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Pre-publication draft of the following article:

Frank, Roslyn M. Hunting the European Sky Bears: German

Straw-bears" and their Relatives as Transformers / Die Jagd auf
die europischen Himmelsbren Deutsche Strohbren und ihre
Verwandten als Verwandler. In Michael and Barbara Rappenglck
(eds.), Symbole der Wandlung - Wandel der Symbole. Proceedings
of the Gesellschaft fr wissenschaftliche Symbolforschung / Society
for the Scientific Study of Symbols. May 21-23, 2004, Kassel,
Germany, pp. 141-166. Munich.

Hunting the European Sky Bears: Germanic Straw-bears and
their Relatives as Transformers
The origins of the Germanic Straw-bears have been subject
to speculation for years. In this study the Straw-bears will be
contextualized along with their European relatives so that their
meaning can be better appreciated within a larger framework of
European ritual belief and social practice. The cosmogony in
question is grounded in the belief that humans descended from
bears, a belief that continued into the 20th century among Basquespeakers. The transformative aspects of the Straw-bear
performances will be examined in relation to Good-Luck Visits,
a performance aimed at bringing good health and prosperity to the
houses visited and in which Straw-bears and their relatives have
played a major role.
Introduction: Theoretical considerations
The past twenty years has witnessed increased interest in German
folklore and more specifically in understanding the meaning of the
popular performances associated with the Straw-bears and their
European counterparts. At the same time, the revival of ritual
practices related to these ursine performers has awakened interest
in discovering the origins of the custom itself. However, until now
most of these efforts seem to have been focused on two juxtaposed
questions: 1) whether the origins of the Straw-bears are indeed
ancient as some investigators have alleged; 1 or 2) whether they are
nothing more than relatively recent inventions, i.e., ritual
reenactments of bear hunts that were instituted to commemorate
hunting customs carried out in years past. The second thesis also
contains the supposition that it was only at the point when real
bears were no longer available did it occur to hunters to recreate the
hunting scenario, having a human dress up as a bear. 2 Finally, there

Cf. Jean Dominique Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours, Grenoble, 1996. Richard von
Wolfram: Brenjagen und Faschinglaufen im oberen Murtale, in: Wiener
Zeitschrift fr Volkskunde, 1932, 37, p. 59-81.
. For example, Pastoureau subscribes to the view that the ftes de lours found in the
Pyrenean-Cantabrian region came into being only a few centuries ago after the bear
population of the zone became depleted. At the same time, however, he argues that
the bear might have been the first deity of humankind. Cf. Michel Pastoureau:
Lours. Histoire dun roi dchu, Paris, 2007, p. 23-52. Cf. also G. Caussimont: Le
mythe de lours dans les Pyrnes occidentales, in: Hommes, Animal, Socit:

have been those who see in the Straw-bear performances which

take place during the Spring Carnival period, nothing more than a
profane parody of Christianity and the Passion of Christ. 3
However, this latter hypothesis is far less prevalent among
anthropologists and ethnographers who tend to subscribe to the
belief that the origins of these customs are indeed ancient. In fact,
some have suggested that hidden behind this Christian faade is a
much older scenario involving the life, death and resurrection of an
archetypal ursine protagonist.4
In this chapter I will argue on the side of the first position,
namely, alleging that the belief system associated with the Strawbears and associated ritual practices is grounded in a much earlier
pan-European cosmogony, one that held that humans descend from
bears.5 It is a cosmovision that has its ultimate origins in the world
of Mesolithic or Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers rather than
agro-pastoralists of the Neolithic. In the course of this study it will
become evident that the meaning of the Germanic Straw-bears is
tied to a set of pan-European performances in which human actors
dress up as bears, while the actions of the performers themselves
correspond to an archaic ritual narrative: the performance follows a
preexisting script. In short, I will outline some of the reasons that
have led me to the conclusion that the Germanic Straw-bears are
best understood when they are resituated inside this larger
interpretive context and associated pan-European narrative.
The paper consists of three main parts. In the first we will look
at the ursine cosmology itself. Then in the second part we will
examine the role of the Good-Luck Visits, and then in the last
section we will analyze the spiritual dimension of the ursine belief
system along with the transformative aspects of the Straw-bears
and their relatives. Once we situate these performances firmly
inside the interpretive framework of an ursine cosmology, the
fundamental tenets of bear ceremonialism will come into view
along with the transformative nature of the symbolism inherent in
them. In this sense, the first step to understanding the
transformative nature of the Straw-bears and their relatives is for us
to learn how to move away from the anthropocentrically-oriented
Western world view. As we do so, we will encounter a more
animistic interpretive lens, a cognitive framework more consonant
with the world of hunter-gatherers and in that way we will be able
to recapture the deeper meaning and cultural conceptualizations
that inform contemporary Straw-bear performances.
At this juncture in our discussion of the ursine cosmology, I
would like to take the opportunity to draw attention to a wellActes du Colloque du Toulouse, 1987 (Alain Couret and Frderic Oge, eds.),
Toulouse, 1989, p. 367-380.
Cf. Helmut Seebach: Strohgestalten in der sdwestdeutschen Fastnacht, in: NarriNarro, 2004, 4, http://www.narren-spiegel.de/Texte/strohbaeren.htm.
Cf. Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours, p. 53, 213-214.
This study forms part a larger research project entitled Hunting the European Sky
Bears, for example, cf. Roslyn M. Frank: Hunting the European Sky Bears: When
Bears Ruled the Earth and Guarded the Gate of Heaven, in: Astronomical
Traditions in Past Cultures (Vesselina Koleva and Dimiter Kolev, eds.), Sophia,
1996, p. 116-142. Hunting the European Sky Bears: Candlemas Bear Day and
World Renewal Ceremonies, in: Astronomy, Cosmology and Landscape (Clive
Ruggles, Frank Prendergast and Tom Ray, eds.), Bognor Regis, England, 2001, p.
133-157. Hunting the European Sky Bears: A Diachronic Analysis of Santa Claus
and his Helpers, in: An Enquiring Mind: Papers in Honour of Alexander Marshack
(Paul G. Bahn, ed.), Woodbridge, CT, in press.

known linguistic fact: that in Germanic and Slavic languages the

Proto-Indo-European term for bear is not used, rather the terms
that are present are avoidance terms, expressions that allude to
the bear indirectly, e.g., as the brown one (Br, derived from
*bher- bright, brown) in Germanic or as the honey-eater
(medved) in Slavic.6 In other words, we have linguistic evidence
that the bear played a special role in the earlier belief system of
these peoples. What has not been suspected is that the avoidance
pattern was part of far more complex animistic belief system by
means of which the bodies and souls of humans and bears were
bound together inextricably because of the belief that humans
descended from bears.
Part 1. Ursine cosmology: The bear ancestor
Many years ago, when I first decided to do fieldwork in Euskal
Herria (Basque Country) it quickly became apparent to me that I
would need to learn Euskera (Basque). Soon after I had gained
enough proficiency in the language to carry on a basic
conversation, a strange thing began to happen to me. People would
take me aside and tell me the following in a low voice, as if they
were sharing a very important yet almost secretive piece of
knowledge: We Basques used to believe we descended from
bears. The first time someone told me this, I had no idea what I
should say in response. I found the statement totally amazing. Yet
over and over again the same thing happened to me. People, who
didnt know each other, who had no contact with each other, ended
up telling me the same thing.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that I had come across a key
piece of data. I just didnt know what to make of it. Subsequently, I
tried to find references to this Basque belief in bear ancestors. But
all my attempts were futile. There was nothing in the ethnographic
literature; nothing written down anywhere. The belief seemed to
have survived only orally, though oral transmission, passed down
from one generation to the next, without any outsider ever noticing
it. Later I would discover that the ursine genealogy was connected
to a rich legacy of belief and performance art and complex cultural
In 1986 I finally come across a concrete reference to this
belief. In fact, the first written documentation of what my
informants had been telling me was published in a brief article by
the French-Basque ethnographer Txomin Peillen, entitled Le culte
de l'ours chez les anciens basques.7 In it he reports on an interview
he conducted in Zuberoa (Soule) with one of the last Basquespeaking bear hunters in the Pyrenees, Dominique Prbende, who
was 48 years old at the time. Dominiques 83 year old father, Petiri
Prbende, was also present. In that interview several statements
were made that are relevant to our topic.
Although Dominique had participated in bear hunts, the 48
year-old declared that he himself had never killed a bear, adding
that killing a bear brought you bad luck (r gaixtoa ekharten
diz). Furthermore, any man who did so would receive nothing

Calvert Watkins: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, in: The American

Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston, 1969, p. 1509.
Txomin Peillen: Le culte de l'ours chez les anciens basques, in: L'ours brun:
Pyrenes, Agruzzes, Mts. Cantabriques, Alpes du Trentin (Claude Dendaletche,
ed.), Pau, 1986, p. 171-173.

