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Legendary Bears

Article by Paul Stanbury

It can be absolutely amazing to get a close look at bears in the wild on bear tours, but one thing that helps people enjoy the experience fully is to get acquainted with some of the myths and legends surrounding the bear. Anthropologists, such as Joseph Campbell, have suggested that these ideas stem from the prehistoric bear-worship of our ancestors’ fishing and hunting tribes. These powerful creatures have fascinated humanity for centuries, and by learning more about the mythology concerning bears, it could be imagined we come a little closer to learning more about ourselves.

Fairy Tales

Bears are often featured in the fairytales of many cultures, sometimes in a fashion that shows the deep respect humanity has held for the animal over the years. The Russian fairytale ‘Morozko’ has an arrogant protagonist named Ivan, who tries to kill a mother bear and her cubs, and subsequently has his own head replaced by that of a bear’s, ostracising him from human society. It’s a wise idea to learn the lesson and keep your distance when on bear tours! ‘The Brown Bear of Norway’ is a Scottish fairytale detailing the adventures of a girl who married a prince magically transformed into a bear, and who managed to help him transform back. The theme of humans changing to and from bears seems to be a prominent one in many fairytales.

Early Worship

Some evidence has been found concerning bear worship in ancient China and Korea. Korean mythology identifies the bear as their ancestor and symbolic animal – according to folklore, a god imposed a difficult test on a she-bear, and when she passed it, the god transformed the bear into a woman. Once again, the idea of transformation is introduced, and it might be interesting to bear it in mind (if you’ll pardon the pun) on your bear tours – observing the behaviour of bears in the wild, it can be fascinating to find small similarities to human behaviour as well.


In the Alpine zone, legends of saints proving their worth by taming bears are common. In the official coat of arms of the bishopric of Freising, the bear is a dangerous totem animal tamed by St. Corbinian, and used to carry his baggage during a journey over the mountains. A bear is also a prominent feature in the legend of St Romedius, who is said to have tamed a bear in a similar fashion to use in his own ‘bear tours’!

About the Author

Paul Stanbury is the Operations Manager for Naturetrek, a tour operator specialising in expert-led natural history and bear tours worldwide. Naturetrek bring over 25 years of experience to their bear tours in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.

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