Bears Ancestors in the Pyrenees

“Lehenagoko eüskaldünek gizona hartzetik jiten zela sinhesten zizien.

Basques used to believe that humans descended from bears.” 

This interesting quotation sets the scene for a study of bear lore in the Basque areas of the Spanish and French Pyrenees. [1]

As late as the 18th century, hundreds of bears lived in the mountains of Europe, but by 1920 only about 200 were left, in the Pyrenean mountains. The last bear of this Pyrenean strain of brown bears was shot by a hunter in November 2004.  [2]


Female Brown Bear and Cubs

The bear is represented in the rich Carnival tradition of the Basque villages of Ituren and Zubieta, which are usually held around the end of January. In the carnival, a bear figure joins the  bell-carrying Joaldunak, and the author of the study suggests that even the style of motion and sounds made by the Joaldunak are reminiscent of a bear.


The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak in the Carnivals of Ituren & Zubieta.
Photo from Pyrenean Experience

The author of the study, Emeritus Professor Roslyn Frank of the University of Iowa, explains how she first came across the idea of the Bear Ancestor:

“When I first decided to do fieldwork in Euskal Herria it was evident to me that I would need to learn Euskara (Basque). Soon after I had gained enough proficiency in the language to carry on a basic conversation, a strange thing began to happen to me. People would take me aside and tell me the following in a low voice, as if they were sharing a very important yet almost secretive piece of knowledge: “We Basques used to believe we descended from bears.” The first time someone told me this, I had no idea what I should say in response. I found the statement totally amazing. Yet over and over again the same thing happened to me. People, who didn’t know each other, who had no contact with each other, ended up telling me the same thing.” [1, p.19]

She later came across similar comments documented in historical interviews of bear hunters. The hunters talked about how killing bears could bring bad luck, and protective prayers were needed. They also explained how bear paws were used as protective amulets (in common with Siberian and Native American bear hunters). At the beginning of the 20th Century, even badger paws were used in this fashion (the Basque name for a badger means ‘little bear’). They also talked about the disturbing way a bear looks like a human figure “once its fur coat is removed”.

The Bear as Shaman

Professor Frank comments that “outside Europe we also find that many hunting tribes thought of bears as the shamans of the animal world and believed the animals’ hairy skin, paws and long claws possessed therapeutic virtues. According to Yavapai myth, at the dawn of time the first great shaman was Bear. Coexisting with these mythic narratives was a universal belief among northern hunters that bears possessed powers analogous to those possessed by shamans. Many said that bears changed their form to become humans, other animals, or even inanimate objects.”

One characteristic of the bear which would have appeared special to early man was the bear’s ability to hibernate through winter, taking refuge in a cave where it could avoid the hardship of winter. This could have been seen as evidence of visiting the underworld, or a kind of death and resurrection, with the bears reappearing from the earth at winter’s end, when the carnivals now take place.

When Bears Ruled Men

Professor Frank quotes an article from the English journal Folk-Lore in 1891, which was based on an interview with a Basque couple exhibiting a bear in Biarritz. The interviewer writes:

“They told me that their bear, when they were not travelling about, lived with them in their hut in the mountains, and that they were always careful to treat him kindly and feed him well. For example, if they had not enough of fish (which they looked upon as a luxury) for themselves and the bear, the latter must be fed and satisfied first. They declared that the animal understands all that is said about him, and observes and comprehends any household work, trade or occupation which may be going on; “and that is the reason that a bear who has lived with men should never be allowed to return to the forest and mountains, for he will tell the other bears of what he has seen and learnt, and they, being very cunning, will come down into the valleys, and by means of their great strength, added to the knowledge they have thus gained, will be able to rule men as they did before!” [1, p. 30]

The Bear Son

Professor Frank goes on to discuss the legends of the bear son, Hamalau, whose father is a Great Bear while his mother is a human being. The word hamalau in Basque literally means fourteen, but is also used, curiously, to mean infinite, omnipotent or the best. She suggests that this may be because Hamalau was a pre-christian deity.