good from it (eztiz deuse hunik emaiten). He explained that he
couldnt eat bear meat either because whenever he tasted it, he
would vomit thinking of the animal that he had skinned; that it
seemed to him to that bears have a strange human-like shape.
Subsequently, in order to confirm what he had just said,
Dominque brought out a bear paw and showed it to the
interviewer, stating that a bear is just like a human being
(dena jentia dz). While killing a bear, or admitting that one
had killed a bear, brought bad luck, for the Basques the bears
paw was highly esteemed for it was said to bring good luck.
Indeed, it acted to protect the person from the evil eye and other
kinds of illness. 8
At the end of the interview, we discover what was motivating
Dominique to speak as he had about the bear, insinuating that the
creature had human-like characteristics. And as in the case of my
own informants, Peillens informants show a reluctance to speak
about this particular belief in public, that is, to those who were not
Euskaldunak (Basque-speakers). In fact, it is only after the taperecorder is turned off that Petiri, Dominiques father, is willing to
confide in his visitors concerning the cosmogony in question.
Apparently he assumed that that if the tape-recorder was not
running, the secret he was going to share would be kept safe from
the prying ears of outsiders. We need to remember that Petiri was
speaking in Basque to other native speakers of Basque. Hence, it
would seem that he waited to tell them the most important part until
he felt confident that the knowledge would not be disseminated
indiscriminately to outsiders. Peillen introduces Petiris confession
of his belief in a bear ancestor by stating:
Cette croyance dcrite pour les Amrindiens et les Sibriens,
nest pas dcrite pour lEurope notre connaissance, bien que
tous les lments prcdents la fasse pressentir. Cest ainsi
qualors que nous avions teint le magntophone, termin
notre enqute, Petiri Prbende nous dclara tout de go:
Lehenagoko eskaldnek gizona hartzetik jiten zela sinhesten
zizien (les anciens basques croyaient que lhomme descendait
de lours). Pri de rpter ses propos il ajouta que lhomme est
fabriqu partir de lours. Il nous donnait la clef des croyances
The last statement by Petiri concerning the fact that humankind
est fabriqu partir de lours is probably a literal French
translation of the Basque sentence: Gizona hartzak egina da. The
expression could also be rendered as: The bear created
humankind. Or, it could be glossed as: Our human origins go
back to the bear who created us. When examined more closely,
this cosmogenic belief in the bear ancestors resonates strongly with
a hunter-gatherer mentality, that is, with what would be a
Mesolithic or even Upper Palaeolithic mindset, and not with the
agricultural world view characteristic of Neolithic agro-pastoralists.
Moreover, we see that the persistence of this ursine cosmology is
found not only in the folk memory of Basque speakers who are no
longer emotionally committed to the tenets of the belief system, but
also in the minds of individuals like Petiri and his son Dominique.
. Peillen: Le culte de l'ours chez les anciens basques, p. 171-172. For a discussion
of the widespread nature of this custom, cf. Rmi Mathieu: La patte de lours, in:
LHomme 1984, XXIV (1), p. 5-42. Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours, p. 115-125

Indeed, their comments reveal that they are emotionally committed

to the truth of what they are saying. In sum, we must conclude that
among Basques the belief in the bear ancestors survived until the
end of the 20th century and, therefore, earlier it was undoubtedly
far more deeply held and wide spread. In the sections that follow
we shall discuss other evidenceother types of cultural
survivalsrelating directly and indirectly to this ursine
Part 2. Good-Luck Visits: An introduction
The Great Bear (Ursa major) has been classified as belonging to
the most archaic strata of the star figures. It has been assumed that
scenes portrayed by certain other constellations were associated
with some half-forgotten sky text handed down to us, albeit
incompletely, through Greek mythology. 9 In the case of Europe
until now no truly archaic belief system or set of stories connected
to this celestial bear has been identified.10 However, after years of
extensive fieldwork in the Basque region of the Pyrenees, I was
able to discover the existence of an archetypal hero called Hartz
Kume in Basque whose name means Little Bear.11 The figure of
this Bear Son, born of a great bear and human female, far from
being exclusive to the Pyrenean zone, is identified with a cycle of
stories and ritual performances found throughout Europe. The latter
include what are called Good-Luck Visits. Indeed, variants of
these visits and related social practices have survived surprisingly
intact into the 21st century, forming a rich legacy of popular
performance art whose cognitive roots and unique cultural
conceptualizations reach back far in time. As we shall see, the
Good-Luck Visits themselves have been a major factor in
preserving the earlier belief system.
The Bear Son tales represent one of the most common motifs
found in European folklore.12 The significance of the widespread
distribution of the motif is best understood once we recognize that
we are dealing with relatively archaic materials emanating from an
earlier European cosmology that linked humans directly to bears. In
this regard, the Bear Son tales are one component of this
Owen Gingerich: Astronomical scrapbook. The origin of the zodiac, in: Sky and
Telescope, 1984, 67, p. 218-220.
While there are extant Greek tales (e.g., associated with Callisto where being
transformed into a bear is viewed as a punishment), these are clearly modern in their
conceptualization, rather than reflecting a cosmology congruent with a huntergatherer mentality.
The expression derives from hartz bear and (k)ume infant, baby, little one.
Although initially, some thirty years ago, my field work and archival research
focused almost exclusively on the Basque region of the Pyrenees, I soon discovered
that the same cycle of Bear Son stories is found throughout Europe. Cf. Emmanual
Cosquin: Jean lOurs in: Les Contes populaires de Lorraine, Paris, 1887, p. 1-27.
Even though folklorists did not recognize the significance of the European stories,
the surprisingly widespread distribution of the Bear Son tales caught their attention
and was already an object of serious investigation by the 1880s. By 1910, 221
European variants of the 301story type, the descent of the Bear Son hero to the
Under World, had been documented. In a study published in 1959, 57 Hungarian
versions of the tale are mentioned (cf. G. Kiss: A 301-es mesetpus magyar
redakcii (The Hungarian Redactions of the 301-Story Type), in: Ethnographia
(Budapest), LXX, 1959, p. 253268). In 1992, Stitt recorded 120 variants of the
Bear Son story for Scandinavia alone (cf. J. Michael Stiff: Beowulf and the Bear's
Son: Epic, Saga and Fairytale in Northern Germanic Tradition, New York/London,
1992). The cycle of oral tales is present in all of the Indo-European languages of
Europe as well as in Basque and Finno-Ugric. Cf. also Jose Arratibel: Kontu
zaarrak, Bilbao, 1980.

cosmology, one that also includes ritual practices which, in turn,

are intimately connected this earlier pan-European story of origins.
Evidence for the residual practice of bear ceremonialism in
Europe is demonstrated in many forms, including ritual
reenactments of the bear hunt and folkloric performances
portraying scenes from the Bear Son saga itself. 13 These social
practices are particularly abundant not only in Western Europe but
also in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe where dancing
bears or their human counterparts are viewed similarly, i.e., as
bringing good luck, health and prosperity to those visited. 14 At the
same time, the visits had a cleansing component for they
purportedly guaranteed that evil spirits and other bad influences
would be carried away.
In summary, there is reason to believe that the eco-centric
discourse intrinsic to the Bear Son saga and related performance art
antedates the anthropocentric discourse inherent in the celestiallycoded Greek mythological materials. In contrast, the Bear Son saga
contains a narrative that encapsulates the value system and
worldview of hunter-gatherers. As such, the Bear Son tales have
survived on the margins of elite discourse, confined to performance
art and other folkloric practicessuch as the Good-Luck Visits
which have been transmitted orally and quite unobtrusively from
one generation to the next in villages across Europe.15


In certain zones of the Pyrenees the popular performances acted out each year by the
villagers include vignettes that reproduce scenes from the Bear Son saga. Cf. Violet
Alford: The Springtime Bear in the Pyrenees, in: Folklore 1930, XLI, p. 266-279;
The Candlemas Bear, in: National and English Review 1931 (Feb.), p. 235-244;
and Pyrenean Festivals: Calendar Customs, Music and Magic, Drama and Dance,
London, 1937.
Frank: Hunting the European Sky Bears: When Bears Ruled the Earth and Guarded
the Gate of Heaven, p. 133-135. Michel Praneuf: L'ours et les hommes dans les
traditions europennes, Paris, 1989. Tihomir P. Vukanovi: Gypsy bear-leaders in
the Balkan Peninsula, in: Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 1959, 3 (37), p. 106125.
The motif of the Bear Son's descent to the underworld has many scholarly labels.
Aarne-Thompson classifies the story as The Three Stolen Princesses (Type 301)
with the following variants: Quest for a Vanished Princess (301A); The Strong
Man and His Companions Journey to the Land of Gold (301B); The Magic
Objects (301C) and The Dragons Ravish Princesses (301D) (cf. A. Aarne-Stith
Thompson: The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, 2nd Rev.,
Helsinki, 1961, p. 90-93). Hansen classifies the tale similarly with some
modifications. He sees the story (301) combined often with Strong John (650)
(Der Starke Hans), a version of which appears in Grimm (cf. Terrence L. Hansen:
The Types of the Folktale in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and
Spanish America, Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1957, p. 24-25, 75-77). At times a single
story may elaborate on a series of elements belonging to the longer Bear Son saga.
For example, the shamanically-coded Hungarian tale The Tree that Reached to the
Sky includes several episodes found in the older Basque version of the Bear Son
tale. Dgh has described it as containing elements from: The Three Stolen
Princesses (Type 301); The Ogre's (Devil's) Heart in the Egg (Type 302); The
Man on a Quest for his Lost Wife (Type 400); The Princess in the Sky Tree
(Type 468), with elements of The Grateful Animals (Type 554); The Youth
Transformed into a Horse (Type 314), and Three Animals as Brothers-in-Law
(Type 552A) (cf. Linda Dgh: Folktales of Hungary, Chicago, 1965, p. 312-314).
Substantial research has been done relating the Bear Son Tale to Beowulf (cf.
Robert A. Barakat: John of the Bear and Beowulf, in: Western Folklore, 1967,
26 (1), p. 111. Stephen O. Glosecki: The Wolf of the Bees: Germanic shamanism
and the Bear Hero, in: Journal of Ritual Studies, 1988, 2 (1): 31-53). In short, all
these motifs should be viewed as variations on the Bear Son saga discussed in this

