest, and man’s link to the natural world.