Cultural preconceptions about nature are important, especially where reintroductions are concerned. The wolf, for example, symbolises hunger. The nursery stories Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs still colour our ideas: that wolf would like to eat us.

Teddy bears were invented in 1902

The bear is also present in the nursery, represented by teddy bears and Winnie-the-Pooh. But in the Pyrenean mountains between France and Spain, the bear has a second identity. In the traditional festivals here (and elsewhere), he symbolises sex. The festivals have recently been added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage to ensure their preservation.

In those festivals that have survived – in the Vallespir valley, near the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenees – young men dress up as bears and rampage through the villages. The archetypal bear is male. He attacks women. The core scenario leaves little doubt as to the interpretation. There is no mating ritual, no dancing, no seduction. The bear is a sexual predator.

The archetypal bear is male. Of course, the definition of masculinity is changing, at least as far as humans are concerned. Feminism and gender politics have been rewriting the relationship between male and female. #metoo has encouraged women to denounce sexual aggression. Pornography is no longer hidden under the counter. Our ways of seeing are different. For both the participants and the audience, the bear festivals can no longer have the same significance they previously had. And variations are creeping in. Will they denature the transgressive character of the festivals? Or should they be welcomed?

I have been to all three festivals in Vallespir. They have a common pattern: the bear (or bears) starts its day outside the village. It is waking up from its winter slumbers.


Bear at the festival in Prats-de-Mollo

At the fortress on the hill overlooking the town, I witness one of the three future ‘bears’ being dressed. The young man is wearing jeans and a white tee-shirt. His assistants drape a long singlet over his shoulders, made from sheepskin, wool side out. They then rub a mixture of oil and soot into his head, neck and arms which glisten in the sunlight. A tubular hat is rammed on his head. It too is made of sheepskin. Shaun the Sheep comes to mind.

The 'bear' attacks a woman

Once released, the bear, armed with a long stick, is corralled by ‘hunters’ in the direction of the village below. The bear spots a young woman. He grabs her and pulls her to the ground. They roll over two, three, four times, legs and arms enlaced before shots are heard, the hunters firing their guns. The bear, startled, raises his snout, sniffs the air, releases the woman, and charges off. She picks herself up from the ground with a large tuft of wool in one hand. She is covered in dust, with a huge black oily smudge on her face and clothes but is smiling.

Barbers shave the 'bears'

In one video from 2017, an oldish man who appears to be local, claims: “In reality, it is the female who is the driving force. You will see, magnificently today, the women do not flee, they charge before fleeing. But their only dream is to approach the bear. And woe-betide she who is not marked, who is not dirtied. She would be considered as a non-woman in terms of the code of the festival.” Several women also interviewed confirm that they wanted to be ‘marked’ by the bear.[i]

The attacks are accepted by the participants.


The bear at the Arles-sur-Tech festival
The teeth look frightening, but that's all!

In Arles-sur-Tech lower down the same valley, the bear emerges from the woods. Here, the citizens have engaged a Canadian trapper to capture him. The Trapper has brought Roseta, his wife, along as bait. Into the forest they go, Roseta bending over and wafting her skirt in the air, showing her underwear. The bear appears, an oversized teddy with a round head.

Rosetta and the Trapper attack bystanders

The Trapper tries to control the bear, but he often escapes and chases young women (and others).

Finally, the trio arrive in the centre of the town. The bear captures a woman and drags her into a hut made of pine branches, his den. A few minutes later the bear emerges to be shaved by the Trapper and his wife. The Trapper pulls off the head of the bear to expose the man inside.


The festival in Saint-Laurent-de-Cerdans follows a similar pattern, one difference being that a real bear skin is used. The man’s face, blacked up, is visible through the neck of the animal.

When I was there in 2018, a film-maker, Tyler Freeman Smith, was interviewing the man playing the bear. Tyler asked how he felt when he donned the costume.

“I am almost a bear, no longer Sébastien. You need to transform yourself and your state of mind: I’m a bear, I must catch girls. I must stay as far away as possible from the hunters… I feel good as a bear. I could stay like that wandering around the village as a bear. My girlfriend says I’m a bear… You know that everyone is looking at you so you can’t do just anything but at the same time you are really free because you have the right to do almost anything that day… [The skin is] like armour. I feel invincible.”

The bear has a tamer who brings him to town

Another character is a bulky oldish man dressed up as a baby. The Brueta, as he is called, is lounging in an oversized pram. The pram is pushed by a couple, ostensibly his parents. The bear and the hunters select young women for him and unceremoniously dump them into his pram. He simulates sex with them.

And then there are the Botifarrons, young men dressed in white who dip botifarras (fat sausages) in beer and try to stuff them into young women’s mouths.

After many adventures, the bear, tamer and hunters invade an already crowded bar. They stand on the counter as the tamer relates the Predica.

I bring you Martí, the bear, the terror of the region.
He devoured everything, men, women, livestock and children.
The maids were abused.
Bad luck when he noticed the smell under their apron.
Straight, with his tail in the air,
Worse than a devil,
He made them dance,
The dance of marriage…

The event finishes in the main square, with the bear finally subdued by his tamer. He is ‘shaved’ with an axe and the top half of the costume removed.

