Folklore Fact – Bear Shapeshifters/”Werebears”

DISCLAIMER: I put the title and “werebeast” up there in quotation marks because I am an obsessive etymology scholar, historian, and folklorist who ultimately still kind of dislikes “were-” prefixes. Werewolves were the first “werebeasts” (calling them “weres” is calling them “men,” by the way) because that was the first and only time the term was used in relation to folklore. Modern popular culture started using “were-” to denote animal shapeshifters (which are, in themselves, often werewolves for all intents and purposes but happen to turn into a different kind of animal). So all these werebeasts owe everything they have in the modern era to werewolves.

Just saying!

(Another disclaimer: I like plenty of other shapeshifters, for the record. Rumors of my “hatred” for anything non-werewolf have been greatly exaggerated. Including bears. It’s just other people that have made me grouchy. I have had serious moments of wanting to turn a protagonist of my main novel series into a werebear, so don’t look at me that way. I love all shapeshifters and I do love bears.)

Anyway, with that briefly out of my system again, let’s get to the werebears.

Caiden wrestling a werebear from “Old Wounds,” in Wulfgard: The Hunt Never Ends

Firstly, we must ask ourselves: what are they called if they aren’t called werebears? “Werebear” is a completely modern term derivative of “werewolf,” as mentioned above, so did bear shapeshifters have a particular name like all these names werewolves and vampires had?

The answer might disappoint you. Nope. They didn’t; sorry.

There were plenty of bear shapeshifters around, but they weren’t prevalent enough to get a particular name. You’ll find them called all sorts of things, depending on the language, but many of these terms haven’t really survived the test of time. Scholars usually refer to them simply as “bear shapeshifters,” or “bear men and bear women,” especially if they are of the non-shapeshifting variety (there are actually quite a few of those, as far as bears are concerned).

One of the few terms we might claim we have for werebears is Orsini (or Ursini, if you want to be less anglicized; it is, of course, derived from ursus, meaning bear). However, this term was used to refer not to shapeshifters, but to a stranger story.

In De Uniuerso, William of Auvergne (a Bishop of Paris) tells the story of a bear from Saxony who carried off a soldier’s wife. For years, the bear kept the woman in a cave and, ahem ahem, “knew” (that’s a direct quote) her “so that she bore him children.” She ran away and the kids went with her, turning into excellent soldiers. But they had faces similar to a bear’s (or “they had bear in their faces”). According to this guy, bears and humans could reproduce and this was the result.

No shapeshifting involved in this instance, though. There were, however, a gracious plenty of instances of bear shapeshifting. Let’s cover just a few.

First of all, like werewolves, bears get the whole “bear spirit” connection and lots of shamanistic magic and possession. Among the Sami people of Russia and Lapland, there were beliefs that shamans could be “possessed of the spirit of the bear” in order to acquire bear-like “attributes” and “behavior” and “strengths.” How you want to interpret those is up to you, since they weren’t more specific than that.

There were lots of shamanistic beliefs involving bears among other cultures, as well, including some Native American cultures. This involved either straight-up shapeshifting into a bear, or else acquiring “bear-like attributes” like before.

Then, of course, we have Old Norse myths involving bears, of which there were many. There were skins (belts, cloaks, etc) that could turn people into bears, much like the wolf-skin items from werewolf legends.

Then we have Bodvar Bjarki (”Warlike Little Bear”), a warrior who showed up in a lot of stories over time, including – but not limited to – Hrolfs Saga Kraka (the story of an early king of Denmark, who had Bodvar as a champion), Skjoldunga saga, and Getsa Danorum.

So who was Bodvar Bjarki? Well, he came from a long line of bear names, for starters. We should start with his dad, who was a werebear of sorts.

So his father was Bjorn (meaning “bear”), a guy who was turned into a bear by a witch. Bjorn could assume a human shape again during the night, when he was visited by a woman (Bera, meaning she-bear). They had three sons: one was half man and half elk, the second had the feet of a dog, and the third was Bodvar Bjarki.

In a later battle, all of Hrolf’s (that was the king Bodvar served, just to remind you) men were terribly outnumbered, until a massive bear came onto the battlefield and started fighting for them. He seemed immune to all weapons his foes put against him.

Bodvar, however, wasn’t there. He was sitting in his tent, completely motionless. When one of his friends bursts into his tent and berates him for not being at the battle, Bodvar wakes and tells him he can now do less for the king than if he’d not been interrupted.

So, as you might imagine, the bear disappeared as soon as Bodvar woke. Then they lost the battle. Good job, friend guy.

I will not, however, talk about berserkers here. I covered those in a werewolf fact! Read about berserkers here instead. Berserkers were not actually associated with bears, like so many scholars today want you to believe. That’s a totally new argument, though.

For the record, although lots of pop culture will try to tell you differently, there wasn’t really that much bear stuff in Norse myth. It was mostly wolves. There were also lots of boars, stags, hounds, even some bulls, but anything to do with bears was fewer and farther between.

Oh my gosh, this post is getting long, isn’t it? Let’s cover a few more things:

So what do modern pop culture werebears take from werebears of ye olden legends? There’s a good question. Here’s the answer:

Basically nothing.

Modern werebears are generally werewolves of a different skin. That’s how modern writers handle the overwhelming majority of all werecreatures, actually.

Want to be weird/different and take more from folklore werebears? It could actually be quite fun! One of the few bear shapeshifter stories we have is the one mentioned above, where Bjorn turns into a human at night instead of during the day, like some werewolves do. Just saying.