There was once a girl who was taken from her settlement by a bear. In the depths of his cave they hibernated. When she was hungry, he brought his paw to her face and delicious fat poured from it. This way she stayed plump and happy. Sometime later when she returned to her family, she found a spark of light growing between her hips. Over time she gave birth to a baby boy with the ears of a bear.
In a different place and time, when Elijah was starving, God didn’t send lambs or goats; he sent ravens with lumps of meat in their mouth. You would have imagined that Elijah would have preferred almost any other deliverer than an unclean bird. But Elijah ate and there was a wisdom in his eating. Raven meat makes prophets.
We need a new covenant with Bear and Raven. With rapture and sobriety. Let us slip from the domestic into the confirming presence of fur-bellied intelligence. Let us admire the iridescent sheen of a corvid’s mind. Let us gabble across species. With the first story, I’d suggest the young woman should actually now be walking back into the settlement with her bear-husband. Not to domesticate their love, or make it smaller, but to speak from it. The danger is no longer the elopement with the bear but the return to a society that has no memory the bear ever existed. It is savagery, not lovemaking, we find in the woods now, and no bear-eared baby grows from that. Modernity can make us barren to this conception.
We should all get whisked away by the bear. Let’s enter the warm dark chapel of his cave, bring his paw to our mouth, and drink the fat. Reconsecrate ourselves to the turbulent magnificence of the earth. Protect it, cherish it, get callouses on our hands working on it, listen to it till it tells us stories. Dance with an animal, not a pelt. Spend every winter curled up in the warming dark, feeling the dreams of a beast all around us. When we walk back down the mountain in the spring, we will tell those who will listen of what we have learned. To them it may seem our cave was a library or a shipyard or a wintering field, but we’ll know better.
Make sustained contact with something undomestic, sacred, and tremendously powerful. Something for the good. Something filled with bone. Fall in love with it. This first covenant supplies energy, rapture, joy.
Less heaven, less hell, more luminous reality.
The second covenant is harder. To consume the dark meat Raven brings. To show fidelity to consequence. To track our muck—personally, culturally, and ecologically. Without this, we have statistics, intelligence, but little wisdom. Odin relied on ravens to get the true skinny on what was happening in the world; we only have light because the Inuit say Raven brought it from the Otherworld in a box. It is wiser than wise to eat the meat the corvid offers.
Jesus ate the crow of the earth, sucked it all up—no one gobbled more than he did. He drank the soured wine, ate the rotten meat, sunk his teeth into the coal-black karma of the world. Reconfigured the whole thing in the most stunning act of love. And not, I believe, to appease some furious sky god, but to rehydrate the almost-lost love message between the divine and the human. Such an act has been almost impossible to comprehend ever since.
So like Jesus, like Elijah, like Bear-Woman, we open our mouths and something feeds us. If we don’t consume––no knowledge. If we don’t resurrect––no wisdom. This is the age of consequence and making profound change.
Less heaven, less hell, more luminous reality. When a raven becomes a leader, its mouth turns from pink to black. We should open our mouth to the mirror to ensure we have eaten sufficient darkness. But please note the word sufficient. To linger excessively can become addictive and disabling. Such a practice is to lead us someplace redemptive, is not a final destination of itself.
These are outlaw activities I’m suggesting. To reconstitute fundamentally our relationship to the earth, to sit quiet long enough to eat the crow of our legacy. Bear and Raven work is a productive deepening. Root and branch work. Joy and sobriety in either hand.
Dr. Martin Shaw is the author of the award-winning Mythteller trilogy: A Branch from the Lightning Tree, Snowy Tower, and Scatterlings. He founded the Oral Tradition and Mythic Life courses at Stanford University, and is director of the Westcountry School of Myth in the UK.
Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.