Although bears can intimidate and frighten most people, they are incredibly fascinating creatures that have been the subject of mythology and legend for centuries. And although there are only eight species of bears, they have habitats in South America, Europe, Asia and North America; bears exist on every continent except Africa, Antarctica and Australia.
When we think of bears, probably the first thing that comes to mind is how large and protective they are of their families. We may also wonder about their survival during hibernation and in harsh conditions, their hunting prowess or even the darkness that surrounds poaching and exploitation.
In this article we are going to tell you everything you need to know about the significance of the bear in different cultures around the world.
The spiritual significance of the bear
Despite their reputation for being wild and aggressive, bears symbolize courage, strength and power, protection, curiosity and confidence. In addition, a bear represents spiritual power, harmony in nature, intuition, primal energy and motherly love.
Although they are fairly large animals, bears can run up to 35 miles per hour, depending on the species, and are able to move their limbs quickly. They can also climb trees and have good dexterity, making them perfect examples of what strength and vigor look like.
In addition to being hunters and agile, bears are protective and affectionate, especially with their cubs. A mother bear will do everything in her power to protect her cubs, even against male bears, who are known to kill cubs that are not their own. Bears are not only loving and protective, but also brave.
Because of their high intelligence, bears are naturally curious. They can be aggressive in certain circumstances, but their true nature is playful and curious.
Meaning of the different types of bears
There are only eight species of bears, but some have symbolic meanings associated with them, such as the polar bear, black bear, brown bear and grizzly bear.
Black bear symbolism
Black bears are most common in North America and symbolize curiosity, trying new things, childlike wonder, growth and joy. However, these bears can also represent vulnerability and insecurity in difficult times.
Polar Bear Symbolism
One of the largest bears in existence, polar bears are incredibly fierce and represent spiritual growth, living a full life, believing in yourself and taking risks.
Grizzly Bear Symbolism
Brown bears are a subspecies of grizzly bears, and although they appear aggressive, they are just overly protective and territorial. Brown bear symbolism is related to protection, divine inspiration, personal freedom and independence, courage and strength.
Symbolism of the panda bear
Although they are famous for their love of bamboo, there are approximately 1,800 panda bears left in the wild, which makes them endangered animals. Panda bears symbolize living in the moment, creating a foundation for your life and prioritizing a stable life.
The Bear in Mythology and Folklore
There are eight species of bears in the world, and they are native to every continent on Earth except Africa, Australia and Antarctica. (Although one species of brown bear called the Atlas bear was once in Africa and is now extinct, it is likely that the Spanish or Romans brought them to Africa.)
The city of Bern (Switzerland), the state of California and Russia have proudly chosen the bear as the symbol of their homes. In addition, bear signs appeared in the symbolism and folklore of ancient cultures. Here are some of those stories:
Greek and Roman mythology
The constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are inspired by the Greek myth of Callisto, of which there is also a Roman equivalent.
In the story, Callisto is a nymph daughter of King Lycaon. She is also the companion of the hunting goddess Artemis. As was customary among nymphs, Callisto had sworn to remain a virgin forever.
However, the lustful Zeus spotted a Callisto and decided he had to have her. Thus, he transformed himself into Artemis to trick Calisto and make her fall into his arms. As it was, Calisto became pregnant shortly thereafter. Enraged by the indecency, Artemis threw Callisto out of her group of nymphs.
Later, Callisto gave birth to a son named Arcas. It was then that Hera, Zeus’ wife, intervened. Enraged by her husband’s infidelity, as it usually happens, instead of taking revenge on her unfaithful spouse, Hera blamed Callisto and turned her into a bear.
Sixteen years later, as a teenager and hunter, Arcas encountered a bear in the forest and set out to kill it, unaware that his target was his own mother. Zeus, sensing the catastrophe, decided to make amends for his mistake and turned Callisto and Arcas into the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Celtic and English Mythology
Bears appear in numerous ancient Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tales. For example, the Celtic goddess Artio was known as a bear goddess. To the Celts, Artio was the goddess of wildlife, transformation, and abundance. Artio is sometimes depicted as a bear or as a goddess with a bear. The statue was discovered in Bern (Switzerland) in 1832 and is preserved in the Bern Historical Museum.
