This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Bear Medicine


Thousands around the world watched as Lily labored to give birth to Hope on January 22, 2010 and to Faith and Jason on January 21, 2011. Lily’s family touched those who watched the tender, often playful, interactions that are part of family care in black bears. —North American Bear Center

Forgive me, bears — I can only manage to be invisible for a few minutes at a time. I have seen your tooth-marks on plastic trash in the woods, & how you shred hunters’ blinds, rip down surveyers’ ribbons, & make enormous smelly deposits in the middle of driveways. But I know too that, not being grizzlies, you are no real threat to anyone’s safety. You were never the fierce antagonists of that grinning braggart politician, Davy Crockett. It’s true that one of you followed my mother around a spruce tree one July morning, but when she turned & said get out of here, you did. Forgive us, bears, for standing downwind, still as stumps, for as long as we can while you romp with your littermates or sit enjoying the sunshine. Such encounters are a tonic for us, though I suspect by the way you huff & run when you finally notice us, it isn’t mutual. Some of us would be invisible forever if we could. Forgive us for watching you via den cam over the internet as you sleep, thousands of insomniacs all over the world gazing at our screens, waiting for the first sign of a new birth. Forgive us for freighting your cubs with so much of our yearning for the presence of the wild: dear Faith, dear stubborn Hope.

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5 Replies to “Hope”

    1. Thanks! Yes, indeed, and not just pagans — some of it has survived to modern times. That landmark paper I drew on for Part 6, “Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere,” has much about the Finns, and I included at least one Finnish hunters’ euphemism, “honey paws.” (I think a couple of the others are also pretty close to translations of Finnish terms, but were actually taken from different cultures.) The author’s conclusion is that the bear cult is a circumpolar remnant of very ancient Paleolithic belief and ceremony. What’s interesting too is that the ways in which this ancient belief system adapted to more recent, farming cultures had strong parallels on both sides of the Atlantic. I wrote about the straw bear midwinter festivals of northern Europe (which still survive), but the Lenape Indians of what is now Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York also had a renewal-of-the-world midwinter ceremony in which a bear hunt was essential to the continued fertility of crops.

  1. Dave, as usual you have done your homework and know far more than I do! Thanks for sharing this information. You might be interested in a book by Kaarina Kailo, a Finnish/Sami woman – “Wo(men) and Bears: The Gifts of Nature, Culture and Gender Revisited”. I keep thinking I should get this for myself.

    1. Sounds interesting. As you’ll see, I referenced the Jungian “Earth Mother” archetype in the last section, despite my distaste for Jung. He himself apparently talked about dreams of bears in relation to it. Plus, I figured that, regardless of their scientific soundness or lack thereof, Jung’s ideas have now thoroughly embedded themselves in our culture, thus becoming authentic myths about myths.

    2. I should add that the Kalevala is on my short list of epics to re-read; Rachel and I just re-read Beowulf and enjoyed it very much indeed. I don’t remember it, but apparently there’s a whole section about a bear hunt.

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