When the world was young, there were no bears on earth, just the Great Bear who lives in the sky with Sun and Moon. Our long-ago, far-away ancestors called him Numi-torum.
During the day he hides behind the clouds but at night you can see him hunting in the northern sky. With his great strength, Numi-torum rolls the world through the heavens as easily as if he was turning over a log to find grubs. It has always been this way: he pushes us along from one season to the next and each day he turns the Earth around so that Sun and Moon can shine upon us.
Sun and Moon had each other but Numi-torum’s labour was long and he had no companion. Sun and Moon saw how lonely he was and they wondered what they could do to help. Each dawn and dusk as they passed each other they talked about it until one day Moon said:
“I know what we can do. The next time we lie together, we will make a bear-child for Numi-torum .”
Sun agreed and the next time that Moon came to visit him during the day, she climbed into his bed. They cast a silvery shadow over the Earth to preserve their modesty and creation held its breath until they were done. Moon slipped away; daylight returned and the world rolled on.
Next Spring, Sun and Moon presented Numi-torum with the bear-child they had made. Numi-torum was delighted with Little Bear who followed him everywhere. They chased each other across the night sky; they gamboled through the sunlit clouds. They were happy and the world prospered.
Little Bear grew stronger and stronger until one day, as he was playing his favourite game, stalking cloud-puffs and pouncing on them, he accidentally pushed his front paws right through the cloud. He looked around to see if Numi-torum had witnessed his misdemeanour but Great Bear was far away. Relieved, Little Bear edged closer to the hole and peered through it.
Beneath him, unfamiliar colours and shapes glinted and moved. He could see all the people of the Earth, their tipis and their lodges; he could see buffalo and beaver, moose and deer; he could see rivers and mountains, plains and snows, forests and seas. There were so many things, so much going on. Then his nose began to wrinkle as a myriad scents rose up and tickled his nostrils. His heart raced; he stretched his head and neck down the hole as far as he dared, desperate to get closer to the life teeming far below.
When Numi-torum found Little Bear still craning through the hole in the cloud, he guessed what had happened. “I want to go,” said Little Bear. “I want to see for myself. I want to touch it, smell it, hear it, taste it. I want to go. Can I go? Can I?”
Numi-torum did not want to go back to being alone but he also knew that it would be wrong to keep Little Bear by his side for ever. “Things are very different on Earth,” he said. “Down there is life but also death; on Earth you would feel pain as well as pleasure; you would be mortal. Aren’t you afraid to go?”
“I want it more than anything,” said Little Bear.
“If I let you go, you must promise to return to me in the sky one day, either in body or in spirit.”
“I promise,” said Little Bear.
“Then you may go and experience these wonders for yourself. But beware of humans, for some are good and some are bad,” said Numi-torum. “Be kind to those who are good and trouble those who are not.”
So the next night, Numi-torum hugged Little Bear goodbye and let him gently down to Earth on a silver thread. As soon as Little Bear’s paws touched the ground, the hole in the cloud closed behind him, the thread dissolved into moonbeams, and he became not one but many bears, some black, some brown, some golden, some white. Each of them mortal but still carrying the everlasting spark of Sun and Moon, they scattered to the four corners of the Earth to begin their great adventure. All were curious about the world and some were fascinated with humans.
Since then, many bears have been born and many have died and returned to Numi-torum. One day perhaps they will all be gone and Little Bear will have kept his promise. In the meantime, it is said that some of those very first bears are living still and that everything they have seen during their long years on Earth has given them much wisdom and great power. We call them many things: little mother of honey, old man in a fur coat; uncle of the woods; grandfather on the hill; owner of the earth; sticky-mouth; blue-tooth; bobtail; shape-shifter.
They are the Old Ones.
My version of an Ostyak (Western Siberian) myth © Geoff Mead 2014