Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

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Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Berserker »

I was thinking about this a bit as I pondered the prevalence of werewolves over other types of were-animals.

Why has the wolf been demonized, while the bear has not? Why have werewolves appeared as monsters and harbingers of evil in our folklore, while werebears are absent? Bears have often been portrayed as benevolent, even to the point of worship. It's strange to me, considering...

Wolves and bears occupied almost identical spaces in both Europe and North America. It seems to me that bears would be far more menacing, given their larger size and demeanor, claws, and teeth that are more prominent than wolves'. Bear attacks are just as numerous as wolf attacks, and in modern times far more so. An average human is far more likely to encounter a bear in the wilderness than a wolf. The bear is also a relatively solitary animal, and would be more likely to fill the role of lone monster-in-the-woods. Their behavior is unpredictable and seemingly aggressive, and they don't have a history of companionship with humans as wolves (dogs) once did.

Perhaps it's due to competition of resources. Wolves have actively hunted human livestock, while bears seem to be less of a threat due to their scavenging nature. Perhaps historical records of killer wolves are more publicized than those of bears.

Thoughts?
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Vagrant »

I actually spoke with my Great Grandmother about this once, and she had an interesting take on it, why she thought that they were portrayed in such an evil manner.

The average Human tends to imprint based on facial features, more than any other, and this applies to animals as much as it does any other creature. Even before they manage to take in the size of a beast, they'll often consider the face instead.

After having seen many documentaries, I can say that unless a Bear is feeling aggressive, they look very passive and in the right light, they could facially be considered as similar to certain breeds of domestic Dog. This similarity and calmness has allowed the Bear to escape negative depiction.

This is due to how Humanity perceives things, and what we teach each generation is good and evil, children pick things up off their parents too in that regard, and they'll likely have a negative opinion of something too.

I have a few examples of this...

I know a lot of people who're terrified of spiders. Not I, not in the least. I'm a little afraid if it's the poisonous kind, but they can be dealt with easily enough. I dig house spiders though, and tarantulas, but most people freak out around them. If asked for a rational reason for it, they have none. They just dislike "creepy crawlies".

I've noticed people feel this way about a lot of insects simply because they look so alien compared to what we know, the more different something is, or the more alien and distinct the features, the more the average person will fear it.

So, people in my family fear creepy crawlies, and their kids do too. Those in my family who have kids and are able to get over such fears usually have more rational children, ones who aren't ready to see a bug as something that needs to be stomped because it's evil and icky.

Another example of this is my canine companion; a Samoyed. He has very Wolf-like expressions, and there's an old fashioned person in my family who doesn't like Wolves (crazy man that he is), and his kid is afraid of my Dog too, for no other reason than they can sense the fear in the parent. So that fear will be passed on to the child, and unless the child is forced to analyse their fears at some point in the future, they'll keep those fears.

Anyway, I'm going to continue my ramble and segue into a related concept. I was talking earlier about features; and Wolves have a very penetrating gaze, coomplete with slanted, amber eyes. That image lead to tales of huge shaggy demon hounds with glowing eyes in times past, I know of one such myth that originated in Wales (it irritates me no end). It's just because it's something that people aren't used to, it doesn't look Human or passive enough. Wolves look a little bit alien, and they look smart, on a subconscious level, that seems to affect people.

So all of these factors combined likely lead to the depictions we've seen of Wolves.

Over time, people have come to fight their irrational fears and they try to see things in a new light, this is usually thanks to documentaries and TV shows portraying creatures previously seen as evil in a very positive and vulnerable light. By knocking the message "It's not scary and it can't hurt you." into the heads of people pretty much repeatedly, the situation has improved over time. There are still some holdouts though who'll tell you that Wolves are evil.

Every youth that is forced to evaluate their fears and opinions though is likely going to lose these almost hereditary misconceptions, and as a slow, ongoing evolution we're collectively becoming more open-minded as a race, we're more and more accepting that things that look a bit, or very much, alien with each passing day.

This is seen in the media, as things that were previously portrayed as evil; sentient machines, Werewolves, Sasquatches, extraterrestrials, and so on are being shown now in a much more positive light. Just consider the likes of Terminator to Wall-E and you might see where I'm coming from with that. And again, it helps that Wall-E is shown as a very vulnerable creature, and one whom is incapable of really hurting anyone, that helps. The same is true of Johnny 5, Wall-E's older brother, but interesting Short Circuit was in more of a transitory period... the film did have evil robots, but not all of 'em were.

