Bear Goddesses and Gods: Artemis, Odin, Callisto and More
Gods and goddesses of the ancient world held a connection with certain animals. This is because our ancestors were animistic. They believed everything on earth had consciousness. Wildlife was sacred in ancient times. The bear is one of the most powerful and most feared of the animal kingdom. Dating back thousands of years, the people of Europe left their marks on cave walls—some of these drawings were of bears. Moreover, shamans have revered the bear for its power, but also for its motherhood qualities and healing abilities. Bear medicine is strong medicine. Its no wonder ancient gods and goddesses were connected to the bear. Learn of the bear goddesses and a bear god here.
The Bear Spirit: Terrifying Yet Awe-Inspiring
Why have we been so fascinated and yet so terrified of bears for thousands of years? When we think of seeing them in the wild, we arm ourselves with bear spray and quell our anxiety as best we can. But we know if we were to face a bear in her territory, or get between her and her cubs, we would pay the price. And yet, our children carry “teddy” bears with them to bed at night. There’s that sacred polarity with bears – terrible and also awe-inspiring. Nurturing and yet terrifying.
I’ve been working with the bear’s spirit for some time now, and every time I learn something new about the bear, it never ceases to amaze me. There’s a reason bears were painted on dozens of prehistoric and ancient cave walls. There is also a reason we call fierce, nurturing mothers “mama bear”. The bear’s spirit is ever-present in many of our lives through ancestral lines and ancient memory. We can’t escape her ferocious roar, deep-rooted medicine, and all-encompassing embrace. It’s no wonder there were bear gods and goddesses when we look back in time.
The Greek Bear Goddesses
The typical illustration of Artemis, Greek Goddess of the Hunt, depicts her with either a hunting dog or stag. However, one of Artemis’ most sacred animals was the bear. Artemis 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 special animal. Any time a bear was killed by the Greeks, Artemis would lay a plague on the people as punishment. Artemis’ cult spread over Greece. In Brauron, young girls played she-bears in honor of Artemis and as a preparation for motherhood. They wore bear masks and acted wildly in worship of her. 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 followers of Artemis, 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 Zeus 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 Celtic-Gauls, but we knnow she was intimately connected to bears. The few pieces of evidence we have of her cult’s existence were found in Switzerland and southern Germany. A bronze statue depicting Artio feeding a giant bear surfaced in Bern, Switzerland. Scholars say Artio feeds the bear with a bowl of fruit in her lap. But could it be the other way around? It seems to me the goddess is 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 “for the goddess Artio”. As with Artemis’ name, there is a clear link to the bear in Artio’s name. Art translaes to bear in Gaulish. Could Artio, the Bear Goddess of the Gauls, be the same goddess as the Greeks’ bear goddess Artemis?
Cailleach: Winter Hag and Bear Woman
The Cailleach is an ancestral goddess of Celtic Ireland and Scotland. Her name is spread far and wide throughout the Isles. Some speculate she’s even older than that of the Celtic age and may have come from somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula. She’s associated with quite a few animals including wolves, herons, deer, cattle and of course bears. If you go searching for this connection, you won’t find anything solid yet the connection is there. For me, Cailleach came to me first as a bear with an apron. After some study and veneration of the Hag of Beara, I also discovered she’s known to wear an apron filled with stones that she carries across the landscape. Dropping stones and creating mountains and valleys as she goes.
Ildiko: Hungarian Bear Goddess
Much of what we know of the Hungarian Bear 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 sacred animals was the bear. Ildiko was like Artemis – 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 with a Germanic origin meaning “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 heals 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. Mielikki is one of the bear goddess who had a part in the creation of the bear. The story goes 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 tale of Mielikki going into space to find the materials to make the bear correlates nicely with the tales of the other Bear Goddesses 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.
Odin: The All-Father and Bear God
Odin is a popular god among Norse and Germanic pagans and his cult has spread to nearly every part of the modern world. He is known as the All-Father, the One-Eyed, and the terrifying one. He is a wise, yet powerful god and knows how to win a battle. Because of this, warriors and magicians of ancient times sought Odin for his knowledge and ferocity. When depicted, he is usually illustrated as an old man with white hair and beard, cloaked, and carrying a staff. One of his eyes is missing, a sacrifice Odin made to tap into the wisdom of the well of Urðr.
Odin is almost always flanked by two of his totem animals—ravens and wolves. However, some claim Odin may 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 bear.