You can watch the video about this subject in here: [The Bear – Symbology During the Middle-Ages]
When people ask you “what animal is the king of all animals?” the first creature to come to mind is the lion. But in truth, before the church imposed the lion as the king of all the animals, the bear was the real king, at least in the European continent. The bear was the symbol of power, strength and majesty.
It is possible that our ancestors during prehistoric times already worshiped bears. We can find bear skulls aligned in niches in caves, and they weren’t placed in there at random. There might have been an early bear cult, and unlike the image we grow up with, of people living in caves, our ancestors actually built houses made of huge animal bones and tusks, tree-trunks and animal skins, so those caves with beautiful paintings, were in fact out ancestors’ first temples. But let’s not go back so much in history.
Anyway, we can find traces of the utmost respect, even fear and also admiration our ancestors had for these creatures, in folktales, changed by time and the different political and social realities throughout history, and of course, changed by new faiths. We can also see it in sacred places, christianised, but were once the places of pagan deities and with the new faith became the dwelling places of saints and Christian mythological accounts. For instance, the Celts worshiped a goddess which was represented with a bear on her side or in front of her. The bear goddess called Artio, and the name has a lot of similarities with Arthur, who in turn is also a name connected with bears. This was a primitive deity, linked to the fertilizing force of the earth, in a time when gods had not yet been anthropomorphized and were still represented as animals.
There were certain early Cristian accounts that show the importance the bear had to the pagans, and as such, the devil often took the form of a bear to come and terrorized the monks. The king of animals was turned against those who admired it, by demonizing the poor animal. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the bear often has a negative symbology, and you can see that in the Old Testament.
When the missionaries began their process of evangelization through Europe, they encountered a variety of pagan deities, many of which were either associated with bears, or were bears themselves. To the Germanic and Celtic populations of Europe, the bear was the animal associated with royalty, so it isn’t a coincidence that the most famous legendary king, Arthur, was also associated with the bear. It’s interesting to see that the bear, well, the she-bear, was connected to the warrior goddess Brigid, of whom the Celtic kings were sons of, making them little bear cubs. So there was the necessity to christianise this goddess, and so Saint Brigid was born, and later, this pagan goddess, now christianised, was associated with a real abbess of Kildare named Brigid, who died more or less in the year of 525 of our era.
To the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, the bear was connected to the warrior spirit, personified by the god Thor. It appears that in certain Germanic groups, one of the imposed trials to the young warriors, was the solitary bear hunt. Although it hasn’t been proven yet if these initiation rites were real or just mythical. Anyway, what is real is that the strength and the ferocity of the bear was an inspiration to the Germanic and Scandinavian warriors.
Many ancient cities throughout Europe still have the representation of the bear in their coat-of-arms. The survival evidences of the bear being the king of animals before the church replaced the symbolic functions of the bear for the lion. The lion was an exotic animal, and by the time it replaced the bear, sometime in the year 1000, the lion didn’t belong to the European Fauna so this almost mythical creature during medieval times was easily adopted. But to this day some cities such as Bern in Switzerland and Berlin in Germany, to name a few, still have the bear in their coat-of-arms.
It’s not a coincidence that during the reign of Charlemagne a lot of bears were hunted almost till extinction, because of the cult the Germanic peoples had and the pagan gods associated with the animal, and of course taking down loads of sacred trees. We all know about the forest devastation held by Charlemagne and his nobles, but we don’t often hear about the bear-hunt.
To the church, during medieval times, the bear was the personification of evil, ferocity and chaos, because the creature lived in the dense, almost unreachable, forests. The forests were the dwelling places of the pagans (in truth the forests were the places the pagans considered to be sacred, once, but now it was their refuge from the horrible acts of forced cristianization). But the bear started to enter in the christian mythology in another way. It became the symbol of the divine dominating chaos, because the only ones who could contact with these terrible creatures and turn them into docile animals, were the hermits; those who would seek the most inhospitable places to live in solitude, for spiritual reasons. Only through their faith, and the connection with the divine and the power of god, could they do such a thing, turning a ferocious beast into a docile companion. Thus the bear became the symbol of the victory of the divine over chaos, and we can actually see this representation in the story of Saint Columbanus and his many encounters with bears, and befriending them.
The bear was also associated with the Devil, and a symbol of the many vices and sins condemned by the church. There were many accounts of bears being the evil creatures of chaos, to the point that they became the creatures that would kidnap young beautiful maidens and would rape them. And we can still see this in many folktales; the bear being the “bad guy” in the story. This actually might be the beginning of the creation of the story of “The Beauty and the Beast”, highly infantilized and softened by Disney, and thank the gods for that because no child would want to hear about the real account.
So, in conclusion, the fight of the church against the bear, was a symbolic, and in some cases a very real way to free territories from their pagan past and convert them to Christianity and order over chaos. Unfortunately, the bear had a very negative connotation during the middle-ages, but at the same time, the symbolism the bear had during pagan times, somehow prevailed till nowadays, and I’m sure all of us remember the childhood stories of the she-bear being a kind and caring mother, and it isn’t a coincidence that many children to this day still sleep with their teddy-bear.