Shamanism

Bear Medicine

Eva Rosenn, Shamanic Healer

Bear Medicine

Bear Medicine—that is, power specifically associated with the spirit of the bear, particularly the ability to heal—is known in virtually all cultures within the bear's range. In 1926, anthropologist A. Irving Hallowell studied bear ceremonialism throughout Europe, Asia and North America and noted that widely divergent cultures shared linguistic taboos in referring to bears, hunted them with spears or axes even when guns were available, honored their carcasses with decorations and speeches, observed similar restrictions on the eating of bear meat, and kept bear bones from other animals. Hallowell concluded that these ceremonial hunting practices shared a single, paleolithic origin that was then widely distributed around the boreal zone in Eurasia and North America. Even with much new data available about Siberian, Lapland Saami, and Japanese Ainu bear ceremonialism, scholars continue to agree with Hallowell's thesis.

Certainly the bear's liminal ability to navigate above and below ground gives it shamanic status in many cultures. In western Siberia, the bear is thought to mediate between the living and the dead. In Jewish tradition, the bear is sometimes associated with one of the six directions—that of the earth.

The bear is also known in many cultures as a great healer, since it seeks out plants for its own healing. North American brown bears and Kodiak bears are known to dig up Ligusticum porteri (also known, not surprisingly, as "bear root") and chew on it and then rub it on their fur; the plant is known to have antibiotic properties, be good for stomachaches, and repel insects. Alaskan brown bears are known to chew on sedge to rid themselves of tapeworm and parasites before hibernating. And the common names of many other plants reflect bears' usage: bearberry, bear's paw, bear tongue, bear clover.

As an animal that disappears in winter to reappear only in spring, the bear is also the symbol of renewal, rebirth, and the regaining of health. The ancient Greeks associated Artemis, goddess of plants and regeneration, with the bear; indeed, before marriage young Greek girls were secluded and called arktoi, or "she-bears" (interestingly, a menstruating Ojibwa woman was called Mako-wii, “bear woman”).

Bear is also a species known for its strong maternal ties. The she-bear was worshipped by the Celts as the bear goddess Artio. And of course, Zeus changed Callisto into Ursa Major, the "Great She-Bear" of the sky.

Bear medicine is powerful medicine, bringing healing, renewal, and rebirth. This is the gift that Grandmother Bear brings those who live in bear country.

Sources:

  • Alinei, Mario. "The Paleolithic Continuity Theory On Indo-European Origins: An Introduction," at www.continuitas.com/intro.html.

  • Berres, Thomas E, David M. Stothers, and David Mather, "Bear Imagery and Ritual in Northeast North America: An Update and Assessment of A. Irving Hallowell's Work," Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 29 (Spring 2004) 5-42.

  • Hallowell, A. Irving, "Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere," American Anthropology 28 (1926) 1-175.

  • Hollimon, Sandra E. "The Gendered Peopling of North America: Addressing the Antiquity of Systems of Multiple Genders," in Neil S. Price, The Archeology of Shamanism (Routledge, 2001), ch. 8.

  • Huffman, Michael A. "Current Evidence for Self-Medication in Primates: A Multidisciplinary Perspective," Yearbook Of Physical Anthropology 40 (1997) 171-200, at 187-188.

  • Rockwell, David. Giving Voice to the Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals, and Images of the Bear. Niwot, CO: Roberts Rinehart, 1991.

  • Winkler, Gershon. Magic of the Ordinary, Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism. Berkeley: North Atlantic Bks, 2003, p. 53 and n. 27.




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