(Prose Part 1) The Bear Goddess in Europe by Sara Wright

“It is very peaceful with the bears; the people say that’s the reason human beings seldom return.”  Leslie Marmon Silko

Sara Wright winter rain image
Red bear, 80 cm wide, on the wall in the Cactus Gallery. Photo: Clottes (2003)

The mythology of the Bear Goddess has its roots in all continents and appears in all circumpolar cultures. The giant carnivorous nine-foot cave bear was antecedent to all. The themes of the bear first as an image of the Bear Goddess as Great Mother, guardian, celestial guide, shapeshifter, marriage partner, soul bridge, healer, and agent of renewal are present in all these cultures. In this essay we will seek out the Bear Goddess as she manifests in these guises in Europe.

Buffie Johnson writes in Lady of the Beasts that the bear inspires awe and fascination, embodying as it does the spirit of the wild and the Bear Goddess. That the bear is the very incarnation of nature seems obvious if we look at the animal’s natural history. These animals are devoted and protective mothers, intelligent, clever, and agile, can heal their own wounds and have amazing navigational skills; they also walk upright. Most enter a state of torpor in the fall and awaken slowly in the spring; bears don’t really hibernate, but their systems slow down in ways that scientists struggle to understand. Females remain alert during and after the birth of their cubs that are born every other January; mothers stay with their young well into their second year.

There are eight species of bears that inhabit the planet and most if not all are at risk due to habitat loss, poaching and hunting. Most are omnivores with insects, grubs, berries, nuts, and plant matter making up most of their diet. Some species are threatened by extinction. Polar bears are the largest (1500 pounds) and most carnivorous bear whose diet is mostly made up of seals, and whose range extends from Siberia throughout Canada/Alaska. Grizzly or Brown bears are the most widely distributed bear in the world found in the United States, Canada, Eastern and Western Eurasia. Black bears are the only bear native to the United States and Canada. There is a very small population of Sloth bears, and a slightly larger population of Sun bears who live in South Asia. The Spectacled bear lives in small pockets in the Andes of South America. Everyone knows that the Panda bear is the rarest bear in the world and only eats bamboo. The Asiatic Black bear (no relation to the American Black bear) is also called the Moon bear and this animal lives in isolated pockets In Taiwan, two Japanese islands, Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Himalayas. The ancestral bear is first found in the fossil record over thirty million years ago, and all bears, except the Spectacled bear and the Panda, share a common ancestor that appeared five million years ago.

Analysis of the word “bear” gives us insight to the animal itself. As a verb, “to bear” means to carry, to hold up, or to give birth. As a noun the word is associated with bear and brightness. Although opinions vary, the first evidence of interaction between human and bear appears to date to about 50,000 B.C.E so perhaps bear ceremonies began in  prehistoric old world Europe. For thousands of years Neanderthal hunters followed the bear. The bones of more than five hundred giant cave bears were found near Erd, Hungary in caves and were carbon dated to 49,000 B.C.E.  One of the most astonishing finds of a ritual character was found in a cave (Drachenloch) in the Swiss Alps around the same period. A crypt altar of stone slabs was set in the floor. Inside the chest were the skulls of seven cave bears and a number of long bones dated to about 50,000 B.C.E. Other skulls were ceremoniously placed around the wall in niches.  Other caches were found in other caves in Switzerland and Germany. Thirteen thousand years ago the remains of 30,000 bears were found in the Swiss cave of Wilden Mannistock where 42 skulls were placed in a single line. Many archeologists favor religious interpretations with good reason because giant nine foot cave bears inhabited these caves for thousands of years and were hunted by humans who also made altars that were placed in the most remote parts of these same caves to protect the bear skulls from desecration. I would argue that the bear was the first (human) religious expression of the Great Mother in her animal form (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) because the earliest archeological evidence of human –animal interaction revolves around the bear.

Marija Gimbutas was the first scholar and mytho-archeologist to study the gods and goddesses of old Europe. In The Language of the Goddess she suggests that the clay figurines of the Neolithic period are epiphanies of the Bear Mother. One depicts a bear-headed woman seated on a throne with crescents surrounding her. In Yugoslavia the bear as Madonna is illustrated by a Bear Goddess with an infant in her arms; in this clay depiction both wear masks. This Neolithic sculpture dates from 4,800 B.C.E. Gimbutas also believed that some of the earliest figures were images of the Bear Goddess protecting the divine child, the god of vegetation. Thousands of years later in Greece, Asia Minor, Crete, and Italy the divine child became the young Cretan Zeus who was born in a cave, and nursed by a mother bear.

Gimbutas also intuited that the terra-cotta bear figures in the form of water vessels were distinctly female. This notion is supported by lots of material connecting the Bear Goddess with the Lady of the Waters. This may be the origin of the ritual of purification that involves both the sacred fire and the flowing waters at the Celtic festival Imbolc in February. The importance of the bear in Old European rituals is attested to by bear vases that were made continuously from the 7th to the 3rd millennia B.C. according to Gimbutas. These containers were found in Neolithic Thessaly, central Greece and the Peloponnese, Yugoslavia, Albania, and on islands north of Sicily. Bear-shaped containers also speak to the bear as the containing female element associated with the Bear Goddess. Bear-shaped containers seemed to die out after 5000 B.C.E. but some evidence of early writing appears soon afterwards which I will discuss in a moment. There is no doubt that the recurrence of the bear in association with symbolic motifs especially with reference to the bear as goddess speaks to the continued importance of the animal over the course of thousands of years.

Dr. Toby Griffen, a linguist, believes he has found evidence of written language in the culture of Old Europe 5000 B.C.E. in the area in and around the Balkans that was the site of an advanced civilization, the same area that Gimbutas focused on. This pre– Indo-European Neolithic period is referred to as the Vinca culture. These sites have yielded many clay artifacts, including the intricately incised water vessels. As Griffen says, the archeologist assumes designs, while the linguist looks for evidence of writing, the most important of which is a repetition of signs in combinations. Griffen uses the spindle whorls and clay figurines of the Vinca culture (4800 B.C.E) to argue his point. His assumption is that spindle whorls from Old Europe carried a religious charge because the myths and folktales that survive explicate their importance. There are many figurines representing the Vinca theriomorphic pantheon – deities with animal characteristics like the bear represented in animal form, in hybrid animal/human form, or in human form with an animal mask.

In a fascinating paper Deciphering the Vinca Script Griffen looks for common signs and surmises that repeating signs represent the concept of deity. He goes on to say that if different signs are found in conjunction with the sign for deity  – say, one sign on bear figurines, another on bird figurines – that these represent different divine animals in the pantheon. As he deciphers the Vinca script he reaches the astonishing conclusion that perhaps the oldest known sentence in the human language is “The Bear Goddess and the Bird Goddess are the Bear Goddess indeed,” suggesting that the Bear Goddess and the Bird Goddess were One. Griffen notes that originally the Bear Goddess and the Bird Goddess were separate divine figures but that some time before the Old European goddesses were incorporated into the Greek Pantheon as Artemis, they had merged into a single deity, the Bear Goddess. I am struck by the correspondence between the bear who emerges out of her cave every spring and who could be seen as a manifestation of the Earth, and that of the bird, a cross-cultural symbol of Spirit. When these two animals are fused earth and sky, body and mind are united as one. However, I am not sure that it is necessary to make the assumption that the bird and the bear were separate divine images. This splitting seems to me to be more about the patriarchal way of seeing the world. I think that it is far more likely that the two were different expressions of the multi-faceted, multi-valenced power of the Bear Goddess.


To be continued.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Sara Wright.