Bärenfähigkeit

bear1On the liturgical calendar, today is St. Martin’s Day. In the late Middle Ages, “Martin” was often the name given to bears abused and belittled in circuses and other equivalents of side-shows. This is not coincidental, Michel Pastoureau shows in his fascinating The Bear: History of a Fallen King. bear3The Church waged a long war against bears, which in Europe were already being represented in Neanderthal and Cro-Magon painted caves, the very caves bears may have lived in. (These would have been cave bears, now extinct; Pastoureau is most concerned with the brown bear, now pushed to remote parts of Europe and threatened everywhere there.) The Germanic tribes who butted against Roman expansion were bear-worshippers. The Viking Berserkers wore bear shirts, which is what “berserker” means. Kings and other heroes once proved themselves by battling bears man-to-bear. The nurturing she-bear raised various Greek and other mythological heroes. The hyper-sexualized male bear threatened female humans, as did the quasi-bearish Wild Man, whose hairiness was akin to the bear’s. Bärenfähigkeit means the capacity to become a bear. Half-bear/half-human figures populated the old tales.

This all enraged the Church, who promoted the (foreign) lion as the true king of the beasts and painted the bear as a tool of, if not actually, Satan, in its efforts to stamp out old forms of non-Christian worship. St. Martin’s Day was laid over older celebrations of the beginning of bear hibernation, a sure sign of the coming winter.

Rich in cultural references, Pastoureau’s book reminded me of a couple of things. I’ve only dipped into Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, where giant bears play a critical role, an interesting comparison with the Christianology of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s character, Beorn, a sort of werebear. The name Beorn — and Bjorn, Bern, Ursula, Arthur, and many others — all come from various languages for “bear.”

Pastoureau has also written three books on the history of colors. I’ve read Blue and Black and and recommend them.

“In killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself.”bear2Bear ceramics at Cortlandt St. R train station by Margie Hughto. “Trade, Treasure and Travel” originally placed in 1997, survived the World Trade Center bombing and was reinstalled in 2011.

4 Responses to “Bärenfähigkeit”


  1. 1 Traci Paris November 11, 2014 at 10:47 am

    Utterly fascinating, Matthew! I learned so much from this essay.

  2. 2 Out Walking the Dog November 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Love this post, Matthew, both text and photos. Many fairytales deal with bear-man metamorphosis: East of the Sun & West of the Moon, The Brown Bear of Norway, Bearskin. Now that actual bears are reclaiming New Jersey, among other places, they may re-enter our imaginations as well. If the expanded bear hunts don’t push them right back out.

  3. 3 Beverly Seaton November 11, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Pastoureau’s book is magnificent. One of my favorites, especially the way he works in the teddy bear as the bear’s revenge. I had been slightly aware of the great shift from the bear to the lion, and some of the reasons for it, and his book narrates that change in awesome detail.


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