So I think we may be seeing less negative views of Wolves as time goes on, and it's all down to that. It's that people find it easy to see demons and devils in anything they don't expect. Even down to referring to software malfunctions as "the ghost in the machine", it's just Human nature. Or at least, it was. But perhaps that's wishful thinking.

I'm not sure if I've gotten much of a point across here, as to how I rationalise and understand this process, but I hope there's some wisdom here, and something of interest.

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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by lycanthropeful »

Berserker wrote:Perhaps it's due to competition of resources. Wolves have actively hunted human livestock, while bears seem to be less of a threat due to their scavenging nature. Perhaps historical records of killer wolves are more publicized than those of bears.
Hmm, great topic, Berserker!

I think what you said there is pretty true. When I think of a grizzly bear, I honestly don't think of bears just hunting down humans. Yes, if you aren't a smart camper, you may put yourself at risk of getting attacked, but when I think "bear," the image of a grizzly mom and her cubs catching salmon out of a river comes to mind before a grizzly mauling some stupid hikers does.

Bears and wolves each have their own "powers" which bring them reverence in Native American and other cultures, but like you mentioned, the connotation of a wolf is more deviant, I feel. Wolves, though pack-oriented, can turn rogue, I presume, which is why you hear stories in the news about wolves killing stray animals and such. They seem to be much more mobile. The only time I seem to hear stories about bears in the news is when they creep into suburban areas and start hanging out in your neighbor's tree or something. All they do is frighten young kids, haha.

Though maybe bears are looked at in a more docile manner because of their other roles in culture. Performing bears in circuses, bears in movies, etc. It's rare that wolves are portrayed as anything but ravaging pack animals who can hunt down humans - to me, they pose more of an immediate threat.
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Vagrant »

The pack aspect is another good angle, I hadn't considered that one, and I quite like it.

That many eyes in the night, being surrounded, and perhaps a howl breaking the silence. Even if they didn't attack, hundreds of years ago that would've given a traveller a bone-chilling tale to take home to their family and friends.

You also raised another interesting point, lycanth, but I'm not sure if that was me reading between the lines again or not, though. And it all came together with what I'd said in my mind...

Perhaps people are simply afraid of things they could become prey to. Humans are used to being at the top of the food chain, after all, and if something even looks like it could be a threat to that dominance, there's probably going to be a fear element there.

Some insects are poisonous, people fear even those that aren't, some snakes are poisonous, people tend to fear snakes that aren't, too. Wolves move in packs and they're mobile, that gives them hunting potential, even if behaviourally Wolves wouldn't act on that around a Human (at least not an adult), the potential is still there.

I like what you said about Bears and the circus, too. Humans imposing their dominance over Bears has likely lessened their impact, and the fear is perhaps replaced by arrogance or sympathy.

This is all very interesting indeed, and it says a lot about the Human psyche in general.

I have to thank Berserker for bringing this one up too, it's given me things to think about, and I do so like being thinky!

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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Kami »

Perhaps it could have something to do with the story of Lycaon in Greek mythology. He was turned into a wolf for eating human flesh. The story was one of the first concerning werewolves, and it may have started the trend.

Also, there are actually many other stories of shape-shifters ((like werewolves)) in Native American tales, and most of them involve animals other than the wolf.
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Vuldari »

I'm curious if Berserker (who started this thread) knows the origins of the word "Berserker".

It's actually quite relevant to this conversation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/berserker

A Berserker is a man who fights with the fury of a BEAR (which is reckless and bloody) ... the word is even derived from "Bear".
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

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Post by Midnight »

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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Vuldari »

Please Forgive the Occasional Outburst of my Inner Sage ... for he is Oblivious to Sarcasm, and not Easily Silenced.

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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by RedEye »

Vuldari, I suspect that's due to a relative size thing. Bears are a lot bigger than wolves, and a lot more frightening.
And remember: "Public Awareness" and Reality are rarely in agreement. I'd even keep my distance from fat tourists: they might be Bears in disguise! :lol:
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by vrikasatma »

When I was in taxidermy school, my teacher told us a story about how he was handcuffed by, not game wardens, but the city police.

The reason is that someone had seen bear paws and feet in his dumpster out back and thought they were human. Now, in taxidermy, the skin is removed and in the case of bears, you take the claws off with the skin, for the mount.

