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Sacred & Mundane

Polar Bear

Anatomy of a Symbol

by Richard Ellis

Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Orion magazine

Photo: Steve Kazlowski/DRR

Like the bears themselves, the first men to see polar bears were probably swaddled in heavy furs. The earliest human inhabitants of the Arctic regarded Nanuk first as a dangerous predator, then as a rival hunter, and lastly as an animal to be hunted for its red meat and white coat. Somewhere along the line, the proto-Inuits also assigned to the ghostly white bear supernatural qualities—it was surely the Lord of the Arctic, as mere humans could never be, comfortable in a perpetually frozen world. The Inuits—then and now—feared and worshipped the bear. They occasionally killed and ate it, but only after the bear spirits had been appropriately propitiated. The first Europeans to visit the desolate homeland of Ursus maritimus shot them whenever an opportunity presented itself. Sometimes bears were captured and brought back to European menageries or zoos, where they were exhibited to visitors who looked upon the great white bears as emissaries from a world where the sun shines dimly for half the year and the land is made of ice.

It is highly unlikely that the word “cute” was popular with Arctic explorers or whalers, but once the general public was able to see a baby polar bear, everything changed. Baby polar bears are almost insufferably cuddly, and their black button eyes and snow-white fur make them ideal inspirations for stuffed-animal dolls. In 2006, the New York Times science writer Natalie Angier wrote “The Cute Factor,” an article in which she identified some of the qualities that make something look cute: “bright, forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs, and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait.” The paradigm, of course, is the human toddler, but also fulfilling these criteria are baby pandas, puppies of many dog breeds, koalas, young lions, tigers, and leopards, and bear cubs of all species.

Today, the image of the polar bear—adult and roly-poly cub—has become the very symbol of the Arctic. It appears in the coat of arms of Greenland, on the license plates of Nunavut, and as a common theme in a large proportion of the items sold in the gift shops and airports of Churchill, Anchorage, Nome, Sitka, and Juneau. Polar bears appear on caps, sweat shirts, t-shirts, place mats, jigsaw puzzles, mouse pads, charms, jewelry, night lights, figurines, pillows, blankets, calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and any other knick-knack you could possibly think of. I own a tie with polar bears on it, bought in the general store at Churchill. Early in the 1990s, the Coca-Cola company began using the polar bear in its advertising, and produced several television commercials that showed the bears drinking Coke (“Always Cool, Always Coke”). The campaign was so successful that Coke went on to produce a whole line of gift items that had polar bears on them, including drinking cups (naturally), storage tins, statuettes, collector spoons, stationery, stickers, lunchboxes, and legions of little stuffed bears wearing the Coca-Cola logo.

Most bears are dark-colored creatures of temperate forests, although there are some that live in the mountains of South and North America. Perhaps foremost among the reasons for the elevation of the polar bear to superstar status is its glaring incongruity. It is not so much the bear that is out of place—it is the place that is out of place. Whitened out, horizonless landscapes are not the world we know. The great white bear is an alien being in a setting that might be on a frozen planet somewhere in space. Through art, photographs, and moving images, we have become familiar with the ice bear, but its lifestyle is radically different from that of any other species of bear—or any other animal, for that matter. The polar bear is an integral part of its environment, as white as the snow and ice it lives in. The bear draws its power from its whiteness; it is an all-conquering, heavy snowstorm of a creature, fearing nothing.

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