Book Extract #2 – Bear Cults and Bear Dances

This extract is, in fact, two extracts from Chapter 3 of the forthcoming book. The first part describes some of the archaeological evidence for the possibility of Pyrenean Palaeolithic bear cults, and the second delves into the modern bear festivals and their various rituals outside of the Basque Country (some things must be reserved for the book!). Again, all notes are presented here as endnotes due to WordPress limitations, but in the actual book are footnotes for ease of reference. I hope you enjoy!

Extract 1: Bears and the Pyrenean Palaeolithic


Whilst some evidence from which an extrapolation of bear worship is circumstantial, other examples seem to point towards a deep time signature for this practise. It is important to note that due to the preference of caves as a shelter and place of hibernation/rearing young, it is precisely within such environments that one would expect to find the remains of bears, and the heavier long bones and skull would survive natural degradation processes far better than smaller, more fragile bones. The crucial aspect is in the context within which these bones are placed, and while some archaeologists such as Ida Wunn claim that these placements are down to natural processes (flooding, the movement of other bears, soil deposition etc.), other archaeologists are convinced that these discoveries indicate the presence of a primordial bear cult in the Palaeolithic, and are the origins of the ethnographic examples mentioned above.

One persuasive example of the apparent deliberate deposition of cave bear bones can be found in Veternica Cave near Zagreb, in the Mousterian context of the cave’s history.[1] Bednarik reports that no less than sixty-three skulls were excavated, along with several hearths, and that six Cave Bear skulls had been found neatly arranged in a row, with their snouts pointing towards the cave entrance. Several other skulls also indicated man-made perforations and polishing, and in the east of the cave, a niche had been made or exploited for the placing of a skull and long bones, then carefully sealed with boulders.[2] The seemingly deliberate positioning of cave bear skulls is also reported at the Caverne de Furtins in the Saône-et-Loire region of France, and other examples have been suggested based on evidence at the caves of Reyersdorfer and Salzofen (Austria), Drachenloch (Switzerland),[3] and those at Homoródalm ser, Istállóskö, Kölyuk and Mornowa (Hungary).[4] Recent evidence is also postulated at the infamous Chauvet Cave, whose rock art is discussed in Chapter One. Here, nearly two hundred skulls were discovered, several of which are positioned anatomically within the context of the rest of their remains, indicating natural deposition and decomposition of the bears’ corpses within the cave. However, many are also found in isolation, with several of their lower mandibles showing evidence of having been forcibly removed, placed in often upright positions in prominent locations within the cave complex, with one placed on a table-like boulder that protrudes seventy centimetres above the cave floor. Bednarik writes:

There are two other clear examples of deposited cave bear bones in Chauvet, both found in the Salle des Bauges. This is a very large hall near the original entrance, containing only four skulls. In two cases, about 10 m apart and perhaps 30 to 40 m from the former, now collapsed entrance, occurs the combination of a cave bear skull with a cave bear humerus. In both cases the skulls are placed upright, and the humeri have been inserted into the ground perfectly vertically, at least half submerged in the sediment. In one case the long-bone is located close to the skull, in the other it is about a metre away, but precisely aligned with its longitudinal axis and in front of it. There are no other bones in the vicinity. In both cases the surrounding surface is entirely of fine-grained sediment and fairly flat. Fluviatile action is not indicated, though the area appears to have been submerged under a shallow pond occasionally. It is extremely unlikely that these two placements are random, natural effects; the two humeri are the only elongate bones in the cave orientated vertically.[5]


