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)