Morphology of the Good-Luck Visits: Shamanic components

The Good-Luck Visits in question and the ritual repertoire
associated with them derive their vitality specifically from their
intimate connection to the cycle of pan-European tales centered on
the exploits of the Bear Son who acts as the intermediary, the
mediator between the world of humans and bears. The Bear Sons
adventures portray the protagonist first as a young shaman
apprentice, as a medicine man initiate who sets out on a vision
quest to acquire his Spirit Animal Helpers and his Medicine
Bundle. Later, as an adult, the Bear Son engages in a series of ritual
battles with another shape-changing shaman. Significantly, for the
most part the shape-shifting abilities of the two characters serve to
set up narrative confrontations in which the Bear Son transforms
himself into one predator animal after another. While his shaman
adversary shape-shifts, too, each time he does, he plays the
corresponding role of the prey, a narrative encapsulation of what
Paul Shepard has referred to a trophic metaphysics where the
complex network of food chain relationships is emphasized. 16 The
Bear Sons adversary has his own set of Spirit Animal Helpers. The
battles between the two shamans take place on a ritual landscape
typical of shamanism where the hero is seen climbing or flying up
and down along a vertical axis. In some cases the movement is
from Middle Earth to the Under World. In others, the shamanic
figures journey takes him from the Upper World back down to
Middle Earth.
In this regard, we might recall the fact that among
contemporary hunter-gatherer societies the bear is considered the
most powerful spirit animal, in part because of its remarkable
ability to live for months without eating or drinking. Moreover, the
bear was seen as a representative of and mediator between three
spatial domains, the upper, the intermediate and the lower
world. It is not surprising to discover that the shaman appealed to
a bear-shaped spirit in order to save a sick mans soul,17 and in
turn acted as an intermediary between these different worlds,
motifs that are reflected in the Bear Son tales.
According to the spatial coordinates intrinsic to such a
shamanistically-coded landscape, the vertical axis is often
portrayed as a smoke-hole, a shaft, and it is through this aperture
that the healer descends and ascends on his journeys, e.g., when
seeking information about his patient, as well as hunting and
retrieving lost souls.18 Furthermore, linked to the ritual journeys
of the shaman healer are the actions carried out by the spirit of the
earthly bear representative itself. In this regard, in times past a
fundamental component of European bear ceremonialism appears
to have been the bear hunt in which a representative of the ancestral
animal was sacrificed, followed by a banquet, held in the animals

Paul Shepard: Bear essay (manuscript), 1995, p. 6.

va Schmidt: Bear Cult and Mythology of the Northern Ob-Ugrians, in: Uralic
Mythology and Folklore (Mihly Hoppl and Juha Pentikinen, eds.),
Budapest/Helsinki, 1989, p. 187-232.
Bill B. Brunton: Kootenai shamanism, in: Shamans and Cultures (Mihly Hoppl
and Keith D. Howard, eds.), Budapest/Los Angeles, 1993, p. 136-146. Mihly
Hoppl: Shamanism: Universal Structures and Regional Symbols, in: Shamans
and Cultures (Mihly Hoppl and Keith D. Howard, eds.), Budapest/Los Angeles,
1993, p. 181-192.



honor where the creatures blood and flesh were eaten. 19 Today in
Europe such hunts are encountered as re-enactments, as Good-Luck
performances in which a human actor mimes the role of the earthly
bear. After chasing after those present, especially young women,
the bear is captured, killed and falls down only to leap up once
again, resurrected. Previously, there appears to have been a final
interlude intended as a sending home ceremony in which the
earthly bears soul was sent back to heaven so that it could give a
report to the Sky Bear concerning the overall comportment of its
human descendants, for instance, whether they treated the animal
properly prior to killing it, whether they expressed their humility
and gratitude for the sacrifice made by the animal when it gave up
its life. The report, today often of a highly satiric nature, still forms
part of the conclusion of many Good-Luck Visits, and represents a
kind of evaluation or critique of the behavior of those visited or
In short, the earthly bears report served to inform the celestial
bear of the details of the behavior of its human offspring. A
positive report card guaranteed the health and well being of the
celestial bears human descendants. If the ceremonies were
properly performed, in the spring the bones of the earthly bear
would take on flesh anew in the form of bear cubs, while the souls
of all the other beings were thought to be released by the bear in the
spring when it awoke from hibernation, an action that in a huntergatherer society would have guaranteed an abundance of game. 21
In the tales and related folk performances found across much
of Europe, the Bear Son intermediary often appears dressed as a
bear. This character, in turn, is often accompanied by a number of
musicians and false faces, masked figures that portray his Spirit
Animal Helpers, most particularly the White or Grey Mare and the
Female Eagle, while the latter appears in the performances at times
in the form of a Stork. 22 Ritual bear hunts are still performed in the
Franco-Cantabrian region and the Pyrenees, where today they are
acted out publicly during the period of Winter Carnival. 23 For
example, in Andorra the Festa de lOssa is celebrated both on
December 26th and during Spring Carnival. 24 Other data strongly
Lajoux: Lhomme et lours, p. 175-198. Zoya P. Sokolova: The Bear Cult, in:
Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia, 2000, 2 (2), p. 121-130.
Thomas Hollingsworth: A Basque Superstition, Folklore II, 1891, p. 132-133.
Roslyn M. Frank: Recovering European ritual bear hunts: A comparative study of
Basque and Sardinian ursine carnival performances, in: Insula (Cagliari, Sardinia),
2008, 3, p. 41-97, http://www.sre.urv.es/irmu/alguer/.
Boris Chiclo: Lours shaman, in: tudes mongoles et sibriennes, 1981, 12, p. 35112. Ossian Elgstrm and Ernst Manker: Bjrnfesten, Lulea [Sweden], 1984.
Praneuf : L'ours et les hommes dans les traditions europennes.
For further discussion and photos of contemporary European performances in which
the bear and its trainer along with the White Mare and Stork appear, cf. Roslyn M.
Frank: Hunting the European Sky Bears: Aquila and the Female Eagle Shaman.
Presentation at the Oxford VIII International Conference on Archaeoastronomy /
15th Annual European Conference for Astronomy in Culture, Klaipeda, Lithuania,
July 22-31, 2007, http://www.uiowa.edu/~spanport/people/frank-publications.html.
For a discussion of similar public re-enactments and Good-Luck Visits conducted on
Candlemas Bear Day (February 2) and understood to form part of the world renewal
ceremonies associated with the Spring Carnival period, cf. Frank: Hunting the
European Sky Bears: Candlemas Bear Day and World Renewal Ceremonies, p.
133-157. Avelino Molina Gonzlez and Angel Vlez Prez: L'ours dans les ftes et
carnavals d'hiver: La Vijanera en Valle d'Iguna, in: L'ours brun: Pyrnes,
Abruzzes, Mts. Cantabriques, Alpes du Trentin (Claude Dendaletche, ed.), Pau,
1986, p.134-146.
Michel Praneuf: L'ours et les hommes dans les traditions europennes, p. 62.

