Grizzly Man: In Defense of Neo-Arctolatry

Your ancestors worshipped animals. 

They supplicated themselves before mammals and sought the future in the flight of birds. They divined aspects and told of omens in the cracks in turtle bones heated over ancient fires. The calf was gold.

The city of Çatalhöyük was settled around 7100 BC. Some theorize people came together to found these early “proto-cities”, for religious reasons. Why? The need to domesticate goats and sheep, so they could be sacrificed to gods. Wild goats and sheep couldn’t satisfy those early, thirsty gods whose names we will never know; writing wouldn’t be invented for several thousand years after the last goat-worshipping, city-dwellers had long vacated.

Your ancestors worshiped animals.


Arctolatry means bear-worship. 

Archaeologists have discovered the bones of cave bears aligned in patterns inside, yes, caves. They speculate the caves served as a cult site not for ancient Homo Sapiens, but Neanderthals.

The Ainu people, the indigenous people of Japan’s north, have a tradition of arctolatry. They believe the bear to be incarnate gods. 

The ancient Finns while hunting bears would pretend their kills were accidents so as not to enrage the spirit of the bear. They spoke in euphemisms like “honey-handed-one” so as not to draw the attention or ire of the bears. Our ancient words, intoned in quiet voices to the sacred.

Example follows example of ancient humans and more modern ones bowing down to the bear.


Timothy Treadwell, the protagonist in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, found something redemptive in his relationship to bears. What exactly that element of redemption was can be argued. The why, how, and what of his methods and relationship to the brown grizzlies of Alaska are worth discussion. Me and my co-host, Salome Sibonex, discuss that and more on our podcast, The Silver Eye Society. (Episode: Modern Man, Ancient Nature: Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man.)

Treadwell  spent thirteen summers among the grizzly bears, camping in close proximity without the support of any major organization, university research fund, or governmental body. He was alone much of the time, but occasionally took along a Grizzly-curious partner.  How you think about Treadwell and his project probably says more about you than it does about him.

Did he worship the bears? Was he exploring those older postures of awe, forgotten now, as best he could—without guidance, without a priest-king or shaman, or the support of the modern world who mainly thought him an eccentric, a former addict and a lunatic?

Could we view his death as the exploration to reclaim an old ritual of a religion we can’t remember? Did he waver from the tortuous path and begin to set himself up in a benign dominion to the bears? Was he a fool or a Holy Fool? 

We once felt fear of giant predators with a regularity we don’t recognize now. Wolves might devour you if you strayed outside the circumference of the campfire. Lions roamed Europe. Bears were gods. Humans were food.

Fast forward a few millennia. 

Today, humans donate money to organizations to keep the rapidly dwindling numbers of the predators we once revered and feared from declining into extinction. Today, tourists carry cameras far keener than the eyes of spear wielding Paleolithic hunters. Today, our weapons make the notion of hunting more akin to recreational slaughter.

We won. You don’t worry about being eaten by an apex predator while walking through a perfectly manicured park or taking out the trash. We won.  All those animals we worshipped and feared are in danger of disappearing or dying of depression in zoos while we stand in a state of perverse exhilaration staring at captive jaguars from the safe side of very thick glass.

We won. It doesn’t feel like it though.

The old gods are dying every day. We used to worship (or at least hold in holy awe) our apex predators. Eternities of reverence echo  through our psyche. That makes our inability to preserve these animals a kind of slow deicide.

A godless future is an uncertain future, though I’m well aware that non-animistic religions supplanted the older ones a couple thousand years ago. I maintain this spirit pervaded even those and resonates today.

In an odd way, it shouldn’t be a problem. If we actually celebrated the liberation from death by apex predator for our own species, wouldn’t it be natural to will them into extinction? 

But, you don’t feel that way. I don’t either. Why?

Treadwell makes perfect sense to me. We need those who can map out a new relationship to predators that encapsulates modern concerns but also acknowledges the deep religious feelings these creatures inspire in us. If previously we worshiped the bear but now must strive not to eliminate these same beasts, should we not expect a transformation, maybe a distortion, of these very old religious instincts towards predators in those who seek to commune with them? 

Secular, modern, electric-lit humans make a credit card donation to an organization seeking to preserve these animals and then forget. Does that restore the sacred link? Maybe it helps, but it does nothing to solve the deeper issue.

I say we need people like Treadwell to commune with a grizzly bear. We require someone besides a scientist or a tourist to go into nature and make us wonder at the link between humans and predators. The researcher may track a bear with an RFID tag, then write a paper few people read. That is good and necessary, I suppose, but we require something strange and archaic also. We need to see a human touch a grizzly bear’s face. To feel the electric shock of fear transfer through that very moment. We need it, no matter the cost.

You shouldn’t expect people who take up the uneasy cloak of a fledgling quasi-priesthood to be stable people, law abiding citizens, or to be socially acceptable.

No. We should understand new adherents to the old religion risk being devoured. Sacrifice was always the old religion’s surest value. It built cities. It quelled fears of the unknown. It moved the spirit of Neanderthals. There is a price to holiness and wonder–be grateful someone else pays it for you.


In the witching hour, I donned gloves and ventured to take the garbage out to the community dumpster in the condo unit where I live. A few brave souls had put up modest decorations in windows for the holiday season—a vaguely autumnal light orange bulb had replaced the sterile white one, a string of Christmas lights held vigil against the night. All would be ruthlessly smote by the regulations of the condo association in time. 

While walking through the cool night, before me a river otter crossed the street heading to the small creek running perpendicular to the back of my building.

(There should be a word for the way aquatic animals ambulate on land, a see-sawing-swing along the line in rapid motion with suction cup webbing of hand-feet briefly clinging to soot begrimed asphalt—always seeking water, to home.)

I felt the mystical connection a human feels when seeing an unexpected animal for a moment, alone, as I took my gloves off and went inside.

Before dawn, before bed, I looked up river otters online. The information was dry and scientific— habitat, their diet, statistics. 

A large part of the information concerned how they are “nuisance animals” and the rights we give ourselves to kill them. There was information on the legal hunting season, the type of steel trap you can use to kill them. Some generalities about how they exist within the ecosystem. You need to call the sheriff before you shoot them on private property to make sure you aren’t disobeying local ordinances. Their pelts are a commodity.

There is a vacancy left amongst the ruin of the rules of man. There’s nothing there for the animals, or for us. Treadwell wasn’t right. He wasn’t wrong either.

Never disparage a Holy Fool. It’s blasphemy of an ancient kind. They are a rapidly declining species, nearly extinct.