The bear and the wolf

Cute or terrifying, animals are the stuff of dreams and nightmares. They can be therapeutic or serve as alter egos. Animals have figured in all art forms since prehistoric times. We turn the spotlight on two animals that loom large in Europe's compendium of beasts.

© CNRS Photothèque/Jean-Dominique Lajoux
© CNRS Photothèque/Jean-Dominique Lajoux
Bear tamer in the Pyrenees in the early 20th century. © CNRS Photothèque/Jean-Dominique Lajoux
Bear tamer in the Pyrenees in the early 20th century. © CNRS Photothèque/Jean-Dominique Lajoux
Canis antarcticus from a drawing in Richard Owen’s The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1838 © Reproduced with permission from John van Wyhe ed., The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online
Canis antarcticus from a drawing in Richard Owen’s The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, 1838 © Reproduced with permission from John van Wyhe ed., The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

On a clear night in the northern hemisphere, you can see the world's two most famous constellations, Ursa Major (Latin for ‘Great Bear') and Ursa Minor (‘Little Bear'). Many civilizations have seen the constellations as bears. Greek mythology has it that Zeus, a tireless womaniser, fell in love with Callisto the nymph and they had a son, Acras. According to one version of the myth, in a fit of jealous rage, Zeus' wife, Hera, turns Callisto into Ursa Major and her son into Ursa Minor. Neptune then condemns them to circle the North Pole forever. According to another version, Callisto's angry rival, Artemis, goddess of the hunt, metamorphoses the hapless pair. In this tale, it was Zeus, the ‘Master of Olympus' himself, who assigned Ursa Minor and Ursa Major their place in the cosmos to save them from the hunters. The constellation Ursa Major comprises seven very bright stars commonly called the Big Dipper (or Plough). The much less sparkling nearby constellation, Ursa Minor, contains the group of stars known as the Little Dipper. The Dipper's handle is the Little Bear's tail and the Dipper's cup is the Bear's flank. The brightest star in the Little Dipper constellation is Polaris (Alpha Ursae Minoris), also known as the North Star or Pole Star, which is found at the tip of the handle.

Warrior and seducer

The bear then came down to Earth and figured heavily in myths and legends. In Scandinavian folklore, bears were alleged to abduct and rape young girls, giving birth to hairy half-beast, half-human warriors. These courageous and powerful bear-men went on to found dynasties of Danish and Norwegian kings. During rites of initiation among numerous Germanic peoples, young boys would engage in single combat with this formidable animal that can stand on its hind legs. Dressed in a bear's skin and wearing one of its teeth as a pendant, they believed that they would inherit the animal's strength to aid them in combat. In a number of countries, a pagan festival of the bear (still marked as Imbolc in the Irish calendar and Groundhog Day in the USA) was held on 2 February every year to mark the time when the bear would come out of hibernation to signal the end of winter. It was to vanquish this pagan custom that the Church instituted Candlemas on the same day.

The 18th century French legend of Jean de l'Ours (Jean of the Bear) originated from the Pyrenees and is known throughout Europe. It is the story of a man born of a woman and a bear that grows to have remarkable strength but is torn between his savage and his human nature. "The bear is an animal of folk tales that were passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation until the 20th century in the bear's places of refuge like the Pyrenees. It is also the most anthropomorphised animal because of the way it walks upright, holds it food and fights. The bear is perceived as a sly and dangerous supernatural man-beast that prowls around committing multiple crimes. Its relations with humankind are viewed in terms of fierce rivalry with men and seduction of women," writes historian Eric Baratay (1). "Carnivals perpetuating the bear's reputation as an abductor are celebrated even in places from which bears have disappeared."

The bear was reviled by the Christian Church, as it harked back to a pagan past. The Church never ceased to undermine and outlaw it. Little by little, clergy managed to transform the bear into just an ‘ordinary' beast, ousted from heraldic symbols, exhibited at fairs, dangled on a chain and stripped of all dignity. During the Middle Ages, the bear was dethroned as the king of wild game animals. As these ‘barbaric' interludes led to violent hand-tohand combat between hunter and animal, locking man and bear in a rather unorthodox grapple, they were frowned upon. The religious authorities forced the aristocracy to hunt the stag instead, which has a much nobler bearing, and the lion, considered to be the true king of animals, came to symbolise the power of kings and princes. However, the bear remained the symbol of the Swiss city of Bern and, by curious coincidence, the Bern Convention to protect threatened bear species was signed there.

