© 2016 by Roslyn M. Frank. This is an open access essay distributed in accordance with the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt and build upon this work, for commercial use, provided the original work is properly cited. See: http://creativecommons.org/license/by/4.0
Published 2016. Cover image with permission from: https://paulhoweshepard.wordpress.com/.
Paul Shepard (’25 – ’96)
“A Message from the Others”
Rethinking our relationship with the Others is a theme that pervades Paul’s writings. And, it was a concern that held his attention to the very end of his life as “The Message from the Others”, a letter delivered by a bear, so aptly demonstrates.
A MESSAGE FROM THE OTHERS23 From The Others by Paul Shepard. Copyright © 1996 by Paul Shepard. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.
“They still do not realize that they need us, thinking that we are simply one more comfort or curiosity. We have not regained the central place in their thought or meaning at the heart of their ecology and philosophy. Too often we are merely physical reality, mindless passion and brutality, or abstract tropes and symbols.” —The Others
From: The Forest, The Sea, The Desert, The Prairie
Dear Primate P. Shepard and Interested Parties:
We nurtured the humans from a time before they were in the present form. When we first drew around them they were, like all animals, secure in a modest niche. Their evident peculiarities were clearly higher primate in their obsession, social status, and personal identity. In that respect they had grown smart, subtle, and devious, committed to a syndrome of tumultuous, a seasonal, erotic, hierarchic power.
Like their nearest kin, they had elevated a certain kind of attention to a remarkable acuity which made them caring, protective, mean, and nasty in the peculiar combination of squinched facial feature and general pettiness of monkeys.
In ancient savannas we slowly teased them out of their chauvinism. In our plumage we gave them aesthetics. In our courtships we tutored them in dance. In the gestures of antlered heads we showed them ceremony and the power of the mask. In our running hooves we revealed the secret of grain. As meat we courted them from within.
As foragers, their glance shifted a little from corms and rootlets, from the incessant bickering and scuffling of their inherited social introversion. They began looking at the horizon, where some of us were both danger and greater substance.
At first it was just a nudge—food stolen from the residue of lion kills, contended for with jackals and vultures, the search for hidden newborn gazelles, slow turtles, and eggs. We gradually became for them objects of thought, of remembering, telling, planning, and puzzling us out as the mystery of energy itself.
We tutored them from the outside. Dancing us, they began to see in us performances of their ideas and feelings. We became the concreteness of their own secret selves. We ate them and were eaten by them and so taught them the first metaphor of their frantic sociality: the outerness of themselves, and ourselves as their inwardness.
As a bequest of protein we broke the incessant round of herbivorous munching, giving them leisure. This made possible the lithe repose of apprentice predation and a new meaning for rumination, freeing them from the drudgery of browsing and the grip of relentless interpersonal strife. Bringing them into omnivorousness, we transformed them forever and they entered the game as a different player.
Not that they abandoned their appetite for greens and fruits, but enlarged it to seeds and meat, and to the risky landscapes of the mind. The savanna or tundra was essential to this tutorial, as a spaciousness open to infinite strategies of pursuit and escape, stretching the senses to their most distant reference. Their thought was invited to a new kind of executorship, incorporating remembrance and planning, to parallels between themselves and the Others and to words—our names—that enabled them to share images and ideas.
Having been committed in this way, first as food and then as the imagery of a great variety of events and processes, from signs in dreams to symbols in metaphysics, we have accompanied humans ever since. Having made them human, we continue to do so individually, and now serve more and more in therapeutic ways, holding their hands, so to speak, as they kill our wildness.
As slaves we stay close. As something to “pet” and to speak to, someone to be there and need them, to be their first lesson in otherness, we have shared their homes for ten thousand years. They have made that tie a bond. From the private home we have gone out to the wounded and lonely, to those yearning for unqualified devotion—to hospitals, hospices, homes for the aged, wards of the sick, the enclaves of the handicapped and retarded. We now elicit speech from the autistic and trust from those in prison.
All that is well enough, but it involves only our minimal, domesticated selves, not our wild and perfect forms. It smells of dependency.
They still do not realize that they need us, thinking that we are simply one more comfort or curiosity. We have not regained the central place in their thought or meaning at the heart of their ecology and philosophy. Too often we are merely physical reality, mindless passion and brutality, or abstract tropes and symbols.