The bear son legend is widespread in Europe and Professor Frank suggests that this is due to its roots in an archaic European cosmology.  Furthermore, there is reason to suspect that in this cosmology, the Bear Ancestor, progenitor of humans, was linked symbolically to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation. An example of the bear son legend is the French Basque tales of Jean de l’Ours

Ultimately, the celebration of bear-ancestry seems to ally the human with the strong, mysterious and otherworldy bear through relationships of kinship, respect, death and resurrection:

“The Bear Festivals appear to be reenactments of real bear hunts that took place in times past: a ritual celebration of them. In other words they are performances that could be interpreted as portrayals of the hunting, death and resurrection of the earthly bear who, in turn, was seen as an ancestor. Earthly bears needed to be treated with great respect since the primordial bear (ancestor) was also seen as the “keeper of souls”. There is a Pyrenean belief that in the Fall of the year the bear gathers up the souls of all creatures of nature, and puts them in its belly (womb) where they are kept until Spring when they emerge once again. If properly treated, the bear releases the animal and plant souls so that its human offspring can live abundantly.” [1, p. 43]

Thanks to Byron Zeliotis for drawing my attention to this study.


[1] Shamanism in Europe? Three ritual healers: The Basque salutariyua, the French marcou and the Italian maramao. Roslyn M. Frank.

[2] Bear of the Pyrenees (French language)


This is a translation of one of the stories on the Sareoso Website, Euskaldunak.
The translation is also available as a Word document here.


In the country of the unformed, before there is time and space, before there is name and form, the three go through beginningless, endless change.  Nothing is stable, nothing has any relationship in their changing.  Mari arises and because she has arisen, Buruda comes.  She looks at him and says to him “Mirror, mirror.”  He looks at her and says to her “Mirror, mirror.”

She is the lady of persistence: He, the master of change.  She is the source of all: He, the centre around which all change arises, the master of necessity.  Some call him death, but they only see beginning and end here and there, small and large.

They are fed by the worms of chaos and they produce out of chaos two forms from which the worlds begin, the world which is and the world which might be.  The maker sits between as the sun sits between the stars.  It looks at the stars and says to them “Mirror, mirror!” and they look at him and say “Mirror, mirror.”  From the mirrors come other beginnings and the earth comes into being and they are made by the makers into the forms and the names having the time and the space of the maker.  The serpents of air, earth and water and that serpent which is all of them, the Heren-Suge.  He chews up the earth and excretes it and it comes into being.  The teeth of the Heren-Suge tear up the heavens and thunder and lightning come.  It chews up the oceans – storms and floods arise.  It grinds up the earth – volcanoes and earthquakes happen.  The daughters of Mari mate with the sons of Buruda and when they are with child they come to their mother and say “What is to do?”

“You will experience sorrow and joy.  You will know pleasure and pain.  You will feel empathy and sympathy.  You will know in your bones the feelings of others, their helplessness under their lives’ load and the strength that will enable them to hold to spirit even to the end.”

The Lamiak came into physical being, each carrying within it the spirit which had yearned for it but still it had no understanding of the physical, but the sons of Mari took the nail which their father had given them and hammered holes into body and tied spirit to them and the living beings arose, and when its body`s time had come they took their knives and cut the cord that bound spirit to body.  That which was body returned to the visible world and spirit returned to the invisible, bearing the marks of experience.  Some of the Lamiak stayed the same over many years.  Some of them changed and their forms began to reflect the experiences which had impressed them the most.  The Lamiak which had started simply as ghosts began to acquire hair and horn, teeth and tusks, feathers and fins, stingers and suckers, for when experience infected them they became more and more dedicated to their desires and when their cords were cut and they had no memory, only these desires remained in spirit form.

The Heren-Suge continued its task of grinding up the substance of the earth making finer and finer substance for the spirits to inhabit, and where it wandered the earth was cracked and the mountains and the valleys appeared.  The lamiak were attracted to these valleys, birth and death were strong there, change ruled and new shapes of matter came about .  Then came the time when the sons of Buruda began to challenge him and claim for themselves the powers of life and death.  They began to mould the substance of the earth to make it more attractive to spirit but as desire began to substitute for necessity so creatures grew bigger and the Lamiak came to desire size and rulership.  Mari said to Buruda “Keep your sons in order!”  He said to her  “That is the work for your daughters.”  So they both called their children before them saying to them “Do you want perfection?  Do you want anarchy?  Do you want dominion?  Which shall it be?”  And the children being of their parents after much arguments accepted their nature and began their tasks again. The sons accepted co-operation and competition and the daughters perpetuation and survival as their roles, and in order that they should be reminded they began amongst themselves to grow a creature that might become to them a challenge.

