The magic of beginnings
Embracing the bear

Following the bear

Ice Bear by Jackie Morris

While writing yesterday's post, which touched on the value of retreat and hibernation, I was reminded of something Terry Tempest Williams once said about the symbology of bears, and I searched through her interviews (published in A Voice in the Wilderness) until I found the right passage. For Williams, the bear embodies "opposing views, that we can be both fierce and compassionate at once. The bear is above ground in spring and summer and below ground, hibernating, in fall and winter -- and she emerges with young by her side. I think that's a wonderful model for us, particularly as women. And it's one I've tried to adopt." 

She goes on to explain that she divides her years into halves. From April Fool's Day to The Day of the Dead (November 1st), she lives a public life as a writer and activist, doing any traveling or public speaking or teaching during these months. From The Day of the Dead until April Fool's Day, however, she stays at home -- to spend time with her family; to write; to live within the rhythms of her creativity. The bear, she suggests, "offers us a model of how one lives with that paradox, of public and private life, of a creative life as well as a life of obligation."

Pink Moon by Jackie Morris

Williams also addresses this theme in An Unspoken Hunger, pointing out that the she-bear has two sides her nature: both fierce and maternal, wild and nurturing. In mythic terms, this oppositional duality held in instinctive balance is the point.

"If we choose to follow the bear," she writes, "we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretake of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create."

Hibernation by Susan Seddon BouletIn Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés notes the age-old connection of women and bears in the mythic traditions of many different lands. "To the ancients," she writes, "bears symbolized resurrection. The creature goes to sleep for a long time, its heartbeat decreases to almost nothing. The male often impregnates the female right before hibernation, but miraculously, egg and sperm do not unite right away. They float separately in her uterine broth until much later. Near the end of hibernation, the egg and sperm unite and cell division begins, so that the cubs will be born in the spring when the mother is awakening, just in time to care for and teach her new offspring. Not only by reason of awakening from hibernation as though from death, but much more so because the she-bear awakens with new young, this creature is a profound metaphor for our lives, for return and increase coming from something that seemed deadened.

Bear Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet"The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, 'digging out' the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The cresent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.

"In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one's life, especially one's feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one's energy for the next cycle. The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one's emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one's territory, make one's boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same."

Bears by Gene Tobey

Though Williams and Estés are focused on women and women's issues in the passages above, the oppositional nature of bear symbology is useful to all artists, men and women alike, who struggle to balance their public and private selves, and the often-conflicting demands of family life, community engagement, and creative work. To be available to others, while protecting time to be available only to ourselves and our this not the dilemma that all creative artists (if we're not complete monsters of self-importance or self-effacement) face again and again?

Commenting on my New Year's Wish in Tuesday's post, Christina Bryant wrote: "I welcome your inclusion of balance between creation and calm this new year. So much focus is put on the doing, I'm glad to see a wish for the restoration and introspection that is vital to the creation process." 

Christina is right. As a culture, we tend to prize action, accomplishment, and public expression over stillness, retreat, and quiet reflection...whereas I know for myself that life works best when all of these things are in harmony. What I strive for is hózhǫ́   (as the Navajo express it): a balance between them. A state of sacred symmetry, beauty, and grace.

The White Bear King by Theodor Kittelsen

I've always loved sunshine and warmth (the hotter the better), so the winter months are a challenge for me...and for many years I avoided the cold altogether by wintering in the Arizona desert. But living full-time on Dartmoor now, I have learned to appreciate winter's stark gifts: it slows me down, turns my thoughts inward, keeps me closer to hearth and home, strengthening the introverted side of my nature, without which I couldn't write or paint. I am learning at last to follow the bear; to trust in the process of hibernation and gestation. I am learning patience. Slowness. Stillness.

All things have their season. And spring always comes.

Bear Cubs by Terri Windling

Brown Bear Mother and Cubs

Art above: The Ice Bear" and "Pink Moon" by Jackie Morris, "Hibernation" and "Bear Woman" by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), a row of bear sculptures by Gene Tobey (1945-2006),  "The White Bear King" by Theodor Kittlesen (1857-1914), and some bear cubs from one of my sketchbooks. Photograph: a brown bear and her cubs.


Beautiful beautiful beautiful.

I needed to hear this as I struggle to get any writing done in my hibernation mode.

No poem from me, but there is Lui Collins' wonderful song poem Hobernation:


Brigid of the Celts is also a bear goddess from the deep of time. Once, the oracular groundhog who emerges on her day was also a waking bear. I've heard that the bear cult may be the oldest of all from the time of caves.

Ah, bears are wonderful indeed. The Inuit in Canada's arctic have great respect and reverance for the polar bear. I thought you might like to see these - dancing bear carvings.

Thank you for this inspiring post. Your writing, the links, and the visuals are perfect for this rainy day. I am going to curl up with a cup of tea, my knitting, and a well-loved read for the afternoon.

Winter had always been my favorite time to write. The world slows down and the coldness and darkness give me the opportunity to focus solely on my work. Winter is my favorite season, especially when I lived in Alaska. The northern lights, ice fog casting a glittering net over the world, the beauty of the snow on cold clear nights -- it offered a separation from the rest of the world that I embraced. I now live in Colorado, which has its own winter beauty. It makes me sad that the days are getting longer. It means I will have to make that transition back to the real world sooner than I would like.

Lovely, Terri! Thank you for writing this. At different times in my life I feel Bear more strongly than in others. For an entire year once, as I struggled with my health, I dreamed of Bear several times a week. Often the bear was after Mario, sometimes after me. Sometimes I was the bear: Once I looked down and saw my grizzly bear claws. Once a bear was rampaging all over my neighborhood. He crashed into my house where many of us were hiding, and I knew he'd kill us all. So I turned to him and offered myself to him if he'd leave everyone else alone. He accepted my bargain.

