Healing with Nature’s Giant: Romania’s Unconventional Back Pain Treatment, 1946

In the rugged landscapes of post-World War II Romania, a unique and unconventional approach to treating back pain emerged from the depths of Romani culture. This remarkable practice, rooted in centuries of tradition, involved the use of one of nature’s most formidable creatures—the bear.

The custodians of this unusual healing art were known as the Ursari, a distinct subgroup among the Romani people. Their name, derived from the Romanian word “urs,” meaning “bear,” aptly signified their unique occupation as bear handlers and trainers. With a rich history tracing back generations, the Ursari were once primarily nomadic, their livelihoods intricately tied to busking performances featuring dancing bears, predominantly brown bears, and occasionally Old World monkeys.

The Ursari’s performances were a sight to behold, captivating audiences with the mesmerizing movements of these majestic creatures. The bears, often bedecked in colorful attire, twirled, swayed, and “danced” to the delight of onlookers. These captivating displays were a mainstay of Romanian entertainment, symbolizing a harmonious yet unconventional union between humans and the wild.

Print showing of a dancing bear and its handlers in Hesse, ca. 1810

The Ursari’s artistry with bears extended beyond mere spectacle. Within their tight-knit communities, the Ursari were revered for their deep understanding of these powerful animals. They possessed a unique insight into the natural world, one that allowed them to form a remarkable bond with the bears under their care.

But it was not just for entertainment that the Ursari’s talents were sought. Among their own community and beyond, they were known for a curious and little-understood practice—a form of alternative medicine that employed bears to alleviate back pain and various ailments. In this method, the Ursari believed that the bear’s physical prowess and energy could be harnessed to help heal those suffering from chronic pain.

In 1946, as Romania grappled with the aftermath of war, the Ursari’s back pain treatment gained unexpected attention. People from various walks of life, burdened by the physical toll of the times, turned to the Ursari in search of relief. The Ursari would conduct their sessions with a ritualistic precision, with the bear’s immense presence being central to the process. It was believed that the bear’s natural strength and energy could be transferred to the patient through specific movements and touches.

Ursari in Transylvania, 1869 engraving

Though the concept may seem far-fetched by modern medical standards, it reflected a deep connection to nature and the profound respect that the Ursari held for these magnificent animals. In the Ursari’s eyes, the bear was not just a performer but a potent force of healing, a bridge between the human world and the wild.

Over the years, the Ursari’s practice of using bears for healing waned. The evolution of societal norms, conservation efforts, and changes in animal welfare laws led to the decline of bear performances. The Ursari, too, transitioned away from their nomadic lifestyle and adopted more settled existences.

Today, the Ursari continue to be a vital part of the Roma community in Romania, as well as in Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia, and various Western European countries. While their role as bear trainers has diminished, their cultural significance and traditions endure.

The story of the Ursari and their unique back pain treatment serves as a testament to the enduring power of tradition, the enigmatic connection between humans and animals, and the remarkable ways in which communities have sought to heal and thrive throughout history.

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