Revenge of the teddy bear

Stripped of its power, the bear was demoted to bear cub. In 1903, it was embodied in a soft toy, the forerunner of many comfort toys designed to be a child's favourite companion, to reassure and to accompany them into the land of dreams. As in the case of the bear constellations, there are also two tales of how the teddy bear evolved. The first is the teddy bear tale. When United States President, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, went on a hunt in Mississippi, his staff had the cruel idea of attaching a baby bear to a tree to make sure that the President would not go home emptyhanded - but Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot it. A New York toy manufacturer had the idea of immortalising the gesture by naming a soft toy after him (Teddy's Bear). According to the second, slightly earlier version, the teddy bear was invented in Germany. The nephew of stuffed-toy manufacturer Margarete Steiff was sketching bears at Stuttgart Zoo when he had the idea of making a toy with articulated limbs. A prototype bear (Baer 55PB), made from mohair plush, was exhibited at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1893. An American toy buyer, who was aware of the growing interest in "Teddy's Bears", ordered 3 000 units. Production of the teddy bears took off fast and, by 1907, had exceeded one million units. Steiff teddy bears are recognisable by the metal button in their left ear... and are now priceless collectors' items.

The bear cub continues to be the hero of many adventures. One of the most famous is that told by Alan Alexander Milne who, after watching his son play with his teddy bear, created the character of Winnie the bear cub (Winnie the Pooh), which has been adapted most famously by Walt Disney. This mascot toy is endlessly being pressed into service in new roles. Teddy bear hospitals have been set up in several countries, including Germany and France, where young children can bring their cuddly teddy to be treated by medical students. This pretence of treating teddies is meant to discover where the children themselves have pain as well as to reassure them and help overcome their own fear of hospital. Perhaps this very same need for comfort prompted Neil Armstrong to take a teddy bear along on his journey to the moon in 1969.

Terrifying or protective

Another familiar figure of stories, fables and even contemporary children's books is the wolf. The wolf's personality changes frequently, as evidenced by the successive versions of the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. "In the oral versions, the child shares the grandmother's remains with the wolf, undresses to sleep with it and then runs away after tricking the wolf. The story evokes a right of passage to adulthood and sexuality, of one generation of women being taken over by the next. In the first written version (1697), Charles Perrault suppresses what he sees as the improper aspects of the tale and, to encourage girls to flee charmers, he portrays a cunning and pitiless wolf that gobbles up the child. The other famous version, that of the Brothers Grimm (1812), brings in the idea of disposing of the wolf: it is killed by hunters who set the little girl free," adds historian Eric Baratay. Later, Jack London turned the wolf White Fang into a brave companion (featuring in several films); Marcel Aymé revisited the Little Red Riding Hood story in one of his Contes du Chat Perché, and Pierre et le Loup (Peter and the Wolf), written and set to music by Prokofiev, ends with a march where the wolf escapes the hunters... but is taken to the zoo.

The wolf can also be a protector and saviour. For instance, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were purportedly raised by a shewolf. And wolf children are found in history time and again. In the early 14th century, the legendary wolf-child of Hesse was allegedly raised by animals, knew the choicest pieces of meat and walked around on all fours. The most recent example is Monique Dewael's best-selling account, Surviving with wolves, which tells the tale of Holocaust survivor, eight-year-old Jewish girl Misha Defonseca. Misha leaves Belgium during World War II to find her parents who are being held by the Gestapo. She treks across the forests of Europe, living with a pack of wolves. The book, translated into 18 languages, has sold millions of copies and the film by Vera Belmont was seen by hundreds of thousands of cinema-goers. Although it was presented as an autobiography, the story turned out to be pure fiction. It is a deception that shows just how prominent a role the wolf still plays in our imaginations...

Christine Rugemer

  1. Eric Baratay, Et l'homme créa l'animal, Ed. Odile Jacob, Paris, 2003.