St Corbinian supposedly rode a bear over the Alps to Rome after it had killed his horse. In most versions of the story he merely forced the bear to carry his baggage, but in one he actually saddled the bear and rode it, imitating, perhaps, the third-century Cappadocian martyr St Mamas who had ridden a lion.
I have recurring dreams of bears. In one dream last week I’d unaccountably set up our camping tent mere meters from a bear sleeping on a pile of chewed limbs and mangled carcasses; I managed somehow to keep the children hushed long enough to dismantle the tent without waking it. In other dreams I’ve been variously pursued or ignored by bears, in wild or in urban settings. Even when they aren’t particularly threatening, my dream bears are unpredictable, objects of mute horror and chthonic dread, something like Melville’s sharks.
These dreams are probably explained by my three encounters with ursus americanus in the Sierra Nevada. In the first, a mother bear and two cubs ransacked our campsite several times over the course of a night. In the second, miles from any roads or assistance, an adolescent male tried to make off with my pack and food and then circled the tent, breathing heavily, till morning. In the third, I was sleeping without a tent and woke to find a giant black bear immediately beside me tearing open a companion’s backpack, hot on the scent of an empty candy bar wrapper.
At a bookshop I once consulted a poorly conceived dream dictionary and learned that bears represent pretty much whatever you want them to represent: conflict, victory, aggression, mastery, life, death, sexual vigor, sloth, renewal, power. The bear also, of course, symbolizes Russia, and California, and so it’s possible that my dreams are spurred by unresolved complexes left over from my Cold War childhood, or conflicted feelings for my home state.
St Corbinian taming the bear represents, I suppose, the triumph of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, civilization over barbarism, the light of the Church over pagan darkness. My dreams are full of foreboding. If they don’t devour me outright, my dream bears, I think, are as likely to ride me as I am to ride them.