Bear Medicine: The Grizzly as Healer’s Icon and Agent of Awareness – By Jesse Wolf Hardin

beartooth set in silver
heavy at my throat
I wander into the morning
carrying a basket of flowers
and roots
barefoot in the remnants
of a heavy dew

and I am singing an old song
the blood song
of animal and woman
bound together
into one body, one spirit
-flesh, fur and bone-

-Kiva Rose

A heavy presence pads through the forest primeval, heavy like nightfall, heavy like the weighty body of the universe.  We feel its approach, even as we swim the glare of the midday sun— its corporeal mass slowly moving towards us, intent on enveloping us.  It is the spirit of a giant that survived the Ice Age, tearing apart the fallen trunks of ancient trees, knocking flailing salmon and furry golden marmots high into the air, continuing to stalk the darkly hidden caves of our dreams: the bear.

It comes not to silence but to awaken.  To consume distraction and illusion, to put an end to the irrelevant and trivial, to draw our attention to what matters most in us and around us.  To lead us to the ways and plants that can help us heal.  To deliver us back to our whole, primal, magical, responsive selves.  Some of us may feel the bear inside, raising up and helping us stand strong and straight, driving our hungers and feeding the growth of our insight and wisdom.  Some may claim the bear totem as their own, as though the bear had claimed and inhabited them.  And for all of us, it is a potential teacher that we would be unwise to ignore.


Grizzly!  The sound of their name is enough to pass a charge, like electricity through our bones,  enough to cast a long and deep shadow across our rapidly shrinking arrogance, illusory sense of omnipotence and fragile certainty.  One glance at a grizz’s unmistakable claw marks eight foot up the side of his scratching-tree and every nerve comes instantly to attention.  Every sense is alerted, every light turned on at once in the mortal housing of the soul.  Enlivened!  Every cell open-eyed and open-mouthed, every molecule on tip-toes, straining to perceive.

Awakeness.  Intensified perception.  These are the first gifts of the great bear.  With their slow lumbering thunder, comes the excitement and clarity of lightning bolts: sudden, penetrating, en-lightening!  Truly, one perceives more in grizzly country.  Sees further.  Hears more acutely.  Smells deeper.  Notices more.  Our senses honed to a fine, irreconcilable edge.  Without ever actually seeing a bear, the mere thought of it is as a claw stripping the opaque film from our perceptual lens.  The civilized traits of inattention and indifference are swiftly gutted like fish, and left to curl and dry on hot river rocks.  Sloth joins nonchalance, pawed into a carrion pile beneath a layer of sticks and dirt.

More people are hurt in California shower stalls each year than are hurt by wild animals in the entire country.  The fact is that there’s a greater probability of being hit by lightning than attacked by a bear.  Our heightened awareness in grizzly country results from the possibility of a bear attack, not by its likelihood.  Systematic and almost complete removal of this wilderness potential allows for us to sleep-walk through most wilderness experiences on “automatic pilot,” the way we may be used to functioning in the “work-a-day” world.  Reduction in any wilderness potential reduces our own ability to experience.

Since our Paleolithic ancestors first contested proprietorship of a cave, the great bear has been a reminder that humans are not at the top of the “food chain.”  Ask any grizzly you meet.  Or, if you’re below a certain size, ask a starving mountain lion.  If anything, soil is at the top, since it gets to eat everybody .  Civilized cultures fear dirt for this very reason, fighting back with soaps, detergents, and above-ground mausoleums.  But they fear the bear most of all.

At its worst, civilized human existence can be unnatural, reduced, confined, insulated like a padded cell, buffered from danger and thus from adventure, heightened sensation, spontaneity and awe.  A great effort is made to ensure the urban environment is the opposite of grizzly country: constrained, predictable, metered, pacified, and inflexibly scheduled.  There’s a singular lucidity to grizzly country, a brilliance and clarity like sunlight dancing on a curved tooth. Time spent in grizzly country is infinitely and necessarily flexible.  Spontaneity and attentiveness are traits that contribute to both our capacity to survive and to enjoy.
But the grizzly, and in fact all species of bear, have more to teach us than merely being alert.  They are intuitives, seers, shamans, travelers of the soul and instinctual healers that have influenced our development and psychology for ages.  Our species evolved in close relationship with Ursus, serving alternately as the bears’ food and prey, as their destroyers, their fawning bards… and their rapt students.


The earliest physical evidence of human reverence for animal spirits was discovered in various  grottoes high in the mountains of Franconia, Switzerland and Germany.  Along with numerous tools and fauna remains, they discovered purposeful collections of cave bear skulls stacked neatly on shelves, or protected inside stone cabinets protected by slab “doors.”  Some were encircled by a formation of small rocks, while another held a leg bone in its mouth.  Here were not only the tools for killing and fleshing these powerful animals, but proof of their veneration by what must have been a bear cult.  It seems that from earliest times the bear was seen as the “Animal Master,” the strongest of all.  Right relationship with the bear, however each tribe defined that, would determine what other animals made themselves available.

