Bear Worship and Bear Cults

Two Mothers

Two Mothers (1888). Leon-Maxime Faivre. A mother faces a she-bear in a cave.

1.  Introduction

In animal worship of the salmon is sacred to native north Americans. Dances as imitation of animals are found with Amerindians and Australians – the animals usually totems of objects of the hunt including bears, buffalo, deer (Cooper, 1992). The deer is an Amerindian totem animal and the deer-dance a fertility rite for the peoples of the south-west. Reindeer sacrifices are made by Lapps, and palaeo-Siberian tribes have a ‘Lord of the Reindeer’, whose shamans can take the form of the reindeer. Bison are subjects of mask dances and sympathetic magic among Plains Indians. Bear worship can also be interpreted in terms of cult practice and totemic belief. The bear in mythology can be a god, a goddess, an ancestor, a guardian entity of a clan or tribe, or a sacred and totemic animal. In folktale the bear has been described in the role of husband, wife, child, or lover. In folklore there is the belief that the bear is a soul animal, a supernatural spirit, an astral companion,  and provider of medicines and cures. It must be born in mind that with regard to bear cults a number of studies “…neither endorsed evidence of any belief system nor cave bear worship.” (Wunn, 2001).

In the northern boreal zone the bear is regarded as the ‘Lord of the Animals’ (Janhunen, 2003) and bear symbolism “…is widespread throughout traditional northern hunting societies and is thought to extend far back in time.” (Germonpre, 2007; Hallowell, 1926). Since the Palaeolithic, in areas where bears are encountered “…most ursids have been a source of potent ritual symbols among all the peoples inhabiting the vast areas of Eurasia and North America…” (Black, 1998). The subject of bear worship requires an understanding of the role of the bear in the mythology of Palaeolithic Europe, where the palaeontological and archaeological facts have been questioned, making it “…impossible to establish what the exact mythological role of the bear, as compared with other Pleistocene large mammals…” really entailed. (Janhunen, 2003).

2.  The Bear

The bear is a plantigrade quadruped that is a thickly furred and heavily built animal of the Class mammalia, Order carnivora, and Family Ursidae. There are eight extant species that are the: American black bear (Ursus americanus); North American grizzly (Ursus horribilis); Asiatic or Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus); The Eurasian Brown bear (Ursus arctos); Giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca); Sloth bear (Meleusis ursinus); Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus); Polar bear (Ursus maritimus); and the Spectacled bear (Tremarctus ornatus). Bears are found in a variety of habitats and locations across the continents of Europe, Asia, north and south America. In dietary terms six of the species are omnivorous with varied diets, whereas the Polar bear is a carnivore and the Giant panda lives on bamboo.


Examples of three types of living bear

Typically the bear is a solitary animal that is diurnal in the main but may be active at twilight (crepuscular) or even at night (nocturnal). Bears tend to occupy a den or make a burrow. Bears over-winter in a sleep form resembling hibernation for about 100 days. Bears have been hunted since prehistoric times and it is thought that such hunting took place during the winter vulnerability of the bear. Etymologically the word bear in Germanic languages means ‘brown’ which in Old English is berg, for the Welsh the bear is arth which can be seen in the name Arthur.  Ancient runic inscriptions from Scandinavia refer to bjorn. The taxonomy the nomenclature is derived from the Greek with arktos, the Latin with ursus, which for the brown bear have been combined as Ursus arctos. Both the Cave Bear and the Brown Bear trace descent from the Etruscan bear (Ursus etruscus) of the Pleistocene, exrinct by some 10,000 years ago, even so “…the cave bear, although clearly related to the living to the living Ursus arctos, nevertheless was a separate species.” (Kurten, 1969).

brown bear

The Brown Bear

The two species of black bears, Ursus thibetanus of Asia and Ursus americanus of America, are both drawn to the biotrope of the cave (Kurten, 1969). However, the brown used caves for hibernation only. Many bear species make use of caves  but only one, Ursus speleaus, is called the Cave Bear. The habitat of the Cave Bear stretched from Spain to Eurasia, across what is now Britain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, central and east Europe, and down to Italy and Greece. Bears preferentially choose to live in forested tracts and tend to avoid open plains. Their habitat was low mountainous regions and limestone topography that provided caves. In terms of dietary requirements Cave Bears and Brown Bears were primarily herbivorous and occasionally consuming animal protein. Their excessive teeth erosion is suggestive of a herbivorous diet.