Within the Chauvet Cave we also find cave art depicting the bear, as well as other predatory animals such as lions, and other examples of Palaeoart from around Europe seem to suggest that the hunting of cave bears was not out of the ordinary. At the caves of Les Trois Freres, we find ‘two bears apparently lying on their sides, with marks at their nozzles suggesting an issuance and their bodies covered by numerous apparent piercings and arrow-like marks’,[6] and in another cave in the Ariège, La Grotte du Montespan, one finds a nearly life-size bear statue crafted from clay and covered in small holes. In the Midi-Pyrénées, the Grotte du Peche Merle contains a petroglyph which details a bear’s head, with two lines suggesting the head’s severance. Furthermore, the caves of ‘Goyet, Princesse Pauline, and Trou de Chaleux, which are located in the Condroz, a region south of the Sambre and Meuse valleys in Belgium’ have offered up evidence for what has been termed a ‘proto bear cult’.[7] Several fossilised bear bones from the Upper Palaeolithic have been discovered in these caves, which is not unusual in itself, but red ochre was found to have been applied to them. Germonpré and Hämäläinen make comparisons to the ethnographic record, within which it is common to find the remains of hunted bears being treated with some manner of dye, either from bark juice, blood, earth-derived pigments or cloth, or even smoked to produce a blackening of the skull. It has also been suggested that the presence of red ochre traces on these bones was not due to accidental contamination with the pigment, and was instead deliberately and carefully applied; red ochre being a part of the known Upper Palaeolithic symbolic mortuary practises:

The examples noted above of manipulated bear remains in Belgium, Europe, and North America could be interpreted as continuous with bear-related rituals that started with a proto bear-ceremonialism dating from the Gravettian, and possibly even from the Aurignacian. The presence in the Upper Paleolithic of red ochre or black charcoal traces on the bear skull and bones of the bear paws, and the application in ethnographic rituals from all over the circumpolar realm of these same colors on these same bear body parts could be interpreted as similar acts by the people who hunted the animals. It is not possible to be certain whether the ochre and charcoal-applying activities had the same meaning and purpose as the recent bear rituals in the circumpolar hunter-gatherer cosmology. However, given the above, it seems reasonable to conclude that the coloring by red ochre or black charcoal of the bear remains was associated with bear hunting and eating of bear meat and probably formed an integrated part of the proto bear-ceremonialism.[8]

Whilst the degree to which this evidence displays a specific reverence is debatable, it is clear that in the cases listed above, the positioning of these bones and skulls in such a manner, and their colouring, cannot be put down to simple taphonomic processes; there must have been a degree of intentionality behind them, which indicates that the cave bear and by extension the figure of the bear itself occupied a heightened position within the minds of these caves’ occupants. It is important to note that these discoveries have been found only within caves which demonstrate extensive human occupation and use; no such arrangements have been found in connection with caves that are used exclusively by bears alone. Whilst the argument of bear cults within the Palaeolithic context has been raging for decades, the recent trend to reject out of hand, and without sufficient analysis, the possibility of reverence or ritual treatment of bear remains is unwise; when one considers the ethnographic data, it would certainly seem possible. The hunting of bears within the ethnographic contexts is always accompanied by some manner of special treatment, either before and/or after the killing of the bear, and synonyms are always used to avoid offending the bear. These practises must have an origin point, and given the depositional contexts of certain skulls, the evidence shown for the hunting of bears in the Palaeolithic, and their being the subjects of both painted and sculptural Palaeoart, it seems certainly plausible that the kernel for these practises may be traced back to this period. It is also highly interesting that both sculpture and painted representations of bears, particularly in the case of hunting and the severing of a head, are found within the Pyrenean context, indicating that certainly the practise of bear-hunting took place in the region. As to the degree of ritualised or proscribed behaviours that surrounded such a practise, only speculation can be engaged in, but this cannot preclude the possibility of some form of deliberate deposition of the bear’s bones and its occupation of a particular place within the minds of the hunters, or indeed the Palaeolithic population at large.

Extract 2: Contemporary Examples of Pyrenean Bear Festivals

Turning to the bear festivities found in the nearby Pyrenean principality of Andorra, we find that 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 in Encamp,[9] which has the longest continuing tradition of the Ball de l’Ossa (Bear Dance), 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.[10]

This dance still takes place each year, and is a ribald affair which, much like in Prats-de-Mollo, is aided by local wine to keep the cold at bay. We begin with several smugglers[11] who are scything straw (or rather, distributing it), and who periodically wrestle each-other. Their leader makes an appearance and directs them in song, after which a notable figure on a horse arrives to make a speech. After he leaves, a ‘woman’ (i.e. a very large man in drag) appears and quite violently forces the seated smugglers to drink wine, eat fuet (a local type of cured salami) and be generally knocked about through aggressive hospitality. The ‘bear’ then makes his entrance and attempts to carry of the ‘woman’[12], upon which local hunters appear and shoot the bear, and dance about his corpse. The scythes are no longer crossed over the bear’s body, and the bear does not become reanimated.

