Like a heavy drop of water
Around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye.

Alexander Pope

 At the foot of the sacred mountain called Shasta, the story has been handed down, from lip to ear, from Up to ear. From the mouths of the ancient grandfathers through the generations of the Shasta tribe they learnt of the early times when the grizzly bear walked upright and had his own language. In those days, when the Great Spirit had newly fashioned the world and before there were any human kind, the massive golden bear used tools and ruled the animal world. It is said that the daughter of the Creator wandered down from the mountain peak into the world and became lost. She rested her ethereal body on the slopes beneath a tree, her sun-red hair flowing around her pale frame. In her exhausted sleep she was discovered by a family of bears, who took her gently to their den and nurtured her as one of their own. When she was fully grown her marriage to one of the bear sons was joyously celebrated, and together they produced many offspring who combined the features of their dissimilar parents. These children had dark reddish skin like their father but it was smooth like that of their mother, and they possessed the general characteristics of her shape. Their hair, however, was dark and thickly grew from their more massive heads, and their hands were adept at manipulating tools.

 Thus were the first Redmen created, and they honoured both their sky-born mother and their ursine patrilineage with equal devotion. When the Great Spirit learnt of how they had created this new race, he became very angry and punished the grizzly kingdom for the effrontery shown to his daughter. He silenced their speech and ordered them to drop their tools and get down on all fours before him. Then he drove all of his daughter's children out into the world and bade them scatter in all directions. After this he closed the door of his big teepee so that they could never come back to live there and he carried his daughter back up the mountain, never to return. The Shasta say that only when they were compelled to fight for their honour and their lives did the Great Spirit permit the bears to stand up and walk like men. They say that one can look at a grizzly to see that he once stood erect and walked like a man. Their arms are much shorter than their legs, they walk flat-footed and have no tails, and in all respects are more like man than any other animal. This is why the old-time Indians around Mount Shasta would never kill or tamper with grizzlies . . . for they are ancestors.

 The symbolism attached to the bear parallels this belief in a more general sense by relating the animal to the nigredo of prime matter. In this way its nature corresponds to all initial stages of being and to the earliest instincts in manifested life. The instinct of protective motherhood and the sensitivity to annual cycles of waking and sleeping are dramatically exemplified by the bear. Perhaps an awareness of this and the notion of an ancient ancestry were behind the extraordinary bear cults observed by Neanderthal men over fifty thousand years ago. The deep cave of Drachenloch, eight thousand feet up the Swiss Alps, was excavated in 1917, revealing a dwelling area towards its entrance and a strange cubical stone chest further back. Upon removing the slab covering it, the archaeologists discovered seven bear skulls carefully placed with their muzzles facing the cave entrance. At Regourdu a larger rectangular pit with a one-ton slab over it was discovered to contain twenty carefully arranged skulls of cave bears, whose adjacent skeletal remains indicated a minimal body length of nine feet from nose to tail and a weight greater than that of a large grizzly. Each skull represented a very dangerous encounter engaged in by men wielding sharply pointed wooden stakes and crudely hafted spears. They must have eaten the abundant flesh and draped themselves with the skins, but the placement of skulls clearly indicates a reverential awe and a belief in the inherent magical power of the animal. Indeed, it is likely that the Neanderthal, like other more recent hunting people of the North, worshipped the bear as the mythical first man.

