Polar bears. The sea bear. King of the ice.
Weighing in at nearly a ton and standing more than 8 feet foot tall, they are formidable predators. Like all bears, they are technically omnivores but where the panda has chosen a mostly vegetarian diet, the polar bear eats predominately meat. Apparently they have the strongest jaw of all meat eating land mammals and is certainly the most carnivorous of the bear family. This has led to their reputation as man eaters although personally I don’t think humans will have enough fat to keep a polar bear full for long… Seals provide a much better meal, as do whale carcasses.
Their reputation probably comes about because of limited polar bear and human interaction. They aren’t familiar with us and when they do come into contact it’s likely either because we are in their habitat or because they are starving and have encroached into human habitat to find food. In the latter instance, eating humans is better than eating nothing. We must remember to see things within context, something that I find echoed in the hierophant tarot card more generally.
The hierophant is traditionally considered to be a religious card, one that talks of organised worship, structured rituals and the like. In some decks it shows a priest, a pope or some other religious (traditionally male) figure and thus can seem to depict a formal belief system which values conformity, tradition and institutions. But we have to consider this image as a product of its context, just as we consider the man eating polar bear as a product of its context. The image of the male preacher speaking to worshippers kneeling on the floor is one that comes from a different time. Nothing escapes the culture that surrounds its creation and thus the hierophant depicts a specific interpretation. You can take the ideas of the hierophant and instead see it as spiritual awakening, learning from mentors and seeking wisdom.
Back to the polar bear…
They aren’t actually territorial and would generally be cautious in confrontation, preferring to escape than fight. Just because you can fight, doesn’t mean it’s the best option. Brute force isn’t always the best approach, actually I think it rarely is. Are you facing a fight in your life at the moment? Do you need to fight? Is this worth the fight? Are you fighting for fightings sake? Would it be wiser to retreat?
Of course polar bears do need to attack at times otherwise they’d starve but they aren’t gratuitously violent, they kill when they need to eat. As stealth hunters, they rely on camouflage, on blending it and going unnoticed. To achieve this, the polar bear must have a deep, strong connection with the land he lives in. Despite their stealth, their hunt success varies incredibly throughout the year and the margin for error in hunting is incredibly slim. They rely on sea ice for hunting and climate change is reducing this habitat, meaning the iconic polar bear is increasingly vulnerable. At some times of the year their success can go down to 1 in 20 and this has huge implications for mums to be who need vast amounts of food to make it through pregnancy.
A fertile female emits a scent to attract males and this can be smelt for miles – scientists think perhaps chemical markers are left in pawprints. Because of the vast area polar bears cover, finding a mate isn’t easy and possibly because of this, females don’t actually ovulate until mating starts. Pregnant polar bears dig dens to give birth in, often returning to the area they were born in. She will rest here for four months before giving birth to tiny cubs and will stay another four months with her babies, relying on her huge fat reserves to survive.
Austerity and survival feel like important words here. They have to survive exceptionally difficult circumstances; low food supply, hard to catch prey and temperatures which can fall to -40 degrees. They have evolved to fill a small ecological niche and signs of this adaptation can be seen in their characteristics.
Take their fur for example, there is a short dense underfur next to the skin and a longer coarser outer layer. The latter is actually transparent and appears white because the hairs scatter sunlight and helps it to blend in. the fur also helps the polar bear to maintain a 37 degree body temperature despite the extreme climate. The outer hair also absorbs infrared radiation, meaning that body heat isn’t lost to the cold air. The polar bear teaches us to use everything we have, not to waste anything and in doing so we might make it through the tough times.
Another adaptation to the climate, is the polar bears paws which are great for walking on slippery ice. Moving from water to ice is made easier by sharp, curved hook like claws which dig into the ice.
In areas where human habitation coexists with polar bears, polar bears are often traditionally seen as symbolising abundance and gratitude, much in the same way that the buffalo did. Like the buffalo, a polar bear provides a lot of resources for local people such as the fur for clothes, the meat for food and the fat for fuel. Teeth were used as talismans and were thought to protect the wearer. After being killed, the bear was thanked and honoured and ceremonies were carried out to appease the spirit of the bear.
“Legend held that if a dead polar bear was treated properly by the hunter, it would share the good news with other bears so they would be eager to be killed by him. Bears would stay away from hunters who failed to pay respect.”
– Polar Bears International
As well as being important for resources, the polar bear has also been an important figure in folklore, spirituality and culture for people living alongside them. Cave paintings of polar bears dating back 1500 years have been found and it has been suggested that people developed igloos having been inspired by the dens the bears make.
In terms of folklore, there is a common trope where bears are human inside their homes and become bears again when going outside. Other tales show a respect for the polar bear and suggest a feeling of kinship with them. Perhaps some of this comes from polar bears standing on two feet, and perhaps some is because it’s said that when they walk on all fours, their back paws step where their front paws where, leaving tracks which look like they are walking on two feet.
In Inuit mythology, Nanuk was the master of the bears and could decide on the fate of hunter’s success. Another deity, Torngarsuk, could appear in bear form and was said to be very powerful. There doesn’t seem to be much online about Inuit mythology but shapeshifting seems to be a bit of a theme when it comes to the polar bear.
In the animal totem tarot book, polar bear is seen as a keeper of ancestral knowledge and faith is a key part of their interpretation of this card.
“The world in which I live is changing fast. It is no longer as safe and reliable as it once was. The signs of this unstoppable change are all around me. But despite this, I must have faith. I must trust that there is a larger plan that I cannot see. I must believe that I am playing the part I was created to play”
– Animal Totem Tarot
What do you have faith in? What could you have faith in? Do you have faith in yourself? In your world?
Polar bear week 2018 falls 4th November till 10th November