Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Harbingers of Spring

P1070285In folklore, bears are the harbingers of Spring and last weekend, visiting friends in Berlin, I saw a good many of them. Like the painted elephants that appeared all over London in the summer of 2010, these were extremely colourful creatures. Unlike the London elephants, which disappeared at the end of the summer when they were auctioned off for charity, the Berlin bears are there to stay. The bear. after all, is one of the symbols of the city and they are among its new emanations.

Bear stories

Covered in slogans or embellished with pictures, upside down or arms raised in a wave, the Berlin bears kept reminding me of bear stories. One I recalled while walking around is a foundation myth of the Modoc Indians of California. A very touching story, it tells how the little daughter of the Great Spirit is peeping out of the mountain in which they live when a great wind catches at her hair and blows her out of the mountain. After sliding down the snowy side of the mountain, the little girl ends up being found and raised by a mother bear. When she is grown, she marries one of the mother bear’s sons. Their children become the Modoc people.

But alas, when stories are prompted, it’s not always a matter of remembering them fully.  One of the curses of the storyteller is sometimes being plagued by half-remembered things, flotsam from stories that, once encountered, are no longer there in your mind. Back in London, I’ve had to try and catch up. One question that was bugging me had been prompted by my favourite among the Berlin bears, the blue one painted with signs of the cosmos. Wasn’t there a constellation or two that represents bears? And the answer, of course, is yes. It’s a story that occurs in Greek mythology.

An ancient Greek myth

AP1070283fter her affair with the great god Zeus, the nymph Callisto gave birth to a baby son, Arcas. Enraged by the news of this, Zeus’ wife took revenge on Callisto by turning her into a bear,  condemning her to live wild in the mountains for ever.

But when Arcas grew up, he developed a fondness for hunting and one day, hunting in the mountains, he followed the tracks of a she-bear. When he found the bear, so far from running away, she seemed to be waiting for him. The bear, of course, was Callisto who was wanting to see her son.

Not knowing this or anything about her, Arcas drew his bow and took aim and, had Zeus, watching over him, not stayed his arm, he would have shot and killed his mother. Instead, in that moment, Zeus changed his son Arcas into a bear and carried him up into the sky along with his mother, she to become Ursa Major, he to become Ursa Minor, the Great Bear and Little Bear constellations.

An extra reward for looking

With luck, there’s always a reward for effort. In the book where I finally tracked down the story of Callisto and Arcas, I came across an extra award – another story that appealed to me greatly. It’s evidently a story from France but, appropriately enough in the circumstances – for I wouldn’t have found the story if I hadn’t just been in Berlin – it’s a story that reputedly takes place in Germany. The story has a wonderful punchline which should be borne in mind by us all, especially in this post-election period.

A folktale from France

P1070268Three friends live a life of indulgence and get themselves deeply into debt. When they hear about a bear that has been terrifying the countryside where they live, they devise a plan to pay off their debts. They’ll catch the bear, get the reward for capturing it and, besides, they’ll get lots more money by selling its skin.

Unfortunately, when the three friends get into the forest and encounter the great bear face to face, they are completely terrified. One swiftly swings himself into a treetop. The second turns and runs for the town. The third, paralysed with fear, lays himself down on the ground and tries very hard not to breathe. The bear comes over to him. After staring down at him, batting him with its huge paw, and taking a sniff at him, the bear finally bends down and murmurs something in his ear before ambling off into the forest.

After the bear has gone, the lad who’d climbed into the treetop quickly scrambles back down. ‘What did the bear tell you?’ he asks his friend.

‘Amongst other words of wisdom,’ comes the reply, ‘it said never to sell the skin of a bear while the bear is still running around.’

 P.S. My photos are all from Berlin – an upside-down bear, the bear of the cosmos, and a big mother-bear in a Berlin statue.

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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Harbingers of Spring”

  1. Jean Says:

    Thank you this Mary – enjoyed these reminders of Bear stories. My father told us of a ghost bear that haunted the village of Burghead where he grew up – Long ago the poor creature had been a dancing bear taken from village to village – it’s a sad story, but we used to walk up Mason’s Haugh Brae in the evening – listening out for the jangling of the bear’s chains – staying close to dad as he told us the story and about his childhood adventures.

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Jean, your story of the ghost bear is so evocative and sad. There must be many memories like this, things we’ve been told as children that continue to echo round the places where they were supposed to have taken place. I’m thinking about this – I must come back to it in the Blog sometime soon. Thanks so much for sharing your father’s haunting tale.

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