Within the fabric of human mythology, there is a common thread that weaves the archetypal images of our ancient kinship.
David Rockwell explores that kinship in "Giving Voice to Bear," a collection of American Indian bear mythology and rituals and a less comprehensive but intriguing selection of analogous European and Asian myths, poetry and traditions.
Rockwell's mythological journey draws striking parallels between diverse cultures and is a powerful reminder of the sacredness and interdependence of all life.
Rockwell was a wilderness ranger on the Flatland Indian reservation in Montana when tribal elders asked that grizzly bear hunting be banned on the reservation in order to protect the few that remained. Soon after, a firsthand experience with tribal traditions ignited Rockwell's interest in native mythology surrounding the bear.
His research includes American Indian narratives expressing oral history and rituals and draws extensively from the works of ethnologists.
The author reveals a universality among American Indian tribes to celebrate the bear as a symbol of the Earth and her seasonal cycle of death and rebirth. "Every year bears disappear. . . . They crawl into the earth, the source of all life . . . lie underground in a death-like sleep. . . . In the spring they emerge . . . into a world in which the earth itself is being reborn."
Earth symbols, so fundamental to and inseparable from the whole of native culture, formed the basis of numerous tribal traditions.
The hibernation of the bear was associated with the concept of death and renewal through initiation rituals that took place in a small, or subterranean, structure referred to as "the den."
Through symbolic death characterized by prolonged isolation and fasting, participants ended their former lives and were reborn into the community with new status and new responsibilities.
In the rites of puberty for both male and female, the bear often symbolized the transformation from child to adult.
The bear was believed to impart knowledge, mystical powers and the wisdom of spirit beings to shamans, healers, teachers and secret societies through dreams and rituals. This was particularly true of healers who, having observed the bear gathering herbs, roots and other medicinal plants, regarded the animal as an ancient "guardian of the first medicines and communicator of the knowledge of healing."
In a chapter pertaining to the bear hunter, the author has focused on the Cree of northeastern Canada; in a later chapter he compares Cree rituals to those of Northern European and Asian hunters.
The most striking and beautiful parallel is found in a poem from Elias Lonnrot's "Old Kalevala," a collection of traditional Finnish poetry. A hunter speaks to the bear he has slain. He calls him "Snub-Nose" or "Honey-Paws" but, out of respect, never uses the generic word for bear.
He asks the bear's spirit for forgiveness and invites it to accompany him to the ceremonial feast. When the hunter has rejoined his people, the feast is prepared and consumed according to tradition. When it is ended, the hunter returns the bear's skull to the forest, placing it in the branches of an evergreen tree, and the bear's spirit is set free.
The hunter is Finnish, but he is also Cree; their traditions are as one, even in their metaphorical expressions. It seems a testament not to the bear but to the collective memory the hunters share.
"Giving Voice to Bear" is abundant with illustrations including petrographic images, Mimbres images of the bear from the 10th and 12th centuries, artifacts, ceremonial costumes and rare photographs.
Although the work is occasionally burdened by ethnologist's theories and interpretations, Rockwell has preserved the voice of poetry and myth, dream and vision; the result is a lyrical rendering of human beliefs and traditions.
"This book is about people more than it is about bears," says Rockwell. "It is about hunters' dreams and shamans' travels into the spirit world . . . about magic and myth and things sacred."
Next: Elaine Kendall reviews "Daughter of Persia" by Sattareh Farman Farmaian with Dona Munker (Crown).