This section will review the literature dealing with the cultural and anthropological significance of the bear worldwide. The purpose of this is to elucidate the key characteristics of bear symbolism internationally, to understand its geographical distribution, and to ascertain whether any parallels can be made with the bear symbolism evident in Japanese history and prehistory—in other words, to locate bear symbolism in Japan within the patterns evident throughout the northern hemisphere, where bear distribution is concentrated.
Before examining the distribution and nature of bear symbolism, the distribution of the bear itself will be outlined. There are eight living species of bears. Excluding the Asiatic black bear, which will be examined in more detail in Chapter Four, these are: the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), distributed in southwestern China; the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), distributed in northwestern South America; the sun bear (Ursus malaynus), distributed in northwestern South America; the sloth bear (Ursus ursinus), distributed in Southeast Asia; the American black bear (Ursus americanus), distributed in North America; the brown bear (Ursus arctos), distributed in Europe, northern Asia and Northern America; and the polar bear (Ursus maritimus), distributed in the Arctic. With the exception of the sloth bear and the sun bear, the distribution of all other species falls entirely within the northern hemisphere, and even in the case of these two species, the major part of their distribution is north of the equator. Thus, the bear, and culture surrounding the bear, is largely a northern hemisphere phenomenon.
The roots of bear ceremonialism or at least symbolism can be traced back to pre-history: bears first appear to have been accorded spiritual significance in the Middle Palaeolithic era (beginning about 200,000 years ago) by Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis). Evidence of this has been found in what Campbell (1984) describes as bear sanctuaries, discovered in the European Alps.1 In these sites, bear skulls were placed on cave niches, in a manner suggesting primitive altars. The supposition is that Neanderthal man worshipped the spirits of the bear, and perhaps also held the belief that the bear deliberately allowed itself to be hunted and killed for the benefit of humans. Campbell describes these so-called bear sanctuaries as the ‘earliest evidence anywhere on earth of the veneration of a divine being’ and as an indication of ritual sacrifice. He suggests that these bear sanctuaries are the origin of the bear cults which subsequently spread across northern Europe, Asia, and finally, North America.2
Cave drawings by Cro-Magnon man dated from the Upper Palaeolithic era (from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago) depict wildlife such as bison and bears—often wounded. The continued importance of the bear as an object of worship is suggested by an archaeological find in a cave in Montespan, France: a model of a large bear, in front of which was placed a bear’s skull covered with a bear pelt, in a form of ‘altar arrangement’. 3 This suggests further development from the rituals practised by Neanderthal man. Leeming (2003) surmises that to these early Homo sapiens, the bear was a kind of totem spirit or animal master, and was likely to have been the object of a ‘sacramental hunt’.4
Perhaps at least part of the reason for the early human fascination with the bear was the various attributes making it similar to man: its human-like appearance (minus its fur), its human-like ability to stand on its hind legs and even walk upright, the sow’s attentive mothering of its young, and its habitation of caves, which were also the dwellings of Palaeolithic man. Above all, however, these early humans were perhaps drawn to the bear’s mysterious ability to hibernate: the bear appeared to bury itself, and be ‘reborn’ in the spring. For this reason, it is likely that the bear was thought to have magical powers of resurrection and it was due to these powers that it came to be venerated or worshipped. It is probable that the idea of rebirth and the cyclical nature of life became intrinsically associated with the bear in these early times. Indeed, there is at least tentative evidence of this: Sanders (1993) states that bear bones have been excavated from a Neanderthal grave-site in France, and human bodies covered in bear fur have also been excavated.5 It may be that Neanderthal people were, through these rituals, attempting to ‘borrow’ this capacity for rebirth for themselves.
The people of the Neolithic Vinca culture of southeastern Europe produced bear-shaped vases and water receptacles incised with chevrons and zigzag and triangular markings, representing water. For instance, water-bearing pots and vases found in a 6,000 B.C. site in former-Yugoslavia are moulded in the shape of bear paws or in the form of bears, and decorated with zigzag and triangular markings.
