This is an excerpt from the notes accompanying my recent lecture on bear medicines from my online Materia Magica course which started in May. If you like it and want to see/hear/read/learn more, please consider signing up for the course. You will be sent my notes and lectures on Hawthorn and Bear Medicine immediately and will receive future lectures and notes twice a month through October -- http://www.seandonahueherbalist.com/materia-magica-online-may-october/
In the forest I inhabit, bear and salmon are bringers of life – as they were in the lost Irish forests of my ancestors.
Returning from the ocean to spawn and die, salmon draw bears to rivers and streams, and the bears drag the carcasses of the fish into the forest where they feed the topsoil.
In the Irish tradition, the salmon is the oldest creature, and holds the wisdom of three worlds – the watery underworld it swims through, the airy heavens it leaps through, and the earth its body returns to. Who eats its body gains its knowledge and insight.
Bears gorge on Salmon in autumn, and then retreat into their own dark underworld, where their dreams are shaped by the mycorrhizal songs of the sleeping forest. When they stir in spring, they dig their medicine roots – which Matthew Wood notes are “brown, furry, pungent, and oily” like bears themselves. Wherever people and bears live in proximity, humans have traditionally followed suit, digging and decocting those same roots. And they have told stories of people who married those strange dark giants who rear up on two legs and whose skinned bodies look human.
There is linguistic evidence of deep reverence for bears in early Ireland.
Ireland was ruled through the last several centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era by a High King, an Ard-Rí, whose sovereignty was granted by the land itself as it spoke through the Lia Fáil, a stone that held powers of regeneration for the king and the earth.
But there is also an older Irish word, art-rí which means a king of bears or a bear-like king. (The Welsh version of the same word is likely the origin of the names of King Arthur and a Feri god.)
What would the nature of a bear king be?
Old stories of sacred kings speak of the ways in which the life of the land and the life and death of the king intertwine. Their modern re-iterations speak of the king being sacrificed at Samhain. The king's life and death are dedicated to the well being and blossoming of the people and the land itself.
The salmon provides one model for this sacrifice – giving its life in the journey upstream to spawn, giving its body to the soil in death. And the bound bodies of chieftans and kings found in peat bogs suggest that for some kings, this sacrifice involved literal death.
The bear rides the wheel of the year in a different way. Three seasons awake, walking through our world, one season in darkness. A bear king might work in the same way. Spending nine months tending to the well-being of the community and the realm, three months in trance and dream and contemplation listening to the soil and the stones and the underground springs and the roots of the trees and the bones of the dead.
The English word king suggests authority rather than power, to use the late John Trudell's distinction – authority comes from dominating and coercing others into obedience, whereas power comes from being part of life unfolding. But the Irish word rí has an interesting etymology, deriving from the same root word as the Sanskrit rig, which means praise or shine. This suggests the possibility of seeing the sacred king more as a priest or shaman, not the maker of laws in the modern sense, but the speaker and interpreter of natural law through the gnosis gained from giving a quarter of each year to walking in the dark world that lies before all beginnings and after all endings, the original darkness from which all things emerge and to which all things return.
The bear medicines all serve to facilitate the movement from darkness and stillness into motion and light. Their bitterness grounds us into our bodies, their heady aromatic scents melt tension to allow the blood stirred by their heat to move through the body. The body of the art-rí that comes back to life when the snowmelt streams flow into fields of bright blossoms.
The rest of the notes and the lecture go into the specific natures of Eastern and Western Skunk Cabbage, Osha, and Angelica. To learn more, register for Materia Magica today!