Bear meaning and symbolism include strength, courage and protection, nobility, patience, playfulness, and other admirable traits. Native to every continent on Earth except Africa, Australia, and Antarctica, bears have fascinated people for as long as they’ve been here. In fact, bears have been the subjects of stories and mythology of people around the world for thousands of years. Furthermore, the bear spirit animal is an important totem to many people because of their many awe-inspiring powers. In this post, you’ll learn about bear symbolism, bear spiritual meanings, the bear in cultural mythology and folklore, and more.
What does a bear symbolize?
Here are some commonly shared meanings that are associated with bears:
Detailed Bear Symbols and Meanings
Bears exemplify what it means to be strong and powerful. In addition to being strong, bears can be quite fast, despite their large size. Some species, including black and brown bears, can reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. While this is not as fast as wolves, who can run up to 40 miles per hour, it’s still quite fast considering the bear’s size.
However, bears were not necessarily built for speed, says biologist Blaire Van Valkenburgh.1 Rather, they are built for strength and mobility. Bears can move quickly and their limbs can emit incredible force, far more than the longer limbs of lions and wolves.
Bears use the combination of their strength and dexterity to forage for food, climb trees, dig their dens, and hunt and fish. In addition, they can use their powerful limbs to defend themselves. Bears rely on their brute force and intelligence to survive in the wild.
You are stronger than you realize.
The bear spirit animal reminds you to find your inner reserves of strength and power. You may not always realize you have it, but you do!
The bear spirit animals also teaches you that there are times when diplomacy and compromise may no longer work. Sometimes you need to exert the almighty power of your free will to charge though and get things done. In addition, the bear may be here to remind you to claim your power, to not acquiesce, to establish your mighty I-am-here presence.
Use your powerful gifts as a force for good in the world.
The bear also reminds you that strength can be used in a variety of ways. Are you using all of your strengths and gifts to be a force for good in the world, or are you using your energy in anger to aggressively get your way?
The bear power animal teaches you to “act as if.” Even if you are fearful or nervous inside, act as if you are mighty and you will be mighty. If you are terrified, act as if you are brave and you will be brave. If you feel small and insignificant, remind yourself that you are here to do good work and fulfill your soul’s purpose here on Earth – and this purpose is far larger than you imagine it to be.
Stand tall and stand up for others.
While bears generally get around on all fours, they can easily stand on two legs just as people can. And suddenly they huge and even more imposing. The bear spirit guide tells you to stand tall, even when you feel small. You have the capacity to stand tall, to be authoritative and all-powerful, even if the world is used to seeing you crawl. No matter how down and defeated you may feel, the bear power animal tells you to rise up.
Protection and Courage
We’ve all heard of the mama bear or papa bear archetype. These terms come from how extremely protective bears can be. A mother bear will go to any length to protect her cubs. And a male bear will fight to the death to protect that which is his. Courage and protectiveness is in their DNA.
Protect those and all that you hold dear.
The bear spirit animal reminds you to exert extreme protectiveness of those you love and that which you hold dear. Those you love may be your family members, close friends, or even a group of people who are suffering under abuse of power. The bear also reminds you to protect your convictions, your ideals, and your vision for the future. The bear spirit animal is the quintessential protector and guardian.
Protect your personal space.
Contrary to popular belief, bears are not actually territorial in the way that wolves or primates are. While families of wolves and primates will have a geographical territory that they consider their own, bears are known to share home ranges with other bears, even those who are not in their family and with whom they compete for food. At the same time, bears are extremely protective of their close personal space. They don’t like being crowded.
Different species of bears have a different sense of critical space. Black bears, for example, are more tolerant of people and being in proximity with other black bears. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, prefer to stay further away from people. They are more likely to defend themselves when threatened, while a black bear is more likely to retreat.
This video from Yosemite National Park shows how closely black bears are willing to be in proximity to people:
The bear spirit animal reminds you that it’s ok to share and be friendly – up to a point. However, if someone gets too close to you in a way that is uncomfortable or threatening, you can issue a warning. If that warning is not heeded, then you have every right to let out your inner grizzly and protect yourself, those you love, and that which you hold dear – without mercy.
Remember that spontaneity is fun.
