By Michael Engelhard
Not all traditions envision the deity in the image of humans, the “crown jewel of creation.” Every now and again, it assumes the guise of a white bear. For some believers, this has posed existential conundrums.
From eighteenth-century Iceland comes the report of a beast stranger even than the unicorn: bjarndýrakóngur—a polar bear king—that seems strangely diluted, a tamer version of the spirit bear of the pagan Norse sagas. The bjarndýrakóngur is an extraordinary beast of gigantic size, sprung from the union of a walrus and a polar bear, with a horn sprouting from its forehead. The horn is aglow, lighting the area around it so that the bear can find its way in even the darkest midwinter night. The master of all polar bears, the bjarndýrakóngur understands speech and in its infinite wisdom uses its horn only in self-defense or when angered. One story tells how, during a Whitsun service at Grímsey’s Miðgarðar church, the ursine monarch approached from the island’s outskirts with an entourage of twelve (or thirteen) polar bears. Surprised at this sight, the minister and his congregation stood outside and watched the procession. The clergyman bowed to the bear-king, who in passing returned the courtly gesture. Near Borgamór the bears came upon some sheep, and the last in line killed one. When their leader saw this, he immediately ran his horn through the offender, mortally wounding it. After that, the party marched south, toward Grenivík, where they all disappeared into the sea.
Through the lens of this late feudal society, one can still see the mythical bear of old, though this account could also mark a year in which an unusual number of polar bears landed on Iceland’s shores. It is interesting to note that the bjarndýrakóngur is a bear that has been “neutered.” He does not kill for sustenance like a normal bear, but only from a sense of justice. He dispatches the o ending bear with the unicorn’s romanticized weapon, much like a knight with a sword. This is another sign of his noble breeding, his domestication.
In the Christian liturgical year, Whitsunday—the day the polar bear king first appeared—commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the twelve apostles and other followers of Jesus Christ. The etymology of the feast day’s name preserves color symbolism: “White Sunday” was named after the white clerical vestments worn on that day instead of the usual red ones, or perhaps after the white robes of the faithful who expected to be baptized on that Sunday. The file of polar bears suggests these catechumens, clad in white, and the associated purity of the spirit.
With its Christian-monarchic overtones—the twelve followers, the Whitsunday setting, the light figure leading the way, and the scepter-like horn—the legend of the bjarndýrakóngur presages Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll, published in 1843 in the German Zeitung für die elegante Welt. This satirical verse epic’s mouthpiece is Atta, an escaped dance bear—a brown bear. Atta symbolizes many of the attitudes Heine despised, including the view that God exists in the believer’s form. Atta imagines the deity as an enormous, elevated polar bear:
High upon his golden throne
In yon splendid tent of stars,
Clad in cosmic majesty,
Sits a titan polar bear.
Spotless, gleaming white as snow
Is his fur; his head is decked
With a crown of diamonds
Blazing through the central vault.
In his face bide harmony
And the silent deeds of thought,
And obedient to his sceptre
All the planets chime and sing.
At his feet sit holy bears,
Saints who suffered on the Earth,
Meekly. In their paws they hold
Splendid palms of martyrdom.
In one of Canto VIII’s stanzas, Atta warns his cub of becoming an atheist, a “monster void of reverence,” a stance that should be read as satire. While Heine caricatures pious Biedermeier domesticity, Atta also dreams of revolution, of waging war against the human species. Just because people walk upright, wear clothes, and practice arts and sciences, the bear asserts, they should not consider themselves superior to other creatures. If all animals united in solidarity, Atta thinks, they could end the rule of humans and replace it with an animal republic. Here, Heine mocks populism and simplistic egalitarianism. But as in all good fables, his quixotic protagonist meets a fitting, and from the perspective of political elites, well-deserved end: a Basque bear hunter eventually kills Atta, who reaches Paris—center of radical action and thinking—as a rug.
A popular writer of the current era has resurrected shamanic spirit helpers and polar bear–like colossi in his fantasy fiction and, like Atta Troll’s creator, has also been charged with godlessness. The English writer Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights (released in the United States as e Golden Compass) is the first book of a trilogy about a world populated by angels and gypsies, by witches, shamans, and an apostate nun. Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, the plot centers on the overthrow of “the Authority,” a thinly veiled metaphor for God.
Pullman’s panserbjørne—a race of huge white “armored bears”—live on Svalbard. One of their kings, Iofur Raknison, emulates humans by drinking liquor and wearing opulent clothes. Another, Iorek Byrnison (a mongrel form of the Norwegian name Bjørnson, “bear-son”) aids in the rescue of kidnapped children. In this potpourri of the imagination, Nordic folklore blends with real bear biology. The panserbjørne are solitary but form a loose society; their duels follow ritualized procedures and seldom end in death; their liver is toxic. Pullman also borrows freely from northern ethnography. There are clans and taboos in Pullman’s universe as well as allusions to shamanism. All human characters in the story have a “dæmon,” a spirit or soul that takes the form of an animal and that frequently changes shape during childhood but after puberty stays fixed. These dæmons, like the animal-spirits associated with shamans, are known as “familiars,” an ethnographic term; they die when a person dies and vice versa. A human without a dæmon is “like someone without a face, or with their ribs laid open and their heart torn out: something unnatural and uncanny.”
The Golden Compass was briefly banned from some school library shelves in a Canadian Catholic school district for its anti-Christian tone. But it was also adapted for the screen, where it reached even larger audiences.
The bear’s near-invisibility in the Arctic landscape and half-light was also the subject of reflection in Moby-Dick, which strikes metaphysical chords in the reader:
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own. . . there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which a rights in blood.
This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics: what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? . . .
Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
Perhaps Melville knew of or sensed etymological resonances. “Bleak,” which describes the tone of his sea-tale as well as explorers’ views of the Arctic, comes to us from the proto-Germanic *blaika-, “shining, white,” by way of Old Norse bleikr, “pale, whitish, blond.” is sense survived in medieval English, meaning “bare” as well as “pale”; in modern German it remains, as bleich. Facial pallor and deadliness connect snow, winter, and polar bear.
In the context of anthrozoology, especially the widespread, well-documented esteem for white animals, Melville’s take on whiteness appears ambiguous, prejudiced even—a break with tradition. Symbolically, it makes sense for his time and place: the whale as inscrutable, hostile godhead, the opponent of Puritan struggles. Like Ahab’s obsession (whose object was modeled after a real-life, much-pursued white sperm whale named “Mocha Dick”), people’s fascination with white bears probably also grew from attitudes toward the exceptional, often identified with the divine. Albino animals or those with leucism—a genetic mutation—have always sparked wonder and the imagination. Zoos treasure white deer, white moose, bison, gorillas, lobsters, and tigers, and the latter were hunted to such a degree that they became effectively extinct in the wild. Bounty hunters eagerly sought colorless specimens, for which they could net ten times the amount paid for more common creatures. Similarly, a white bear in British Columbia’s rain forest, a black bear-mutant that the Tsimshian call moksgm’ol or “spirit bear,” still commands awe.
Coupling with grizzlies, giving birth to mixed offspring, mingling with walrus and whales, the white bear of the Arctic continues to evade definition. It’s a creature of edges, one that “hunts the ice margins, the surface of the water, and the continental shore.” It pigeon-toes the line between physical and metaphysical realms. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that the polar bear has been and is many things to many people. Across cultures and time, its whiteness invited projection, and we eagerly saddled it with our fears, fantasies, and ambitions. Like the blank spots on explorers’ maps or the deity—if one exists—it keeps us forever guessing its true nature.
Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.