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The BearPastoureau, Michel. L’Ours: Histoire d’un roi déchu. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2007. 432 pp.

Relations between Man and Bear go back further than most would imagine, at least up to 20,000 BCE if not even 80,000 BCE, when the bear was venerated as a god. Over the millennia, though their status ebbed, bears have given humans protection, food, entertainment, and companionship. This complex history between men and bears is the subject of Michel Pastoureau’s book, L’ours: Histoire d’un roi déchu. Written in 2007, the book was translated from French into English by George Holoch in 2011.

Readers may wonder what is the purpose of such a study. Is history not about documented human behaviour? After all, the history of things or even undocumented human existence has other names – such as geology or archaeology. Yet Pastoureau’s work is indeed about humans: it is about how they interact with their surroundings, in this particular case, bears. There is no doubt that things, as may be worded dismissively, have profound impact on the human condition. Already, there are more and more studies about how the internet, social media, and mobile phones have affected human behaviour and even brain patterns. Pastoureau’s research asks similar questions – in the past, of colours (black, blue, stripes) – and now of animals (pigs, bears); he is interested not just in the literal meaning of his non-human subject but also its symbolic value.

Histoire d’un roi déchu starts with the earliest cave paintings of bears at Chauvet and Le Regourdou during the Paleolithic age, some 20,000 years ago, when the bear was a totemic animal. Early peoples believed that the bear, so much like humans, was an animal apart, that is, it strode that liminal space between this world and the heavens. Interestingly, one of the earliest sculptures ever discovered is of a bear, at Ganties-Montespan. Made of clay and now headless, it is almost lifesize and goes back to 20,000 BCE. Pastoureau’s argument is supported by findings of bear skulls, discovered in arrangements that indicate spiritual practices.

Admittedly, the bear of 20,000 years ago was a cave bear, ursus spelaeus, not the brown bear that was worshipped by more recognisable ancestors of modern Europeans. This species went extinct by around 12,000 BCE and the bear deity of our more recent ancestors was usually the ursus arctos, or brown bear. Pastoureau presents a brief yet persuasive survey of ancient cultures in which the bear was at least a very important being, if not outright sacred or divine. For example, the Samoyeds of Siberia had an elaborate cult of worship around the bear. This practice was common among their neighbours as well, such as the Sami and Gilyaks across the northern tundra, and to the Nivkh and Ainu of the Sakhalin Islands and Hokkaido.

Greek, Celtic, and Germanic mythologies did not hold the bear to be quite divine, though it was nonetheless a special animal. It was the emblem of Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, for example, who was known as a goddess of the hunt. The Celtic equivalents of the Greek Artemis were Arduina in the Ardennes region, Andarta in the Alps, and most famously, Artio in southern Germany and Switzerland.

These ancient mythologies also had cosmologies in which bears were tightly woven between the gods and humans. One of the more famous myths is that of Callisto, daughter of King Lycaon of Arcadia. A follower of Artemis, she was incredibly beautiful and Zeus was overcome with passion for her. One day, taking the form of Artemis, Zeus forces himself upon Callisto. The young woman becomes pregnant and when discovered by Artemis, the goddess is furious at Callisto’s slip. She shoots the unfortunate daughter of Lycaon with an arrow, which immediately delivered her of the child and also transforms her into a she-bear. Callisto’s son, Arcas goes on to become the king of Arcadia and one day, while out on a hunt, unknowingly almost kills his mother. Zeus intervenes at the last minute, transforming the king into a bear cub. He then lifts both mother and son into the heavens, where they become the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Furthermore, Hera asks Poseidon to prevent them from ever sinking into the sea and that is why they are the two constellations that always remain above the horizon.

There are plenty of other such stories in wherein heroes are transformed into bears, are raised by them, or are the result of sexual relations between humans and bears – Iphigenia, the unfortunate daughter of Agamemnon, Atalanta of the famed golden apples race, Paris, abductor of Helen of Troy, Polyphonte, mother of Agrios and Oreios, and Cephalus, father of Arcisios. Later epics such as those of Beowulf or King Arthur have heroes with decidedly ursine characteristics.

Not surprisingly, the prevalence of the bear threatened the Christian Church. The pagan bear cults of Europe proved formidable opposition to the proselytisation of their new faith. This was the root of their abiding hatred for the poor animal. Much before the now familiar trident wielding, cloven-hoofed, pointy tailed, and horned red man, the Church began to portray the bear as one of the likely forms Satan might take to lure the faithful into sin. Christian lore depicted the bear as lewd, predatory, malicious, and destructive. St Augustine of Hippo wrote, Ursus diabolus est – the bear is the devil.