Bears do not like surprises. They are known to be extremely focused when they are pursuing things, such as finding food, to the point that they can be oblivious to their surroundings. Therefore, it’s fairly easy to sneak up on a bear without intending to, which can make them very grumpy.
The bear spirit animal may be asking you if you’re being too surly. Is someone in your life trying to be fun and spontaneous, but you’re being grumpy about it and dampening their spirit? There are times the bear spirit may be there to remind you to lighten up a little and “don’t be such a bear.”
It’s not by happenstance that the bear is used to describe an attitude that the stock market or a particular stock is going to go down. If you’re bearish, you’re bracing yourself for a downturn vs. being bullish, which means you’re charging in, ready to buy. Seeing a bear in real life, the media, or elsewhere can be a sign to you cover your bases or get ready to protect your assets.
Bear Symbolism: Patience
Bears spend most of their waking hours looking for food. While grizzly bears and polar bears are capable of taking down large prey, such as elk or caribou, more often they hunt smaller animals, such as rodents or salmon.
As apex predators, bears are extremely patient hunters. A polar bear can swim for days in pursuit of food or wait patiently for hours by an ice hole until a seal pops his head up to get a breath of air.2
This video from BBC Earth shows how grizzly bear patiently await salmon that are swimming upstream to spawn.
Patience and tenacity win the day.
The bear spirit animal reminds you that no matter how much you want to achieve a goal, often it’s patience and tenacity that will get you what you want. Furthermore, you must hone your skills, which requires time and practice.
Trying New Things
While bears are known as the largest carnivores on land, they are actually omnivores. In the case of the giant panda, physiologically they are carnivores and they are known to eat small rodents or carrion. However, 99 percent of their diet is plants, and mainly bamboo.3
Brown and black bears are known to eat grasses, fungi, roots, herbs, berries, and nuts. They will also eat insects and carrion. Essentially, bears are opportunistic eaters.
The bear spirit animal has something to teach us about eating. Pandas have evolved over millions of years from being meat eaters to being nearly 100 percent vegan. Like gorillas and elephants, they prove that you don’t have to eat meat to be big, healthy, and strong.
Always be hungry for new ideas and experiences.
Bear symbolism also reminds us to be open minded. It’s important to try new things and to seize opportunities when they come. Bears are both practical eaters and inquisitive gourmands.
If the bear power animal resonates with you, it could mean that it’s time for you to branch out, maybe try some new foods that will make you healthier and stronger, or simply to get out of your comfort zone in other areas of your life. The bear spirit guide may also be telling you that if you’re eating too much, like the panda did, it may be time to include more plants into your diet!
Playfulness and Curiosity
Like canines, bears are highly intelligent and this intelligence manifests in an innate curiosity. Bears like to smell things, often standing on their hind legs to get more of a scent. In addition, they like to inspect new objects in their environment.
This video exemplifies just how curious and playful bears can be:
Even though bears can be very serious and sometimes aggressive animals, their nature is also to be curious and playful. If the bear spirit animal makes him or herself known to you, they may be reminding you that you possess an innate curiosity and a playful nature. Life isn’t just about work and putting bread on the table. Take time to explore the world and experience what’s going on beyond your immediate purview. Be fearless about trying new things.
As powerful and ferocious as they can be, let’s not forget that bears are cuddly too. How else could the Teddy bear become such a beloved and iconic comfort toy to so many, generation after generation?
In this video from Beastly, you can see how affectionate Kodiak bears can be.
Male Kodiaks can get up to 1,400 pounds and stand nearly 10 feet tall on their hind legs. Nevertheless, they still enjoy a good chin rub.
Bear meaning can also be a reminder to you to be affectionate, cuddly, and gentle. You don’t have to be tough and gruff all the time.
Taking Time Out
When you think of animals that hibernate, bears are usually the first animal that comes to mind. However, bears actually go into a state called torpor in which they can easily be woken up. While in this state, they do wake up occasionally to forage for food before going back to sleep.4
If the bear is your spirit animal, you are a person who needs your deep sleep. You may even be grouchy if you’re woken before you’re ready. So, it’s important for you to protect your right to sleep.
