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Alan Dundes bares the folklore of the bear

23 August 2002

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

Whether considering the implications of a bear of a day or anguishing over which bear-related storybook to buy for your child, Alan Dundes, UC Berkeley professor of anthropology and folklore, says the lure of the bear is complex.

Go no further, he suggested, than examining the term applied to current negative stock market conditions in the United States.

"The fear of bears is signaled by the use of the folk speech of Wall Street and the stock market," Dundes said. "A bear market, as opposed to a bull market, is what we're in now - and we're not happy about it."

Yet, generally the bear is seen as an endearing creature, said Dundes, author of numerous books on folklore. Folklore makes the bear a hostile but gentle figure, as in "The Three Bears", who pose no real threat to Goldilocks. And "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" also is fairly harmless, said Dundes, just before heading off for a week as the faculty speaker at UC Berkeley's "Lair of the Bear" Sierra camp for alumni.

"The bear, especially when it stands, has some humanoid aspects, but its fierceness is tempered with its endearing looks," said Dundes. For example, he said, the Captain Kangaroo television program for children featured a dancing bear as a totally domesticated and friendly creature. And the "teddy bear" named for Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt is a cuddly children's doll.

"Wizard of Oz" fans recall the chanting of "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" as Dorothy and her crew skipped down the Yellow Brick Road. This balanced the idea of the wild bear with the playful mocking of a child, Dundes said.

The old English sport of bear-baiting - using dogs to attack bears until the big animals died - and locking bears up in zoos reflect a darker side of humans' intrigue about bears, he said. These practices reflect a metaphor of the subjugation of nature by culture or civilization.

"My own take on zoos in general is that we have wild animals, signifying id or animal desires but under the control of the superego or society," Dundes said. "Until recently, in zoos, the animals were in cages or behind bars like human prisoners even though they committed no crime. The thrill, in part, of going to the circus or the zoo is to see wild animals being humanized, forced to dance or wear human clothing. So rather than we humans being permitted to act out our animal drives, we force animals to act like humans! It is sublimation at its best (or worst)."