I once came upon some Pueblo Indian friends of mine way back on a dirt road, north of Taos.  Hung upside down next to them was a young black bear carcass.  I’d read how human they look with their baggy hide removed, but nothing prepared me for what looked like a skinned man with his chest opened, the pink muscles layered like a teen wrestler with a size #18 neck.  They salted and rolled up the skin, fur side in, while I watched the flies probe the exposed body.  The hide would be carefully tanned, and the meat left for the coyotes.  For them, eating a bear would be like cannibalism.  For they are the creatures most like us.

The bear’s fierce maternal devotion helps explain her role as the Mother of All Animals.  In her book Gods and Goddesses Marija Gimbutas contemplates the hundreds of ancient terracotta “bear nurses” that have been excavated from various Euro-neolithic sites.  Many are enthroned female bears, or women with bear masks on, and most are nursing a cub.  She sees these as the primordial animal goddess, the Great Mother, nurturing the new gods and goddesses of vegetation and agriculture.  The cub, then, becomes Zeus on the bear’s nipple, Zalmoxis and Dionysus, Artemis and Diana.

Our ancestors in both the “Old” and “New World”  watched the bear go into its den every winter and emerge every Spring— an obvious herald of rebirth, the return of life to a hungry land and hungry people.  The people of civilizing Europe harnessed the bear, and the bear’s mythology, to the purposes of the field and plow.  In England they had the “strawbear,” while in Germany he was called the Fastnachtshar: a man dressed up in a straw bear costume who would be led in early Spring to each house of the village.  There the man-bear would dance with all the women.  The more enthusiastically they danced, the richer the coming crop would be.  Pieces of the straw costume would be snatched by the young girls, and placed beneath their pillows to insure fertility, or placed in the nests of their chickens to encourage the laying of eggs.  The bear has forever represented as going into the self, into the Earth in order to be refreshed, revitalized and reborn again.  Those who would be students of the bear travel the discomforting trail into their inner self, only later returning to the busy surface with the strength and secrets found within.  They know that out of the icy sleep of winter comes the regeneration of life.

Entering into an initiation rite is often like going into hibernation.  The initiate is likely placed in the dark and isolation of a secluded hut, pit or cave.  They may be further wrapped up, blindfolded, or otherwise have their senses and mobility limited as it would be in the womb.  As with hibernation, the initiate would seem to die inside, giving up one persona and climbing out in a new, empowered form.  For this reason, the Dakota refer to a boy’s rite of passage as “to make a bear.”  The coastal Pomo included both boys and girls in an initiation where the children are symbolically “killed” by the kuksu  spirit, with the help of a costumed grizzly bear.  They were then removed to the forest for four days and nights.  When they were “reborn” into the tribe, they brought with them the secret medicine songs and plant knowledge learned in their travels to the middle world.
For the Ainu of northernmost Japan, the bear was “The Divine One Who Rules the Mountains.”  To the Cree they are the “Angry One” and “Chief’s Son.”  The Sami translation is roughly “Old Man With Fur Clothes,” while the nearby Finns say “Old Lightfoot” or “Pride of the Woods.”  Most often, wherever they are found they’re called “Grandmother” and “Grandfather” out of respect.  Long after the adoption of firearms in both Europe and America the indigenous people continued to hunt bears with their most primitive weapons, insisting on honoring their quarry with the personal engagement and inherent fairness of hand to hand combat.
The totemic energy of the bear was invoked by both men and women of one of the select warrior classes of “barbaric” Europe.  They got their name “Berserkers” from the bear (“ber”) skins (“serks”) they wore instead of the uniforms and armor of their more civilized antagonists.  Men and women are said to have fought together, biting at their shields, and raising such a tumultuous animal roar that the earliest Roman invaders fled in a total panic.  They were famous for their ability to ignore pain, facing unfair odds with uncompromised ferocity.  Their characteristic ability to continue fighting in spite of numerous wounds may have been assisted by the consumption of certain psychoactive mushrooms, no doubt showed to them by their rambling bear guides.  Among the Great Plains tribes of America they were called “Bear Dreamers” and “Bear Warriors.”  Known for running head long at their foes, at times with no more than a bear-jaw knife.  They believed the bear spirit would protect them, inspiring incredible feats of courage.

The Pueblo name for bear is often the same as for doctor.  The bear not only ushers in the spring vegetation, but then shows those who watch close enough which plants and roots to eat, and which herbal medicines to gather for their people.  In this country the bear showed the people where to find the kinnickinnick (also called Uva Ursi, or “bearberry”), the yarrow and osha root.  The Lakota emergence myth describes the people being tricked into leaving the middle earth by the Trickster Iktomi.  For leaving the embrace of the Earth Mother the people were subjected to disease, cold and hunger for the first time—  possibly an allegory for humanity’s progressive disenfranchisement from the rest of the living planet.  It was the bear, the doctor, that felt sorry for the wayward humans and showed them the plant remedies they would need to ease their self-inflicted suffering.
In both America and Europe the bear spirit was considered to be the ally of the shaman.  Like the medicine man, the bear could both heal you and kill you.  Both are solitary travelers, garnering their power from the lessons of Nature and the experience of solitude.  Both are feared at the same time they are revered.  Like bears, those with bears for guiding totems, typically make people uncomfortable.