Sometimes we have to be underhanded. We slip into their dreams, we hide in the language, disguised in allusion, we mask our philosophical role in “nature aesthetics,” we cavort to entertain. We wait inchildren’s books, in pretty pictures, as burlesques in cartoons, as toys, designs in the very wallpaper, as rudimentary companion or pets.
We are marginalized, trivialized. We have sunk to being objects, commodities, possessions. We remain meat and hides, but only as a due and not as sacred gifts. They have forgotten how to learn the future from us, to follow our example, to heal themselves with our tissues and organs, forgotten that just watching our wild selves can be healing. Once we were the bridges, exemplars of change, mediators with the future and the unseen.
Their own numbers leave little room for us, and in this is their great misunderstanding. They are wrong about our departure, thinking it to be a part of their progress instead of their emptying. When we have gone they will not know who they are.
Supposing themselves to be the purpose of it all, purpose will elude them. Their world will fade into an endless dusk with no whippoorwill to call the owl in the evening and no thrush to make a dawn.
Paul’s fascination with bears
Paul’s fascination with bears and his meditations on them as well as our conversations about the role of bears in times past in Europe eventually led me to conclude that the imprint of bears on European languages and culture is profound. Moreover, there is ample evidence at this stage that Europeans once believed they themselves descended from bears, a belief that is reflected in a myriad of ritual practices that have survived to the present day, albeit in a modified form, and which date back many millennia to a time before the arrival of agriculturalists.24 While this ursine genealogy unquestionably has its roots in a hunter- gatherer mentality, what is most remarkable is the resilience of the belief system itself, the way that it has managed to survive, often fragmented and not clearly perceived by the hundreds of performers who dress up each year as bears in villages all across Europe, performers whose existence is immortalized in the photographs taken by Charles Fréger and published in his best-selling book called Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage (2012).
In short, we now know that bear ceremonialism or the so-called “bear cult” associated with foragers dwelling in the northern extremes of Eurasia and North America also had its counterpart in Europe; that it originated there at a point in time when the climate was much cooler and when there were probably far more bears than humans moving from berry patch to berry patch and one salmon stream to the next. And that, as Paul has observed, it is highly likely that humans followed in the footsteps of bears, walking along paths laid down by generations of these remarkable creatures as they moved through the wilderness in search of sustenance; that humans were avid students who learned many of their lessons on survival from their bear ancestors.
Paul’s Unpublished Essay on the Bear
Paul Shepard (1995) [an unpublished manuscript]
What is popularly called “The Cult of the Bear” varies so much in its details around the northern hemisphere that only the broadest definitions are possible. The most noteworthy survey on a worldwide basis is now seventy years old, and therefore lacks the perspective and insights that recent scholarship makes possible. For example, that monograph—Irving Hallowell’s well-known, ethnographic paper—says nothing of the myths that inform the practices which he describes, the archaeological evidence of its earlier expressions, the correlative body of visual art, or the linguistic materials that might further illuminate the evidence, all of which are now more available than in Hallowell’s time.25
The two features which appear to be most central to this enormous cultural mosaic are ceremonies associated with the killing of the bear and stories of the intermarriage of bears and people. If their universality is a measure of antiquity, then it may imply that other aspects of respect, worship or reverence for the bear grew around them, like mother of pearl around the seed, becoming slightly different in the regions and continents of the northern world, influencing one another as people and ideas migrated. The history of these two principal features would be greatly aided by a geographic collation, aided by the various disciplines referred to above, which might indicate the area or time of origin of an Ur Bear Cult and associating the ethnography and cosmology of the bear more exactly with Paleolithic parietal art. If indeed the ceremony and the story represent the core of the cultural bear complex, and are continuous with late Pleistocene customs, then past climate and glaciation would be strong constraints on their birthplace and the migration of associated ideas.
With the wider publication of good field observation based on ethological principles, application of radio-tracking, and the use of immobilizing drugs which allow bears to be handled with relative ease, there is a much richer understanding of the biology of bears, which is the natural provenance for major features of bear myth and ceremonialism. The natural history of bears suggests that the cultural practices arose as metaphors based on observations of the bear itself.