Shepard and Sanders (1985) suggest that these markings and the purpose of the receptacles signify the bear’s associations with water, springs and the rainy season.6
The most extensive review of the customs and imagery associated with bears in societies throughout the world was published in 1926 by anthropologist Alfred Hallowell. While several scholars have reviewed or revised aspects of Hallowell’s work (e.g. Berres, Stothers and Mather, 2004; Edsmen, 1987), it still represents the most comprehensive investigation of the cultural significance of bears world-wide. In both Hallowell’s and subsequent studies on bear ritual and customs, bear ceremonialism has been found to be distributed across a vast area of the northern hemisphere. Hallowell concludes: ‘no other animal was found to attain such universal prominence as the bear, nor to have associated with it, over such a wide geographical area, such a large series of customs. Of all the game animals hunted in the north, the bear is the most constant recipient of special attention…’.7
In an attempt to explain the wide distribution of bear ceremonialism, Hallowell (1926) examines the contemporary theories and failing to find these convincing, posits his own. The first theory is the psychological hypothesis: that human beings react in similar ways to certain characteristics of the bear, the most significant of which being its many human-like traits which lend themselves to anthropomorphism (‘anthropomorphisation’ is the term Hallowell uses). Hallowell is not convinced by this theory, first and foremost because ‘whereas the “human traits” of the bear are readily observable to anyone, the attitude of veneration does not coincide with the geographical distribution of the species. It has a very much narrower provenance’.8
Similarly, Hallowell rejects an economic hypothesis—i.e., that the level of propitiation of animals is proportional to their usefulness—for two key reasons. Firstly, because the bear is of ‘economic importance over a much wider area than that in which veneration or ritual observances occur’. Secondly, because in the regions in which the most prominent beliefs and rituals connected to bears occur, such as Siberia, Finland, regions of North America, Finland and Scandinavia, the bear is not always the most important animal from an economic standpoint, and yet more economically important animals are not necessarily the object of special customs or ritual. For example, he suggests that to the northern forest-tundra people in North America and Eurasia, the reindeer (caribou) is more fundamental to their subsistence economy than the bear.9 In fact, Berres et al (2004) note that historical documents of the indigenous northeast groups of North America provide evidence to the contrary in this particular case, and state that ‘the economic significance of the bear may also be considered a source—though not a predominant one—of its power among many traditional peoples of the northeast.’ Nevertheless, they support Hallowell’s overall conclusions.10 Hallowell also makes the point that animals which appear most conspicuously as decorative motifs may not necessarily be the
same as those which figure prominently in mythology or which are economically significant in a particular society.11
In place of these psychological and economic theories, Hallowell puts forward what he calls the ‘historico-geographical interpretation’ of the distribution of bear ceremonialism: in effect, he regards the characteristic attitudes and practices associated with the bear held or practised by a tribe or people as a function of those peoples’ historical relationship with the animal and not due to ‘any naïve observation of the traits of the species, or necessarily connected with the creature’s “usefulness”’.12 He points to evidence of this in the geographical distribution of bear ceremonialism: striking similarity in the type and nature of bear ceremonialism occurs throughout the region of the Boreal hunting peoples of the American and Eurasian continents (excluding northeastern Siberia and the northwest coast of America), but not in the Arctic coastal regions to the north or tribes further south.13 Hallowell supports his argument by the observation that bear ceremonialism had precisely the same distribution as a number of other cultural characteristics found in bear-hunting cultures throughout the northern hemisphere, including the use of the snowshoe and moccasin; a particular style of clothing; a hand-drum used by shamans; certain techniques of divination; certain theories of disease; and important myths and tales. These, along with bear-hunting rituals, were characteristics of what Hallowell called an ‘ancient Boreal culture’.14 He concludes that bear ceremonialism in North America is the result of the diffusion of cultural traits of ancient Boreal hunting groups from Eurasia as they settled throughout North America.15 While finding that the bear imagery and ritual is more widely distributed among the indigenous cultures of North America than originally found in Hallowell’s study, the research cited by Berres et al also supports his ‘historico-geographic’ hypothesis.16
Certainly, the common traits of rituals and beliefs pertaining to bears throughout this region is striking. For example, Edsmen (1987) states that the prayers, use of language taboos, atonement rites (performed immediately before or after killing the bear), and taboos imposed upon women are common to many of these groups.17 Notably, these are all features evident not only in Ainu culture (the culture of the indigenous people of Hokkaidō, Japan) but also in the matagi hunting culture in Japan, which will be examined in Chapter Eight. Rockwell (1991) also draws attention to numerous parallels between bear-related rituals and customs in Europe, Asia and North America in his survey of bear imagery and rituals among Native American cultures of North America, including the bear’s pivotal role in shamanic rites, healing, hunting ceremonies, and other lifecycle and annual observances. For example, Rockwell has found that the traditional bear-hunting rites of the Finns, and those of the Cree tribe of North America are fundamentally the same.18 Another notable symmetry lies in the use of aliases as a means of avoiding the generic word for bear in native American, northern European and Asian bear-hunting cultures. One of the most common aliases is ‘Grandfather’
or ‘Grandmother’, which is used by almost every group on both continents.19 (The use of aliases is also evident in Japan’s matagi hunting culture.) Rockwell has also found variants of ‘bear tales’ with very similar story-lines told in European, Siberian and Native American cultures. For example, the Tungus, a nomadic tribe of central Siberia, tell a story about a girl who is kidnapped by a bear which she later marries. It is so similar to one told by the Native American tribes that he suggests that it is possible that one is derived from the other, or that they have a common provenance. Tales of a similar theme are common also in European and Russian folklore, and in fact, as Rockwell points out, one of the oldest and most widespread folktales of the Old World concerns a half-bear/half-human son of superhuman strength being born of a human-bear union, and it is upon this that Beowulf, The Odyssey, and several old Norse sagas are based.20
Not only geographical continuity, but also temporal continuity is a feature of folklore and beliefs pertaining to bears. For example, beliefs which appeared in the literature in ancient times are evident in bear hunting cultures many centuries later: one such belief is that the bear sustains itself through winter by sucking on its paws. Edsmen states that one of the earliest known records of this belief was authored by the Roman writer Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D.21 Campbell points out that this belief is still found in the folklore of cultures from Finland, across Eurasia and America to Nova Scotia and Labrador.22 According to Inada (1977) a variation of this belief persists in upland regions in Japan today: that is, that bears crush ants between the ‘palms’ of their paws and sustain themselves over the winter by licking them off.23 Similarly, the medicinal qualities of the bear’s body parts have been recognised for many centuries and in many parts of the world. For example, Pliny the Elder, in his book Natural History, recommends bear fat as a preventative cure for thinning hair.24 Bear fat is still used today in various parts of the world for its medicinal effects, including in Japan.
As noted, the bear has not only been the object of veneration and symbolic conceptualisation, but the object of human exploitation and persecution as well. This facet of the human relationship with the bear will be explored below.