In Chinese cave deposits the fossil remains of the Black Bear Ursus thibetanus are more common than those of the Brown Bear. Another species in China was the Sun Mear, now almost extinct there, but which is commonly found as a fossil in caves in northern China. The Sun Bear is classified as Helarctos malayanus and still survives in Sumatra and Borneo. The species Ursus thibetanus, a species of Black Bear, has a history extending back to the early Pleistocene era. Another Black Bear species, nearly as large as a Grizzly, is the north American bear classified as Ursus americanus from the middle Pleistocene, whose remains were first found in caves in Pennsylvania. The American black bears ancestors came from Asia across the one time glaciated land bridge spanning the Bering Strait.

3.  Bear Worship

Ancient bear worship and cults occur among Amerindians, in Iceland, Finland, Siberia, and Japan (Cooper, 1992). In terms of totemism all Siberian shamanistic cultures regard the bear as a mythical ancestor, plus the Amerindian, Finnish, Tartar, Ugarian, Samoyeds, and for Mongols descent is from woman who had children from a bear. The bear as ‘Animal Master’ is the sacred animal and instructor of shamans, and bear gods are often hunter-gods working through shamans and, moreover the “…Siberian bear cult reveals references that date from a pre-shamanic stage of prehistory.” (Germonpre, 2007), including Deer Goddess worship (Jacobsen, 1993). The she-bear symbolises maternal love through hibernation and renewal. For the Inuit the great shaman spirit is the Polar Bear, and for the ‘Bear Sacrifice’ of the Ainu of Japan the sacred and sacrificial animal is often treated as kin. For the ancient Greeks the goddess herself was a bear with worship of Artemis in Arcadia as Artemis Brauronia. In mythological terms the role of the bear is seen as a manifestation of “…the complexity of beliefs and practices known as the Circumpolar Bear Cult which has occasionally traced back to the Palaeolithic hunting societies of the latest glacial period.” (Janhunen, 2003).

Early hunters persuaded themselves they are not really killing animals but only their bodies and they come to life again “…if their bones are looked after and treated with the correct magic.” (Lommel, 1966). In one respect the killing of the bear as a sacrifice “…is considered an offering by which humans communicate with the non-human, spiritual domain.” (Black, 1998). With regard to the ritualistic killing, skinning, preparing, eating, and disposing of the bear a number taboos would have been observed, especially those regarding the role of women. The majority of restrictions, which are expressions “…of the bear cult include various kinds of taboos connected with the bear.” (Janhunen, 2003), are derived from general hunting taboos followed by disposal that anticipated resurrection.

The worship of the bear during prehistoric times is a feature commonly shared by many hunting and fishing cultures. The Laplanders referred to the bear as the Son of the Chief, as the Old Man, as well as Grandfather, and in the literary Kalevala the bear is addressed as Honey Eater, the Forest Apple as well as the Fur Adorned. For the Finno-Ugric peoples special rituals are carried out in connection with the hunting, killing and eating of the sacred bear. At the special ‘Celebration of the Bear’ the animal is honoured and then sacrificed. The pagans of Finland not only worshipped the bear but bestowed an honoured prominence upon the animal. Bear worship and belief in a  bear ancestor was found in ancient Chinese, Korean and Ainu cultures. For the Chinese the Bear Woman was a maiden who has a daughter after being abducted by a bear that is eventually found and killed by her brother. Therefore the ancestors of the fathers are bears. The ancient populations of Finland, as well as those in Siberia, regarded the bear as the spirit of the ancestors. To the Finno-Ugric peoples the bear is sacred, as with the Mongolians who claim descent from a woman who had two children by a bear.

The Gilyak or Nivkh people of Sakhalin, north of the River Amur in Russia,  a Bear Festival is presided over by a ch’lam or shaman. As hunting and fishing clans the Nikvh regard the bear as their ancestor . Bear worship is a characteristic of circumpolar religions as well is north Eurasian and Amerindian populations such as the Ainu, the Sami, and the Nikvh (Blesoe, 2007). For the Amerindians the bear is the Grandfather of All Animals. The Ainu, who inhabit the northern islands of Japan believe “…the bear is a deity, which visits the realm of man for a certain period.” (Wunn, 2001). The bear is the supreme god of the Ainu whose comes down to earth in the guise of a bear. The adult bear is ceremonially slain in order to return his soul to his own domain, eaten so his spirit can depart, in a ritual called Omante. The rite of killing a bear cub is known as Lomante.

