Hunting the European Sky Bears

From Roslyn M. Frank’s Origins of ‘Western’ constellations:

More specifically the evidence reflects what appears to be a pre-Indo-European, Pan-European belief that humans descended from bears,a folk belief retained by the Basque people into the twentieth century (Frank 2008,2009). This belief appears to be linked, in turn, to a set of folktales, known collectively as the Bear’s Son which represent one of the most widespread motifs in European folklore. The narratives tell the story of the adventures of a hero, an imposing figure whose superhuman physical strength is often emphasized. He is half human, half bear, a sort of shaman apprentice whose mother is human, while his father is a bear. In other words, the hero is a kind of intermediary being, functioning in a certain sense like the figure of Christ but clearly bringing together and fusing two very different conceptual frames of personal identity (Frank in press). In addition to the narratives themselves, throughout Europe and most especially in the Franco-Cantabrian region (Frank 2008), we find village-wide performances in which a bear actor is symbolically hunted, killed, and resurrected. (Moreover, it should be noted that several of the hero’s animal helpers are also found taking part in European performances known as “Good Luck Visits” which incorporate a mini-drama where a bear actor is hunted, dies, and is resurrected (Frank 2008).) At times,the performances include a reenactment of the first chapter of the Bear’s Son Tale itself. Finally, there is evidence that the narratives and performances – which have survived to the present day – are modern-day versions of much earlier cultural practices and that earlier the storytelling might have had a stellar component: that in the process of recounting the tales, at some point, scenes and characters from the story came to be projected upon groups of stars and integrated into subsequent acts of storytelling. In this way the actions of the characters would have been writ large on the heavens above, on that huge canvas seen by all participants. There they would have functioned to impress the listeners and at the same time convey and reinforce the meanings encoded into the tales themselves. However, it is still unclear exactly which constellations might have played such a role. Keeping in mind the tenets of this older hunter-gatherer ursine cosmology, among the most likely candidates are the following:

• Ursa Major, specifically, the more visible seven stars of this constellation, eternally turning in the sky above, could have been a template upon which aspects of the tales were projected, whether as a bear hunt or as representing the celestial bear ancestor itself. Greek tales told about the origins of this constellation, for example, those related to Callisto and Artemis found in the Catasterismi, the oldest collection of Greek star myths, the Astronomica of Hygenius, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, could be viewed as modern overlays on this much older template (Frank in press; Krupp 1991, pp. 232–234).

• Boötes is viewed as a male figure that follows Ursa Major in the sky and has always been associated with it, as a hunter of the bear or a guardian of the bears.This conceptualization could suggest that it had its origins in a deeper cognitive layer more hunter-gatherer in nature, far older than the associations of Boötes with a herdsman of oxen, a driver of the wagon, or a ploughman with the plough,