By: Mike Elrod /
The bear is an incredible animal not just in reality, but in metaphor as well. It is used to describe multiple existences within the human realm. When we encounter the word “bear” we all have an immediate image that comes to mind.
For some it is the image of a protector:
For others, it is the image of aggression and fear:
Much of what we see in the metaphor of bears relates to gender. We see hyper-masculinity in bears. This hyperbole of metaphor centers on the individualism of male bears. When applied to male humans much of the metaphor is in reference to physical stature, musculature, and self-sufficiency. If a relationship is maintained by the human male that is represented by the bear it is most often a friendship.
The male human and male bear are also shown in proximity to one another. While the two are not always cast in the relationship status of friendship, they are cast as being one in the same. The man is the bear and the bear is the man. Always alone. Always foraging. Always dangerous.
There are some details of the feminine bear metaphor that stand in contrast to that of the masculine. This metaphor is the epitome of family grouping. The mother bears are always seen with their cubs. At a moment’s notice they are ready to fight and protect their cubs. Sarah Palin’s use of this metaphor, “The Mama Bears,” for political purposes wasn’t without its foundation in reality.
Mother bears are often seen protecting their young from predators, including male bears looking to breed. The feminine metaphor uses this ferocity along with the mother bear’s perceived tenderness towards the cubs to paint a picture of human motherhood.
A third instance of bear/human representation is when we use the bear to talk about innocence. Bears, usually Teddy Bears, are used to represent human childhood. Much like the masculine and feminine metaphors, the child/innocence metaphorical bear is simultaneously with the human child and is the child. They are the protectors of innocence and innocence itself.
At times, the bear is used to represent the growth from innocent childhood to adulthood as is the case with The Boy and the Beast. What is interesting here is that the bear in question is a self-taught martial artist and because of that fact has a difficult time teaching the boy. They are both alone and they are friends as is the case with the masculine bear metaphor. This hybrid of the child-masculine proves to have quite a bit to say about growing up without a parent and the bear metaphor is ripe for describing the transition.
Again, we see the child and bear being friends in The Jungle Book. Mowgli and Baloo are partners in relaxation and yet Baloo is also teaching him about a particular form of adulthood; namely that of lethargy. This is again a mixture of the innocent child and the adult male, but with a comical view of laziness.
Even within this partnership we see the ferocity of the bear being imparted to the young boy. Much like in The Boy and the Beast fighting is a symbol of growth from childhood to adulthood for the male. The goal is to be able to do as one pleases without a care in the world in Baloo’s message however. Ferocity is what allows this growth and ability to become one’s own person.
And it is this ferocity that always places the reality of the bear at odds with our seemingly inherent desire to befriend it. We often share images of the metaphorical bear as protector and teacher. And yet we are almost always aware of the ferocity that is turned on us should we approach a bear outside of a metaphor.
Much of the bear image is wrapped up in human gender and growth. While roles change for the metaphor the actions do not. Violence and fear are always something that the bear imparts on its adversaries in reality and metaphor. To assume this metaphor as a representation of humanity seems logical given the physical similarities between their species and ours. Much of the bear’s body can be manipulated to resemble a human. Their grunts, growls, and movements are often compared to other species as evidenced in my interviews. They are a spiritual symbol of humanity as well. According to The Sacred Paw the mother bear is often seen as a conqueror of the underworld due to her hibernation and subsequent giving birth in her den. She enters alone and emerges with a family. They are forces of nature and will win against any human who isn’t heavily armed. Their attacks are seen as a spiritual rebirth in stories such as The Revenant. They are the hell of our lives and the symbols of fortitude despite that hell. They are what we are and what we wish to be.
Further examples of bear/human hybridity and comparison:
I found the bear metaphor to be enlightening as it is an incredibly fluid symbol. Humanity uses the symbol of the bear for so many meanings and projections of ourselves that it is easy to get lost in the myriad of iterations. What I have touched on is only the most basic forms of the metaphor and I’m interested in continuing this research. Bear imagery finds its base in the physical appearance and actions of the real bear, but also in the spiritual interpretations of the actions as well. The bear as spirit warrior was a fascinating aspect of the imagery that I wasn’t able to explore as much as I would have liked. This is based on the disappearance of the female bear into underground caves and reappearing months later with her cubs. This was interpreted as a metaphor of conquering the underworld for some groups of people and added yet another layer to the feminine bear metaphor. One of my interviewees discussed the ability of the bear to make a choice between attacking and running also gave way to many more aspects of bear metaphors that I would like to explore. I am fascinated by the bear being separate from us and being us at the same time in this metaphorical language. We don’t seem to leave the metaphor behind in watching real bears either. The metaphor is always present when we encounter them. I have yet to find out why this is the case, but I want to look deeper and hopefully answer this question.
- Elrod, Mike. Interviews with Holly Hatton & Dr. Charlie Swor. 2016. April 2016. Electronic File.
- Lewis, Meriwether. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Westminster: Penguin Group, 1989. Print.
- Murray, John A., The Great Bear. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1992. Print.
- Peacock, Doug, and Andrea Peacock. The Essential Grizzly. Guliford: Lyons Press, 2006. Print.
- Schoonmaker, W.J. ,The World of the Grizzly Bear. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1968. Print.
- Shepard, Paul, and Barry Sanders and Gary Snyder. The Sacred Paw: The Bear in nature, Myth, and Literature. New York: Arkana Books, 1985. Print.
- Smith, Howard. In the Company of Wild Bears. Guliford: Lyons Press, 2006. Print.
- Tobias, Michael, and Kate Solisti, eds. Kinship with Animals. San Francisco: Council Oak Books, 2006. Print.