Circumpolar peoples who worship the bear have special rituals to perform when a bear is slaughtered. For example the Grizzly Bear dance of Amerindians is where the she-bear of the spring represents maternity and renewal of life. Amongst the native Americans there are many ceremonies, myths, folktales and beliefs attached to the bear. These include Bear Woman and Deer Woman, Bear Woman and the Fawns, Bear Woman also known as the Bear Wife. The Bear Madonnas carry out special rites where these bear marked women hold clubs and wear male bears, as bear Spirits of Vegetation, are sacrificed. Quite often some peoples after the bear sacrifice has been carried out the bones are burned, and the skull reverentially placed in a fir tree so that the soul of the bear can return to the sky, where the bear “…is a voluntary sacrifice, offering itself to and for the humans, at the same time humans offer it up for the return to the realm of the deities and the benevolent ancestors.” (Black, 1998).

Ritual ceremonies include shamans performing a mimetic dance or impersonation of the bear, and the ritual is “…considered to be the most potent symbolic communicative system, as it engages a multiplicity of senses to a much greater degree than the recounting of myths.” (Black, 1998).  The bear is the sacred animal and the shaman the conduit, the intermediary, for communication with the bear spirit. For the circumpolar Inuit the Polar Bear is worshipped as the Great Spirit. For the Hopi Indians their clan of the bear is the most important. For others the black bear represents the guardian of the west, and for the Haida the Bear Mother is their ancestress. The north Amerindians, plus the peoples  from Siberia, Finland, Japan and Iceland, celebrated shamanistic rituals connected with bear worship. The shamans of California impersonate bears and are believed to transform into them. In Europe and Siberia shamanistic rituals are not involved in bear ceremonies (Vasilev, 2007).


The Bear Goddess Artio from the Gallo-Roman Muri group, Switzerland. Source: public domain.

The bear-goddess Artio or Dea Artio was the deity of European continental Celts. Her shrine once stood at Berne in Switzerland. A goddess of wildlife and fertility she is associated with the bear. Portrayed as a woman seated in a chair facing a bear. Artio is derived from the Gaulish artos for bear, in Irish it is art, in Welsh it is arth. Another Gaulish fertility and warrior goddess was Andarta the patroness of the Vocati. Known only from inscriptions in Berne. She represents an aspect of Artio and is perhaps connected to Andrasta or Andate, meaning ‘peaceful bear’. In Celtic mythology the she-bear Atla is seen as the feminine principle and a lunar power. In Berne the bear is a lunar symbol of the moon-goddess. In this respect bears are sacred to the lunar goddesses Diana and Artemis. The Festival of Artemis in Brauronia included performers wearing bear robes and a bear dance. In ancient Greece the Arcadians regarded themselves as descended from bears, and astronomically speaking, the constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear) were originally two Cretan she-bears who tended the infant Zeus. The bear is possibly the oldest European deity and its bones and skulls are arranged at sites across Europe. Nonetheless, when one considers bone depositions and religion the “…caves where relics of alleged bear worship were found are the natural habitats of the animals.”

4.  The Cave Bear

The Cave Bear, which became extinct at the start of the last maximum Ice Age glaciation some 27,000 years ago, lived in Pleistocene Europe. The Cave Bear was still common in central Europe during the height of the last Glaciation, but had become extinct by the end of that period (Kurten, 1969). The extinction of the Cave Bear was the outcome of the interaction of a complex set of factors (Smithsonian, 2010; Stiller, 2010), possibly the result of its range limitation, dietary specialisation, coupled with  a genetic decline. Localised populations of Cave Bears may have survived until the end of the Ice Age, surviving in inaccessible or isolated areas. However, localised populations small in number are liable or vulnerable to accidental extinction, plus human interference in bear dependent caves for hibernation (Kurten, 1958), and cub rearing, as well as environmental changes affecting mortality. Extinction of the cave bear may have been due, amongst a number of reasons, due to human agency but, whatever the cause “…the type of bear generally known as the cave bear completely disappeared, but not before leaving a deep impression on the mind of Palaeolithic man.” (Matheson, 1942), with modern indications that bears were powerful totemic symbols.


Reconstruction of Ursus spelaeus, the extinct cave bear.  Source: public domain.