suggest the ritual importance of these Good-Luck Visits or house

calls to the community as a whole.25
Classification of Good-Luck Visits
The Good-Luck Visits can be divided into two general categories.
The first type is best understood as a form of preventative
medicine, periodic cleansing rituals carried out with the intention of
warding off future physical and spiritual disease in which the bearshaman carried away the evil spirits causing the illness or
misfortune. Initially, these prophylactic rituals appear to have taken
place on a regular basis throughout the year. In contrast, the second
type of Good-luck Visit was triggered when a family member or
animal fell ill. In such cases the Bear Leader (trainer) was
contacted to make a house callalong with his earthly bearand
to perform a healing ceremony for an individual member of the
community. In the Balkans such house calls were regularly
conducted with a live bear into the 1930s.26
Originally it would seem that these Good-Luck Visits and
attendant performances took place throughout the year, motivated
by the specific needs of the patient, household or community in
question. In this sense, the performers along with their flesh and
blood dancing bear (or its human shamanic counterpart) would
have functioned much in the same way as the members of the
Society of False Faces of the Iroquois and the heyoka of the Sioux
whose fierce masks were intended to frighten away the evil spirits
that were causing the illness or misfortune. These Native American
medicine men and women were the contraries or sacred clowns
who performed when need be, in the homes of the afflicted. 27
In Europe, such Good-Luck performances have tended to take
place during the period from the beginning of November to early
January, although there are other officially sanctioned periods for
them: Candlemas Bear Day on February 2nd as well as during the
Spring carnival. In New World locations such as Newfoundland
and Labrador which have strong Germanic traditions, the masking
practice continued to involve adults and persisted until quite
recently. In contrast, in the United States the periods in question
contain only three daysseparated in timein which
masquerading is accepted and commonplace, i.e., when disguised
characters regularly walk about the streets, namely, All Hallows
Eve, Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. 28 In the case of the
Advent period homes are regularly visited by an adult disguised as
St. Nicholas or Santa Claus. However, the black-faced and/or
masked bear-like companion of St. Nicholaswho is still found
throughout Germanic speaking zoneshas disappeared, the two25

Franoise Giroux: Carnavals et ftes d'hiver, Paris, 1984. Thierry Truffault:

Contribution la connaissance de la permanence ursine dans les diverses
manifestations culturelles, cultuelles et festives dans le primtre de l'ancienne
province romain de Novempopulanie, in: Le rveil de l'ours Occitan, Turin, Italiy,
in press.
Vukanovi: Gypsy bear-leaders in the Balkan Peninsula, p. 106-125. Geeta
Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan: The Dancing Bears of India, 1997, p. 2021, http://www.wspa-usa.org/download/6_dancing_bears_of_india.pdf.
Frank C. Speck: The Celestial Bear Comes Down to Earth: The Bear Ceremony of
the Munsee-Mahican in Canada as Related by Nekatcit. In collaboration with Jesse
Moses, Delaware Nation. Ohsweken, 1945.
The so-called Mardi Gras of New Orleans is a notable exception. Other than this
French inspired celebration European carnival traditions have left few traces in the
United States.


some having been replaced by a single fur-clad figure, the

American consumer Santa whose costume is often stuffed with
pillows so that he takes on a very robust appearance, albeit still
fully anthropomorphic in nature.
In the sections that follow we will examine primarily European
traditions (although including a few examples from the New
World), where the role of the bear and its healing powerspowers
associated with the performers and their bearunderwent a process
of hybridization, marginalization and general secularized downgrading. This process of change came about gradually as the ursine
symbolic order was repeatedly recontextualized, losing some
elements while gaining others. At the same time, and perhaps most
remarkably, we shall discover that certain core features remained
relatively stable across time. That said, what contributed, at least in
part, to the stability of these features seems to be, quite ironically,
the prolonged contacts between groups defending opposing
symbolic orders. The result was the entrenchment of the older
animistic cosmology: it was tucked away quite securely inside the
Christian interpretive framework. In what follows we will trace the
development of these Good-Luck Visits and the way that the
portrayal of the ursine main character has evolved over time.
However, first several additional comments should be made
concerning the prototypical morphology of the European GoodLuck Visits. Frequently the Bear Leader is followed by a number of
villagers dressed up as bears with their faces blackened, wearing
bells about their waists and small jingles attached to their calves. In
their manner of walking they often imitate the rocking gait of a
bear.29 They are accompanied by a group of musicians and other
guisers dressed as ancestral Spirit Animal Helpers. Perhaps the
most popular and widespread of these creatures is the White or
Grey Mare, an astrally-coded character with possible linkages to
the pre-Greek constellation Centaurus, who in the Bear Son stories
helps the hero kill his adversary, the Black Wolf Trickster. 30.
In Germany this Hobby Horse character is called der
Schimmel, a term used to refer to a white (or grey) horse. In some
parts the two characters are fused in the figure of the
Schimmelreiter (the White-horse rider). Nonetheless, even when
emphasis is laid upon the rider, and the name Schimmelreiter is
given, [it] is accompanied by a bear, a youth dressed in straw who
plays the part of a bear tied to a pole.31 In short, according to
Germanic tradition, der Schimmel is regularly accompanied by a
bear actor called der Erbsenbr (Pea Haulm-Bear) or der
Strohbr (the Straw-Bear), an actor covered with stalks of pea
haulm or straw rather than fur.32
For a more extended discussion of this phenomenon, cf. Frank: Recovering
European ritual bear hunts: A comparative study of Basque and Sardinian ursine
Roslyn M. Frank and Jesus Arregi Bengoa: Hunting the European Sky Bears: On
the Origins of the Non-zodiacal Constellations, in: Astronomy, Cosmology and
Landscape (Clive Ruggles, Frank Prendergast and Tom Ray, eds.), Bognor Regis,
England, 2001, 15-43.
Clement A. Miles: Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and
Significance, New York, [1912] 1976, p. 200.
Other materials used for the bears costume include moss and/or leaves. These
actors, sometimes called men of the forestas were bears themselvesare
identified also as wild-men. Roger Bartra: Wild Men in the Looking Glass: The


The Strohbr appears in the eastern part of Germany,

Pomerania, Bavaria and Switzerland while a similarly dressed
personage is found across the channel in England as well as in
Poland and further west in the Pyrenees. In short, representatives of
these Straw-bears can be found today in much of Western Europe,
often accompanied by the White or Grey Mare and at times by the
Stork.33 Indeed, far from disappearing, the Straw-bears appear to be
gaining in popularity (Figures 1 & 2).

Figure 1. Strawbear of Whittlesea, England, 2001. Source:

http://www.strawbear.org.uk/Bear in Waldurn.htm.

Mythic Origins of European Otherness, Ann Arbor, 1994. Pierre Duny-Ptr : Basa
Jauna le seigneur sauvage dans les lgendes basques, in: Socit des Sciences
Lettres et Arts de Bayonne, 1960, 92-94, p. 87-105. Christophe Gros: L'Homme
Sauvage. Une figure rituelle du Carnaval alpin, in: Nous autres (Erica Deuber
Ziegler and Genevive Perret, eds.), Gollion/Genve, p. 227-258, http://www.villege.ch/meg/pdf/tabou_1.pdf. Thierry Truffaut: Apports des carnavals ruraux en Pays
Basque pour l'tude de la mythologie: Le cas du 'Basa-Jaun', in: Eusko-Ikaskuntza.
Sociedad de Estudios Vascos. Cuadernos de Seccin. Anthropologa Etnologa,
1988, 6, p. 71-81.
Ingeborg Weber-Kellermann: Das Weihnachtsfest: Eine Kultur- und
Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit, Luzern und Frankfurt/M, 1978, p. 29. Violet
Alford: The Hobby Horse and Other Animal Masks, London, 1978, p. 116. Praneuf :
L'ours et les hommes dans les traditions europennes, p. 63.


Figure 2. Strawbear in Waldrn, Germany, 2001. Source:

http://www.strawbear.org.uk/Bear in Waldurn.htm.
Hybridization: The dancing bear Martin, He who walks barefoot
As we noted, one of the fundamental structural elements of the
ursine cosmology has been the phenomenon of Good-Luck Visits, a
social practice that has contributed directly to the cultural storage,
preservation and stability as well the transmission of the tenets of
the earlier ursine cosmology, across generations, by bringing into
play mechanisms, reiterative and redundant in nature, typical of
oral cultures. Nonetheless, under the influence of Christianity the
central role of the bear was modified and some of its functions
reassigned by the Church to a specific saint, even though it appears
that both the clergy and the general populace were at least partially
aware of the adjustments that were taking place. In order to
illustrate more clearly how this process of symbolic hybridization
works, we will examine at a concrete example: that of the
transference of the functions of the bear to a particular saint,
namely, St. Martin, while the role of his trainer was taken over by
the figure of a bishop.
As was usually the case with such hagiographically-based
legends, the bishop chosen was one whose historical origins were
remote, shrouded in the mists of time, namely, St. Martin, Bishop
of Tours, who was finally consecrated by the Church in the fifth
century, and turned into the central character of a great Church
festival, Martinmas, celebrated on November 11th. A curious story
was propagated about this Martin. Indeed, there is reason to believe
that the legend itself was a conscious attempt to link the saints
name and performances conducted in his honor directly to those of
the dancing bear (or vice-versa). In order to understand this
process we need to recognize that in the Middle Ages across much
of Europe a common nickname for any bear brought in to conduct a
cleansing ceremony was Martin. In fact, this name was frequently
modified by adding the phrase he who walks barefoot, e.g., as in
the expression Mestre Mart au ps descaus, literally, Bare-Foot