Along the cracks in the earth where birth and death were in turmoil they allowed the Heren-Suge to create combinations that would bring into existence three-brained beings having memory, experience and forecasting.  Recall feelings and desires motivated them. Necessity became to them just another spirit.  Power was to them only an idea which was a tool of their desire, but these creatures began to develop within themselves a possible fourth brain having its existence in the insubstantial world that is the field of Mari and Buruda, and in the unfolding of possibility this caused giants to appear in the world of the Lamiak and the four-brained beings began to appear upon the earth and they began to give form to the spirit world which they embodied without being aware of it.

The three-bodied beings began to concern themselves with death and afterwards right and wrong, and agreed rules amongst themselves as to what to do about them.  The earth at this time appeared like a ball of clay which dried in the sun, and along the cracks the likeness of man came to be, there were many beginnings before the nature of man settled itself into its present form.  In ancient day man was as he is today, a creature of habit, but in those times habit was the way he learned new things and he was very, very slow to change.  In one area it appeared as if ocean had taken a great bite out of the earth and on the shores of this land a tribe of the elder race had its existence.  For them life was comfortable.  The tribe had remained in its form for a long time and divided itself into those which were valuable to it and those which it found to be trouble to it.  The Nahas males were separated from the rest and were always given the dangerous and difficult tasks.  Amongst the females the Nahas aunties lived apart from the men, women and children.  Some became Sorginak, others experimented with plants, roots, insects, but the males left them alone and would not mate with them, they were not safe.  In common with the rest of the tribe they celebrated the great festivals but they had to make them apart.

There came a time when they heard from travelling men that a new tribe of people had arisen in the south and were spreading over the world, they were called Katagorri for they were very clever and fast.  The tribe took warning and posted sentinels to warn the people by lighting green fires, for smoke can be seen from a far distance, and indeed there came a day when smoke could be seen rising from the hills in all directions.  They brought the mothers and young children from outlying districts and the warriors encircled them and prepared to defend themselves, but the Katagorri did not fight, they found places to live and because they liked making and trading they became useful to the tribe, but they were much too changeable to be accepted as people so that they lived apart from the real people.  They did not celebrate the festivals but would mate at any time of the year and it was a further cause for separation.

This did not apply to the Nahas aunties, but it became evident that mating with the Katagorri was full of danger.  There were many still-births and deaths amongst the women who did, but this did not deter them overmuch for they liked the idea of danger.  In general these women, after very many generations, had settled into a stable community, a community with hunters, gatherers of roots and seeds, and had begun to become gardeners.  Their children possessed the cleverness of the Katagorri and the innate conservation of real people and over very many generations begun to take over the land of the Heren-suge.  They, like their ancestors, knew the Lamiak and the spirits of the land and allowed them room in their lives.  They defended the land against all invaders.  They took their strategy from the flow of water retreating to the hills and woods under pressure, then surging back when the pressure slackened.  Their males having been brought up by women had no fear of them, and took their place in this culture based upon what they could do, not upon whose son they were.  They were argumentative but not aggressive.  In due course they were surrounded by other arrivals but they remained separate because of their customs and their way of speaking.  They were fond of dance and singing and they liked to entertain each other by the telling of tales.  They were not afraid of witches and wizards and herbalism and far seeing because that is how they began. Whenever they travelled to new countries the stability of their culture served them in good stead, but the anarchic Katagorri thread of their origins enabled them to prosper in new situations.

©  A. S. Haizea 2000

Fibonacci Trees

Several of the Sareoso diagrams feature Fibonacci trees. One of these is the Zuhamua Aldi diagram shown below:


The diagram shows a tree or vine shape (the name of the diagram means “tree/vine of Aldi”, and the label ILAR means “pea”), so perhaps this is a pea plant.


Snow Pea Flowers (by Bmdavll via Wikipedia)

The shape shows the possibilities of branching by dividing into two at each stage, so that the shape could grow by doubling: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64. But these possibilities are not all realised – in this diagram, the unrealised possibilities are represented by little spiral tendrils (by which a vine takes hold of its supports).