In size the Cave Bear was not much bigger than the brown bear or the grizzly bear but had a much heavier build. The  Cave Bear skeleton resembled that of the brown bear being similar in size to modern bears. During glacial periods bears increased in size and became smaller in inter-glacial periods. This may have led to females being mistaken for dwarfish variants , though true dwarfism is shown by smaller size in both sexes. Even so female cave bears were regularly smaller than the males (Kurten, 1972). Dwarfism has been explained by local differences arising out of local race development due to stationary habits and small territory of the cave bear (Kurten, 1969). Limited range and isolation means localised species are ill-prepared for drastic changes in climate and the shocks of environmental change (Kurten, 1972). This becomes especially threatening when species numbers fall below a critical breeding minimum.

Male and female Cave Bear differentiation sorts into two size groups, showing dimorphism. Males are larger than the females. Such sexual dimorphism is true for Cave Bears and living bear species (Kurten, 1955). Male and female Cave Bears, as with most natural populations, existed in more or less equal numbers, even though in some caves there were more males, in others more females (Kurten, 1969). This suggests a birthrate of approximately equal numbers (Kurten, 1972). In Europe the Cave Bear was the main species denning in caves whereas in Britain it was the Brown bear. For the Cave Bear, with its annual life style of feeding and wandering from springtime to autumn, it then denned, hibernated and gave birth during the winter.

DNA studies of the Cave Bear from specimens dated to 42,000 to 44,000 years ago, were carried out on a tooth. The analysis indicated a close relationship to the brown bear and the polar bear, with divergence between 1.2 and 1.4 million years ago (Noonan, 2005; Loreille, 2001). Further studies of the Cave Bear mDNA sequence were carried out on the species which died out some 10,000 years ago (Briggs, 2010). Cave bear remains, when found may have rolled into niches or been disturbed. There may be evidence of the activity of Palaeolithic people but even though some could be genuine, much of the evidence has bee misinterpreted (Kurten, 1969).


Fossil skeletal material of the Cave Bear were first found in caves in Germany in 1774 and many have also been in central Europe and Romania in 1983. Many bear skeletons show signs of disarticulation and picked clean by carnivores and scavengers such as cave hyenas and wolves. As a result of such activity Cave Bear fossils, even though they are found in their thousands, are mostly damaged and scattered (Kurten, 1969). The bones of bears of bears in caves are the accumulated result of some 100,000 years indicating a mortality rate of two deaths per year. Fossilised remains have been found from the Spanish Pyrenees to the coast of the Caspian sea (Kurten, 1972). Cave bear skulls have a pronounced dome-like forehead with a pronounced development of sinus structure (Kurten, 1969). The greatest abundance of Cave Bear fossils are from the 60,000 years of the Wurm Glaciation which came to an end some 12,000 years ago when Ursus spelaeus became extinct. The actual evolution of the Cave Bear is from near the end of the Mindel Glaciation beginning some 700,000 years ago.

In consideration of bear mortality and pathology evidence from cave remains shows that most cave bears died, during hibernation, and moreover many juveniles expired during the winter before reaching sexual maturity (Kurten, 1972). Cave bear mortality has been calculated to be around 20% annually (Kurten, 1972), the maximum occurrence among immature individuals. Mortality was probably the result of disease , old age, conflict and injury, and the failure to achieve pre-hibernation dietary requirements (Kurten, 1968). Cave bears were not likely victims of other animals with competitors restricted the cave leopard, Felis pardus, and the cave lion or Felis leospelaea. Evidence of rickets, osteomyelitis and periostitis, has been found in Cave Bear remains, as well as caries, gout, inflammations and trauma. Some damage was due to falls of rock but accidental injury was not that common. Mortality appeared more common amongst groups of three individuals such a  mother and two cubs, or three males. Needless to say the death of the mother implied the death of the cubs. Some 70% of cubs died before maturity.  Once a cub had reached maturity it could expect a further survival of some 15 years (Kurten, 1972). In general mortality was amongst juveniles, the sick, and the senile, with an age range of never more than 20 years (Kurten, 1965)

5.  Bear Cults

The bear seems especially important when compared to cave bone assemblages of hunted animals. There is sufficient evidence to the extent that the cave bear, mammoth, and other great beasts figured in the minds of their human or contemporaries (Matheson, 1942), as  Neanderthal or Mousterian man “…associated certain cult conceptions with the bears he had killed.” (Abel, 1934). The bear is the oldest verifiable sacrificial animal. From earliest  times there have been bear- cults. Neanderthal man had sacred shrines of ‘Master Bear’, with bear skulls and bones often interred with human skulls (Cooper, 1992). However other research and opinion is that “…the current hypothesis of a fully developed religion during the Middle Palaeolithic including cult-practice, funeral rites and belief in an afterlife has to be refuted.” (Wunn, 2001). it is worthy of note that, considering the location of much cave art, in the carnivals of the Pyrenees the bear is still a notable figure, where the bear cult is a concept with the aim of controlling the bear (Janhunen, 2003).

cave bear skeleton

Reconstructed skeleton of Ursus spelaeus, the cave bear.