And to be fair, bears can be hard to live with!  People with bear energies or traits are not just strong willed but stubborn, sometimes to their own detriment.  Uncooperative, unless something happens to please them.  Able to withdraw into themselves, to the exclusion of others.  Distant and inaccessible, when they’re feeling either melancholy or bored.  Impatient about anything that matters.  Dangerous when they are crossed.  They are hardest on themselves when they lack a purpose, and hardest on others when they are judged and misunderstood.

Unless and until they develop self discipline, such people may gravitate to extremes of mood and behavior, giddy and playful one moment and perturbed the next.  They may find themselves eating more sweets than are healthy, and sleeping more than they need.  They are not lazy people, only extremely particular about what they commit their interest and energies to.

On the other hand, these bear-folk have the ability to search the inner labyrinths of their creature beings and wild souls, resulting in a deep understanding of self that they can make use of if and when they decide to come back out.  They have the inherent strength and determination to accomplish great things, moving aside immense boulders in order to get to a self-assigned goal.  They are self motivated and function well at solitary work of any kind.  At the same time, they can make incredible mates, so long as they live with someone who not only truly knows and understands them, but who also shares their preferences, desires, intentions, missions, destinations and designs.  They are capable of being some of the very best teachers, authors and parents… and the most dependable guardians of integrity and truth, spirit and magic, land and home.  They make the most powerful healers, whenever they have first done the work of healing themselves.  Those who marry the bear, never want to go back.

It’s not a matter of physical size or shape.  Being bear is in the way one walks flat-footed, and swings their head from side to side.  In the deliberateness of motion, and the absence of frivolity.  In great persistence and high intelligence.  In playfulness that is as intense and focused as hunting or sex.  In the father’s force of purpose, and the mother’s protectiveness.  In the earth-warrior’s devotion, and the inimitable bear-hug.  In the Medicine Woman’s affinity with plants and intuitive relationship to medicinal herbs.  In their huge hearts and berry-chomping smiles.  It’s in the way that they dream of the bear… and the way that bear, in turn, dreamed them into being.


what is sacred, and
who walks with  naked foot.
the earth below and the mind’s echo in
the long night, the body turns
on poles of cold wind and fire.
what the dream can touch
and the heart hear
(the cracking of gray ice
like a mirror in her eyes)
give yourself to the star, give
yourself to the last bear

-Barbara Mor

Acceptance of the wild bear is tantamount to acceptance of the untamed wilderness, of the untamed energies of womanhood, of an untamed life.  It means acceptance of the dualities of nature, of all sides of the Earth Mother.
I am reminded of Artemis, Greek daughter of the original Animal Mother, grown into the Lady of The Beasts, the Lady of Wild Nature, priestess of the moon.  She was Diana the huntress, but also served as the defender of wildlife.  Her companion was a bear, and together they ruled the plant kingdom and thus determined feast or fast.  She served as protectress of thieves, slaves and outlaws.  She was at once the destructive, all consuming “terrible mother” and the defender of the children, guardian spirit of all pregnant women and “Opener of the Womb.”  Artemis helps us understand how our difficult embrace of the bear is actually an acceptance of the death that must precede any planetary rebirth.

For many thousands of years humankind has looked to the bear as both reality and symbol, seeing many different things in both.  A few land-based tribes in Siberia and North America continue to actively revere the mighty grizzly as a worthy rival and invaluable guide.  Conservationists and nature lovers may continue to see them as important aspects of a healthy ecosystem, and some still draw on them for inspiration, example and power.  But for most people, the relationship has progressed to one of estrangement, with all wildlife becoming distant curiosities or televised entertainment.  They are no longer even trophies to “bag,” let alone threats to avoid at all cost.  To them, the bears are veritable historical artifacts, barely breathing throwbacks to a wilder and more intensely realized time.  They’re magic, and they are indeed disappearing.  But they’re also as real as we are.  And in another way, they’re always here.

Primal humans found something distinctly familiar in the great bear.  In the way the mother gently plays with her cubs, and stiffly defends them against all comers.  The way she gently sniffs the beckoning blossoms, or stretches in the sun.  The bear appeals to that part of the human psyche still pondering its own untamed nature— with perked ears and raised hackles!  It strokes the Paleolithic sensibility that even now revolts against enforced civility.

There is something like destiny, climbing inexorably over the nearby ridge, heading unhurriedly but deliberately our way.  It is a playful dream, a sensual overture, a fur-covered agent of the wild.  It is awakeness, and it is healing.  It promises, in silence, to take us into itself… into its very center!

It is the great bear.

And it is us.

Go ahead
turn around
see the shape
of your footprints
in the sand

-Leslie Marmon Silko


(The above essay is from an upcoming book by Wolf Hardin.  Feel free to share and link.)

(Beautiful painting “Medicine Bear” is by Dark Natasha)

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