comment 0

Sunday School stole my heritage – Bears, Baa-lambs, and Salmon

Don’t get me wrong – Christian virtues (the teachings of JC) are admirable. I was brought-up going to ‘Sunday School’ and I guess it didn’t do me any harm. I’m not exactly sure what I did get out of it – we were told ‘Bible stories’ and there was a fair amount of colouring-in pictures of the same. Pictures of shepherds with their flocks of goats and sheep in a bone-dry, rocky, treeless land (courtesy of said goats and sheep). Yes, I was brought up as a ‘Christian’, no particular problems there. But what I do feel kid of resentful about now – is that meant being brought up on what was essentially someone else’s heritage. Being of solid ‘Atlantic facade’ and far-north Scandinavian background, goats, sheep and Middle-eastern deserts really aren’t my roots. Where were the tales of the deep-forests that my ancestors lived-in? Tales of reindeer, lynx, wolf, beaver, and bear? Well, as for the bear, I now have a sort of explanation and I blame it entirely on the Otago University Book Shop (Dunedin). It’s invariably a fatal (for my wallet) decision to pop inside that place, but what I came across, I probably wouldn’t have spotted it on-line.

It was an odd kind of book – “The Bear – History of a Fallen King”, written by Michael Pastoureau, an Italian, and translated into English by George Holoch. It explains how the European church set out, quite deliberately, to destroy the bear. In pagan days it was the European ‘King of the Beasts’, an animal so strong, but at the same time, weirdly human-like. In days before DNA and rigorous comparative morphology – it was our closest relative. It featured in mythology, festivals, rituals, personal names and heraldry. But Saint Augustine declared “Ursus est diabolus (the bear is the Devil)” and it was all on. Over several centuries the Church made sure the mighty bear was first demonised, then  ridiculed. To achieve this the Church needed to replace the bear with something else – the lion. This is why, throughout almost all of Medieval European heraldry – you see heaps of lions, but no bears. By this time, the destruction of the bear’s reputation was complete. Total elimination of the bear would take a bit longer. Pastoureau’s verdict, after 239 pages – is grim:

“In killing the bear, his kinsman, his fellow creature, his first god, man long ago killed his own memory and more or less symbolically killed himself. It is too late to turn back the clock. … conservation measures … seem totally futile … the bear is doomed to disappear”. 

So my myths were replaced by sheep and goats and my pageantry by lions – none of these are European. Yes, I feel robbed. But the book got me wondering – where are the bears in Irish/Scottish mythology? Actually they don’t seem to crop up much, other than incidental cameos. When it came to the really important spiritual beings – the Irish, as you might expect, were a little less predictable. The oldest and wisest creature in the ancient Irish world was a … salmon.

The reason it was wise is because it lived in a pool where it ate some very special hazelnuts that dropped in. Weirdly, the fate of the salmon was to be eaten. To me this sort-of smacks of one of those instances where a conquering religion manipulates the local mythology to establish a new status-quo. As in: “forget your salmon guys, our chaps grilled it”. But other versions of the tale suggested the right kind of fish+hazelnuts would come along every seven years. Perhaps it would be a bit too logical to suggest somebody should have just looked after that grove of hazel-trees.

The position of the salmon in Irish mythology is actually, not so silly when you think about it. Salmon were/are incredibly important in the lives of many northern cultures and they figure prominently in myths. The one or two Irish stories that we have may be all that survived of a much earlier veneration of that fish.

Bears, salmon, hazelnuts – am I seeing the shadows of my culture’s myths?

Leave a Reply