I’ve always had an affinity for bears. I used to say that Winnie the Pooh was my totem animal, and I was 90% serious. I even named my son Barrett (“strength of a bear”), though in hindsight I wish I’d looked for a name that meant, “Calm as a Koala.” (Koalas are marsupials, not bears, but I’ve read they sleep up to 22 hours a day, so they’re pretty chill).
I know we’re supposedly all descended from primates, but I’ve often felt my true ancestor is the bear. I’m not alone in this: people from lands as far apart as the Menominee of Wisconsin, the Ainu of Japan and the Sami of the Arctic (Sweden, Norway, Finland and parts of Russia) have bear ancestor myths.
I don’t know whether the arktoi priestesses of Artemis actually dressed in bear skins, but I know that throughout time humans have, from the Norse berserkers to modern-day Romanians. Humans shapeshifting into bears is still part of our popular culture, including Disney’s 2003 film Brother Bear and Pixar’s 2012 film Brave.
My town has several hundred acres of Hopewell burial mounds. I’ve had an interest in the mounds ever since I first visited the Great Circle in 1997. I was immediately struck by the similarity to the mounds of the Daoine Sidhe — in fact, I was so taken by this that I started collecting information for a fantasy novel that I’ve considered writing for almost 16 years but never gotten around to.
One day in 2011, when I was once again pondering my nonexistent fantasy novel, I found out that the Ohio Historical Society actually sold replicas of a little figurine that was discovered at the Earthworks. It’s a shaman in a bear skin, deep in meditation. Looked at from the right, you can see human and bear faces; looked at from the left, you see entirely bear.
I immediately got one, though I’ll admit to not knowing what to do with it. Sit it on my desk for inspiration? Put it on the altar? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that Bear has been whispering to me for years, and if I pay attention, Bear has a lot to teach me.