Finds of bear remains  “…in more or less clear association with human remains or artefacts are of course numerous.” (Matheson, 1942), and comprise two species – the cave bear (Ursus speleaus) and brown bear (Ursos arctos). In southern France there are several representations of cave bears from the Aurignacion, but later French Magdalenian pictures only brown bears. The drawings, which are claimed to show erotic symbolism, may indicate that “…Man of the Aurignac period was as well as Man of the Madeleine period connected religious and cultic conceptions with the Cave Bear, and, after its extinction, with the brown bear…” (Abel, 1934). Strange composite animals portrayed at Les Trois Freres include bears with heads of wolves and at Montespan a dying sacrificial bear with holes (Grazioli, 1960).

Chauvet cave bears

The Chauvet Cave bears.

In Drachenloch Cave near Vattis, Tamina Valley, in Switzerland, several stone chests each containing 4 or 5 bear skulls, all pointing in the same direction, were found (Matheson, 1942), and similar material was found at Petershohle in south Germany, and at Drachenshohle near Mixnitz in Austria. These were explained by Abel (1934) as representing “…skull and long bone sacrifices of Mousterian hunters, which must have been connected with their religious conceptions.” Fossil remains in a large number of caves show a ratio of 50/50 for males and females , with females predominating in smaller caves, and males in larger (Kurten. 1972). Bear caves are found in many locations but the only European species was Ursus spelaeus, even though not all caves had remains within, typically bear bones comprised up to 99% (Kurten, 1969). Most remains of bears that are found in caves do not in fact occur near or within early human habitations (Wunn, 2000).

Bear cults and worship is known as arctolatry which may have been a feature of the supposed religion of the Neanderthals of the middle Palaeolithic (Wunn, 2000). Collections of bear bones have been cited as evidence of a bear cult by the Neanderthals at Drachenloch in Switzerland. Some evidence has been claimed for several different caves. Examples include the assumed deliberate arrangement of bear skulls in caves, and niches within caves. Some evidence cites cave excavations where have been found accumulations, burnt cave bear remains, broken bear bones, and skulls on slabs of rock or in niches (Kurten, 1976). A similar phenomenon is cited for Regrurdou in southern France and Basua Cave in Savona, Italy (Campbell, 1996) for pits containing bear bones. For many archaeologists and anthropologists the concepts “…of cave bear worship during the early and middle Palaeolithic period belong to the realm of legend.” (Wunn, 2001).

During the Middle Palaeolithic the remains of bears and artefacts are often found in association, however “…cave bear and human use of caves are independent events.” (Stiner, 2010), according to available evidence. The idea that Neanderthal man (homo neanderthalensis) practised a cave bear cult is derived from the bear worship practices of modern circumpolar peoples, and this supposedly justifies the existence of prehistoric bear cults (Wunn, 2001). The evidence of archaeology and ethnology suggest that none “…of the examples support the notion of ritual use of cave bear remains by ancient humans…the cave bear cult is just a story…” (Stiner, 2010). Had the Neanderthals practised a cave bear cult, had they worshipped the bear then “…its traces would have been found inside settlements.” (Wunn, 2001). In the Cave of Montespan is a clay sculpture of a bear near a bear skull from the Palaeolithic, and at the Cave of Santimamine (Spain) there is a Magdalenian painting of a brown bear. In consideration of present knowledge the existence of prehistoric bear cults still remains a bone of contention.

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Filed under Archaeology

5 responses to “Bear Worship and Bear Cults

  1. Tim Turner

    I enjoyed this article, Eric. Would it be possible to get a pdf of it (or any ebook format)?

  2. Pingback: February Holidays I: The Mythology and Ritual Behind Groundhog Day | Mythology Matters

  3. Pingback: (Attention, Pavé !) L’Ours | Scáthcraft

  4. Pingback: “Looking After the Bones:” A Hunt And Bear Stew. – Empires, Cannibals, and Magic Fish Bones

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