Bear has always been an important symbol in many cultures, all over the world. Pagan rites, myths and legends, names, heraldic emblems… the mystical power of the bear appears in an amazingly wide range of cultural elements. Through centuries, he has been strongly venerated and respected for his strength but as well believed to hold other powers. One example is his medicinal knowledge and healing capacities.
Indeed, in different cultures, the bear is said to hold a considerable power, an unnatural strength coming from all the parts of his body. For many pagan cultures, he is a “doctor”. The Buryats (aboriginal Siberian group) even say that “the whole bear is a cure”. The properties of the bear medicines are very diverse. For example, in Asia, their bile has been used to cure various diseases and their teeth to treat toothache. The Kalac (Russia) collected frozen bear excrement as a cure for constipation while the Eskimos believed that a sterile woman should eat a raw penis. The Blackfoot (American Indians) derived the power of their medicine pipes from various bear concoctions and could intensify the power of the pipe by being dressed with grizzly skins.
In the Balkans, where the dancing bear tradition was very strong, the bear leaders used the animal as having magical healer properties. When someone was ill, it was possible to pay a bear master to make the bear dancing in front of the house. Breathing smoke or eating ashes from burnt bear hair was also used to reduce fever. In order to heal arthritis, rheumatism or fever, the patient should lie on his stomach so the bear could walk on his back. Thus, the animal was supposed to transmit his power and to take the weaknesses upon himself. In some cases, the bear could have a bad influence. For instance, pregnant women should not watch a dancing bear or this could give a bad temperament to the child.
But the bear was not only a “medicine”. According to various tribal accounts, he also knew how to heal himself and so to be a master healer. Thus, many tribes (Cheyenne, Eastern Cree, Penobscot, etc.) have believed that it is possible to learn what plants are beneficial to human health only by watching what the bear eats. They also believed that their Shamans, sometimes called “bear doctor”, received their healing powers from bears. For the Tewa tribe (American Indians), the word kieh, or “doctor”, is even synonymous of “bear”.
While the bears are losing their place in the world of men, it’s as well all the traditional believes and knowledge linked to wilderness which is disappearing. It’s not truth of the old faiths which really matters (you can doubt of the medical efficiency of bears’ excrements ;-)) but more the bond to nature, the values and respect going with it, the testimony of a former way of life which was probably far wiser and reasonable than the one of today.
“Bears and humans have wandered the earth together for millennia. Bears have lumbered around in our memories and our dreams. They have given us comfort and have inhabited our fears. Over time and among many peoples, humans have shared a kinship with bears. If we lose the bear we lose not only an important part of our rich natural heritage but a part of ourselves.” Robert E. Bieder
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