Retreat, Rest, and Recharge
You may also be a person who needs time to go into retreat so you can recharge. It’s important for bear men and bear women to have their respective man caves and she sheds – sanctuaries where they can go to rest, reflect, and recharge. The bear spirit animal reminds you to not to let your energy get too drained. Find ways that you can get away from it all, protect yourself from interruptions, and explore your dreams in tranquility.
Bear Spirit Animal
Bears put energy into the physical world just as we do. If you have a special connection to bears, it’s worth understanding them better, as they will help you understand your own existence more deeply.
Animals are earthly manifestations of something greater in the Universe, just as we are. They can teach us and guide us. In addition, they can help us on our life path, along our soul’s journey. It’s just a matter of paying attention and trying to understand them better.
According to Native American traditions, you don’t choose your spirit animals. Rather, they choose you. If a bear makes himself or herself known to you, whether in real life or through art, the media, or elsewhere – pay attention. There are no coincidences.
Spiritual Meaning of the Bear
In many cultures, bears are spiritual beings. The bear spirit animal is a powerful force in the lives of those who are chosen by this special being. On a spiritual level, the bear represents the courage to evolve and the ability to be open-minded. In addition, the bear reminds us to trust our instincts and to be protective of our faith.
People love bears.
Bears outmatch us in size and strength and they can easily kill us. Yet, many of us adore bears and are drawn to them. Children love their Teddy bears and Pooh bears, and indeed “Pooh bear” is an often-used term of endearment. In addition, people name their dogs after bears, as in Kody, Oso, or simply, Bear. And bears have starred in many stories and legends throughout the ages, symbolizing a wide range of meanings to us.
Many of us have not had the opportunity to see a bear in the wild, or perhaps we have seen them in wildlife sanctuaries or even the zoo (which can be good or horrible, depending on the zoo.) Even so, we can still explore our deep connection to bears by getting to know them through the work of wildlife biologists, filmmakers, artists, and bear protection organizations who can help us to understand them better.
If you are a bear person, you probably already know it. In the Native American tradition, your spirit animals choose you through a vision quest, a life-changing experience, or a profound kinship that spans lifetimes. If you’re curious about other animals who might be your spirit animals, you can take UniGuide’s spirit animal test and read more about spirit animals in my overview post.
Bear Power Animal
As the name implies, a power animal can inspire you with their most dynamic traits. So, if you want to transform an area of your life, mediate on the attributes that the power animal represents. Summon the bear power animal when you:
- Feel you need to protect your boundaries better, whether they be intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, or even financial. Or if you feel that those you love need more protection,
- Have been feeling grumpy and pushing people away, but know you need to tap into your cuddly and loving nature again.
- Feel weak and need to summon strength and courage even though you don’t think you have it.
In Native American cultures, animal totems hold the protective powers of the animal they represent. Thus, the bear totem is a helpful symbol for manifesting more courage, strength, and protection in your life. In addition, the bear totem is a helpful symbol to remind yourself that are lovable, cuddly, and caring.
Bear Dream Meanings
Because dreams are so personal to the dreamer, I find it hard to apply specific metaphors every time a person dreams of a bear. However, I do share the belief held by many Native American tribes that bear dreams are messages from your super consciousness and that they are worth studying. For the Native Americans, dreaming of a bear was a message from your ancestors. I do believe that our spirit guides are standing by to help us. It’s just a matter of paying attention. They don’t want to get in the way of our free will, however, if we ask for their help, they are willing to do so.
What’s important is to consider when analyzing your bear dream is the emotions you felt in the dream, whether it was fear, anger, anxiety, etc. For instance, bears can be frightening to some people while cuddly and protective to others. Your feelings will help you to understand the nature of a matter that you need to address when in your wakeful, conscious state.
