Weekly Article #2 – Introduction to the Mythological Presence of the Bear in the Pyrenees

Bear figure from Carnival article 2


It should be clarified firstly that this article is only a toe dipped into a much larger and deeper pool of potential for research, one which this project will be gainfully engaging with over the coming years, but start we must!

The bear is one of the most archaic figures of reverence wherever it is found, with bear ancestry myths and cults being found in as disparate locations as Korea, North America, Finland, Greece, Russia and Mongolia. The Pyrenees is no exception, with Basque folklore in particular indicating an affinity with the bear. The origins of bear cults in Europe are shrouded in controversy, with academics debating the degree to which remains of Cave bears (and later Brown bears) can be attributed to veneration, however their presence in the prehistoric art are undeniable. Matheson (1942) writes that despite the cave bear becoming extinct it left ‘a deep impression on the mind of Palaeolithic man’, and Abel (1934) suggests that ‘Neanderthal or Mousterian man associated certain cult conceptions with the bears he had killed’. Cooper (1992) claims that bear skulls and bones were often interred with human skulls by Neanderthals in what he interprets as ‘sacred shrines’ to a ‘Master Bear’. Others such as Wunn (2001) refute this, however the sheer quantity of cave art (such as at Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche, France) in which the bear is a significant figure points towards an undue emphasis on its impact on the mind of Prehistoric man. The Grotte des Trois-Freres in the Ariege, France, depicts a brown bear vomiting blood having been speared, and, according to Grazioli (1960) bears with wolven heads! The mythology of bears often involves them being human underneath a coat of fur, taking a female human lover (or indeed raping them) to produce a half-breed offspring, bears being humans who may transform at will, or possessing great wisdom. In short, there is obviously an archaic link in our minds between the human and the bear, which frequently manifested itself in origin myths and, more recently, folkloric representations.

In the Pyrenees one can find the bear looming large both historically in the landscape (sadly largely shot to extinction) and also in the tales, legends, processions and dances of innumerable villages and towns across the mountains. The Basques have a particularly strong presence of the bear in their myths, and research by Roslyn Frank (University of Iowa) presented at the Popular Antiquities conference at University College London in 2012,  has suggested that the spread of the bear processions and folklore across Europe may have something to do with populations sheltering in the Basque region during the last Ice Age, and upon their dispersal taking a memory of a primordial bear cult out with them into the rest of Europe. In essence, Frank posits that there was once a primordial belief in descent from the ‘Bear’s son’ (born from a male bear/female human union and who emerges from the cave to engage with the world, including via a ‘vision quest’) throughout Europe and that this was an essential part of the hunter-gatherer cosmology. This theory is certainly fascinating, and warrants further research, and fascinatingly the last alleged Basque bear hunter, Petiri Prébende, is recorded as saying in 1986 that the Basques used to believe that they are descended from the bear, that they had an ‘ursine genealogy’ (Frank, 2012).

Bear dances can be found up and down the Pyrenees, spilling into South-western France, particularly at the stunning Fetes de l’Ours in Prats-de-Mollo. Many of these processions or plays follow similar themes; a bear (well, a costumed man) is chased and caught, under the auspices of having kidnapped a local girl (usually named Rosa, Rosetta or some similar derivative). It will be taken then taken into the village/town square where it is ‘shaved’ (i.e. civilised). Sometimes a hut or ‘cave’ will be provided for it to burst free from the barbers, find the unfortunate girl, and take her into it. In this case, the bear will sometimes offer her wine and sausage, or try and have its way with her. The bear ends up being shot by ‘huntsmen’, but it will typically come back to life and try to escape. Sometimes it is restored to life through imbibing vigorous quantities of local wine! Eventually it will either be killed or submit to the huntsmen and dance around. These are the basic ingredients to many of the processions, with each one varying slightly along this theme, but there are enough commonalities between the majority of them to render a common thread, and possibly a common mythological origin.