Folklore experts also speculate that King Arthur’s name was inspired by the Roman-Celtic god Mercurius Artaius, who was possibly a bear god. Bears were considered the kings of all animals, so it was believed that many great kings were descended from bears.
It is possible that the Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf was also named after a bear. His name is sometimes translated as “bee wolf”, i.e. a bear that attacks bees to get their honey.
In addition, Beowulf served as the inspiration for the character in The Hobbit named Beorn, who transforms into a bear.
The term“berserk” was inspired by none other than bears. In the Old Norse language, berserkers were warriors who went into battle dressed in bearskins, or “bear cloaks,” and fought with a trance-like fury.
The god Thor is also associated with a bear, and his mother was considered the mother of the Earth. In Norse folklore, bears are often depicted as protectors, symbolizing calm and strong females, but which, if pressed, become extremely aggressive.
As in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon folklore, in Norse stories the legendary king of Denmark, Knuut II the Great, was said to be descended from a bear.
Another Norse culture, the Sami, venerated the bear and believed, as the Native Americans did with wolves and wolves, that the bear was capable of killing the wolf owls that the bear was able to move between the material and spiritual worlds.
Although the ancient Sami revered the bear, they still hunted, killed and ate bears, as well as wearing the bear’s head and skin in ceremonies. The Sami had a complex ritual surrounding the killing of the bear, which they believed would help appease the bear’s spirit after its death.
The bear in Slavic culture
The ancient Slavs worshipped bears. They associated bears with the god Volos, who was the patron of domestic animals. However, like the Sami, the Slavs had a complex relationship with bears, both worshipping them and killing and eating them.
The Nivkh, also called Gilyak, are an indigenous ethnic group living in eastern Russia and on Sakhalin Island, located off the Russian coast north of Japan.
The Nivkh used to capture bear cubs and raise them as a human child.
After a few years, however, they would prepare an elaborate ceremony that involved dressing the bear in a fancy costume, then killing and eating it. The ceremony was supervised by a shaman. The Nivkh believed that the ceremony would calm the bear’s spirit, which would return to the mountain god.
In Russian culture
The legend of St. Seraphim is about an ordained hieromonk who lived in the late 18th century. The monk retreated to a hermitage in a forest outside Sarov (Russia) to pray and become more in tune with nature. The ascetic monk soon attracted wild animals, such as bears, wolves, rabbits, foxes and birds, who visited him peacefully in his hut.
On one such visit, Matrona Plescheeva, an elder of the Diveevo monastery, witnessed St. Seraphim hand-feeding a wild bear. While feeding the bear, Matrona Plescheeva described the monk’s face as “cheerful and bright, like that of an angel.”
The bear in Chinese culture
In ancient China, when Xuanyuan Huangdi, also known as the Yellow Emperor, ruled the country from 2697 BC, he built his capital at Xinzheng. Apparently, there were many bears in the area at that time. In fact, Xuanyuan Huangdi had bears in his palace, so he was nicknamed “You Xiongshi” or“Bear Emperor“.
Like the Sami and the Nivkh, the ancient Chinese considered bears to be related to the divine. In the Shan Hai Ching (Classic of Mountains and Seas) myth, dating from the 4th century B.C., there was a mountain called Bear Mountain that had many caves.
Bears lived in them and it was believed that gods and spirits played with them. In summer, the cave doors were open. In winter, they were closed. However, if the doors were opened in winter, it meant imminent death.
During the Han Dynasty ( 206 B.C.-A.D. 9), bears were popular among the people, as attested by the numerous artifacts discovered depicting them. However, bears were also used as a source of entertainment, even in bloody battles with other animals.
In Feng Shui, bear symbols are used to protect the home, especially when placed near the main entrance. Bears symbolize masculine energy in Feng Shui.
A perverse aspect of the way too many Chinese view bears, even today, is how bear parts are used in Chinese medicine to trick people into believing that consuming bear organs will somehow make them more virile.
This depraved way of thinking is similar to a hunter who kills a wild animal, takes pictures of himself with the carcass, posts the photos on social media, and nails the dead animal’s head or skin to a wall. In any case, the behavior only reveals how insecure and weak the person feels inside, and the activity does nothing to make him or her more physically vital.