Bear Mythology and Folklore
There are eight species of bears in the world, and they are native to every continent on Earth except Africa, Australia, and Antarctica. (While a species of brown bear called the Atlas bear was once in Africa and is now extinct, they were likely brought to Africa by the Spanish or Romans.)5
The town of Bern, Switzerland, the state of California, and Russia have proudly chosen the bear as the symbol for their geographical homes. In addition, bear signs appeared in the symbolism and folklore of ancient cultures. Here are some of those stories:
Bear Meaning in Greek and Roman Mythology
The constellations Big Bear and Little Bear, also known as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, are the inspiration behind the Greek myth about Callisto, of which, there is also a Roman equivalent.6
In the story, Callisto is a nymph and the daughter of King Lycaon. She is also a companion to the hunter goddess Artemis. As was the way of the nymphs, Callisto had vowed to always remain a virgin.7
However, lusty Zeus saw Callisto and decided that he had to have her. Thus, he transformed himself into Artemis to trick Callisto into falling into his embrace. As things go, soon after Callisto found herself pregnant. Enraged by the indecency, Artemis kicked Callisto out of her group of nymphs.
Later, Callisto gave birth to a son named Arcas. This was when Hera, Zeus’ wife stepped in. Enraged by her husband’s infidelity, as so often happens, instead of inflicting her revenge on her cheating spouse, Hera blamed Callisto, and thus turned her into a bear.
Sixteen years later, now a teenager and a hunter, Arcas happened upon a bear in the forest and was about to kill her, not knowing his target was his own mother. Sensing the catastrophe, Zeus decided to right his wrongs, so, he turned Callisto and Arcas into the constellations Big Bear and Little Bear.
Bear Symbolism in Celtic and Anglo Saxon Folklore
Bears appear in a number of ancient Celtic and Anglo Saxon stories. For example, the Celtic goddess Artio was known as a bear goddess. For the Celts, Artio was the goddess of wildlife, transformation, and abundance.8 Artio is sometimes depicted as a bear or as a goddess with a bear, as she is in the statue pictured above. The statue was discovered in Bern, Switzerland in 1832 and is now in the Historical Museum of Bern.
Great Kings Descended from Bears
Folklore experts also speculate that King Arthur’s name was inspired by the Romano-Celtic god Mercurius Artaius, who was possibly a bear god.9 Bears were considered the kings of all animals; thus many great kings were thought to be descended from bears.
The Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf may have also been named after a bear. His name is sometimes translated to “bee wolf” – meaning a bear that attacks bees to get their honey.10
Furthermore, Beowulf was the inspiration for the character in The Hobbit named Beorn who shapeshifts into a bear.
Bear Meaning in Nordic Mythology
The term “berserk” was inspired by none other than bears. In the ancient Norse language, berserkers were warriors who went into battle wearing bear skins, or “bear coats,” and fought in a trance-like fury.11
The god Thor is also associated with a bear, and his mother was considered to be the mother of Earth. Bears are often depicted as protectors in Norse folklore – symbolizing females who are calm and strong, but if pushed, will become extremely aggressive.
As in Celtic and Anglo Saxon folklore, in Nordic stories, the legendary king of Denmark, Knuut II the Great, was said to have descended from a bear.12
Sami Bear Rituals
While the ancient Sami revered the bear, they would still hunt, kill, and eat bears, as well as wear the bear’s head and fur in ceremonies. The Sami had a complex ritual around killing bears, which they believed would help to appease the bear’s spirit after he or she was killed.13
Bear Meaning and Symbolism in Finnish Culture
In Finland, bears were and still are revered. The ancients Finns believed that bears would reincarnate through women. For this reason, women were warned to stay away from the body of a dead bear.14
In Finnish mythology, the great bear named Otso was nursed by a woodlands goddess in a cradle that was swung by bands of gold between the branches of budding fir trees. Otso was not supposed to ever use his teeth and claws, but as things go, he ended up using them. Thus, this gave the ancient Finns an excuse to hunt bears.
The Honey Eater
Winnie the Pooh is clearly not the only bear who was obsessed with honey. The Finns had many nicknames for Otso, including The Honey Eater, Honey Paw of the Mountains, and other affectionate names like The Forest Apple, The Fur Robed Friend, and The Pride of the Thicket.15
Bears in Slavic Culture and Folklore
The ancient Slavs worshipped bears. They associated bears with the god Volos, who was the patron of domesticated animals. However, like the Sami, the Slavs had a complex relationship with bears – both revering them and killing and eating them.16
The Nivkh and Bears
The Nivkh people, also called the Gilyak, are an Indigenous ethnic group that live in eastern Russia and Sakhalin Island, which is off the coast of Russia, north of Japan.
