Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Goddess of the Dawn: An Aurora of Polar Bears

A resting aurora of polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba (work
of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported licensor Brocken Inaglory
An aurora of polar bears is a term of venery first collected by Adam Foster in April 2007 from the social networking site LiveJournal. Google references for aurora outpace those of runners-up "celebration" and "pack" by more than four to one. The traditional term for a group of European brown bears (like the polar bear, a member of genus Ursus) is sleuth or sloth, since applied to the various brown bear grizzly subspecies (e.g., Ursus arctos horribilis) in North America as well as the separate species of black bears (Ursus americanus). Not surprisingly, the traditional terms sleuth and sloth have been used for polar bears as well, though in small numbers per their Google references.

It is worth noting that George Turbervile in The Book of Hunting (1611, p. 218) supplies an explanation for the terms sleuth and sloth at odds with modern knowledge of bears. He writes "they are so heavy, that when they be hunted, they can make no speed but are always with sight of the dogs ... they go sometimes a gallop, and sometimes an ample: but when they wallow, they go at most ease." Sloth and sleuth are deformations of "slowth" and thus "slowness." Yet polar bears, for example, though known for their lumbering gait, hardly match this description, achieving speeds of 40 km/h (25 mph) when sprinting. Thus perhaps a less blatantly inaccurate term is in order.

Though the genesis of aurora may be lost to time, some facts are known. A polar bear named Aurora was born in the Cleveland Zoo in 1982. In 1992, polar bears and the Northern Lights (an aurora) made their first joint appearance in a Coca-Cola commercial. In 2000, the beanie baby polar bear Aurora was "born" and placed on sale. This was followed in short order by an actual polar bear named Aurora in the Toronto Zoo in December 2000, as well as a mechanical representation in 2013 of a polar bear with a message to "Save the Arctic" by the same name in London. "Aurora" of course refers both to the Northern Lights under which the polar bears live, and to the Roman Goddess of Dawn

The phrase "aurora of polar bears" appears to have made it onto lists of terms of venery first in 2006 (prior to its use on LiveJournal), and thereafter in 2008, 2012 and 2013. In December 2009, Linda Pine and Nicole Bruckman collected and curated new works based on terms of venery in an exhibition called An Aurora of Polar Bears: A Children's Primer at Gallery Meltdown in Los Angeles. At the gallery Andrew Brandou showed An Aurora of Polar Bears, a work of cel-vinyl paint on wood. A book of pencil drawings entitled An Aurora of Polar Bears I Have Dreamt of by Louise Jennison was published in 2011. In 2012, Chronicle Books published a Google e-book of illustrations called A Zeal of Zebras: An Alphabet of Collective Nouns that includes a drawing also entitled An Aurora of Polar BearsIts preamble speaks of polar bears in excess of one thousand in the Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba, as they await for the Hudson Bay to freeze. Significantly, the town of Churchill markets itself as the premier place to view the Northern Lights and polar bears, though Alaska makes similar claims. The term first appeared in a work of fiction in The Open and Shut Case by Harry Demaio in 2013 at page 48: "Belinda broke out crying as her mother pushed her back toward an aurora of polar bears." An unusual poetic flourish, to be sure, in the midst of such an unmotherly act.

A mother polar bear: the Goddess of the Dawn, waiting for the winter freeze so the hunt can begin, under the lights of the north that show the translucence of her fur. A sublime image, even if absent from the Book of St. Albans.

Google references of "name + polar bears" as of May 6, 2014 
* aurora, 33,700
* celebration, 22,600
* pack, 22,400
* sleuth, 279
* sloth, 73

ós blanc {ca}
oso polar u oso blanco {es}
* ours blanc {fr}
ᓇᓄᖅ {iu} 
nanuq {ik} 
The plural is nanuuk in Iñupiak. Both the Inuktitut and Iñupiaq forms will remind English speakers of Nanook of the North. This is not accidental.


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