Bear Goddesses and Gods
Origins of Animal Deities
Gods and goddesses of the ancient world often held a connection with certain animals. Some say this is because the beliefs of our ancestors were animistic, meaning to believe everything in nature has consciousness and/or a soul. This would include animals. Wildlife was thought of as sacred in ancient times, and there are scholars who believe ancient land guardian spirits were once worshiped by tribes and would eventually rise to become great gods and goddesses. To find an image of a god or goddess in the likeness of an animal was commonplace. Some of the more obvious animal-god connections can be seen on the ancient temple walls in Egypt. For example, the ibis-headed god Thoth. Or the hawk-headed god Horus.
One of the most powerful and most feared of the animal kingdom is the bear. Dating back thousands of years, the people of Europe left their marks on cave walls—some of these drawings were of bears. All over the world, shamans of each culture have revered the bear for its power, but also for its motherhood qualities as well as its healing abilities. Bear medicine is strong medicine, or so they say. Its no wonder ancient gods and goddesses were connected to the bear.
Artemis and Callisto: Greek Bear Goddesses
The typical illustration of Artemis, Greek Goddess of the Hunt, depicts her with either a hunting dog or a stag. However, one of Artemis' most sacred animals was the bear. Artemis wasn't just a hunter, though. She also had domain over the forest and all wildlife within it. The bear was the largest and most powerful animal, and so Artemis found it to be a very special animal. Any time a bear was killed by the Greeks, it was said that Artemis would lay a plague on the people as punishment. Apparently this happened more than once.
Artemis' cult could be found all over Greece, and each honored her by revering a certain animal. In Brauron, young girls were called on to play she-bears in honor of Artemis and also as a preparation for motherhood. It was said they wore bear masks and acted wildly in worship of the Great She-Bear, Artemis.
Artemis' name is theorized to have meant bear-sanctuary. If we break it down—art is close to ark which means bear, and temis is close to temnis which means sanctuary. We will see in the next section how another Goddess' name reflects this etymology.
Another close association between Artemis and bears is in the tale of one of Artemis' followers named Callisto. Callisto was a nymph (demi-god nature spirit), and as a follower of Artemis, it was said that women were charged to stay chaste and pure from men. Callisto was lured into having relations with Zeus, who impregnated her. When Artemis found out, she changed Callisto into a bear. Other versions say Athena was angered when she found Zeus had impregnated the nymph and so she turned Callisto into a bear. The constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (known to the Greeks as Arktos—bear) are said to be the soul remnants of Callisto and her son, and were placed in the sky by Zeus himself.
Artio: Forgotten Celtic Bear Goddess
We don't know a lot about Artio, the Bear Goddess of the ancient Gauls (a Celtic tribe based in modern-day France and Switzerland), but what we do know points to the simple fact that she was intimately connected to bears. The few pieces of evidence we have of her cult's existence have been found in Switzerland and southern Germany.
A bronze statue depicting Artio feeding a giant bear was found in Bern, Switzerland. Scholars say she is feeding the bear because she has a bowl of fruit in her lap. But could it actually be the other way around? It seems to me the goddess is almost being confronted by the bear and she is not backing down. There was once a great tale about this encounter, I am sure; however, over time the lore of Artio has been lost. The inscription on the Bern statue translates to mean "for the goddess Artio". As with Artemis' name, we can clearly see the link to the bear in Artio's name. Art translating to mean bear in Gaulish. More evidence of her cult has been discovered in southern germany in various places.
Could Artio, the Bear Goddess of the Gauls, be the same goddess as the Greek's bear goddess Artemis? We see how close their names are and their animal affiliations. This theory might be something to explore further.
Ildiko: Hungarian Bear Goddess
Much of what we know of the Hungarian Goddess Ildiko has been lost in time, or perhaps is just not readily accessible by my research methods. However, according to the Encyclopedia of Spirits by Judika Iles, Ildiko was a goddess of the forest and wildlife. One of her most well-known sacred animals was the bear. Ildiko was very much like Artemis in that she was the goddess of the hunt but also protector of forest animals. This is because of the need for balance—she guides the hunters but also protects animals in need of preservation or honor.
Ildiko is a common name in Hungary, and has a Germanic origin. It means "warrior". We can see how a warrior goddess would also be keen of bears—power, wisdom, and ferocity.
Mielikki: Finnish Bear Goddess
Above all, Mielikki is a healing goddess of Finland. She is associated with the woods and with wildlife, just as Artemis and Ildiko, but her main attribute is her healing abilities. She is said to heal the animals when they are sick or wounded. This corresponds directly with the medicine of the bear. Shamans know bears to be healers, and so Mielikki is like the bear in this way. But Mielikki is also said to have had a part in the creation of the bear. The story says that Mielikki left earth and traveled into space, past the moon, in search of the materials with which to make the perfect animal. She returned and stitched together the materials from the heavens to make the bear. The bear is Mielikki's favorite animal, above all the others.
The tale of Mielikki going into space to find the materials to make the bear correlates nicely with the tale of Artemis, Callisto, and Zeus putting Callisto into the sky to make the Ursa Major and Minor constellations. There is an asteroid and a mountain on the planet Venus named for Mielikki.
Only the fiercest gods and goddesses were connected to the great bear.— Nicole Canfield
Odin: The All-Father and Bears
Odin is a popular god among Scandinavian and Germanic pagans, but has spread as a god to nearly every part of the world in modern times. He is known as the All-Father, the One-Eyed, and the ultimate trickster. He is a wise, yet powerful god and knows how to win a battle. Because of this, the shamans and warriors of ancient times sought Odin for his knowledge and ferocity. When depicted, he is usually illustrated as an older man with white hair and beard, cloaked, and carrying a staff. One of his eyes is missing, as this relates to the legend of Odin receiving the runes while hanging from a special tree.
Odin is almost always flanked by two of his totem animals—ravens or wolves. However, some legends claim Odin can also be guarded by two great bears. I've yet to find solid evidence of this claim; however, this could be in part because of Odin's association with the berserkers (shaman warriors) who often wore the pelts of bears. Either way, a god of war, wisdom, healing, and trickery such as Odin would be well received as a friend of the bears.
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© 2017 Nicole Canfield