The world’s oldest stories


A good story may grow and change, but it is never forgotten and does not die.

Human beings have been telling each other stories from the dawn of memory.

Their stories of lions and bears and hunters were told around cave hearths. They did not have writing, but the subjects of these stories are still known today, because they were painted on rocks. And immortalised in the night sky.

Cave lions, Chauvet, southern France, about 30,000 years ago


Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Arctos and Arcturus to the Greeks, Arth Uthyr (Arthur) of the Celts, Grande Ourse, Orsa Maggiore, Grosse Bär in Europe; Dabu in ancient Babylon, Dub, al Dubb al Akbar in Arabia and north Africa; in Finland Otawa and Otawainen; to the tribes of north AmerIca in pre-Columbian times Okuari and Paukunawa and Nyah-gwaheh, all with the meaning of “bear”. Bear worship was practiced as far back as the paleolithic (stone age) period amongst Neanderthal societies. About 150,000 years ago to present

The Hunt of the Great Bear

‘To us people the stars are not just put in the sky to give light or guide the wandering traveler. They are living things, sent by some twist of fate to roam the heavens forever, never swerving from their paths. One of these creatures who left the earth and went to live in the sky was Nanuk the bear.’ Inuit legend

‘The Star Bear moved across the sky. He was chased by seven birds. Robin caught the Bear and killed him. It was a long fierce fight. Robin was exhausted. He sat in a tree to rest and saw that he was covered in blood. Robin shook himself, and the leaves of the tree turned red. Then the leaves fell. Since then, every year the leaves turn red and fall, and all robins are marked with the blood of the Star Bear.’ Miqmaq legend

‘There were four brothers. No hunters were as good as they at following a trail. They never gave up. One day, in the moon when cold nights return, an urgent message came to the brothers. A great bear had appeared. People were afraid. Children no longer went to play in the woods. Each morning, when the people went out of their houses, they found the huge tracks of the bear. Picking up their spears the four hunters set forth for that village. As they came close they noticed how quiet the woods were. There were no signs of rabbits or deer. Even the birds were silent. On a great pine tree they found scars where the great bear had reared up on hind legs and made deep scratches to mark its territory. The tallest brother tried to touch the highest of the marks with the tip of his spear. ‘It is as the people feared,” he said. “This one we are to hunt is Nyah-gwaheh.'” Iroquois legend

“For many moons they followed the tracks of the bear across the Earth. The tracks led them to the end of the world. Looking ahead, they saw the giant beast leap from the earth into the heavens. The three hunters soon came to the jumping-off place. Without hesitation, the three of them followed the bear into the sky. There in the skis, you can see them chasing the bear during the long winter nights.” Mohawk legend


Next: Why do people remember stories?