To the West, in the town of Pau within the Béarn region, one finds another ‘Chasse de l’Ours’. Interestingly, the bear is still referred to by locals as lou pedescaou (he who goes barefoot) and lou Mousse (the gentleman), indicating a level both of respect and anthropomorphism that resonates strongly with the echoes of bear veneration and reverence that seem to reverberate around the Pyrenees. Several days after Carnival (again, at the start of Spring), this sleepy town reverberates to one of the most raucous incarnations of the ‘Bear Hunt’, but with two key differences. It takes the place of a procession, in which several ‘bears’ are escorted throughout the town by ‘hunters’; however, the ‘hunters’ are all women in men’s costumes, and the bears are in full bear costume and all men, and several men also dress in drag as provocative young women, the Rosettes. The bears all sport bright red ‘appendages’, however it is safest to attribute this to a more modern twist on the traditional costume, tempting as it is to ascribe ‘fertility rites’ to such a presence, it being more likely a representation of the robust local humour! The ‘bears’ are led through the town, and in keeping with tradition will periodically grab either the Rosettes or genuine female townsfolk and rub against them in a lascivious manner. The ‘hunters’ then gather together in the main square, and the ‘bears’ make their way into the square shortly after. The Rosettes are set on one side of the square, and the bears make charges at them, driven (apparently) into a frenzy due to their months in hibernation. A final charge by the ‘bears’ gives the signal for chaos to break loose, and the Rosettes are vigorously fondled and wrestled by their ursine pursuers. In a curious (and what must be a modern) twist, a group of men dressed in antiquated English huntsmen outfits, red coats and all, appear and give the signal for the hunt to begin, upon which the ‘hunters’ tussle with the bears, cutting off the modern ‘appendages’ which are given to the Rosettes as a present. The ‘bears’ are left for dead, however Los Orsatèrs (the Bear Keepers) appear and revive them, and are left in charge of the bears for the rest of the evening.[13]

We turn next to the rural valley of Bigorre, also in the Béarn region, whose bear festival is also worth including, not least due to an attentive description of its elements by the irrepressible Violet Alford in 1930. Sadly, this festival seems to no longer be in existence, or at least, could not be verified at the time of writing,[14] however its combination of both common and rare motifs make it most worthy of inclusion and examination here. Alford reports that following Carnival, on Jeudi Gras (the Thursday before Lent), a man dressed in goatskins, a mask and with woollen gloves on mimicking paws, would dash across the fields, led by a humpbacked figure with a staff, and accompanied a figure dressed in a white blouse, white handkerchief and a whitened face, with a bushel of green leaves stuffed up its back. After this dash, the ‘bear’ pranced and danced with its leader, and was then ordered to ‘dance like those at the carnival’, upon which it gyrated and writhed in the dusty road in a distinctly sexual fashion. After this a second ‘bear’ would approach the first, growling, and the two would fight, only to be separated by a black-clad ‘doctor’, who produces from his cloak a magic bean. Several other ‘bears’ from neighbouring hamlets appear and join in fighting, chasing girls and dancing all day and night. The following day the main bear, known as Marti, is shot due to the damage he has caused, much to the leader’s despair, who begins to ‘skin’ the beast. At the touch of his knife the bear jumps up, resurrected, and dances with its leader.[15]

The sight of a goat-skinned creature dashing across a field is not a common one within this processional collection, however the familiar motifs of resurrection, sexual acts (unconsummated in this case), revelry and skinning/shaving are all present. In all the rites mentioned above, one finds this collection of motifs and actions, and strikingly all the named female characters involve some mutation of the name Rose, which warrants future investigation. All also recur around the advent of Spring, and/or the days after Carnival, a well-known scene of revelry and behaviour that subverts the social norms. All also involve a man or several young men shedding their human identity and taking on ‘bear-form’, however the Basque examples are particularly striking for their gait and grunting which directly mimics that of a bipedal bear. Other examples abound throughout the Pyrenees, and whilst this chapter is not meant to catalogue each and every one, the most prominent have been selected to display their common motifs, and the special place that the bear holds within Pyrenean folklore.

