Bear Mythology and Folklore
Bear mythology exists in many cultures.
In China the giant panda is seen as a “national treasure”. The Chinese government has even given pandas as gifts to other countries governments! One Tibetan legend of the giant panda is about how they got their beautiful, and unusual black markings. A long time ago, when pandas lived in the mountains of Tibet, they were white as snow. They were friends with four female shepherds that watched their flocks, in the mountains near their village. One day as the shepherdesses where playing with a panda cub, a leopard leapt out of the bush and tried to attack the cub. The young shepherdesses threw themselves in front of the cub to save it and were killed by the leopard. All the pandas in the area were saddened by their deaths and held a memorial service to honor them and their bravery. To remember their sacrifice for the cub, the pandas all wore black ashes on their arms (as was the local custom). As they wept for the shepherdesses, they wiped their eyes with their paws, they covered their ears to block out the sound of the crying and they hugged each other in grief. As they did these things the ash spread and blackened their fur. The pandas did not wash the black off their fur as a way to remember the girls. To this day, pandas are covered with the black markings to always remember.Bears are very important and respected First Nations and Native American cultures as well. In many stories humans are transformed into bears or are disguised as bears. They are also known as the keepers of dreams (likely because they hibernate) and the keepers of medicine.
In British Columbia, Canada and near Alaska a very rare Black Bear can be found. It is the Kermode (ker-MODE-ee) bear, also known as the spirit bear. It is creamy white in color and thought to have mystical powers by many people. (There is more information about this type of bear in the bear species section but for now we will focus on the legend.) First Nations legend says that the Spirit Bear was made pure white, by the creator, to remind people of the Ice Age, when the earth was covered in snow and ice, and the problems of that time.
And, of course, we can’t forget to mention the Big Dipper! As one version of the Greek legend tells it, Zeus fell in love with Callisto and she gave birth to a son named Arcas. Zeus’ wife was jealous and angry at this and turned Callisto into a bear. One day when Arcas was older he went hunting for bear but did not realize that he was hunting his own mother (the bear). Zeus was scared that Callisto would be harmed and put her into the night sky to be safe, where we can still see her…Ursa Major – the Big Dipper. In some versions of the myth, Zeus also put Arcas into the sky as Ursa Minor, or the little dipper.
The Celts and the Vikings also have legends surrounding the strength, protectiveness and prowess of bears.