When a bear is skinned out, and the claws and head removed, it looks exactly like a human body. There's a sense of kinship there. Wolves, OTOH, look very un-human when they're skinned. They have an alien form that has much more in common with the rest of the quadruped animal kingdom. Bear is regarded as a human with fur.

The story turned out well; the lab ran DNA tests on the paws in the dumpster and concluded that they definitely weren't of human origin, so Phoenix's Finest let my teacher go to teach another day...and pass that wisdom along to his students.
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Leonca~ »

Hmm, that is something to think about. I agree that I’ve seen the bear paired up with the “noble warrior” or “protective mother” themes in the old stories more often than the wolf, which is more likely to have an element of evil to it. I have heard, much like vrikasatma mentioned, that people view bears as closer to human than most animals. They are one of the only creatures that can assume a bipedal stance and walk like us, though admittedly not very good or for very long. I think some element of it could also be religious. Wolves are demonized in the Bible frequently, which must have had an impact on how they were view by Europeans. Bears by contrast are probably mentioned only a few times.
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by SheAngel19 »

Yay i finally found something i an post in. I researched this for a while actually. I will tackle it by category so its easier to follow.

Bears: Bears do not affect people the same way as wolves because even in prehistory humans identified with them for their similarities. They both lived in caves, they were both omnivores, they shared habitats, and in some stories were the same people. Even in my culture there are stories about Bear being originally human. A man who stayed in the woods too long and at of the forest and shirked human ways who grew a heavy coat and forgot human speak, etc. When he came back to the village they did not recognize him and he could not communicate with him until his broher recognized him and could understand him. Some of the villagers, sold on the way of life he told them about followed him back to the wilderness and became bears themselves. I know the rest of it in detail but its a bit too long for this topic. 'Were-bears' are also as dominant in history as werewolves. They were worshiped in a sense because the same way any lesser being will worship something stronger and more powerful than they. It is the commonalities why humans fear them less and the fact that bears are fairly docile and in older times were reclusive from humans.


Wolves: Though there are very few accounts of this wolves had the same place of reverance and worship as the bear . Wolves have the same strong family structure, habitat, and game. Wlves however are purely carnivorous, blatantly tae food from humans but because it is easy meal and humans do not find the need to protect their food and territory the way wolves do. Up until the coming of christianity wolves were feared but also respected. Wolves are indescriminate. However they did fight for territory given the rapid reproduction of humans and the vast territory a strong pack needs for survival. Hatred of wolves came with christianity because the judeo christian faiths developed and were most popular with shepards and farmers. (Note where i am going with this.) And their biggest fear was wolves stealing sheep and other livestock because that was their livelyhood. So naturally evil things would be compared with something that makes their lives harder. Easy metaphors. Naturally humans being the way they are will take it in a more literal sense. Bada bing bada boom, wolves are evil. Really if you look back wolves were not considered evil until the old religions began dieing out because everyone began to no longer respect nature and those within it. Wolves in general around the world plummeted in population because it was believed they were vermin and the scum of the earth meant to be hunted into extinction. They almost suceeded too.


As for how this applies to shapeshifters. Wolves and Bears both held the same reverence though wolves were not documented as well. That is the only reason it seems like Bear holds a stronger place. If you know where to look and look hard enough you will find wolven documentation. Especially around Roman references that predate Constantine. (he brought christianity to Rome). For those who really want to get elbow deep in this i would suggest picking up a book called Supernatural: Meetings with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind by Graham Hancock. It has MASSIVE references to original shapeshifters and higherbeings in prehistory when man first drew on walls. It covers this thing heavily. But i warn you it is a beast of a book at 710 pages and $30.00. You better be a literary heavy weight before you pick up this one.(It gives me a headache if i read it for too long.)
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Re: Bears versus Wolves in history and mythology

Post by Bloodyredbaron »

Another way to look at it is wolves, at first glance, might be considered cowardly and skulking animals, attacking the weak and sick en masse is hardly the behavior of a noble creature. Because of this wolves might be viewed by the uneducated mind as untrustworthy, frightening, alien. The bear in contrast is a solitary and noble figure, he does not skulk and snarl, he rears up and roars his defiance, he is strong and brave, with no fear. He doesn't need to travel in a pack, also the fact that he is just as likly to eat berries from the forest as he is to eat animal flesh probably helps.
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