Festival of the Bear:  Where and Why?

‘La Fête de l’Ours’ is one of my favourite festivals in France, though I have only ever been there as a sofa-traveller!  This festival has also been loved by several of my favourite difficult students.  Not surprising really, as it is fun, playful and dramatic, just like they have been!

This fascinating event takes place in the Pyrenees every February 2nd, marking the beginning of spring and the bear’s emergence from hibernation.  In this region, as in other places where men and bear live (or have lived) in close proximity, the two are considered to have a bond so strong, that folklore says man can transform into bear and bear into man.

Strange goings on in the Mountains

Prats de Mollo

At the village of Prats de Mollo in the French Pyrenees, as this video Enquête d’ailleurs – Catalogne, Fête de l’Ours by Arte via Youtube shows, ‘the bears’ descend from their ‘caves’ in the mountains, and create havoc in the village.  They dance, ‘battle’ and ‘kidnap’ humans (often, but not exclusively, young women).  These ‘bears’, are in fact local men who have drawn lots for the honour of becoming animal!  They make the transition into bear, taking on the creature’s spirit, with the help of costumes made of sheep’s wool.  Although not from a bear, the idea is that the wool helps them to get closer to their ‘animal’ side. They also cover their skin with soot to represent the darkness of the cave.   Helpful too is the red wine, which they are given in copious amounts by the hunters who pursue them.

Fun and Frolics

My students have particularly loved the part where the bears playfight with the villagers, smearing them the soot and oil (an act in which they are ‘transferring the  fertility of spring’).  This activity provoked much laughter and even hysterics in my class!  Trance-inducing music also plays, as it has done for centuries.  Later in the video there’s a twist, which I don’t want to spoil by telling you…

“I want to go to France now.” were the words of one student who had learnt about this celebration.  Me too!

On humans transforming into animals…

Do you know of a ‘Bear Festival’?  Or another festival where shape-shifting occurs?

Update:  See the post on La Merengada to find out about a very odd bird and some strange goings on in Catalonia, Spain.