 In some modern schools of thought the bear has been considered a symbol of "the perilous aspect of the unconscious" as well as an attribute of a man who is cruel and crude. Christian dogma went so far as to identify ursus with all that is carnal and evil, even with the devil himself. The fight between David and the bear has been interpreted as a conflict between Christ and the Prince of Darkness. But almost all other traditions in the world accentuate the qualities of supernatural power, strength and fortitude as well as chieftainship. The Iroquois identify the bear as the Chief of the Other World, who stands to the north and whose prowling releases the cold winter blast. Though it is powerful and awesome, they, like the Japanese, Siberians, Finns, Scandinavians, Greeks and other American Indian tribes, see in the bear a symbol of wisdom and great occult significance. The Ainu treat it as a culture hero and a divine messenger. The hunting taboos observed by them as well as the many tribes of the Finno-Ugric speaking people who traditionally roamed the boreal forests of Asia and Europe demonstrate the sacred reverence in which they held the animal. To the Lapps he was the Master of the Forest, the Wise Man, the Old Man of the Mountains or the Holy Animal. The Votiaks say that a bear can understand human speech though he himself cannot talk, and to them as to many other people he is the channel through whose innate power communication with the spirit world can occur.

 The belief that the bear could understand the human language though not speak it is well illustrated in the story told by an Ojibwa Indian who had encountered a large upright bear on a pathway. He collected his courage and sternly told the enormous creature that if he did not back off he would shoot him with the old rifle he clutched at his breast. The animal seemed to mull this over for a time and then abruptly turned away. Its power as a messenger, however, seems to be linked up with its celestial counterpart which revolves as the seven stars of the Great Bear around the central pole of heaven. Many are the legends that describe how the bright orbs of Ursa Major became tied to the pole-star and why they endlessly revolve around it. Some say that they were bears pursued by men and dogs until they escaped into the sky, but the Navajo and Bella Coola believe that they are guardians to the place of the Sun, and the Hindus speak of them as the Seven Rishis. The name of these Seers comes from the Sanskrit ṛṣi which is related to the word ṛkṣa meaning 'bear' or 'star', and they are held to be guardians and ancestors of man who govern in relation to the circle of Time.

Round and round the frozen pole
Glideth the lean white Bear.
          Robert Buchanan

 Traditional lore has spoken of ancient Bear Races like some of the southerners of the Japanese Islands called Kumaso, whose personal names are compounded with 'bear'. Even in the sacred Rig Veda the vestiges of such totemic identities are suggested when the father of Samvarana, from whom the kings of the Kurus claimed descent, is spoken of in the epic called Ṛkṣa or Bear. In hero myths the bear is associated with the sun, but in the myths regarding the deluge it is identified with the moon, and as such, was thought by the ancient Greeks to be a form of Artemis, the virgin huntress. Girls who took part in the rites of Artemis were even called Bears and wore yellow robes while they imitated the behaviour of the animal. Part of their worship involved a ritual eating of the goddess in the guise of bear flesh whereby the Bears strove to acquire the characteristics of the sister of Apollo who roamed the wilds of the Taygetos mountains, protecting the birth of animal life and bringing sudden death to trespassers of natural law. It is said that when Kallisto, who was companion of or Artemis herself, drew the amorous attention of Zeus, Hera transformed her into a bear, which Zeus then placed in heaven as Arktos, the Great Bear. The infant born to her in this guise was saved by Hermes and given the name of Arkas, ancestor of the Arkadians, who were called the Bear Race by other ancient Greeks. The similarity between certain of these mythical elements and those of the Shasta creation story is suggestive of a very old and widespread theme. Some have even seen a possible connection between the term 'Otawa', which identifies the Great Bear in the Finnish Kalevala and the Ottowa Indians, whose Algonquian name indicates them as Bear People to the north.