Martin or Martin, he who walks barefoot, while the phrase he
who walks barefoot was used to refer to bears in general. 34
The Church spin-doctors concocted a series of pious legends
that would seek to stitch the two belief systems together.
Apparently the stories were an attempt, although quite an
unsuccessful one, to counter the wide-spread belief in the efficacy
of performances conducted by bear trainers and their dancing bears
or at least to give them an air of legitimacy within the framework of
Christian belief. The legend propagated by the Church with respect
to St. Martin shows the ingeniousness of its authors, particularly
with respect to the way in which they managed to elaborate such a
convoluted plot for the story itself. It was one that told of the
generosity of the Bishop of Tours, a man named Martin. When
visited by his disciple and friend Valerius, a fifth-century bishop of
Saint Lizier in the Pyrenees, Martin gave him an ass so that
Valerius would no longer have to laboriously traverse the rugged
mountainous terrain on foot and, consequently, would be better
equipped to spread the good word. And Valerius, in turn, named his
ass Martin. However, just when Valerius reached the path that
would lead him to the Pyrenean town of Ustou, darkness overtook
The next morning much to his chagrin Valerius discovered an
enormous bear standing next to the tree where he had had left his
ass tied the night before. Realizing the beast was devouring the last
remains of his pack animal, Valerius called out to him, The Devil
take you! No one will ever say that you have kept me from
spreading the good word across these mountains. Since you have
eaten my friend Martin, you will take his place and carry me
about. The bear approaches Valerius and sweetly agrees to do
what he has been asked. When they arrive in the village of Ustou,
the inhabitants crowd around Valerius and his bear. And at this
point after being given a bit of honey, in a sign of his appreciation
the bear Martin takes the bishops walking staff in his hand, raises
himself up on two feet and begins to dance, according to the text,
the most graceful of dances ever executed by a bear. 35 But there
is more. Because the villagers are so impressed by Valerius and his
dancing bear Martin, they decide to set up their own school where
little bears could be taught to dance. Moreover, the pious story
could be understood equally to be one utilized to explain and
legitimize the prestige, indeed, the European-wide reputation of the
Bear Academy that was established in the Pyrenean village of
Ustou, some 35 kilometers from St. Lizier. 36
Such pious legends need to be examined more closely in terms
of their psycho-social intentions as well as their actual
consequences. For instance, the above legend, in all likelihood
promoted by the Church and locals alike, gave the clergy a
Christian-coded explanation for why bears were called Martin. 37 In
addition, it sought to identify Valerius, the bishop of St. Lizier,

Parc Nacional des Pyrnes: L'ours des Pyrnes, Parc Nacional des Pyrnes, 1990,
p. 9. Claude Dendaletche: L'homme et la nature dans les Pyrnes, Paris, 1982, p.
Jacques Bgoun: L'Ours Martin d'Arige-Pyrenes, in: Socit Arigeoise [des]
Sciences, Lettres et Arts. Bulletin Annuel, 1996, XXII, p. 138-139.
Praneuf: L'ours et les hommes dans les traditions europennes, p. 66-70.
For additional discussion of this legend and similar ones associated with other saints,
cf. Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours, p. 213-220. Pastoureau: Lours. Histoire dun roi
dchu, p. 53-69.

with the person of the bear trainer. Even the dancing bears long
pole, the standard prop of all bear trainers, was attended to
narratively and reinterpreted as the bishops walking stick, his staff
of office. As a result of these symbolic reinterpretations, the legend
ended up providing the populace with an ingenious justification for
conducting Good-Luck Visits: the narrative became a means of
justifying deeply ingrained patterns of belief while slightly
modifying them. At the same time by associating the dancing bear
with a given saints day, those wishing to carry out Good-Luck
Visits were given a green light. Indeed, in many locations the
performances continued to be conducted with relatively little
interference from the Church authorities.
For example, today in many parts of Europe on the saints day
in question, November 11th, an actor appears in the guise of the
bishop St. Martin. But, more importantly, when the individual
dressed as a bishop does appear, he continues, as before, to be
accompanied on his rounds by a bear-like creature, his pagan
double. In short, these ursine administrants, in recent times merely
ordinary human actors, perform their duties authorized by a kind of
Christian dispensation that permits them to continue to preside,
quite discreetly, over the festivities.38 In turn the bishop in question
takes over the role and attributes of the bear trainer through this
process of symbolic hybridization. Thus, the meaning of the
bishops companion, the masked figure representing the bear, is
transparently obvious once one understands the mechanisms of
hybridization involved in the renaming processes themselves. 39 In
short, any attempt to discover the identity of the furry, often
frightening, masked figures associated with St. Martins day must
take these facts into account (Figure 3).


Miles: Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, p. 208.
In addition to the Pyrenean zone, across much of France and the rest of Western
Europe the dancing bear is called Martin; in the Carpathian region of Romania
among its nicknames are Mos Martin (Old Martin), Mos Gavrila (Old Gabriel), as
well as Frate Nicolae (Brother Nicholas). In other parts of Europe the bear is often
called Blaise, a name linked to the date of February 3 and to the figure of St. Blaise,
the patron saint of bears. In addition, this saints day coincides neatly with the day
after Candlemas Bear Day, the latter being celebrated on February 2. In the Balkans,
however, it is St. Andrew who is presented as the patron of bears. Cf. Arnold
Lebeuf: Des veques et des ourses: tudes de quelques Chapiteaux du Clotre de
Saint Lizier en Couserans, in: Ethnologia Polona, 1987, 13, p. 257-280. Praneuf:
L'ours et les hommes dans les traditions europennes, p. 61-71.


Figure 3. Names of the gift-bringers on St. Martins Day

(November 11).40
Moreover, in case there were doubts on anyones part
concerning the real identity of the bishops companion, in
Germanic speaking zones his side-kick is referred to not as Martin,
but rather as Pelzmrte, a term that could be interpreted, albeit
mistakenly, as Furry Martin or perhaps Martin with a Fur Coat.
In fact, the Pelzmrte frequently appears alone, without his bishop,
on St. Martins day as well as on Christmas Eve. In regard to the
Pelzmrte we should recall that in some parts of Europe the GoodLuck Visits conducted on St. Martins day eventually came to be
transferred to the winter solstice.41
As has been noted previously, Martin was a particularly
common name for a dancing bear in much of Europe. Given that
the belief in the supernatural healing powers of the bear and its
retinue harkens back to a pre-Christian cosmology, to encounter an
unconscious or inadvertent reanalysis of preexisting pagan
terminology would not be unusual. For example, there are two
terms in German for the furry visitor that include the same
prefixing element: pelz- fur, furry. We have the expression
Pelznickel where the second element -nickel is equated with a kind
of demon; then, if we continue with the same semantic logic, we
have the compound Pelzmrte where the second element would
also refer to a demon or some other sort of supernatural creature.
The Germanic term -mrte is linked the modern German word
mahr nightmare while the latter word is related to older
phonological variants with the same meaning (i.e., a frightening
spectral being, a ghost-like supernatural creature) in mrt, mrte,
mrten, that, are curiously similar to the name given to dancing
bears, i.e., Martin.42 In addition to the expression Pelzmrte, in

Adapted from Oswald Erich and Richard Beitl: Wrterbuch der Deutschen
Volkskunde, Stuttgart, 1955, p. 509.
Miles: Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, [1912]
1976, p.167-247.
The English term nightmare derives from Germanic compounds such as
Nachtmrt (the Night-Mare), discussed at length in Thorpe: Under all these
denominations is designated that spectral being which places itself on the breast of
the sleeping, depriving them of the powers of motion and utterance (cf. Benjamin

Germany we also find other similar compounds for the giftbringer: Nufssmrte, Rollermrte, Schellenmrte as well as
Mrteberta, while in the latter case, the second element Berta
refers to a sometimes ominous pre-Christian female figure, also
called Pertcha.43.
Consequently, the etymology often given for the German
expression Pelzmrte, one that interprets the second element of the
compound (mrte) as if it referred to the name Martin, is
probably nothing more than a folk-etymology. Indeed, the
fallacious assumption that mrte should be interpreted merely as
Martin was probably reinforced by the celebration of Good-Luck
Visits on St. Martins Day. As was shown in the narrative relating
to how St. Martin acquired his bear and began to travel about with
it, the introduction of a Christian saint served as a pretext for
continuing the highly entrenched practice of Good-Luck Visits. In
short, it was a Christianized rationalizationthe result of
hybridizationthat served to legitimize the pre-existing tradition.
St. Nicholas and his dark furry companion
In the case of St. Nicholas, said to be a fourth century bishop from
Myra in Turkey, his saints day was celebrated in the spring until
the thirteenth century. From the thirteenth century to the time of the
Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the individuals
who dressed up as this bishop made their house calls on the sixth of
December (Figure 4).44

Thorpe: Northern Mythology: Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia,

North Germany and the Netherlands, London, 1851-52, Vol. 3, p. 154-155,
ern+mythology). Today a common German synonym for der Mahr is der Alp and
the description of its nocturnal actions is expressed by the compound Alpdrcke. For
terms etymologically related to mahr in other Germanic languages, cf. Dan L.
Ashliman: Night-mares: Legends and Superstitions about the Demons that Cause
Nightmares, 1998-2005, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/nightmare.html.
Erich and Beitl: Wrterbuch der Deutschen Volkskunde. p. 509. Weber-Kellermann:
Das Weihnachtsfest: Eine Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit, p. 1923.
It was not until after the Council of Trent (15451563) that the figure of Christkind
or, in its diminutive form, das Christkindel, the Christ child, was introduced (cf.
Alexander Tille: Yule and Christmas: Their Place in the Germanic Year, London,
1899, p. 119-137). He, too, was supposed to distribute gifts, but on Christmas Day.
That practice eventually led St. Nicholas to change the date of his Good-Luck Visit
to December 25th, at least in some locations, while, somewhat ironically, the
expression das Christkindel, originally intended to designate little Jesus, evolved
into Kris Kringle, one of the Germanic terms for Father Christmas. In the
Netherlands, the bishop in question arrives on St. Nicholas eve (December 5th or the
next morning) and is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, his faithful servant who has lost
his bear-like demeanor, but not his role of carrying off misbehaving children in his
giant sack or a large straw basket. In recent years Zwarte Piet has been converted
into a fairly innocuous helper of a kindly child-loving Sinterklaas.