In a final illustration however, we find ourselves thrown back into the primordial, far from the smiling crowds and town squares found in the present-day bear dances. Alford fleetingly mentions a description by La Boulinière,[16] of a bear-chasing tradition near the commune of Argelès (Pyrénées Orientales), which had seemingly died out by the time of her writing.

One of the young men dresses himself as a bear, and at dusk runs through the woods, a torch in his hand; all the others follow him and endeavour to catch him, which is rather difficult although the torch acts as a guide.[17]

The image of flickering flames illuminating a bear-man as he dashes through the forest as the sunlight fades, pursued by the cries and thundering feet of several baying young men as they wove between the trees, brings into sharp relief the primordial visual aspect of this tradition, and extends itself by association to all the bear festivals mentioned above. In this brief description, we find all the terror, exhilaration and sweat of the bear-hunts of old, an echo of those found now only in the Pyrenees, but as described earlier in this chapter in the peoples and tribes of the Arctic hemisphere, and possibly reaching even further back into the pre-history of the Pyrenean populations.



[1] The Mousterian Industry is largely identified with Neanderthals, but also occurs within the context of anatomically modern humans, and defines the Middle Palaeolithic.

[2] Bednarik, Robert, ‘“Aurignacians” and the Cave Bear’ in Ecco Homo: In Memoriam Jan Fririch, Ivana Fridrichová-Sýkorová (ed.) (Prague: Vydala Agentura Krigl, 2010).

[3] ‘In a chamber of the Drachenloch in Switzerland, a stone cist had been built to house stacked bear-skulls: piles of sorted long bones were laid along the walls of the cave. Another heap of bones contained the skull of a bear through which a leg bone had been forced, the skull resting upon two other long bones, each bone was from a different beast.’: Coles, John, and Higgs, Eric, The Archaeology of Early Man (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), pp. 286-287.

[4] Bednarik, 2010, pp. 11 – 20.

[5] Bednarik, 2010, p. 15.

[6] Bednarik, 2010, p. 12.

[7] Germonpré, Mietje and Hämäläinen, Riku, Fossil Bear Bones in the Belgian Upper Paleolithic: The Possibility of a Proto Bear-Ceremonialism, Arctic Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2007, p. 4.

[8] Germonpré and Hämäläinen, 2007, p. 21

[9] It should be noted however that Encamp is the oldest (in terms of founding) of Andorra’s seven parishes.

[10] Ure, Ursula, ‘Dancing with Bears’ in Andorra: Festivals, Traditions and Folklore. (Escaldes: Andorra Writers Circle, 1998), p. 33.

[11] Due to its unique position straddling the borders of France and Spain, Andorra has an illustrious history in this regard, mainly in terms of wine and tobacco, but nobler examples can be found in more recent history, with many fleeing either Franco or Hitler finding safe passage through the Andorran smuggling routes to either France or Spain, respectively.

[12] When the author witnessed this tradition, the carrying off of the female figure was not an easy affair, mainly due to her weighing at least ninety kilos.

[13] For photographs of this event, see

[14] Although in a twist of fate, it has been one of the five sites in which Slovenian bears were released recently in an effort to reanimate the Pyrenean bear population, following its decimation through hunting.

[15] Alford, Violet, Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Magic & Music, Drama & Dance (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), p. 110.

[16] Alford is quoting from: Toussaint de La Boulinière, Pierre, Itineraire Descriptif et Pittoresque des Hautes Pyrénées Françoise, 2 Vols. (Paris: Libraire de Gide Fils, 1825).

[17] Alford, 1937, p. 110.

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