The logic of these “metaphoric enactments” or rites and stories that personify bears depends on what might be called primal epistemology. It is evident that the bear material, while uniquely emphatic, is consistent with a larger attitude toward all animals. At its heart is the belief that the natural world is rich in signs which are significant to humans, models of exemplary events and keys to the meaning of a complex world, a distancing perspective and analogical way of thinking accompanying the evolution of human self-consciousness and the mental capacity to create a world view. Belief in the natural world as a system of cues and signs is characteristic today of many tribal peoples. It produces a structure of attention in which natural forms are observed not only for practical reasons but because they are perceived as intelligent and spiritual fellow beings. Such a cosmos is itself alive and watchful with a thousand eyes and ears, alert to what the humans do and say. On the one hand the world is a feast for the human mind, and at the same time consciously attends to the human uses of itself. Numerous authors have commented on how difficult it is for us humans, who are heirs of centuries of disbelief in the tutorial genius of the natural world, or who think of the animals as passive, mindless and insentient, to understand the acute sensibility of our hunting/gathering ancestors or recent peoples with a radically different metaphysics, who experience the world as a multifold, living presence.26
Nonetheless, it is possible that humans have long believed that the bear’s own experience is more like our own than is that of any other animal. This assumption is commonly held to have its genesis in the bear’s similarity to ourselves: its large size, head shape and eye position, bi-pedal stance, lack of a significant tail, nursing positions and manual dexterity. At least as important as the physical traits, however, is the bear’s characteristic demeanor, the deliberate movements of head and body which suggest to us a life of the mind, of memory and foresight, deliberation and purpose based on some kind of inner model of the world. This impression is strengthened by the closeness of the bear’s niche and ours: that of a large omnivore. Food habits dictate the pace and scope of its life, geared to the annual cycle of the weather, vegetation, migration of fishes or dispersal and numbers of other animal prey. Even in its daily patterns, its periodic foraging alternates with rest and play, and its social behaviours are suggestive in ways that we find reminiscent of our own lives. In effect, the bear’s likeness to humans in body-form, size, gestures, postures, intentional movements and personality reveal temperament and character by dint of which its ecology is linked, much as our own, to seasonal patterns and spatial distribution of resources. These similarities are the keys to its power as an exemplar. Such qualities seem to be contrapuntal to all those mammalian traits in which the bear is different from us. Thus, bears reflect ourselves in the strange mirror of likeness salted with a difference.27
Analogy invites the imagination in all of its forms—dreams, visions, ecstatic trances and the logical rumination of the sort described by Claude Levi-Strauss in speaking of tribal peoples as astute thinkers and logicians.28 Metonym, contact and contiguity—the presence of bears in daily life, the uses of its skin, fat, flesh, bones and organs bring it close. Closeness is also kinship. The metaphor of the bear’s interpenetration with human life is the poetic myth of genealogical descent. This is the context from which emerges the nearly universal bear mother story—that of the woman who, when the world was young, married a bear, a union from which “we” are descended.29 Human menses and motherhood are culturally articulated with this bear-ing. In the Haida carvings and other representations around the northern world of the bear mother, we see the melded image of the bear and the human form, a binary figure signifying a reverence for an ancestor whose family “we humans” married into at the beginning of the world, with the result that we and bears have important similarities and that the bearish part is a special wisdom.
The hibernation of this large, thoughtful omnivore, is, however, the ultimate exclamation point; it is that break and juncture in the temporal flow of life that epitomizes transformation. Bears entered dens as we now go into our own structures and tombs for sleep and rebirth. In their dens, some bears give birth, nurture the young and take them into the world as if their emergence in the Spring were a second emergence from the womb of Mother Earth, returning with them into the earth a second and again a third winter before separating from them, as though enacting a series of graded transitions and initiations.