Figure 4. Names of the gift-bringers on St. Nikolauss Day

(December 6).45
In addition, we find that historically St. Nicholas himself has a
semantic counterpart in the Pelznickel, an expression that could
easily have been interpreted or justified, albeit erroneously, as
either as Furry Nicholas or Nicholas with a Fur Coat. The
fierce Pelznickel goes by many other names. For example, in
Austria the creature is known as the Krampus while in other parts
of Germany two of the most popular names are Hans Trapp and
Knecht Ruprecht. The Krampus appears either alone or in the
company of an individual dressed as a bishop. In zones where the
two characters appear together, the pair plays the role of white and
black inquisitors.46 In conclusion, it is clear that the figures of St.
Nicholas and his bear-like companion(s), including the Straw-bears
and their other European relatives, form part of the repertoire of
ritual performances associated with the ursine cosmogony.
Questions about Straw bear costumes
It is also important to recognize that the Straw-bear phenomenon as
it relates to the Good-Luck Visits is not limited to Germanicspeaking regions. Rather the Straw-bear is found in a very similar
form in Poland, which is not that surprising given the geographic
proximity. However, we also find Straw-bears in England and even
Ireland.47 And when viewed more closely, the tradition of using
straw in the construction of the costume for these bear-like
performers, particularly the practice of stuffing vast quantities of it
inside the outer garment worn by the actors, is quite wide-spread.
In some cases we find pillows being employed to bulk up the

Adapted from Erich and Beitl: Wrterbuch der Deutschen Volkskunde, p. 564.
George Halpert: A Typology of Mumming, in: Christmas Mumming in
Newfoundland: Essays in Anthropology, Folklore and History (Herbert Halpert and
George M. Story, eds.), Toronto. 1969, p. 34-61. For further discussion of these
characters as well as excellent illustrations of them, cf. Weber-Kellermann: Das
Weihnachtsfest: Eine Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte der Weihnachtszeit, p. 24-42.
Ray Cashman: Mumming with the Neighbors in West Tyrone, in: Journal of
Folklore Research, 2000, 37 (1), p. 73-84. For photos cf.


appearance of the performers. In fact, the use of straw and/or its

material substitutes can be found across much of Europe, including
the northern parts of the Iberian Peninsula. In some instances, it
appears that the furry outer garment worn by the act was removed
at some point in time, leaving behind only the straw padding
underneath whereas in the case of bear actors in other zones, e.g.,
the Pyrenean-Cantabrian region as well as in parts of eastern
Europe, such as Hungary and Romania, the bear actor is outfitted in
fur and skins. Indeed, quite often the outer part of the costume
consists of a real bear skin with a mask made from the actual head
of a brown bear.
Although it is still not entirely clear how the Straw-bears came
to lose their outer furry coat, there are several possibilities. The first
has to do with the well documented pressures exerted by the
Church and civil authorities and the repeated attempts to ban these
customs, especially the bear itself. Therefore, it is possible that
because of these attacks and outright prohibitions, the performers
deliberately removed the outer garment and/or bear mask, thus
making it somewhat less obvious to outsiders that they were
performing cleansing rituals as bears. Another possibility is that
the removal of the outer coat had to do with demands brought about
by a changing climate. Finally, it could have resulted from some
inability on the part of those involved to obtain real bear skins, such
as those still worn by those performing Good-Luck Visits in parts
of eastern Europe.
A more intriguing question is why straw was used in the
beginning. Again there are several possibilities and perhaps a
combination of them is the best solution. First, by stuffing the
costume with straw, the actor takes on a more bear-like and lesshuman appearance. Secondly, there is the strong possibility that one
part of the Good-Luck Visit consisted of having the bear carry
away the evil influences from the householders and their domestic
animals. That ceremony appears to have involved flagellating or
otherwise chastising the bear, e.g., for being lazy and not
performing its duties, as well as perhaps insuring that the evil
spirits would be driven away. Whether it was a way to insure that
the bear did a good job or perhaps to punish him for not
performing as desired is unclear. Nevertheless, there is crosscultural evidence for this sort of treatment of the bear and/or its
straw effigy or wooden iconic counterparts, e.g., among the
Ostyaks, which could explain the practice of beating it, drowning it
in water or burning it.48 In any case, there is evidence that a tightlywoven straw undergarment would have provided added protection
against various types of physical abuse.
Part 3. Transformative and spiritual aspects of the ursine
As I have indicated, there is a very strong possibility that at some
point in the remote past the pan-European ursine cosmogony was
projected skyward by the knowledge keepers of that epoch. In other
words, there is reason to believe that the Bear Son narrative gained
celestial support by means of the symbolic projection of the bear

Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours, p. 216, citing Jean Bernard Muller: Les murs et usages
des Ostyaks et la manire dont ils furent convertis la religion chrtienne du rite
grec, Paris, 1732.


ancestor onto stars of the circumpolar region, stars known to us

today as Ursa Major. And it was to that location that the soul of the
slain bear was sent, after it had been properly venerated so that it
could report on the treatment it had received from humankind. That
is, the performance is structured in such a way that the bears soul
offered a report to the Sky Bear concerning the comportment of
humans. In this sense, it is a script that echoes the questions asked
by St. Nicholas and/or his bear companion with respect to the
behavior of those visited.
In this regard Sarmela has observed that:
[i]n the mythologies of many Nordic peoples, the bear was
believed to be of celestial origin, even the son of a god [].
The bear appears as the original hero of nature, with a kind of a
special position among other animals, or it has been the
embodiment of the supernatural guardian spirits of the forest
[]. Ritual bear hunting is likely to have begun from a myth
of the bears birth, which in Finland has survived as a verse in
old metre.49
Narratives relating to the birth of the Finno-Ugric bear justify the
structure and symbolism of the rituals that have been observed by
Finno-Ugric peoples, including the obligation to facilitate the return
of the bears soul back to heaven. The extant Finnish birth poems
are usually brief, but contain the fundamental motifs of the
narrative, namely, that the bear was born in the sky above, in Ursa
Major, and was sent down to earth. Some variants describe how the
bear was lowered to the top of a pine or spruce tree in a cradle
suspended from golden chains.50
Similar stories and traditions are found among speakers of
Ugric languages. Data available from the Ob River people of
Siberia, a population speaking languages distantly related to
Hungarian,51 demonstrate a wide variety of ritual activities
reflecting a deeply ingrained belief in the sacredness of the bear. In
this region bear shamanism is still practiced along with ritual song
and dance in honor of their supreme deity Numi-torum, often
conceived as an ursine being (i.e., as a celestial bear),52 and his
delegate to the world, Little Bear.53 Among the Khanty (Ostyaks),
hunting the earthly representative or incarnation of the astral bear is
still done for real, rather than being purely ceremonial and/or
pantomimed as it is today in other parts of Europe, particularly in
the Pyrenean-Cantabrian zone where the brown bear (Ursus arctos)
is on the verge of extinction.
For this reason, of particular interest are the narratives of
Finno-Ugric peoples. The Finns, Khanty (Ostyaks) and Mansi

Matti Sarmela: The Bear in the Finnish Environment: Discontinuity of Cultural

Existence. Trans. by Annira Silver (2005). Appendix: Ritva Boom (1982). Helsinki,
2006, http://www.kotikone.fi/matti.sarmela/bear.html.
Sarmela: The Bear in the Finnish Environment. Discontinuity of Cultural Existence.
Along with Hungarian (Magyar), Khanty and Mansi (Ob-Ugrian) make up the Ugric
(or Yugric) branch of the Finno-Ugric family.
Schmidt uses the term astral bear rather than celestial bear. Cf. Schmidt: Bear
Cult and Mythology of the Northern Ob-Ugrians, p. 192.
E. A. Alekseenko: The Cult of the Bear among the Ket (Yenisei Ostyaks), in:
Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia (Vilmos Diszegi, ed.),
Bloomington, Indiana/The Hague, 1968, p. 175-191. B. Klmn: Two Purification
Rites in the Bear Cult of the Ob-Ugrians, in: Popular Beliefs and Folklore
Tradition in Siberia (Vilmos Diszegi, ed.), Bloomington, Indiana/The Hague,
1968, 85-92.