 The nature of the hibernating and waking bear suggests resurrection, a solar rebirth which is symbolic of initiation. The Eskimo believe that if a bear inua (spiritual 'Master' of the species) becomes the tornak (familiar) of a man, the latter is eaten by the bear and vomited up again to become an angakok (shaman). This means that the man is initiated by the spirit of the bear into a realm of occult power. His old identity linked up with his physical form must die or be eaten up so that his rebirth can take place. This power is both male and female, as reflected in Scandinavian mythology where the bear, sacred to Thor, was called both Atla and Atli, representative of the female and masculine principles in nature. Combining these principles, ursus was universally related to the power of birth and abundance, as well as homoeopathic curing. It is the symbol par excellence of rebirth, knowledge and dominion in nature, and ancestral communion with the primal nature emanating from the realm of spiritual origins. This is the key to understanding the power of homoeopathic cure, for the medicinal nature of plants and animals is truly known only to those who, like the bear, embody an innate understanding of the connections between Nature's expressions in the various kingdoms of life and the collective tap-root which they all, in their origins, shared. The Indian tribes of North America observed that the bear, who was invulnerable to other animals, had the power to fend off arrows and was able to find herbs to cure itself when it was sick or wounded. It was a teacher to men who imitated its actions and discovered efficacious medicines for themselves. Men who dreamt of the bear and learnt its knowledge became Bear Doctors, who were believed to have the power to restore life.

 When the Ainu kill a bear which they have carefully raised from a cub, they release its spirit to go off as a messenger to the Master Spirit in the forests. They implore it to convey news of its good treatment so that abundant game will be released within the tangled woods and their arduous hunting forays will not be in vain. Men, feasting off the dead bear, smear themselves with its blood, wear its head as a mask and assume its growl and walk. They strive to become like the bear, and through their imitative and contagious magic they hope to find favour with the spirit world whose messenger they sent back. The idea that the bear has the power to bring abundance is echoed in the agriculturally oriented antics of the Germanic speaking people who celebrated Shrove-tide with a carnival bear (Fastnachsbar), often made of straw, which was led to dance from house to house on behalf of the harvest. The straw bear represented the corn spirit and a blessing for plenty, but it is evidently a cultural vestige of an earlier pre-agricultural stage when the Germanic tribes were hunters and must have believed in the magical powers of the great creature, like other hunters of the far North and even like the prehistoric Neanderthal.

 The relationship between bear and man grows closer in the examples of bear men who existed in various cultures until recently. In the Norse epics one learns of the fylgja, which is a sort of following guardian spirit. Njáls Saga tells of a bear which fought by the side of Hrolf Kraki, who was the fylgja of Byarki (who was asleep). When Byarki entered the battle, the bear vanished. Among California Indians the Bear Doctor was famous and often greatly feared. He was a shaman who, among many tribes, was believed to be capable of transforming himself into a grizzly. Some thought that he took on the grizzly power only while wearing the whole skin of the bear wrapped around him to the claws, with the head covering his own. But those who believed him a werebear looked for signs of his clawed footprints on the earth as he snarled and swayed past them on his way to destroy tribal enemies. Though warriors who had killed a bear would wear his claws, only a Bear Doctor or a Grizzly Dreamer could wear a bear's full skin.

 A remarkable account of the education of a young Grizzly Dreamer among the Dakota describes how an old seer taught his apprentice to become adept in the movements of the bear. He learned to claw berries in his mouth, sit holding his feet and sway his bottom while he moved about grunting and growling. He was told that these were the traits of the creature who changes into man-shape and brings power. The old seer told him that "certainly everyone knows that in the beginning the grizzly, his structure similar to man, had padded erect from his cave to offer the original people his knowledge, pointing out roots and blooms that heal, berries that keep the body fit". There were groups of Grizzly Dreamers who critically appraised the development of young aspiring seers and the power was transmitted slowly by grizzly signs like the hot breath that blew on the claw necklace given by the old seer to the young. When the novice turned quickly to see what had breathed upon the back of his neck, he saw his old teacher asleep some distance from the bear prints that led away from his own back. The young man dreamt of a grizzly and finally confronted a huge specimen in the woods. The bear stood apart and seemed inclined to move away from the trembling youth. But he strained to embody what he had been taught and his voice suddenly rolled out in a mighty growl, causing the great beast to turn towards the challenge. It came plunging down the hillside, sliding to a stop and reared up on its hind legs, drooling. The young man's heart and throat acted as one, and letting loose a terrific roar, he shot six arrows in instantaneous succession into the clearly perceived circle of the animal's heart. Most certainly he had "remembered-himself-as-grizzly".