There are many more supporting roles, which add laughs, but the core meaning of the festivals is clear. Symbolically, they evoke male power and female acquiescence. They evoke fertility and the emergence of spring: we have passed through the dark days and are heading for the light. Black to white. Hunting is there and, obliquely, sheep farming. The festivals are journeys from the wild to civilisation, from outside to inside, from free to tamed. And especially from animal to human.

The festivals, rooted in the carnival tradition, are necessarily transgressive.

“John of the Bear” and other myths

The idea that male bears might be attracted to women was commonly believed all over Europe and Asia. In France, the Church was even prepared to contemplate the moral consequences. The child was indeed human and could be baptised, declared the Bishop of Paris.[ii]

Indeed, the Vallespir festivals are based on the widely known folk tale “John of the Bear”. There are many versions[iii] but typically a young shepherdess is kidnapped by a bear and imprisoned in a cave. She and the bear have a child, called John. The boy quickly becomes strong enough to push aside the rock that is imprisoning him and his mother.

In another myth, the female bear was thought to be so enthusiastic for sex that she would expel her cubs from the womb half made up. Which meant that she would have to finish the gestation by licking them into shape, as Pliny reported[iv] in first century AD. (Hence the French expression used to describe to an uncouth person: ‘un ours mal leché – a badly licked bear’.)

Astonishingly, ancient writers believed that “bears indulge in messy amorous passion, mating lying on the ground and embracing”. They were “said to perform the sexual act in the manner of humans, constantly seeking amorous pleasure”.[v] Gaston Fébus, in a hunting guide written in the Pyrenees in the late 14th century, included an illustration of foreplay.

Bears, as seen by Gaston Fébus © Bibliothèque nationale de France

So it was that bears were considered almost human, with noble families in Northern Europe claiming to descend from a (male) bear, the king of the forest.

21st century bears

Ideas about sex and gender are not the same as they were. So, how have the bear festivals been changing?

Prats de Mollo. Today’s costumes and most of the action can be seen in a film dating to 1936. But, as Brigitte Plo who would have been eight at that time, reported to a newspaper recently: The bear “wanted to take a young woman back to his lair to deflower her. She prayed to the Virgin who sent the hunters to rescue her. That’s why, when I was young, when the bear caught a girl, the hunters had to fire in the air, so that she didn’t ‘fall’. That was an important point. At that time, they didn’t plaster the girls with the oil and soot like now. Girls didn’t wear trousers, so we didn’t want to be made to fall over. It just wasn’t acceptable. That arrived later.”

A second change to the Prats de Mollo festival has occurred in the last ten years or so. Previously, only men would challenge the bear to a fight. Now women do so, too.

Saint Laurent de Cerdans has also evolved, the most significant invention being the appearance of the Figuretes, who wear purple muslin skirts. Suffragette purple. This all-female group is a robust response to the Botifarrons and their sausages. Printed on their teeshirts is the slogan: “Sem pas vingut aqui per nos fer menjar la... – We haven’t come here to be made to eat it…” [vi] They are armed with figs dipped in muscat wine, which they try to force into men’s mouths. The choice of figs is symbolic too.

Another notable event happened in 2015. A woman decided that two of the Botifarrons had gone too far and took them to court. She had been pinned to the ground by one of them who tried to force a sausage into her mouth. Then another Botifarron jumped on her knees, tearing the ligaments. The men were given suspended sentences and ordered to pay damages. Source.

In other festivals along the Pyrenees, roles traditionally exclusively played by men are now being played by women. In the Ituren/Zubieta festival in Navarra women can now portray both Joaldunaks and the bear.

How is this going to play out? Could the bear in Prats de Mollo be portrayed by a woman? It seems unlikely. The answer is perhaps to be found in neighbouring Andorra.

Next: Andorra, where the bear is female.

Dates of Pyrenean bear festivals 2024

  • Ituren/Zubieta: 29 & 30 January 2024
  • Arles: 4 February 2024
  • Bielsa: 10 & 11 February 2024
  • Prats-de-Mollo: 11 February 2024
  • Sant-Laurenç-de-Cerdans: 18 February 2024
  • Encamp, Andorra, Ball de l’Ossa: Februarysee the 2023 edition
  • Ordino, Andorra, L’Última Óssa: December – in 2023 it was on 11 December


[i]En réalité, la fête de l’Ours, c’est la femme qui en est le moteur. Et vous aller le voir, magnifiquement aujourd’hui, les femmes elles fuient pas, elles foncent avant[?] de fuir. Mais elles ne rêvent que d’aller vers l’ours. Et malheur à celle qui ne serait pas mâchurée, qui ne serait pas souillée. Celle-ci serait considérée comme non-femme par rapport au code de cette fête.

[ii] Pastoureau, Michel (2007) L’Ours: Histoire d’un roi déchu. Seuil (Paris). Translated (2011) as The Bear: History of a Fallen King. Belknap (Harvard).

[iii] In Aarne et Thompson’s classification it is no 301 B.

[iv] Pliny the Elder Natural History VIII, 54

[v] 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, p 39.