The dreams and nightmares continued until I wrote a novel about Bear and the human connection to Bear. (Her Frozen Wild.) In some human cultures, bears are viewed as ancestors. In Siberia, for instance, when they hunted bears, a group of men would stand outside the cave where they knew the bear to be and they'd cry, "Grandfather, come out! The sun is out. It is warm enough for you to come out!" If the bear didn't emerge, some of the younger men would go and roust the bear. As it burst out of the cave, the men would fall on it with their spears, crying, "Old One! Old One! We are sorry. We are not the ones who do this to you!”

For me, Bear is a reminder to fully embrace our wildness and our true selves. In Her Frozen Wild, my hera Ursula eventually finds the the ancient shapeshifting People, and one of them tells her to figure out who she is: "Who you are is the who you were before someone told you you were a good girl because you stood still or were quiet and didn’t speak your heart. Who you are is the who you were before someone told you to act like a lady which meant not to squirm, not to move, not to cry when you needed to mourn or sing when you were joyful. Who you are is the who you were before someone told you you weren’t tall enough, short enough, skinny or pretty enough. Before anyone told you you were not right.”

Bears remind me that I am "right" just the way I am. They're such bodily creatures, if you will. They sleep when they're tired, they rage when they're angry, they eat when they're hungry. We encountered one in the woods near where I live once, and s/he ran full out--away from us. Everything on her body jiggled as she ran, and I felt like I could see the "woman" underneath. Or the gold underneath, like in the fairy tale. If we embrace our wild--or be the wild-- if we embrace our bodies, our innate sensuality, we will find "gold" underneath, or within: We will discover our true selves.

Thank you for reminding me of all this this morning.

Thank you for using my bears here. Working on a new bear book, putting myself inside the bear's skin. New work, new learning.

It's a pleasure and an honor, Jackie. I hope any readers unfamiliar with your work with follow the link and discover the treasures you've created over the years. Good luck dreaming with the bears.

Thank you for the great gift of these evocative words, Kim.

I love them!!!

I didn't know that about Brigit. How wonderful.

Oh my, what a gorgeous song. Absolutely perfect for today.

Oh thank you so much for this wonderful collection of quotes and images of bears and also for the musings yesterday of seasonality. I am in transition and it seems to never end. Off balance and unrooted. Returning to exceptional cold weather reminds me that hibernating may be needed, but I feel compelled to keep pushing. I think it's time to ask myself why. The writing is on the wall, including these two blog posts that hold so many clues. Thank you!

Thank you for the wonderful words, information and images of bears. I also loved yesterday's post on seasonality. There are so many clues in both posts. Also so many of the comments are rich with ideas and beauty. This is a lovely community. I am in transition, off-balance and unrooted and my body wants to hibernate. Maybe I should listen instead of pushing. And maybe I can find some answers from the beautiful bears.

I'll print this post out and hang it up by my new desk, so I can remember to think and write about it. When I'm at my best, like TTW, I live in seasons. I just went back through old journals to remind myself that I usually don't write much between my birthday (the winter solstice) and mid-January - that I make my own little hibernation.

It's easy to forget the rhythms, living a life of office jobs and suburbs.

But also, in recent years, I've talked about depression in terms of "the bears have me" or "the bears are after me." There's a connection in there too, I think. For me, very often, depression is sparked by disconnectedness. Maybe I should welcome those bears and let them take me somewhere.

For a while in the mid-1990s I had a series of really powerful meditations with creatures (humanoid and not) who guided me. The first one was a bear. She was a huge black bear who roared up out of a moonlit birch grove. She was neither gentle nor peaceful, but she taught me a lot - as if she was defending a cub (me) against a threat (also me).

I haven't thought about her in years.

Thank you for this spark, Terri. I think it's something I needed.

Again a wonderful post Terri,realy enjoyed reading it. Hope your recent problems aresoon solved. love Angela

Moving here I moved smack into the most bear-populated area of the state. I love living amongst them and I have learned how bear-like I am in my nature. I love that T. T. Williams schedules her life the way she does. I do that as much as I am able, though I still must go to my teaching job even during my hibernation. Glad, though, that universities have long winter breaks, sad that mine will be over on Monday as the frigid temperatures of late have really slowed this bear-woman and prompted plrolonged dreaming.

Thank you for these wonderful comments, everyone.

And here's a quote I just stumbled across that relates to this topic:

"One reason that people have artist’s block is that they do not respect the law of dormancy in nature. Trees don’t produce fruit all year long, constantly. They have a point where they go dormant. And when you are in a dormant period creatively, if you can arrange your life to do the technical tasks that don’t take creativity, you are essentially preparing for the spring when it will all blossom again."

- Marshall Vandruff

(via Amanda Palmer via Neil Gaiman via Jonathan Carroll)

Excellent article, Terri. Should be required reading for anyone engaged in creative pursuits (and who isn't?).

I'm a newcomer to your blog and am quite impressed with your writing (and charmed by your artwork). Thank you for all your hard work on this site. It's quite rich.

Excellent post, Terri. It should be required reading for any one who is engaged in creative pursuits (and aren't we all on some level?).

I'm a newcomer to your blog and am quite impressed with your writing as well as charmed by your artwork. Thank you for all your hard work here.
(And I apologize if you get this twice. My first comment seemed to have been eaten by the internet.)

Welcome! And thank you for your very kind words.

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