The Crescent Moon Bear: A Mythological Story Depicting the Healing Process

by Deborah Grassman

Opus Peace.org

It was difficult reading; it was frustrating because my conscious mind was not trained in the metaphorical language of the unconscious; I protested with: “There must be another way!” Nevertheless, I persisted in understanding the story of The Crescent Moon Bear. I am oh so glad I did. In a fundamental, yet not so apparent way, it describes the tedious, perilous, and courageous inner work required to excavate peace in our souls. The myth highlights the trek taken to wrestle with our ego so that our hearts can be broken open. When we muster the honesty, courage, and humility to make this journey, we become liberated. The Crescent Moon Bear reflects the process of healing that Opus Peace facilitates. “Opus” is a Latin noun that means “a work,” and is commonly used to describe a complex masterpiece. “Opus” is an old word that captures the ageless, artful complexity of creating a true “masterpeace” — pervasive peace that penetrates beyond comforting facades.  The word “opus” reminds us that authentic peace requires work, courageous work, to heal scattered pieces of self. It also requires work to penetrate defensive, intimidating inner terrain that often prevents us from encountering our loving, grace-filled, compassionate self that hides its vulnerability in our depths. Once we are able to do this, however, we move from sole to soul.

This Japanese myth is from the book, Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Knowing my love for the Crescent Moon Bear, Pat found this statue for my garden. It now sits prominently outside my window to inspire me in my personal Opus Peace:

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The Crescent Moon Bear

There once was a young woman who lived in a fragrant pine forest. Her husband was away fighting a war for many years. When finally he was released from duty, he trudged home in a most foul mood. He refused to enter the house for he had become used to sleeping on stones. He kept to himself and stayed in the forest.

His young wife was excited when she learned her husband was coming home. She cooked bowls of tasty white soybean curd and three kinds of fish, and three kinds of seaweed, and rice sprinkled with red pepper, and nice cold prawns.

Smiling shyly, she carried the food to the woods and knelt beside her war-weary husband and offered him the beautiful food. But he sprang to his feet and kicked the trays over.

“Leave me alone!” he roared, and turned his back on her. He became so enraged she was frightened of him. Time after time this occurred until finally, in desperation, the young wife found her way to the cave of the healer who lived outside the village.

“My husband has been badly injured in the war,” the wife said. “He rages continuously and eats nothing. He wishes to stay outside and will not live with me as before. Can you give me a potion that will make him loving and gentle once again?”

The healer assured her, “This I can do for you, but I need a special ingredient. Unfortunately, I am all out of hair from the crescent moon bear. So, you must climb the mountain, find the black bear, and bring me back a single hair from the crescent moon at its throat. Then I can give you what you need, and life will be good again.”

Some women would have felt daunted by this task. Some women would have thought the entire effort impossible. But not she, for she was a woman who loved.

The next morning she went out to the mountain. And she sang out “Arigato zaisho,” which is a way of greeting the mountain and saying, “Thank you for letting me climb upon your body.”

She climbed into the foothills where there were boulders like big loaves of bread. She ascended up to a plateau covered with forest. The trees had long draping boughs and leaves that looked like stars.

“Arigat zaisho,” she sang out. This was a way of thanking the trees for lifting their hair so she could pass underneath.

She climbed till she saw snow on the mountain peak. A storm began, and the snow blew straight into her eyes and deep into her ears. Blinded, still she climbed higher. And when the snow stopped, the woman sang out “Arigato zaisho,” to thank the winds for ceasing to blind her.

She searched all day and near twilight a gigantic black bear lumbered across the snowfall. The crescent moon bear roared fiercely and entered its den. She reached into her bundle and placed the food she had brought in a bowl. She set the bowl outside the den and ran back to her shelter to hide. The bear smelled the food and came lurching from its den, roaring so loudly it shook loose little stones. The bear circled around the food from a distance, then ate the food in one gulp.

The next evening the woman did the same, but this time instead of returning to her shelter she retreated only halfway. The bear smelled the food, heaved itself out of its den, roared to shake the stars from the skies, tested the air very cautiously, but finally gobbled up the food. This continued for many nights until one dark blue night the woman felt brave enough to wait even closer to the bear’s den.

She put the food in the bowl outside the den and stood right by the opening. When the bear smelled the food and lumbered out, it saw not only the usual food but also a pair of small human feet. The bear roared so loudly it made the bones in the woman’s body hum.

The woman trembled, but stood her ground. The bear hauled itself onto its back legs, smacked its jaws, and roared so that the woman could see right up into the red-and-brown roof of its mouth. But she did not run away. The bear roared even more and put out its arms as though to seize her, its claws hanging like ten long knives over her scalp. The woman shook like a leaf in high wind, but stayed right where she was.

“Oh, please, dear bear,” she pleaded. “Please, dear bear, I’ve come all this way because I need a cure for my husband.” The bear brought its front paws to earth in a spray of snow and peered into the woman’s frightened face. For a moment, the woman felt she could see entire mountain ranges, valleys, rivers, and villages reflected in the bear’s old, old eyes. A deep peace settled over her, and her trembling ceased.

“Please, dear bear, I’ve been feeding you all these past nights. Could I please have one of the hairs from the crescent moon on your throat?” The bear paused. This little woman would be easy food. Yet suddenly he was filled with pity for her. “It is true,” said the crescent moon bear, “you’ve been good to me. You may have one of my hairs. But take it quickly, then leave here and go back to your own.”

The bear raised its great snout so the white crescent on its throat showed. Quickly, she pulled a hair.

“Oh, thank you, crescent moon bear, thank you so much.” The woman bowed and bowed. The bear roared at the woman in words she could not understand and yet words she had somehow known all her life. She turned and fled down the mountain as fast as she could. She ran under the trees with leaves shaped like stars. And all the way through she cried “Arigato zaisho” to thank the trees for lifting their boughs so she could pass. She stumbled over the boulders, crying “Arigato zaisho” to thank the mountain for letting her climb upon its body.

Though her clothes were ragged, her hair askew, her face soiled, she ran down the stone stairs that led to the village, down the dirt road and right through the town into the hovel where the old healer sat tending the fire.

“Look, look! I have it, I found it, I claimed it, a hair of the crescent moon bear!” cried the young woman.

“Ah good,” said the healer with a smile. She peered closely at the woman and took the pure white hair and held it out toward the light. She weighed the long hair in one old hand, measured it with one finger, and exclaimed, “Ah. Yes! This is an authentic hair from the crescent moon bear.” Then suddenly she turned and threw the hair deep into the fire, where it popped and crackled and was consumed in a bright orange flame.

“No!” cried the young wife. “What have you done!?”

“Be calm. It is good. All is well,” said the healer. “Remember each step you took to climb the mountain? Remember each step you took to capture the trust of the crescent moon bear? Remember what you saw, what you heard, and what you felt?”

“Yes,” said the woman, “I remember very well.”

The old healer smiled at her gently and said, “Please now, my daughter, go home with your new understandings and proceed in the same ways with your husband.”

Estes CP. Women who Run with the Wolves. NY: Random House, 1992, p.347-350.

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