(Voguls) tell a story of the earthly bear's origin on a cloud near the
Great Bear constellation. The bear comes down to earth to establish
the Brenfest ceremony, and then returns to the sky. Like other
bears since then, which are killed, the bears spirit was to be sent
home in accordance with the ceremony that it had taught humans at
the beginning of time.54 In the Khanty sacred tale, there is an
explicit spatial dimension to the tale, a vertical axis so that when
the tale begins the main character, a bear cub, is portrayed as
inhabiting a hut in the Upper World. At this point in time bears still
lived in heaven. Then, one day Father Bear goes out on a hunt.
While he is absent, the little bear manages to break the lock on the
hut and enters the courtyard of heaven. But being an ungainly cub,
her paw sinks deep through the floor of the Upper World, and,
looking through the hole, the cub glimpses Middle Earth and the
people who inhabit it. She is so pleased by what she sees that she
pleads with her father, Numi-torum, to allow her to visit the world
below, and finally convinces him. However, she receives
permission only after being instructed by her father to reward the
good people and punish the wicked. She is also told to explain to
humans how to conduct the bear ceremony, letting people how they
are to act, and to communicate to them the meaning of ceremonys
ritual component.55
Upon its demise, the slain bears soul was said to return home
where it would convey the details of its death and the feast held in
its honor to a chief or animal master, the Guardian of the Animals
who, in turn, appears to have been identified with or otherwise
connected to the celestial bear. In a fashion reminiscent of the
actions attributed to the main character of the Finno-Ugric tale, we
find that in the Basque version of the Bear Son saga, one day when
Father Bear goes out to hunt, Little Bear manages to remove the
stone blocking the entrance to the bear cave, breaking the lock so to
speak, and he then heads off to explore the outer world, but without
the explicit permission of his father, the Great Bear.
Because of the strong matrifocal nature of Khanty society,
female shamanism was prevalent.56 For this reason in the Khanty
texts, the figure of the Little Bear intermediary is portrayed as
female rather than male. There is evidence for a female-oriented
interpretation of the European materials also which may be
reflected in the figures of the pre-Christian Basque goddess Mari
and her animal helpers, the Italian Befana and the Germanic
Percht(a)/Bercht(a). In the case of the latter figure we should keep
in mind that the etymology of this term (and its phonological
variants such as precht and brecht) takes us back to the etymon of
Germanic words for bear, namely, *bher- bright, brown which
also shows up in Hans Rupert/Ruprecht: Das Wort percht
entspricht althochdeutsch peraht/beraht und bedeutet strahlend,
glnzend, und es ist in dieser Bedeutung in Eigennamen wie

Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders: The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and
Literature, New York, NY, 1992, p. 62.
Shepard and Sanders: The Sacred Paw. The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature, p.
O. Nahodi: Mother Cult in Siberia, in: Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in
Siberia (Vilmos Diszegi, ed.), Bloomington, Indiana/The Hague, 1968, p. 387-406.
Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer: Sacred Genders in Siberia: Shamans, Bear Festivals
and Androgyny, in: Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures (Sabrina Petra Ramet,
ed.), London/New York, 1996, p. 164-182. In this regard the ferocity and bravery
displayed by a female bear when protecting her cubs should not be underestimated.

Berchthold, Albrecht, Rupprecht/Rupert bis heute erhalten. []
Mit der Etymologie des Namens Bercht(a)/Percht(a) hat man sich
seit dem frhen 18.Jahrhundert beschftigt: Er wurde einerseits mit
dem bereits erwhnten althochdeutschen Wort peraht/beraht in
Verbindung gebracht; demgem wrde er also entweder die
Leuchtende, Strahlende meinenoder aber die 'Frau der
Perchtnacht'. 57
Religious connotations
Shepard summarizes the Khanty beliefs, saying:
For the Ostyaks [Khanty], the bear serves as a delegate from
the world of the supernatural, the world beyond man. The feast
of the bear is intended to make clear the connection between
the holy places where the ceremony was performed and heaven
itself. By enacting the feast, the Ostyaks ensure that their souls
will wander to that holy spot where the fate of humans is
finally decided. In a sense, then, their lives rest in the hands of
the bear.58
In contrast to the Finno-Ugric mythic traditions, the European Bear
Son is born of a human female and a great bear. When he is seven
years old he tells his mother that he wants to go out into the world,
and gains her permission, sometimes saying that he wants to do so
in order to play with human children. After the hero manages to
remove the stone that serves as a lock on the bear cave, he takes off
along with his mother, although soon afterwards she disappears
from the story. While in these extant European Bear Son narratives
there is no explicit mention of an association between the Bear
Sons father and a celestial bear, there is other evidence that
supports such a conclusion: there are clear indications of a residual
belief in a celestially conceived ursine deity among the Basques. 59
For example, the celestial bear is portrayed as residing in heaven,
seated next to St. Peter, while the first question that St. Peter asks a
persons soul upon its arrival at the Gate of Heaven is: How did
you treat the bears? In the same regard, at local hermitages and
sacred sites across Europe we encounter the presence of bear
imagery, stories of saints and their bear companions. In fact, the
names of saints connected to such sites (e.g., St. Ursula) often
resonate linguistically with the former ursine occupants venerated
by the local populace.60
Indeed, after analyzing residual linguistic and ethnographic
evidence, the Basque researcher Patziku Perurena did not hesitate
suggest that to the Bear Son hero, who is called Hamalau in
Euskera, would be best understood as the central pre-Christian
deity of the Basques (Hamalaua, gure Jaingo Hamalau, our
Erich Mller and Ulrich Mller: Percht und Krampus, Kramperl und SchiachPerchten, in: Mittelalter-Mythen 2. Dmonen-Monster-Fabelwesen (Ulrich Mller
Shepard and Sanders: The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature, p.
Cf. Frank and Arregi Bengoa: Hunting the European Sky Bears: On the Origins of
the Non-Zodiacal Constellations, p. 15-43. Hollingsworth: A Basque
Superstition, p. 132-133
For a more detailed account of the celestial bear and religious sites connected to it,
cf. Roslyn M. Frank: Rethinking the Linguistic Landscape of Europe: The IndoEuropean Homeland in Light of Palaeolithic Continuity Refugium Theory

god).61 Other investigators have come to similar conclusions with
respect to the widespread evidence for European traditions linked
to bear ceremonialism, linguistic avoidance practices, ritual
performances and the prevalence of ursine inspired actors such as
the Straw-bears and their relatives discussed in this document. We
might even say that a consensus is building in this respect,
especially among French researchers who frequently characterize
the bear as le premier dieu of Europeans. At this stage we also
are confronted with the more complex question of the age of the
belief system itself, given the evidence for what appears to be the
ritualized manipulation of bears and their skeletal parts in
prehistory, social practices dating back at least to the Upper
In reference to the veneration of the bear ancestor and its
celestial projection, Paul Shepard has argued that it is an ecocentric worldview that incarnates a kind of trophic metaphysics
where the complex network of food-chain relations is understood
and articulated in narrative and social practice. Furthermore he has
suggested that initially the image of Ursa Major, the sidereal
bear was projected on the upper world as the mythic celestial
equivalent of these relations in the earthly world. 63 Gary Snyder,
on the other hand, speaks of the process of re-inhabitation where
the separation and alienation between human and animal is bridged
and the boundaries between Culture and Nature become diffuse.64
Certainly assuming that we descend from bears ruptures more
familiar hierarchical anthropocentric modes of thought.
Sarmela compares the Finno-Ugric ursine cosmology to
religious belief systems found in other parts of Europe, religions
that are characterized, too, by the veneration of a deity that dies, is
buried and then is resurrected.
Hunters would have invested their hopes in the bear who was
born high in the heavens, descended to earth, died and was
buried, but would be resurrected to live again as the first
among all game animals or perhaps of all creation. The bear
living in heaven had to descend and die, like people and all
creatures on earth. [] The bear cult would thus manifest
early hunters ideas of immortality, the continuation of eternal
life. Each bear hunting drama would recreate the primeval
mythical event and reinforce the order of life determined at
that time, the natural cycle of life [and death]. 65
The proper performance of bear rituals insured the availability of
forest game, and turned humans into key actors within this cosmic
drama. Rather than being passive bystanders, humans become
active participants and their behaviour as individuals was viewed as
directly impacting the material and spiritual well-being of the
community as a whole and, indeed, Nature itself.
If we were to view the Finno-Ugric bear rituals through the
prism provided by the ursine genealogy we have documented in

Patziku Perurena: Euskarak Sorgindutako Numeroak, Donostia, 1993, p. 265.