The Nivkh would capture bear cubs and raise them as they would a human child.17
However, after a few years, they would prepare an elaborate ceremony that involved dressing the bear in a fancy costume and then killing the bear and eating. The ceremony was overseen by a shaman. The Nivkh believed the ceremony would calm the bear’s spirit, which would return to the god of the mountains.
The Legend of St. Seraphim
The legend of St. Seraphim is about an ordained hieromonk who lived in the late 1700s. The monk withdrew to a forest hermitage outside of Sarov, Russia in order to pray and be more in tune with nature. The ascetic monk soon attracted wild animals, including bears, wolves, rabbits, foxes, and birds, who would peacefully visit him at his hut.18
During one such visit, Matrona Plescheeva, an eldress at the Diveevo Monastery, witnessed St. Seraphim feeding a wild bear by hand. As he fed the bear, Matrona Plescheeva described the monk’s face as being “joyous and bright, as that of an angel.”
Bear Symbolism in Asia
In ancient China, when Xuanyuan Huangdi, also referred to as the Yellow Emperor, ruled the country starting in 2697 B.C., he built his capital in Xinzheng. Apparently there were many bears in the area at the time. In fact, Xuanyuan Huangdi had bears in his palace, and was thus nicknamed “You Xiongshi” or “Bear Emperor.”19
The Story of Shan Hai Ching
Like the Sami and the Nivkh, the ancient Chinese saw bears as being connected to the divine. In the myth Shan Hai Ching (Classic of Mountains and Seas), which dates back to the 4th century B.C., there was a mountain called Bear Mountain that had many caves.
Bears lived in these caves and it was believed that gods and spirits would play with the bears there. In the summer, the doors of the caves would be open. Then, in the winter, they would close. However, if the doors of the caves were opened in winter, it would mean impending doom.
During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9), bears were popular with people, as many discovered artifacts depicting bears attests. However, bears were also used as sources of entertainment, including in bloody battles with other animals.
Bear Meaning in Feng Shui
In Feng Shui, bear symbols are used to protect the home, particularly when placed near the main entrance. Bears symbolize masculine energy in Feng Shui.20
Bears in Chinese Medicine
A perverse aspect of how too many Chinese view bears even to this day is how bear parts are used in Chinese medicine to trick people into thinking that consuming bear organs will somehow make them more virile.21
This depraved way of thinking is along the lines of a hunter killing a wild animal, taking photos with the carcass, posting the photos on social media, and nailing the dead animal’s head or skin to a wall. In either case, the behavior only reveals how insecure and weak the person feels inside, and the activity does nothing to make them more physically vital.
Not the Answer to Male Virility
Men who are consuming bear bile, rhino horn, and other animal parts to feel more masculine must pay closer attention to real science. For example, men who are suffering from erectile dysfunction (ED) should know that in the vast majority of cases, the cause of ED is heart disease or clogged arteries, both of which are caused from eating animal products. Studies show that vegan men have less heart disease and ED.22
Furthermore, a study published in the British Journal of Cancer found that vegan men have 13 percent higher testosterone concentrations than men who eat meat, and 8 percent higher testosterone concentrations than vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs.23 In other words, if you want to truly be virile, don’t eat bears or other animals!
Bears to the Ainu of Japan
The Ainu, an Indigenous people who live in some of the islands off the coast of Japan, refer to bears as “kamuy,” which translates to “god.” The Ainu see other animals as gods, but bears are the kings of all gods.
The ancient Ainu believed that when gods visited the world of men, they took on the appearance of bears. Like the Sami and the Nivkh, the Ainu revered bears but also ate them.