In Japanese folklore
The Ainu, an indigenous people living on some of the islands off the coast of Japan, refer to bears as “kamuy,” which translates as “god.” The Ainu consider other animals to be gods, but bears are the kings of all gods.
The ancient Ainu believed that when the gods visited the world of men, they took on the appearance of bears. Like the Sami and the Nivkh, the Ainu worshipped bears but also ate them.
Moreover, like the Sami, the Ainu captured bear cubs and raised them, treating them with even better care than their own human offspring. However, when the captured bears reached the age of 2 to 3 years, the Ainu slaughtered and ate them.
In the Bible
In the Bible, bears are used as both positive and negative symbols. In II Kings 2: 23-24, a band of young men mocks one of God’s prophets, which is tantamount to mocking God’s word. To chastise the youths, God sends two bears to maim them. In this case, the bears are an extension of God’s will.
In 1 Samuel 17:34, bears are treated in the same way as wolves in some parts of the Bible: as symbols of evil or the devil because they threaten the flock, which represents the parishioners. Whereas God and Jesus are symbolized by the shepherds who protect the flock.
Elsewhere in the Bible, bears are seen as fierce protectors. In 2 Samuel 17:8, Hushai states:
“You know your father and his men, who are mighty and fierce men, like a bear stripped of her cubs in the field. And thy father is skilled in war, and will not spend the night with the people.”
Jambavan also known as Jambavanta (devanagari: जाम्बवत्), is the king of bears in Hindu texts.
It comes out of Brahma’s mouth when the creator deity yawns. He helps Vishnu’s avatar Rama in his fight against the rakshasa king Ravana. In the Ramayana, he helps Hanuman realize his potential, just before his famous leap to the island of Lanka. Jambavan was present in the Ocean Stirring, and is supposed to have circled Vamana 21 times in a single leap, when he acquired the three worlds of Mahabali.
Jambavan, along with Parashurama and Hanuman, is considered to have been one of the few who were present at the avataras of Rama and Krishna. His daughter Jambavati married Krishna.
At first, when Brahma was sitting on the lotus of Vishnu’s navel, he went into meditation and yawned, from which a bear was born, which later became Jambavan. It is said that he was called Jambavan either because he was born in Jambudvipa, or because he was born yawning. He was present when Vishnu was fighting the daityas Madhu and Kaitabha. At the time of the Ramayana, he had 6 manvantaras.
The only temple of Jambuvanta is at Jamkhed in Jalana district. His temple is in a cave in the hill north of Jamkhed. The temple is about 2 kilometers from the village of Jamkhed.
In Native American culture
Because they had great respect for all living things, Native Americans also revered bears.
Although each Native American tribe has its own beliefs, bears are generally considered to be powerful medicinal beings endowed with special wisdom. Because bears continue to fight even after they have been severely injured, Native Americans believed they had special healing powers. For this reason, some tribes included a bear claw in their medicine bundles and warriors wore bear claw necklaces as a symbol of power and strength.
For the Miwok tribe, who lived in the areas that are now northern and central California, bears were considered the protectors of the people.
For the Inuit, bears are a powerful totem animal. The Inuit believe that if a hunter dies and is eaten by a bear, he will be reincarnated as a shaman who carries within him the power of the bear’s spirit.
For the Pueblo Native Americans, bears are one of the six directional guardians, which meant that they were protectors and medicine masters of an important region. The Zunis, another tribe of the American Southwest, carved bear fetishes in stone for protection and good luck.
Many tribes hunted bears, ate their meat, and used their other parts to make clothing and jewelry and in ceremonies. However, most tribes shared taboos about when bears were hunted and killed. For example, it was forbidden to kill a mother bear with cubs. Some tribes considered it disrespectful and even dangerous to insult bears or mention their names outside of ceremonial contexts.
The Ute Indians of Colorado have been celebrating bear dances for centuries. Spanish explorers recorded their presence in the 15th century. The bear dance is held in the spring, when the bears come out of hibernation. It is a celebration of life, just as other cultures celebrate the arrival of spring.
Other tribes, such as the Caddo, Lenape and Iroquois, also have bear dances that often celebrate the transition from winter, when the bears hibernate and are considered to be in communication with the spirits, to spring, when the bears return to the material world and the Earth awakens or is reborn.