In an effort to dethrone the bear, the Church had a multi-pronged approach that is well known to anyone who has studied Christian interaction with pagan culture. First, it tried to usurp the bear’s holidays. For example, a festival in early November that celebrated the bear’s annual hibernation was hijacked by placing Christian feast days named after saints that had stories related to bears such as Ursula or Mathurin. The most important day, November 11, went to St Martin. Similarly, the day that celebrated the bear’s reawakening, February 2, became Candlemas.

Second, the Church encouraged the indiscriminate hunting of bears. Some of the greatest pogroms of bears occurred during the reign of Charlemagne, the first king crowned by the Pope. The first Holy Roman Emperor had many imitators, and soon, bears were driven almost entirely from the plains and into the mountains. Due to the change in their habitat, even their diet changed: from a species that was about 80 percent carnivorous in antiquity, the bear’s food today is 90 percent vegetarian.

It is not that bears had never been hunted before Christian times. Some communities ate bear meat. Others saw the successful hunt of a bear as a symbol of the bravery of a king or a rite of passage from boyhood into manhood. However, those rituals of food and status were proscribed and hardly wanton.

Third, bears were also maligned to turn people away from them and to the Church. One important manner in which this was done was to depict the bear as an insatiable sex demon. Bears would, the Church said, carry off womenfolk and impregnate them. This hit at the core of contemporary sentiment, morality, and honour. Along with lust, the bear was attributed three of the other seven deadly sins as well, such as gluttony, sloth, and anger. These were popularised as much through fables such as the French Roman de Renart as through common language. For example, German had the popular proverb, jemandem einen Bärendienst erweisen (to do someone a favour like a bear), which meant do behave so stupidly and clumsily as to cause harm instead of being helpful. Another one was sich auf die Bärenhaut legen (to lie on a bearskin), meaning excessive laziness. French had expressions like, Quiconque partage le miel avec un ours obtiendra la plus petite partie (Whoever shares honey with a bear will get the smaller portion) and Si une branche tombe sur un ours, il gémit; si c’est un arbre, il est silencieux (If a branch falls on a bear, he groans; if it’s a tree, he is silent). Of all the expressions, the most common one is un ours mal léché and exists in all languages to describe a coarse, boorish, brutal, bilious person.

Four, the Church sought to humiliate the bear. Although it generally depicted the animal as dangerous and brutal, it also showed it as a companion of saints – docile and domesticated. This was supposed to not only bolster the reputation of the saint’s faith and piety but also carry the implicit message that no one can walk so long in the dark that he cannot be brought into the light. The chained, muzzled, and tamed bear, available for entertainment at fairs, transformed into a figure of ridicule rather than reverence. This image has remained etched in the public imagination until date: consider, for example, AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, a fable for children about a bear who is not entirely there and has to be constantly set right by his dear friend, Eeyore, a donkey no less. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera’s Yogi Bear is not much better.

Histoire d’un roi déchu is a well-researched book that takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject, combining arguments from history, archaeology, theology, linguistics, and several other branches of study. Attentive readers may note that the author is on surer footing as he approaches the Middle Ages but that is for two reasons: the obvious one is that Pastoureau is a trained medievalist, and the other is that the nature of sources further back are unreliable and fragmentary. Thus, the work is understandably vulnerable to demands of empirical certainty via, for example, biogeographical studies of dwindling bear populations in the eighth and ninth centuries.

At first glance, Pastoureau’s Church appears to be a monolithic entity that is unified in its clearly defined policies towards bears. Although this was certainly not the case, Pastoureau exonerates himself at the outset by stating that his book is a European history. This limits the discussion to a largely Catholic Church and excludes other sects, most prominently the Eastern Orthodox, that may or may not have had a different relationship with bears and nature.

The main thesis of Histoire d’un roi déchu is two-fold: to show continuity of pre-Christian symbols and tradition well into the Christian era, and to explain how our conceptions of the bear have been shaped by centuries of Christian interaction with the poor animal. In the first instance, the argument is hardly novel: Carlo Ginsburg’s study of the 16th and 17th century Friulian benandanti attempts a similar project fairly persuasively. The implied commentary about the Christian value system – that it holds itself above nature – and the consequent degradation of the natural world is, similarly, centuries old. What is novel in Pastoureau’s work is the vehicle he uses to make his case, that is, the bear.

Pastoureau’s work is a delightful read filled with many details that will hold the reader’s attention. Its unusual ursine-centricity is amusing and the informal tone comes off almost as storytelling rather than a scholarly work that has been assembled by the author only after scouring dozens of medieval bestiaries and other records.

Perhaps the bear’s greatest revenge, Pastoureau concludes in an abrupt epilogue, is how it has manipulated its transformation to appear as the ubiquitous cute and cuddly teddy bear that is often found in our daughters’ beds. Although no longer worshipped as it used to be – at least in the same large numbers – the Church has ultimately failed in separating bears from humans.