The archetypal bear is male. When I first started investigating the cultural side of rewilding, I was told that the sexual myths involved male bears and women, never female bears and men. The Vallespir festivals were classic examples. Background reading in French and Spanish confirmed my information.

It was only when started learning Catalan that I realised that female bears have a part to play. In Catalan-speaking Andorra and neighbouring Pallars Sobirà (part of Catalonia), the generic word for a bear is female. That animal padding its way across the Grandvalira ski slope is una óssa. Elsewhere in Catalonia the animal is un ós. [i]

The great myths and legends relate to male bears: the folk tale ‘John of the Bear’ features a male. So, what is the role of the female bear in the Andorran festivals? The contrast between the scenario played out there and that in the neighbouring Vallespir is immense.

My starting point was a thesis written in 2015 by Eloi Ysàs Trias.[ii] At that time, the only festival still being performed in Andorra was the Ball de l’óssa d’Encamp.

There, the bear is not only female, she is almost incidental. The festival opens with a tour of the streets in which the protagonists are preceded by a marching band. The actors then assemble in the main square which is covered in straw. In the play, the rich owners of this improvised field have contracted a group of men to reap it. The foreman beats them with a stick to make them work harder. Then a woman, the Fregona, arrives with a basket of food.[iii] The Fregona’s role is to literally stuff the reapers’ mouths with food and alcohol. She leads one of the workers aside. “I want sex,” she says to him. After a few seconds of (fully clothed) action, one of the other workers breaks them up. She selects a different partner. At this moment the bear arrives, advancing on hands and knees, grunting. Her costume is soft and furry, teddy bear style. She starts eating from the basket of food but is immediately shot by hunters and then stabbed to death.

The owners of the field arrive on horseback. They announce, “that the death of this beast is reason for a feast,” for which they will pay. There is a dance and then a group photo around the bear; the kind of photo trophy hunters take when they have killed big game. The dead bear is taken away draped over the back of a horse and the scythes and gun are piled on top of her. She is revived with medicine and then carried off-stage. All the actors are men.

In contrast to the other Pyrenean festivals, the tour of the town is a parade and not part of the action. The sexual predator is a woman and not the bear. The bear herself has a very passive role. The face of the young man playing her is not revealed to the public. So, the bear is always a bear and no more than that. The idea that a bear and a man are the same animal, central to the Vallespir festivals, is lost.

It is inconceivable that the female bear of Andorra could simply be the mirror image the male bear in Vallespir. The two versions would not be happy neighbours. Which is why, it seems to me, the bear in Andorra has been relegated to the role of an animal.

But there are places where the female bear is indeed a sexual predator.

By Binandlv – Treball propi, CC BY-SA 4.0

In Korea. One traditional tale from the Far East involves a man and a female bear. One day, the bear, which lived in a mountain above the river Geumgang kidnapped a lumberjack. The man was obliged to live with the bear, which blocked the mouth of the cave with an enormous rock so that he couldn’t escape. After a while they had a son and the bear, believing that her companion would not leave, stopped blocking the cave. The lumberjack took the opportunity to flee. The bear was desolated and threw herself into the river with her son in her arms, killing them both.[iv]

A similar tale comes from Turkey: “a young shepherd is kidnapped by a bear in the spring of 1952. The reporter heard about the adventure from the hero himself. He was sleeping near to his flock. He was woken up by the bear who took him in her arms back to her den. The shepherd didn’t say anything and didn’t move to avoid annoying the beast, which licked the soles of his feet for a considerable time. Then she piled big blocks of stone and tree trunks at the entrance and went away. With great difficulty, the shepherd managed to remove a part of the obstacles and escaped. He is convinced that the animal, which was a female, had kidnapped him because she had a soft spot for him. He said that similar adventures often happen in the area: female bears kidnapping young men and male bears kidnapping young women.”[v]

It doesn’t matter that the shepherd invented the story. The significance is that the archetype of the story was the folk tale ‘John of the Bear’ (albeit with a female bear) and that the story was still current seventy years ago.

Coming back to Andorra, why is the bear in Andorra female? I have asked around.

According to Marc Garriga, Director of the Alt Pirineu Nature Park, on Twitter:

The bears are female “because there have always been more [females] because it was the core of the population and encounters with females with cubs (which tend to stay in a small area) have been more frequent. In Vallespir and Bielsa [where there is another festival] the bear was rarer and mysterious and more dominated by males which move around more.

It is an interesting idea, but I’m only half convinced. The Couserans, just over the border in France is also a core area for bears and must have been so in the past. But there, the bears are male. In French, we talk of l’ours, not l’ourse.

There isn’t necessarily an answer to my question, but the archetypal bear continues to be female in Andorra and neighbouring Pallars Sobirà.

Now, the Ball de l’Óssa d’Encamp has been joined by another festival, revived in 2017, in Ordino: called L’Última Óssathe last bear. The Andorran festivals have also been added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The latest news is that real tangible bears are returning to the Principality. After an absence of eighty years a bear has recently been photographed by a camera trap.

The return of real bears takes the festivals out of the realm of folklore and gives them new meaning. Rewilding is feeding back into local culture.


[i] This is the standard usage in Pallars Sobirà (NW corner of Catalonia) and in the Principality of Andorra where the official language is also Catalan. Elsewhere in Catalonia bears are considered masculine: un ós. Other words used in the Pyrenees are un ours (French), un ors (Occitan), uno oso (Spanish), uno onso (Aragonese). Basque isn’t a gendered language so the word hartz applies.

[ii] Ysàs Trias, Eloi (2015) Els Balls de l’Ós als Pirineus, Estudi Teatral d’un Ritu Europeu d’Hivern. PhD Thesis, University Rovira I Virgili, Tarragona.

[iii] Ysàs Trias, Eloi (2015), p 145.

[iv] Carranza Romero, Francisco & Ko, Hyesun (2011) El Oso en la Mitología de Perú y Corea. Centro de Estudios Internacionales para el Desarrollo. (Buenos Aires). pp 24–5.

[v] Boratav, Pertev Naili (1955), Les Histoires d’ours en Anatolie, Fellow Folklore Communications 304, 152, 12–13 cited in Bobbe, Sophie (2002) L’Ours et le Loup: Essai d’Anthropologie symbolique. MSH/INRA, Paris.