In addition, like the Sami, the Ainu would capture bear cubs and raise them, even treating them with better care than their own human children. Yet, when captured bears reached the age of 2 to 3 years old, the Ainu would sacrifice and eat them.24
Bear Meaning in the Bible
In the Bible, bears are used as both positive and negative symbols. In II Kings 2: 23-24, a gang of youths are mocking one of God’s prophets, which is the equivalent to mocking the word of God. To teach the youths a lesson, God sends two she-bears to maul them. In this case, the bears are an extension of God’s will.25
In 1 Samuel 17:34, bears are treated in the same way that wolves are in some parts of the Bible: as symbols of evil or the devil because they threaten the flock, who represent the parishioners. While God and Jesus are symbolized by the shepherds who protect the flock.26
In other parts of the Bible, bears are seen as fierce protectors. In 2 Samuel 17:8, Hushai says, “You know your father and his men, that they are mighty men and they are fierce, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field. And your father is an expert in warfare, and will not spend the night with the people.”27
Bears in Native American Culture
As they held great respect for all living beings, Native Americans also revered bears.
While every Native American tribe has unique beliefs, in general bears are considered to be powerful medicine beings bestowed with special wisdom. Because bears continue to fight even after they are gravely wounded, the Native Americans believed they had special healing powers. Thus, some Native American tribes would include a bear’s claw in their medicine bundles, and warriors wore bear claw necklaces for power and strength.28
The Protector of the People
For the Miwok tribe, who lived in the areas that are now northern and central California, bears were considered the protectors of the people.
For the Inuit, bears are a powerful totem animal. The Inuit believe that if a hunter is killed and eaten by a bear, he or she will reincarnate as a shaman who carries the power of the bear spirit within them.
For the Pueblo Native Americans, bears are one of six directional guardians, which meant they were protectors and masters of the medicine for an important region. The Zunis, another tribe of the American southwest, carved stone bear fetishes for protection and good luck.
Many tribes hunted bears, ate their meat, and used their other parts for clothing and jewelry and in their ceremonies. Yet, most tribes shared taboos around when bears were hunted and killed. For example, it was verboten to kill a mother bear with cubs. Some tribes considered it disrespectful and even dangerous to insult bears or mention their names outside of ceremonial contexts.
The Bear Dance
The Ute Native Americans of Colorado have been celebrating bear dances for centuries. Spanish explorers recorded seeing them perform bear dances as far back as the 15th century. The bear dance is performed in spring, when bears come out of hibernation. It’s a celebration of life, much in the same way other cultures celebrate the arrival of spring.
Other tribes, including the Caddo, Lenape, and Iroquois, also have bear dances that generally celebrate the transition from winter, when bears are in hibernation and considered to be in communication with spirits, to spring when bears come back to the material world and the Earth awakens or is reborn.
The Native American clan system is organized around family groups based on the maternal line. The clans serve as a system of community organization, division of labor, and some historians surmise that they helped to keep gene pools healthy by preventing close relatives from marrying. Generally, clans have animals that are associated with them, and a number of Native American tribes have bear clans.
Tribes that have bear cleans include the Creek, whose bear clan is called Nokosalgi or Nokosvlke; the Chippewa, whose bear clan and totem are called Nooke; the Algonquian tribes, such as the Mi’kmaq and Menominee; the Huron and Iroquois tribes; the Plains tribes, including the Caddo and Osage; the Hopi, whose bear clan is called Honngyam or Hona-wungwa; the Navajo and Pueblo; and the northwestern coastal tribes including the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nisgaa-Gitksan, and Salishan.
Modern Bear Symbolism
While bears have held a variety of meanings to ancient cultures throughout history, it’s important to mention a bear symbol in our modern world.
Polar Bears and Climate Change
Sadly, polar bears have become a symbol around the world for climate change. As the Earth heats up because of human activities, polar bears are literally seeing their native habitat melt away. At the end of this post, there is information on how you can help keep these majestic beings.
A bear tattoo can be a positive symbol that tells the world that you are a courageous and protective person who goes by your own instincts. It can also demonstrate that you are lovable and cuddly with those you love. While tattoos are personal to each individual, understanding the historic animal symbolism applied to the bear, and well as the bear spirit animal, can hopefully imbue your tattoo with greater meaning.
It’s a sad fact in our modern world that the legendary symbol of courage and protection now needs our protection. If the bear spirit animal resonated with you, it may mean that you are here to help save bears. In fact, six of the eight species of bears in the world are threatened with extinction. If you care about bears, please do what you can to protect them. You can read more in my post about which bear species are endangered. It also lists organizations that are helping to protect these noble animals.
May the bear spirit guide and protect you.
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