The Native American clan system is organized around family groups based on the maternal line. Clans serve as a system of community organization and division of labor, and some historians surmise that they helped keep gene pools healthy by preventing close relatives from intermarrying. Generally, clans have animals associated with them, and several Native American tribes have bear clans.
Among the tribes that have bear clans are the Creek, whose bear clan is called Nokosalgi or Nokosvlke; the Chippewa, whose bear clan and totem are called Nooke; Algonquian tribes, such as the Mi’kmaq and Menominee; the Huron and Iroquois tribes; the Plains tribes, such as the Caddo and Osage; the Hopi, whose bear clan is called Honngyam or Hona-wungwa; the Navajo and Pueblo; and the Northwest coastal tribes, such as the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisgaa-Gitksan, and Salishan.
The Bear as a Totem and Power Animal
If you are born with a Bear Totem you have a natural strength, security and aptitude for taking on leadership roles.
Bears growl in the face of adversity and come to the rescue of those close to them in times of need. You may also find your calling in medicine, whether holistic or conventional. The Spirit of the Bear is restorative and recuperative.
However, that means you must also take care of yourself, often going on regular retreats to replenish your strength.
The one caution to keep in mind is that bears have very strong tempers. Be careful not to attack without just cause. Discernment is your ally.
Seek out the Spirit of the Bear as a helpful companion when your instincts seem to be a little off. The bear then becomes a guide on your journey to hone your insight, both psychic and emotional.
It can also help you discover, recognize and enhance personal abilities that we might otherwise underestimate. Release what holds you back and embrace the wisdom of Bear.
Bear as a Power Animal is especially helpful when you need to keep your feet on the ground and walk on solid ground. Bears are bow-legged, which helps them keep their balance and allows them to better grip tree branches and not slip on ice. In this sense, the Bear’s energy can help you “hold on”, find your balance and get through any situation with strength and confidence.
What does it mean to dream of a bear?
When you dream of bears, pay attention to the circumstances of the dream and how it makes you feel. All of these aspects are important when interpreting a dream.
Dreaming that a bear attacks you
A dream with a bear in which this creature attacks you is actually a reflection of your own aggressiveness in the physical world. You may have negative feelings towards someone you know, or a resentment that keeps growing.
Dreaming that a bear bites you
When a bear bites you in your dream, it could mean real threats or lies in your life, specifically from someone close to you. Consider it a warning sign that you should address any turmoil in your relationships.
Dreaming of bear cubs
To dream of bear cubs or bear cubs represents your own childlike innocence and your desire to feel protected in real life, or it may mean that you are in a growth phase and are looking for support.
Dreaming of a talking bear
Although dreaming of a talking bear may seem silly, it actually means that you should pay close attention to the messages the spirit world is sending you. Trust yourself and listen to what your guides have to tell you.
Dreaming of a group of bears
A group of bears may indicate problems in your personal or professional relationships. It’s time to realize your own negative contributions to your relationships and figure out how you can improve your communication.
Dreaming that you hunt a bear
To hunt a bear in your dream means that you are in the process of working your way to success. This dream may also mean that you are seeking a more prosperous and fulfilling life.
To dream of a wounded bear
To dream of a wounded bear is a bad omen and symbolizes problems in your waking life. You may feel stuck or trapped in your circumstances, and are looking to break free from what is holding you back.
To dream of killing a bear
To dream that you kill a bear means that your waking life may be full of obstacles, but that you are ready and willing to overcome whatever life throws at you. This dream may also represent your willingness to protect your loved ones from danger.
To dream of a dead bear
To dream of a dead bear means that you are in control of where life takes you, so it is up to you to harness your mental and physical strength and move forward.
To dream of a grizzly bear
If you dream of a grizzly bear, it is a sign of new beginnings and opportunities in your life. However, this dream may also indicate that you may be spending too much time away from your loved ones and instead need to focus on cultivating your relationships with others.
Dreaming of a black bear
When you dream of a black bear, it directly relates to your own innate intuition; you may also have a tendency to “read” other people. With this dream, it is a nudge to stay strong in the face of adversity and use your own gifts to guide you.
Dreaming of a white bear
To dream of a white bear or polar bear represents relying on your inner wisdom to get you through life’s difficulties. This dream also symbolizes being able to overcome those exact ones not only with your wisdom, but with your determination.