 The ferocity of the grizzly sometimes overshadowed the elements of wisdom and power that are associated with it, and many California Indians conceived of it as evil. The Diegeno considered them to be the avengers of God, while the Pomo believed that the ghosts of evil men became trapped within the miserable bodies of tormented grizzlies. While some Christian influence may be suspected, it is a fact that the people living along the slopes and valleys of central California were in constant danger of vicious attacks. Many men and women were either maimed for life or killed and even eaten by these giants who were often very bad tempered when surprised. One old woman of the Hupa tribe told of a time when she was young and a member of a party of young girls picking hazel nuts which was chaperoned by an old woman. Grizzlies were not known that far north, and when the girls heard the crashing sounds of a bear gathering nuts in the bushes nearby, they laughed and thought to tease it. But the old woman saw the bear's head, its small red eyes and drooling red mouth and its golden-tipped hair. She realized this was a different sort of bear and, sensing great danger, signalled the girls to be silent and "stand like sticks". They stood without movement for a long time while the creature thrashed around in the dense foliage and they continued to stand long after it had gone away. Only then, with a signal from the terrified but stern old woman, did they run frantically for their village. Perhaps she had been frightened by the strangeness of the monstrous creature or perhaps she had sensed a tormented ghost imprisoned within it.

 Even the awesome grizzly, however, has many traits that seem human and some have been tamed and used as hunting mates, like the five giants reared from cubs by Grizzly Adams, who hunted in the Southwest during several decades of the last century. They protected him and even fought off other grizzlies when they saw he was threatened. One of the most touching examples of fascination and closeness that can exist between man and bear is illustrated in the experience of a fisherman who camped for several weeks in the Northwestern woods. As he was reeling in a fine trout one day, he became aware that he was being closely observed by a large brown bear. Nervously he threw the fish to the animal and continued to do this every time he caught another, hoping that the bear would go away. This insatiable spectator did not, however, go away and was back on the look-out the next day. At nightfall he followed the man back to his camp and silently watched as he made a fire and prepared his meal. The bear drew closer to the fire, and when the man lay down on his bedroll to sleep, the animal lay down right beside him. This daily and nightly routine continued for several weeks until one day when a group of bears came close to the pair and made aggressive moves towards the man. The bear immediately chased them off but it cried out to do so, knowing it was violating its own nature. That night both man and bear were very quiet and a sadness was felt between them. The bear slept for the last time beside the man, and in the morning gave a forlorn wail as it looked at its friend for the last time and walked away, never to be seen again.

 The aloofness and solitary nature of bears give them an individuality which is humanlike. Even when a group of them is feeding in one place, they come and go alone and take no notice of one another. They play for sheer fun as though engaged in a sport, but they are usually dignified in their serious moments, taking a long time to weigh a situation and then acting with resolution. She-bears carefully watch their tiny offspring but when they are a little older the mother will spank them soundly on the bottom when they disobey and send them up a tree so that she can have some time to herself. The cubs will stay up there and play or sleep for hours until she orders them down again. The protective instinct that a mother bear has for her young is well known, and she is extremely dangerous if she feels they are being threatened. A man and his family were hiking up a canyon when they came upon a young cub who cried out for its mother. When the large brown matriarch came crashing towards them, the man ordered his wife to run back. She ran but immediately heard her own child cry out in fear, whereupon she spun around with all the fury of motherhood and charged back in the face of the beast to get her son. It is significant that the attacking mother bear stopped dead in her tracks when she saw this and made a hasty retreat. Evidently she understood the powerful instinct motivating the human mother and was respectful of it.

