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Bear’s day (St. Andrew’s day) and the man-animal in Bulgarian folk tales

The Christian feast of St. Andrew’s day is also observed as Bear’s day in Bulgarian folklore tradition. Folk myth has it that St. Andrew once tamed a bear hence the coinciding of the two holidays. Bear’s day is also connected to ancient mythology. Bears have played a prominent role in folk stories, beliefs, and sayings. In today’s Folk Studio – contributed by Rumyana Panaiotova – we are going to trace precisely that role.

In times, when people knew bears not from the zoo but from actual unanticipated encounters in the mountains, their attitude to those giants of the woods was quite ambiguous. А bear’s size and strength kept people on the alert even in the period of its winter sleep. Hence the saying “The bear is sleeping, its ears are pricked” meaning that the bear is not fully asleep even while hibernating. To overcome fear man brags with his sense of supremacy. This is evident in another saying too – ‘the bear is afraid but I am not’ – that Bulgarians have used till date to encourage themselves in perilous situations. Man’s daring to wrestle with a bear has been ridiculed in a folklore anecdote. A young village lad tells the story of how his father subdued a bear. One day, father and son went to a nearby village to attend a feast. On eating an entire ox and drinking a barrelful of wine, the father, full and excited, started bragging that if there were a bear around at that moment he would defeat it. On the way back to the village, a bear emerged out of the woods. Father and bear began wrestling. When the son saw what was going on, he got so scared he ran home. Only the next day did he return to see what had happened. All he found were the laces of his father and no trace of the bear. This is how the anecdote ridicules the fake victory of the father over the bear and the meaningless bragging of the son. Another proverb says that “a bear will never part with its skin” meaning that a strong man will not give up easily.

Folk stories have preserved an ancient reverence to the bear. There is a folk tale in which a he-bear married no other than the king’s daughter herself. Their son inherited something of both parents and had quite an uncustomary looks – the head of a man and the body of a bear. They combine a bear’s strength and a man’s wits. Thanks to this, their son succeeds in overcoming a lot of obstacles and at the end he becomes a king.
In folk tales the opposite version also exists – when a lad marries a she-bear. Probably that was how the saying “it is raining, the sun is shining – the bear is getting married” sprang.

On Bear’s day, peasants feed the bear with boiled corn. They also tend to liken it to a human when it is standing erect on two legs and compare its paws to human palms. Moreover, in Bulgarian folklore, the bear has always been a symbol of motherhood and fertility. In the past, at her wedding the bride would dance a chain-dance dressed as a she-bear. That custom expressed the wish for bride’s fertility. Another very popular image of the bear from folk tales is of the good-hearted and naïve grandmother bear. Hence another anecdote – the bear was boasting that soon there would be lots of cornel-cherries in the woods. When people asked how it knows that, the bear told them that it was because it felt like eating cornel-cherries. This anecdote ridicules the illusion that desire brings about something real. Bears are also seen as clumsy and awkward. An example of this is the expression “a bear’s favor” meaning that somebody may have had a good intention to help but at the end they did more harm than good.

English version Delian Zahariev

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