We turn now to the bear festivities found in Andorra (others will be addressed in future articles, as they are important parts of rural life in the Pyrenees and warrant separate investigation). January and February is the time for bear dances, coincidentally it is also when Ursa Major & Ursa Minor can be found brightest in the skies above the country. One of the myths surrounding the bears is that at Candlemass the Virgin Mary had to go to the temple for purification with Jesus in her arms. The bears in their caves heard that she was coming and all awoke to pay homage, but one became overcome with excitement and stepped into her path roaring with delight. This frightened the baby Jesus and so the Virgin scolded the bear, saying: ‘Os ets, Oss eras, Os quedaras’ (‘Bear you are, Bear you will be, Bear you shall remain.’) It is because of this that bears wander sadly, as solitary creatures wishing to be human but condemned to remain bears (another folkloric connection between human and bear, does this infer that they could become human prior to this encounter?). Historically the bear dances took place in Ordino, Andorra le Vella, Santa Coloma, Escaldes (where the bear’s body was placed in a fire but the bear always leapt up alive from the embers – probably quite quickly given the fact that it was a man in costume!) and finally Encamp, which has the longest continuing tradition of the Ball de l’Ossa, and its origins are quite unique, being based on (alleged) social history. ‘The story is that the rich important famer of Can Moles and his charming wife were out one day in their best clothes to pay a visit [to a notable local family, Can Joan Antoni], when a huge and terrifying bear charged out of the bushes to attack them. A gallant hunter heard their cries and slew the bear with one shot. The bear was so huge, the hunter so brace, the lady so beautiful and the husband so grateful and rich that this created an indelible folk memory. A dance was organised to celebrate it and has continue ever since.’ This sounds a relatively straightforward explanation, however the dance still incorporates many commonly found motifs of the bear dances across the Pyrenees, including a maiden attacked by a bear, the bear being dragged to the central square and shot, the corpse then has harvesters’ scythes crossed over it after which it springs back to life and dances with the harvesters and the farmer.

So, does this hark back to some very primal body of myth surrounding the bear and its ancient relationship with man, both real and imagined? Sadly it is too early to say at this stage, however the possibility is intriguing. Further interest is stirred by photographer Charles Freger, in whose book ‘Wilder Mann’ are countless photographs of the animalistic and frequently bear-like costumes of rural processions found throughout Europe. He suggests a further link between the bear and the Wild Man, which is certainly a topic ripe for exploration, reaching down into deeply archaic symbols. Whatever is concluded eventually, it is safe to say that the Perennial Pyrenees project will be pursuing both the mythical and historical presence of the bear in the Pyrenees for years to come, as it promises to be a deeply important topic.

Books cited/referenced:

Abel, O. 1942. The Pleistocene Mammals and their Relation to religion of the Palaeolithic Man of Europe. Proc.Linn.Soc. London 1934-35.

Alford, V. 1937. Pyrenean Festivals. Chatto and Windus, London.

Cooper, P. 1992. The Dictionary of Symbolic and Mythological Animals. Thorsons, London.

Freger, C. 2012. Wilder Mann. Thames & Hudson, Paris.

Grazioli, O. 1960. Palaeolithic Art. Faber & Faber, London.

Matheson, C. 1942. Man and Bear in Europe. Antiquity. XVI (62), June.

Ure, U. 1998. Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. Andorra Writers Circle, Andorra la Vella.

Wunn, I. 2001. Cave Bear Worship in the Palaeolithic. Cadernos Lab. Coruna. 26 (457-463).

Web references:

Bear Worship & Bear Cults article at www.ericwedwards.wordpress.com

Roslyn Frank’s research can be found at her academia page here: https://uiowa.academia.edu/RoslynMFrank

Her presentation at the Popular Antiquities conference at UCL 2012 is called ‘European Folklore in the Longue Durree: Palaeolithic Continuity and the European Ursine Genealogy’.

The photo is of the Bear character featured in the still practised bear dance in the carnival of Bielsa, a Pyrenean town in Aragon.


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