 It is said that every stretch of polar shore has been traversed by the great white giants of the Arctic. Often over eleven feet in length and weighing two thousand pounds, they travel on floes from ice-field to ice-field looking for seal. In the winter the polar bear stays within an icy den for one hundred forty days, the female living off her autumn fat and feeding her offspring as they arrive. In a yearly cycle she, like other bears of the forests further to the south, goes into this womb-like underworld and with her slow, hot breath ensures the heat necessary to bring forth new life. In Hindu tradition it is said that in the northern sky the Goddess of the Seven Stars (called the Mother of Revolutions) gave birth to Time in the earliest cycle of the year. Just so does the mother bear give birth to a new generation and emerge forth with the ascending sun. She is the seven stars circling the heavenly polar point mirrored in fleshly form upon earth. And her circumambulating of the global pole seems almost to reflect perfectly the archetypal celestial activity. The hibernating bear responds with great sensitivity to the fluctuations of heat and cold and the availability of food. Where there is a constant supply of food all year round, as when a bear is in captivity, the animal ceases to hibernate and can no longer be seen as a symbol for rebirth and initiation.

 Circling the pole-star, the Great Bear observes the setting of all other stars but does not herself descend into the deep. As Homer put it, "Arktos, sole star that never bathes in the ocean wave". It remains constantly tied to that fixed point like the circle perceived around the grizzly's heart when the young Grizzly Dreamer shot forth his rapid arrows. It is 'H 'Αρκτος, Αρκτοῦρος . . . the bear-ward which is the outlet or the place of birth. It is the place of Artemis, who acts like the Goddess of the Seven Stars, and the birth that issues forth is the Αρκτεον, the necessity of beginning, the necessity of the government of Time. It is the initial stage over which threshold the primal nature passes forth along a current of descending manifestation. To oversee this is the great work of the seven creative Rishis connected with the constellation. In relation to them it is said that "The first form of the mystical SEVEN was seen to be figured in heaven, by the seven large stars of the Great Bear, the constellation assigned by the Egyptians to the Mother of Time, and of the seven elemental powers."


 This circle in the northern heaven is like the ark-shaped ru at the top of the Egyptian tau cross. It conveys the essential symbolism of the ark in that it is the place of release of the sun as representing the rebirth or emergence of the spiritual light that can penetrate through to the world only by way of that axis which connects the three worlds at the pole. Thus the arrows shot within the circle of the grizzly's heart are meant to release the Spiritual Sun that lies beyond the elemental powers symbolized by the bear. But the bear guards the birthplace of the sun, as the Navajo knew, and its awesome power must be mastered and understood before one can step over that threshold. Guarding the ark-shaped Third Eye of Shiva which is waiting to be opened, the encircling bear challenges all who approach. His elemental powers are those of Rudra, the Howler, who heals and destroys and who is parent of the good and evil rudras and maruts. He may represent the tormented ego itself which is imprisoned in a gross earthy shape and he may lash out against the unwary, but he is also a vesture of the divine Rishi-ancestors of the human race.

 From the Ganges to the Great Lakes, mankind for thousands of years has sensed something of the nature of the primeval association that exists between man, the bear and man's spiritual prototype which is mirrored in the northern heaven. The young Grizzly Dreamer himself perceived the relationship and made an important distinction when he prayed sometime after his momentous encounter with the bear, saying, "Grandfather, I seek not the power of the grizzly; I seek my own. I make proper use of my grizzly-vision; I recognize the healing power in roots and berry and bark. The bones of grizzly and the bones of man look alike, but I am a man and the son of man. Recognize me, Grandfather, as a reasoning power! I shall remember-myself-as-man!" Just so would the divine Ego, aspiring to return to its pure deific state, study well the elemental powers of the bear and learn why they are the Guardians of Time's Circle and how to understand their nature so as to command it and pass through the threshold of the golden eye of Shiva, the birthplace of the Spiritual Sun.

Bear men of lumbering gait
Pass like dwellers of forgotten caves,
Through the darkness of ancestral memory.
But the Arktos of the golden light
Stands at the gate
Of the threshold of Timeless Truth.

Hermes, September 1979