Last June I wrote two posts about the symbolism of bears. Now I’d like to tell you how my interest in bears came about. Twenty-two years ago I decided to forgo college teaching and follow my passion to write only of things that held meaning for me. For months I wrote without an agenda about every denizen of the deep that captured my interest. Often these topics presented themselves via haunting dream images that would not re-submerge. Then, one morning while reflecting at my makeup mirror, I reeled in a fairy tale. Parts of it were modeled on the old Grimm brothers’ tale, The Handless Maiden. But other parts were original to me. I realized this was a story about my personal journey and the very thing I needed to tie together the heretofore unconnected threads of the book I was weaving.
My fairy tale contained the requisite princess, castle, queen, and king, as well as a dangerous wilderness with fierce beasts and a raging river. It also featured a remote island with an intriguing princess-sized hut; over the front doorway was a sign that read, “All Who Enter Are Free.” I followed my instincts with the fervor of a bloodhound as this story spun itself out piece by tantalizing piece; I was definitely on to something here.
But one important detail eluded my understanding. Something profoundly compelling had to lure the princess away from all that was familiar and draw her into the wilderness. Otherwise, why would she leave? I knew her departure from the castle of conformity was crucial to the fairy tale because it represented the pivotal transition of my life; but I needed a powerful symbol to express the overwhelming compulsion that had emboldened me to abandon the safe prison of my closed mind. I needed a big, dangerous animal, something that fills the princess with awe and dread while fascinating her beyond reason. And then I knew: it had to be a bear.
In Mark of the Bear Paul Schullery writes “…the bear was a primary presence in early human religion (and if you’ve met one, it’s not hard to understand why). We turned to it even before we found our way to the huge variety of superhuman and supernatural deities that peopled the world’s later belief systems.
“Nor did the power of the bear fade when all these later belief systems flourished. Human ecologist Paul Shepard says that “the bear is the most significant animal in the history of metaphysics in the northern hemisphere.” Indeed, Shepard maintains that even when humans became largely urban and lost touch with wild landscapes, they didn’t really leave the bear behind; they simply brought it along in subtle, even subconscious forms, so that it haunts us as an image and an idea, somehow all the more powerful for being so remote.”
I didn’t know all this when I wrote my fairy tale and finished my book, The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth. I knew only that a magnificent golden bear was somehow the perfect guide for a princess on the quest for self-discovery and freedom. But as I have read more about bears, surrounded myself with images of them, sought out flesh and blood examples in my waking life, and studied those that visit my dreams, they have become profoundly meaningful spiritual symbols for me.
More about this next time.