(Prose Part 2) The Bear Goddess in Europe by Sara Wright

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

The Greek Artemis was the goddess associated with Wilderness and “wild places” once included all animals, birds, and their habitat. Artemis also reigned over childbirth, and was seen to be a protector of women, so we see her here as a Great Wild Mother figure. However, the Greek name Artemis, betrays the goddess’s primary identification with the Bear Goddess as “Art” because the word means bear. The Gaulish name Artio is also the Celtic name of the Bear Goddess and it was the ancestors of the Celts who invented this ancient Vinca script.

The precursor of Artemis was worshiped in Minoan Crete as Bear Goddess of the mountains and the hunt. The cult had ancient totemic and shamanistic beginnings. People used to place their children under the power of the Bear Goddess for protection and healing. Infants were placed on bearskins soon after birth to invoke the power of the Bear Goddess, a practice continued from the Neolithic age. The Celts worshiped Brigid, and the name of this Celtic Fire Goddess also stems from the word bear. In Britain Celts called the Bear Goddess Art, and their king, Arthur, was her bear son. The Celtic Bear Goddess was also associated with the bears of Berne, Switzerland. The beserkers, wearers of bear shirts, worshipped Artio the Bear goddess in Berne. Later the Christian church canonized the Bear Goddess as Saint Ursula. In Crete the bear was honored as the Virgin Mary and was called “She of the Bear.”

In one Greek myth Callisto, a beautiful nymph belonging to Artemis, caught the eye of Zeus. When he pursued her Callisto kept changing her form (shapeshifting) but Zeus finally caught her in the form of a bear. When Artemis discovered that Callisto was pregnant she killed her and her child. Repenting afterwards Artemis then placed Callisto and her son into the sky. It is striking that the two endmost stars in the Great Bear or Ursa Major are always in line with the North Star, Ursa Minor or the Little Bear. Not incidentally, the North Star is the most constant in the northern hemisphere and is therefore indispensable for orientation. The Great Bear as Ursa Major circumnavigates the sky following each season; Polaris remains stationary. Both act as celestial constellations that guide the people because they can be seen all year long in the northern hemisphere. I like to think of the Great Bear and her son as Nature’s compass.

In another version, the cult of Artemis was created when two men killed a bear sacred to Artemis who responded by sending a plague that would cease only if the Athenians would consecrate their daughters to her every five years. Artemis had her way. The young girls apprenticed to her were required to undergo a ritual period of “wildness” before entering puberty. The girls danced as bears becoming companions to Artemis, in freedom and self-rule. The girls wore leaf crowns, bear masks, and robes of saffron, and carried twigs topped by pine cones or torches as they gave thanks for the animals of the forest. At the end of the confirmation/ritual/ceremony the girls shed their robes and were left naked, signifying that they had become wild bears. Artemis and her followers could take the form of bears at will so the Bear Goddess was still considered to be a shapeshifter in Greece at that time. Besides being worshiped as a goddess of the wilderness, Artemis was intimately associated with the moon another celestial body intimately associated with women.

In Greece the goddess who married the bear was Artemis, which suggests mythical underpinnings of the marriage of goddess and bear. Northern Europeans and Siberians also told similar bear tales of the girl who married a bear.  In one version (the latter) the girl is kidnapped by a bear who takes her to his den. They sleep all winter and the girl receives nourishment by sucking the bear’s paw. Summer comes and the girl and the bear live as husband and wife on a mountainside.  One day while picking berries the girl meets her brother who is a great shaman and who has been searching for her all winter. The brother transforms himself into a bear and fights the bear husband and wins, taking the girl home. Soon the bear woman gives birth to a boy who has the ears of a bear.

We encounter Bear Ears as the bear son who overcomes a series of monsters and becomes the father of all future generations of Tungus. This story is one of the oldest and widespread folktales of the Old World, upon which Beowulf, the Odyssey, and several Norse sagas are based. By this time we see that the Bear Goddess has lost most of her original power to patriarchy, because the son becomes the hero.

Another European ritual between a woman and bear re-enacted the wedding ceremony. The sacred marriage revolved around the male god of vegetation, who was a bear. Until recently this ritual was held at the base of the Pyrenees in southern France just after Candlemas/Imbolc. The people built a cave and the bear searched until he found his bride and took her to his den and a feast was held to celebrate the marriage. This marriage between woman and bear probably stretches back in time to Neolithic Europe when the bear and woman were one being, the Great Bear Goddess. The bear was the soul body of the woman. Another way of looking at these stories is to see them as tales of acquiring authentic female power. When the woman marries the bear she becomes grounded in her own instinct.

Paul Shepard writes in The Sacred Paw that in Mithraic cultures, Mithras as ‘Sol invictus’ held the constellation of the Great Bear in his right hand that moved and turned the heavens around.  The reference to Mithras suggests to me that there is also an element of kingship attached to European bear mythology that replaced the earlier belief that the Bear Goddess as Ursa Major was the original “queen” that ruled the celestial sky.

Europeans and Asians once considered the Bear Goddess to be a great healer, no doubt because in the natural world bears are able to heal their own wounds with plants.  Today in Asia the gall bladder of the bear is still indispensible to Chinese medicine and there are bear farms where both female and male Asian black bears are held captive in steel crush cages (the animals can’t move or stand up) no larger than their bodies for as long as they live. They are milked for bile for 10 – 20 years until they die and their paws are cut off and sold. Their bones are crushed into powder used in Chinese medicine. This form of incomprehensible torture continues to this day.

Currently, the Christianized Candlemas celebrated on February 2nd is an ancient vestige of the Goddess as Bear returning from the underworld after giving birth. Imbolc or Candlemas is also Brigid’s second feast, a fire festival that celebrates the return of ‘first light’ and is also a time of  ritual purification and renewal because Brigid is also associated with sacred wells and the mother bear has given birth. Even today nuns at Kildare tend a perpetual fire in Brigid’s name. Another of Brigid’s familiars is the serpent ‘who will also arise from the earth on her feast day though snow covers the ground.’

In Poland, Hungary and Austria February 1-2 is still celebrated as Bear’s Day; the day the bear emerges to see if it can see its own shadow. If it cannot, then the bear returns to the underworld for another six weeks, to await the coming of spring. In contemporary America February 2nd is celebrated as Groundhog Day; its antecedent the bear has vanished into oblivion.

Up until the last century in rural Europe a captive bear, the Shrovetide bear, was led from house to house and often made to dance on burning coals because everyone had to dance so the grain would prosper. Bear dances to awaken the bear who helped bring back the sun, blessed the crops and symbolized world renewal were always done in February or March.

In circumpolar cultures the Great Bear and Little Bear’s story unfolds in the night skies marking the seasons. Sleeping beneath the ground in caves carved out of tree roots the Bear Goddess dies and is reborn. As Great Mother, the giver of life, She gives birth in the dead of winter re-appearing in the spring to symbolize Earth’s renewal. She is both guardian and mediator (soul guide) between the spirit world and that of the world we live in. The Bear Goddess embodies the ability to heal both body  and soul with her medicinal plants. She initiates children into adulthood and women into their authentic power and in hunting cultures her consort “Grandfather Bear” is the animal willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of his life for the people to live.

Read Part 1.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Sara Wright.

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