This results in slower growth, according to the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. Growth according to the Fibonacci sequence is very common in nature, for example in spirals, branching and flower patterns. There is a good overview of the Fibonacci sequence and the way it appears in nature at Ron Knott’s Fibonacci Numbers and Nature page.

The way the structure is represented in the diagram isn’t random: it follows a simple rule. Each branching-point is represented by one of six two-letter codes or “doubles”. For example, at the base of the tree is found the double AT.

A double has the possibility of branching into two others, which have to start with the same letter as the first one finished with. For example, AT can be followed by TA or TE. Branchings which revert to the previous double are not allowed though. For example, there is no problem with AT-TA-TE, but AT-TA-AT is not allowed because it goes back to AT.

Out of all the branches, there are only three that ‘bear fruit’ in the diagram. These are branches which go through all the six doubles exactly once, without repetition.

The Sareoso diagram Erregaluak shows all three of the ‘vines’ from the Zuhamua diagrams together, radiating out from the centre. Instead of the double letters, shapes are used, with the outer shape equivalent to the first letter, and the inner shape equivalent to the second one. The diagram Zuhaitza Bizi gives a similar tree, but using three shapes instead of two (adding a middle shape). This shows similarity to the tree in Chapter 6 of the Book of Jubilee.


Feast of Santa Agueda

Today and tomorrow is the feast of Santa Agueda in the Basque country. This is my arrangement of the song for classical guitar.

Mandelbrot Set

The Sareoso diagram Ogi Almendra Orotasun looks like the Mandelbrot set, and in fact the name of the diagram Ogi Almendra is a bit of a word play, since it means Almond Bread, as does Mandel Brot.

The Mandelbrot Set is defined by very simple maths, but is endlessly complex. If you look at one part of it in detail, you see different shapes, similar but different, and the detail keeps on going forever. Who knows what we might find as we zoom in!

Here’s an example of some detail you can see (there are many other videos which look at different parts of the set, all looking different). It reminds me of a voyage through space!


What is the Mandelbrot Set?

Mathematics is used to determine if a point is in the Mandelbrot set or not. There is a particular simple calculation that is applied over and over again to the point. Points that are in the Mandlebrot set don’t move very far from the centre as this process goes on. Points that are not in the Mandlebrot set keep on moving further away as the calculation is repeated. (See the notes at the end for some more detail on the calculation).

In the Ogi Almendra Orotasun diagram, the dark blue area is the main part of the Mandlebrot set. The light blue surround and the other colours are points which are outside the Mandlebrot set – the colours show how quickly the points move away from the centre.


Ogi Almendra Orotasun

All the detail and complexity of the set is in the border.

Some Geometry

In the diagram, the two largest parts of the set are the heart-shaped cardioid area at the top, and below it the smaller circular area. It turns out that these have some interesting relationships. A cardioid can be drawn as the locus of a point on a circle as it rolls around another circle.

It turns out that the two circles that make the Mandelbrot cardioid are the same size as the circle below it, as illustrated below on a modified version of the diagram:



Notes: The Mandelbrot Set Calculation 

The calculation used to figure out if a point is in the Mandelbrot Set is simple:

  1. Start with the point you want to test as the value.
  2. Multiply the value by itself, and then add in the point again.
  3. Repeat step 2 with the new value.

In a one-dimensional example, I would test the point at 1.5 by working out:

Calculation 1: 1.5 x 1.5 + 1.5 = 3.75
Calculation 2: 3.75 x 3.75 + 1.5 = 15.5625
Calculation 3: 15.5625 x 15.5625 + 1.5 = 243.6914…

You can see that the value is rapidly getting bigger and bigger, so this point is not in the Mandelbrot set.

Testing the point at 0.1 gives:

Calculation 1: 0.1 x 0.1 + 0.1 = 0.11
Calculation 2: 0.11 x 0.11 + 0.1 = 0.1121
Calculation 3: 0.1121 x 0.1121 + 0.1 = 0.11256641

If I keep going for 40 more calculations I get 0.11270…, so you can see that the value is staying small, meaning it is in the Mandelbrot set.

In fact the borderline is at one quarter (0.25), which the dip of the cardioid in the picture!

The actual calculation uses two dimensions of course, so it is a little bit more complicated than the one-dimensional example, but only a bit – mathematicians use a scheme called complex numbers to work out the calculation.