Of all animals, the bear is probably the one that most clearly resembles human beings in appearance. Even apes can stand upright only slouched over and with considerable difficulty. The bear, however, can walk and even run on two legs almost as well as a human.
The fur of a bear resembles clothing. Like a person, a bear looks straight ahead, but the expressions of bears are not easy for us to read. Often the wide eyes of a bear suggest perplexity, making it appear that the bear is a human being whose form has mysteriously been altered. Bears, however, are generally far larger and stronger than people, so they could easily be taken for giants.
Perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of bears, however, is their ability to hibernate and then reemerge at the end of winter, which suggests death and resurrection. In part because bears give birth during hibernation, they have been associated with mothergoddesses. The descent into caverns suggests an intimacy with the earth and with vegetation, and bears are reputed to have special knowledge of herbs.
At Drachenloch, in a cave high in the Swiss Alps, skulls of the cave bear have been found that face the entrance in what appears to be a very deliberate arrangement. Some anthropologists believe this is a shrine consecrated to the bear by Neanderthals, which would make it the earliest known place of worship. Others dispute the claim; true or not, the very idea is testimony to the enormous power that the figure of the bear has over the human imagination.
A cult of the bear is widespread, almost universal, among peoples of the Far North, where the bear is both the most powerful predator and the most important food animal. Perhaps the principal example of this cult today is that followed by the Ainu, the earliest inhabitants of Japan. They traditionally adopt a young bear, raise it as a pet, and then ceremoniously sacrifice the animal. Before stories of the lion were imported, the bear was regarded throughout northern Europe as the king of beasts. Eskimo legends tell of humans learning to hunt from the polar bear. For the Inuit of Labrador, the polar bear is a form of the Great Spirit, Tuurngasuk.
Countless myths and legends record a sort of intimacy between human beings and bears. The Koreans, for example, traditionally believe that they are descended from a bear. The tiger and the female bear had watched humans from a distance, and they became curious.
As they talked together on a mountainside one day, both decided that they would like to become human. An oracle instructed them that they must first eat twenty-one cloves of garlic, then remain in a cave for one month. They both did as instructed, but after a while the tiger became restless and left the cave. The mother bear remained, and at the end of a month she emerged as a beautiful woman. The son of Heaven, Han Woon, fell in love with her and had a child with her, Tan Koon, who is the ancestor of the Koreans.