The Strangeness of Bears

This is a series I’ve wanted to start for a long time. There are some things in Classical Studies that are just too weird not to talk about. I’m going to kick off the series with a look at one of my favourite passages from Pliny the Elder:

“Bears couple in the beginning of winter, and not after the fashion of other quadrupeds; for both animals lie down and embrace each other. The female then retires by herself to a separate den, and there brings forth on the thirtieth day, most five young ones. When first born, they are shapeless masses of white flesh, a little larger than mice; their claws alone being prominent. The mother then licks them gradually into proper shape. There is nothing more uncommon than to see a she-bear in the act of parturition.” (Palin. Nat. 8.54)

Pliny tells us here how he understands that bears are born as shapeless blobs, that are then moulded into bear-shapes by their mothers. Amazingly enough, he is not the only one who thinks this to be true.

“And the she-bear, the most savage and sullen of beasts, brings forth her young formless and without visible joints, and with her tongue, as with a tool, she moulds into shape their skin; and thus she is thought, not only to bear, but to fashion her cub.” (Plutarch, Moralia, 494)

A baby black bear. A little undeveloped looking, but not a shapeless blob.
A baby black bear. A little undeveloped looking, but not a shapeless blob.

Ovid speaks of it too. So where does this understanding of bears come from? We know from modern observation of the animal that this is not how bears work, though their young are, upon birth, rather pale and fetal-looking.

It certainly is curious, because the Greeks would have had access to bears in the wild – whether or not they wanted to interfere with a mother bear to examine her cubs. It seems to me that the idea of shapeless baby bears was put forth by one source in the past, and nobody bothered to verify it since then. It certainly doesn’t sound appealing to try and get near any bears for research purposes. I’d much rather go with an unusual rumour I’d heard, and take it as truth. After all, who is going to go interfere with the bears to try and disprove it?

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