Christian Bernadac: Le premier Dieu, Paris, 2000, p. 370. Lajoux: L'homme et
l'ours, p. 213-220. Pastoureau: Lours. Histoire dun roi dchu, p. 23-51.
Shepard: Bear essay, p. 6. Paul Shepard: The significance of bears, in:
Encounters with Nature: Essays (Florence R. Shepard, ed.), Washington,
DC/Covelo, CA, 1999, p. 92-97.
Gary Snyder: The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco, 1990, p. 155-174.
Sarmela: The Bear in the Finnish Environment. Discontinuity of Cultural Existence.


this study, the bear would have been conceptualized as a form of

human being, while for humans the opposite also would have been
true: they would have formed part of bearkind. In short, we find
that among these hunter-gatherer peoples there was no great
distinction drawn between man and animals. The bear may have
also been the redeemer of mans resurrection. The hunt drama
would reflect mans struggle to solve the mystery of life and
death. 66
As Shepard has observed, in the Bear Son stories the woman is
mated with a divinity, the Great Bear, becoming herself a sacred
procreator, and thus is involved with a form of immaculate
conception. The Bear God dies for the welfare of his people,
exacting atonement and propitiation from the hunters. He becomes
the archetype of all bears who will die in the future and, therefore,
will be able to judge the spiritual state of human hunters. As food,
the slain bear becomes a sacramental entity. 67 As a religious
symbol, the bear has bridged language and culture barriers and
conveyed its message across continents and through millennia. The
most potent of those messages is that of its own life cycle.68 In
summary, we could argue that in Europe through collective
performances, albeit mimed, of the hunt, capture, killing and eating
of the earthly bearthe transfigured body of the Bear Sonthe
complex relationship holding between humans and their bear
ancestor, the Great Bear in the sky, was reaffirmed. 69
In conclusion, once the symbolic order that we have discussed
is contextualized and viewed from this broader perspective, it
becomes apparent that we are looking at a cultural product of a
hunter-gatherer mentality, centered on the idea that that humans
descended from bears, as well as the strong possibility that the
animistic world view reflected in the Straw-Bears and their
performances, also had a shamanic component. As we have noted,
it is highly unlikely that such a belief system would have originated
among pastoralists and farmers: it does not have the characteristics
one would associate with a Neolithic mindset. On the other hand
the European ursine cosmology resonates strongly with the
symbolic order of historically attested hunter-gatherer cultures in
other parts of the world, especially circumpolar populations, where
the bear has had an analogous role in the symbolic order.70 In short,
when the cultural survivals found in Germanic-speaking zones are

Sarmela: The Bear in the Finnish Environment. Discontinuity of Cultural Existence.

Shepard and Sanders: The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature, p.
David Rockwell: Giving Voice to Bear: North American Indian Myths, Rituals and
Images of the Bear, Niwot, Colorado, 1991, p. 193.
The following observations by Matheiu might be applicable to the ursine symbolic
order embodied in European ritual practices: "On peut alors parler, au moins dans
l'imaginaire, de mtamorphose du chamane en ours: des lgendes chinoise et
amricaines content l'histoire de sorciers ou de hros rellement changs en ours. En
fait, cette croyance en rvle une autre: si le chamane peut se transformer en ours,
c'est parce que l'ours est lui-mme un homme mtamorphos. Dans les aires
gographiques tudies ici, il n'est gure de conviction plus profondment ancre: il
fut un temps o l'ours tait un homme; grattez sa peau, vous trouverez un tre
humain (Mathieu : La patte de lours , p. 13).
Robert A. Brightman: 2002. Grateful Prey: Rock Cree Human-Animal
Relationships, Regina, Saskatchewan. Boris Chiclo: Lours shaman, in: tudes
mongoles et sibriennes, 1981, 12, p. 35-112. Irving A. Hallowell: Bear
Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere, in: American Anthropologist 1926, 28:
1-175. Elgstrm and Manker: Bjrnfesten. David Rockwell: Giving Voice to Bear:
North American Indian Myths, Rituals and Images of the Bear.


compared to these more elaborated forms of bear ceremonialism we

can appreciate the fact that the ursine cosmology has also played a
major role in shaping the ecological and religious belief system not
only of Germanic peoples but of Europeans in general.
Other transformative aspects of the ursine cosmogony
The past decade has seen a flood of books dealing with different
aspects of this topic and with increasing emphasis on documenting
pan-European manifestations of bear ceremonialism. While these
studies have frequently stressed shamanic connotations, far less
emphasis has been placed on the transformative nature of the
message communicated to us by the ursine cosmology. In this
respect, the remarkable investigations of Jean Dominique Lajoux
and Paul Shepard stand out in that they explicitly argue for a
reinterpretation of the religious dimension of this ursine
cosmogony.71 Indeed, a world view in which humans trace their
ancestry back to bears requires us to rethink a large number of
things, not the least of which is our relationship to non-human
animals and Nature as a whole. It also calls into question the widely
accepted Western dichotomy of Nature : Culturesetting humans
totally apart from Naturewhich, in turn, underlies the equally
fallacious Body : Mind opposition so dear to Western thought. And
finally, if we want to recuperate the cosmovision embedded in this
ursine cosmology and related performance art, we must be careful
not to view it too narrowly, i.e., through a lens blurred by modern
Western cultural conceptualizations.72 Rather, we must attempt to
tease out additional knowledge from it concerning the earlier
animistic conceptual framework and not fall into the trap of
reconstructing nothing more than a mirror of Western postNeolithic thought processes.73
As we have seen, throughout Europe still today we encounter
abundant examples of the cultural practices that implicate the
previous veneration of bears and the bear ancestor. In other words,
a cosmogony that allows human animals to view themselves as the
offspring of bears cannot be properly understood unless we attempt
to see what it would look like through the eyes of Mesolithic
hunter-gatherers and/or their modern counterparts (modern day
hunter-gatherer societies) whose lives and sustenance depend on
Nature, as do our own, ultimately. At the same time, this selfexploration requires us to look deep inside our Western mindset
and seek out patterns that are truly transformative, in that they
might allow us to break out of habits of thought that are almost
invisible or at least not readily accessible to us because of the fact
that they form such an integral part of the Western thought, e.g., the
aforementioned facile dichotomies such as Culture vs. Nature and
its counterpart Civilization vs. Barbarism (Wilderness). 74

Lajoux: L'homme et l'ours. Shepard and Sanders: The Sacred Paw: The Bear in
Nature, Myth and Literature.
For a more detailed discussion of the value system embedded in the ursine
cosmology, cf. Roslyn M. Frank: Shifting identities: A Comparative Study of
Basque and Western Cultural Conceptualizations, in: Cahiers of the Association for
Nurit Bird-David: Animism Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational
Epistemology, in: Current Anthropology, 1999, 40, p. 67-91.
Cf. Frank: Shifting Identities: The Metaphorics of Nature-Culture Dualism in
Western and Basque Models of Self, p. 66-95.


Moreover, there is another aspect of the ursine cosmology that

we must keep in mind: that not only the main character, but humans
in general are endowed with same combined nature. Stated
differently, human beings saw themselves as partaking of two
natures, two totally fused natures: they were both human and bear.
Of course, this complex notion of self- and human-identity is quite
foreign to us. Yet, there is a possibility that a kind of transformative
power is conferred by the very act of conducting Good-Luck Visits,
dressing as a Straw-bear or otherwise taking part in the European
ftes de lours.75
In conclusion, the process of identifying relatives of the
German Straw-bears, a search that led us across spatial as well as
temporal boundaries, has constituted a trip back in time to a much
earlier European cosmovision and an encounter with the
widespread belief that humans descended from bears, a belief that
continued into the 20th century among Basque-speakers. When
viewed from within this larger European cosmological context, the
role of the Germanic Straw-bears as transformers becomes
apparent. They are ancient and pervasive symbols of
transformation which cause us to reflect upon ourselves and the
limitations of our contemporary Western mindset.
No longer is it is a worldview that represents humans as
totally separate and superior to animals; nor is it one that sets up
the dualistic opposition of Culture to Nature. The Straw-bear
performances are survivals, forming part of what was once a
vibrant pan-European legacy of archaic belief. As such, they
remind us of our embeddedness in Nature and our continuity as
human animals, across time and space. Viewed from this
perspective, it would also seem that over many millennia human
performers have acted as transformers in the following sense: by
dressing as bears, they celebrated the dual nature of humankind and
in the process allowed human animals to reconnect and identify
with their ursine brethren and Nature itself.
Therefore, from this angle our study might be viewed as a
tribute to all of those unnamed individuals who passed the Strawbear tradition down from one generation to the next by taking part
in Good-Luck Visits. In short, we see that the Germanic Strawbears and related performance art could be transformed into vibrant
21st century symbols if they were infused with the older meanings,
ones that, quite remarkably, resonate deeply with 21st century
concerns about the future of our planet, global warming, the
reckless exploitation of the earths natural resources, etc.
Consequently, one of the major goals of this research initiative has
been to breath new life and meaning into the symbolic order
comprised by the Straw-bears and their European relatives.


Daniel Fabre and Charles Camberoque: La Fte en Languedoc: Regards sur le

Carnaval aujourd'hui. Toulouse, [1977] 1990. Patrick Mabey: Smeared Soot and
Black Blood: Reintroducing the Brown Bear to the Pyrenees and its Festivals
(M.A. Thesis in Environmental Humanities), University of Utah, 2007.