The inconspicuous sexuality of bears and delayed implantation, resulting in the postponed gestation and development of the fertilized ovum, phenomenologically conflate to “virgin birth.” Entering the earth and a death-like state without an apparent mate, coming forth renewed, bringing newborn, may be the master paradigm upon which many human customs and rituals signify transition and permutation in the care of a maternal divinity. The ceremonies of health and renewal, war and peace, death and rebirth, inauguration, initiation, and the grades of elderhood often utilize an ursine object—a bear skin, tooth or paw—as a talisman. Outstanding among these are the funerary traditions of burial, beginning with Neanderthal peoples, who had long experience with both brown and cave bears (Ursus spelaeus).30 The burial of bear bones by people and the study of the objects placed in human graves may yet make it possible to ascertain whether the underground passage of the bear was taken as a guide to funerary formalities and the associated expectation of life after death.31
The bear’s comatose hiegera in the underworld is perhaps one of the most intellectually stimulating observations of the natural world made by human-kind. In death the bear is recusant. By a kind of subterranean self-immolation, making a passage in the “underworld”, this divinity redefines ends as new beginnings. And it remains only for the logic of the metaphoric imagination for the bear to appear in the heavens and therefore for it to occupy all three levels of the cosmos: earth, sky, and underworld.
Naturalistically speaking, the sidereal bear is the most improbable. As people as widely separated as the Ainu and the Lapps avow, the bear is the spirit of high places, of the mountain; it is also a tree climber with sacred connections to birches, alders and cedars, hence with possible connections to the symbol of the Tree of Life. Yet, we cannot assume that a “leap into the sky” follows merely from the bear’s likeness for hills and trees, as though a mythic celestial equivalent of the earthly world was self-evident. Something quite different is involved, in which the animated multitude of the zodiac, wheeling across the nightly sky in keeping with the singular power of Ursa Major, is a true reflection of the secret of life on earth. The motion of the stellar hemisphere, which to later, agricultural civilizations suggested grindstones and other wheels, turned by some invisible hand, may have been very differently interpreted by earlier peoples, as the heavenly, unitary spectacle of the dynamic process or energy system that animates life itself, of which in diurnal experience we see only fragments. The nightly chase across the sky, in which the bear is said by some peoples to be the prey and other the predator, constitutes in either case a kind of trophic metaphysics. The “animal combat” motif, so widely known from Siberian archaeology, may be an erroneous interpretation or a distortion of the food-web concept, in which our politically centralized, competitive cultures misconstrue predation as a symbol of struggles for power, while instead it actually stylizes the synergistic flow patterns of energy and life as food.32
Unlike the panther gnawing the elk, the bear is not only framed in a carnivorous context, and is therefore a more amiable guide to that which is perspicacious in the old metaphysics. Even so, it may also have been a vehicle of the anthropomorphism of the sacred. For example, the Vinca figures from sixth millennium B.C Romania, part bear and part woman, may depict a stage in the dissociation of human kinship with the bear on the advent of early humanism.33 In contrast to the bear-mother stories of Eurasian and American folklore, combining the figures of bear and human in celebration of unity with the animal, the binary figure of bear and woman in such Neolithic objects may represent a stage in the emergence of the humanized deities from animal form and the human control of animal powers.34 The decline of the bear as a holy animal and its replacement in folklore by heroic bear-sons may historically represent the ideology of the “defeat” of nature by humankind. In this sense, the widespread custom of speaking of the bear only in euphemisms may have referred not only to respect for it but the sense of being surrounded by the eyes and ears of visible and invisible beings, an attitude and resulting courtesy no longer practiced in our secular and materialistic vision of the world.
The “cult of the sacred bear” seems to be much larger than a local theriophany, indeed, to be a complex, multiform, ancient metaphysics. Its analysis requires information from many different disciplines, the study of the cosmic or sacred bear calling for a high degree of syncretic thought. There are at least four major themes which further, cooperative study might explicate. These are:
I. Spontaneously perceived as a half-human divinity, the bear is the forerunner of the anthropomorphic concept of deity. Early expressions of this are the therianthropic story of the woman who marries a bear and of the heroic ventures of her sons.
II. The universal trophonos (in the Greek myth of resurrection after death, Trophionios), in which the bear is the bearer of delectable, life-giving meats for humans, signifying all food as the substantial aspect of world energy; which turns the celestial vault and the seasons which it controls.
III. The bear is the archetype of the chthonic deity. The idea of life underground, a Netherworld, and its relationship to renewed life presumably arises in existential phenomenology. Of all the underworld denizens, from seeds to snakes, the bear is the model of the willing and conscious participant in palingenesis.
IV. The gatekeeper and passage-maker, as in Franco-Cantabrian Paleolithic cave art, the bear image seems to mark the entrances and the corridors between galleries.35 Transitions are its forte, including the connections between the lower worlds and the heavens, as well as magistrate of personal and social stages in human society.