The Sacred Paw – Shepard and Sanders

The Sacred Paw: The Bear in Nature, Myth, and Literature
Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders
Arkana, 1985
244 pages

I love this book. It’s currently out of print, but not too hard to find. As the title suggests, it covers the relationship between humans and bears, and it covers everything from natural history to fairy tales. And, in the same vein as Lopez’ Of Wolves and Men and Ryden’s God’s Dog, it traces our mythological relationship with bears from paleolithic times on.

The text opens with a thorough explanation of the evolution, distribution and habits of the eight species of bear on Earth today. From the enormous brown bear, to the small tropical sun bear, the diversity of bears is given center stage, and it’s remarkable just what amazing creatures they are. The authors do a great job of honoring the bear as s/he really is, in and of hirself. The text is thorough, but approachable.

However, my favorite part of the text is where the authors trace the Bear Mother and Bear Sons mythological motif from its possible advent in paleolithic caves, through hunter-gatherer societies and later agriculture, all the way up to modern day folk and fairy tales. They give a really good argument for the shifting of the emphasis of the myths from the Bear Mother to the adventures of her sons, who eventually become purely human heroes. The Underworld and Rebirth themes of the Bear Mother are slowly stripped form her until she is nothing but a memory. There’s also some really good material on rituals for the hunting of the bear from numerous cultures around the world. We’re shown both the similarities and individualities of the different rituals performed around the world.

Pretty much my only complaint is that the authors occasionally repeat themselves, stating a particular fact twice in the book, each time worded as if it were the first time. However, this is a minuscule complaint in light of the excellent quality otherwise.

This would be a superb companion to David Rockwell’s excellent study of bears in ritual and myth, Giving Voice to Bear. If Bear is your totem, or you otherwise have an interest in ursine mythology, this would be an excellent read for you. The same goes for anyone interested in tracing the roots of mythology to paleolithic times; co-author Paul Shepard has written a number of volumes on human-animal interaction in behavior and myth, and his expertise and solid research, paired with Barry Sanders’ skills, make this a solid reference.

Five pawprints out of five.

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2 Comments

  1. caelesti said,

    November 21, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Wow, that sounds really good. I often enjoy books that go in depth on a specific area of myth/folklore or religion such as a particular deity, character, “archetype” etc. I haven’t explored totemism much, but bears do seem to “click” with me.

  2. lupabitch said,

    November 21, 2007 at 10:22 am

    I’d say give it a shot–it’s not as focused on the rituals as Rockwell’s book is, but if mythology is your thing, I think you’ll enjoy this. Shepard in particular is known for this sort of unique look at nature; I intend to get more of his works.


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