Bear Meaning & Symbolism
My Celtic Bear art plus a dive into bear meaning and symbolism, now and through the ages...
The bear is a powerful symbol for us - even today, when bears have not been living wild in Britain for hundreds of years…
And indeed, bears are generally seen as symbol of strength and power – but the story is more nuanced and interesting than that and bears definitely have a different side to show us, too…
A Brief History of Bears
In years past, bears were greatly revered – and our history with bears is a long one. As much as 70,000 years ago, it’s thought that bears were seen as sacred and it’s been suggested that a bear cult may even have existed…
At Drachenlock in Switzerland, the bones of more than 30,000 cave bears were found around two fireplaces, including bear skulls stacked in a stone chest. A ritual hunting practice has been suggested.
Cave art of bears has been found in the Chauvet cave in France, dating from around 30,000 years ago, and showing the importance of bears to these early humans.
The French town of Saint-Pe-d’Ardet (named from the Celtic bear god Ardehe and located in the Valley de l’Ourse, (Valley of the Bears) had a prehistoric altar (from the 6th centuty BC) dedicated to the bear god.
And in Iron Age Britain, at Welwyn, a grave was found containing a chieftain lying on a bear pelt.
In Ancient Rome, bears were used to entertain – to perform tricks and to be involved in bear-baiting, where crowds watched a bear take on vicious dogs in a fight to the death. Bears were also used to carry out the death sentence for criminals.
It is thought that Scottish ‘Caledonian Bears’ were sent to Rome and the appetite for performing bears and bear-baiting was brought to Britain by the Romans.
The Celtic Bear Gods, Goddesses & King
The Celtic root word for bear is ‘artos’…
The Celtic warrior goddesses Andarta and Artio, worshipped in Gaul and Berne (City of Bears), both took the form of a bear – the name means ‘powerful bear’.
And there were also bear gods called Artaius/Artaois (a Celtic Mercury god), Ardehe, and Arthe.
For the Celts, the bear was representative of the brave warrior. A warrior hero would be described as ‘art an neart’ – ‘a bear in vigour’.
It seems likely that the legend of King Arthur is linked to this powerful imagery of the bear. In Wales, there are tales that King Arthur sleeps still with his warriors, deep underground in a cavern (Craig-y-Ddinas, Wales) awaiting his re-awakening, just like a hibernating bear.
In Wales, the constellations that are commonly known as ‘Ursa Major’ (Great Bear) and ‘Ursa Minor’ (Little Bear) are called simply ‘Cerbyd Arthur’ (Arthur’s Wain).
The Great Bear is also sometimes known in Wales as ‘Telyn Arthur’ (Arthur’s Harp), the Little Bear as ‘Arthur’s Plough’ and Orion’s Belt as ‘Arthur’s Yards’.
Elsewhere, the ‘Ursa’ bear-constellations recall the Greek-Roman myth of the baby Zeus who is looked after by two bears who became these two well-known constellations in our night sky.
In Scandinavian traditions, a ‘he-bear’ was sacred to the god Thor, while ‘she-bears’ were associated with the moon goddesses.
The Mother Bear
In the Roman cult of the moon goddess Artemis (note, again, the ‘art’ in the name, meaning bear), bears were sacred to the goddess and young girls called ‘bears’ were dressed in yellow robes to serve the goddess.
Carved jet bears, thought to be used as amulets, have been found in graves in Iron Age/Roman Britain – frequently in the graves of babies and young children. It’s suggested that these bear amulets relate to the goddess Artemis, who was also the protector of childbirth and child-rearing.
When one of Artemis’ nymphs, Kallisto, became a mother, Artemis gave her the form of a bear. There is a sanctuary in the Acropolis of Athens dedicated to Artemis where she is known by the name ‘Kalliste’ and viewed as the goddess of childbirth.
Artemis is sometimes also associated with Atalanta, who was abandoned in the wild as a child and suckled by a female bear.
Carvings have also been found on stone sarcophagi graves that show a dying mother with the child being watched over by a bear, signifying that bears seemed to symbolise this protective role over young children.
Bears were believed to be conscientious mothers who actually brought form to their cubs by their licking – they literally ‘licked them into shape’…
“And the she-bear, the most savage and sullen of the beasts, brings forth her young formless and without visible joints, and with her tongue, as with a tool, she moulds into shape their skin; and thus she is thought, not only to bear, but to fashion her cub.”
Bear images and bear teeth have also been found at various sanctuaries to Artemis.
In this way, the bear is also a symbol of birth/re-birth and renewal – also linked to the bear’s winter hibernation underground, re-emerging each spring (often with cubs) in what would likely appear as a rebirth from the darkness of the cave.
In other traditions, too, we see the association between the bear and babies or young children. The Yakut people of Siberia believed that a bear claw placed in a baby’s cradle would protect the child.
Perhaps, too, our tradition of gifting teddy bears to babies and children is also linked in some way to these associations between bears being protective of babies.
Carvings on the 2nd-century Trajan’s Column in Rome show Germanic warriors wearing bear-hoods (and some with wolf-hoods) – thought to be bear-warriors or the ‘Berserkers’ written about in later Norse mythology.
The Berserkers draw on the wild power of the bear to win their battles. The berserker bear-warriors were portrayed as heroic champions and even accompanied the god Odin. But they were also described as frenzied, attacking like wild animals – and, of course, they were as ‘strong as bears’.
In medieval times, the bear-baiting that had been brought to Britain by the Romans became a popular entertainment. By Tudor times, many towns had their own bear and bear-baiting arena/pit.
Performing or dancing bears were also common and the bears would tour the country to dance and perform, adorned with flowers and ribbons – but the poor bears were often blinded to ensure their obedience (and thence, the bear-master’s safety!)
As late as the 17th century, the bear was still so important to the townsfolk of Congleton in Cheshire that they used money that had been intended for a new bible to pay for a replacement bear for the town instead (after their original town-bear died)…
“Congelton rare, Congelton rare,
In the Celtic tale of ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, King Arthur (the bear king) battles a huge white boar, the ‘Twrch Trwyth’.
It’s thought that the boar here may signify the Church, in opposition to the warrior king (bear) (Arthur), the State – so bear and boar represent the struggle between spiritual and earthly power.
Medieval mummers’ plays in England would often make the villain a bear and would show the bear terrorising the sheep who would eventually be rescued by the shepherd – perhaps another comment on King and Church (with the Church represented by the Shepherd)...?
The Power of the Bear
People used to believe that bears mated just once every 7 years – and it was such a momentous and powerful event that it would cause disturbances for miles around and even cause cattle to miscarry!
It was also thought that bears' paws contained a nourishing substance that the bear would lick from its own paws through winter to sustain it through its long hibernation…
This is perhaps why Siberian and associated cultures believed that a bear’s paw brought luck and would ward off evil spirits, protect babies, and also cure various maladies in humans and animals. The Chinese, too, set great medicinal store by the bear’s paw.
Back in Britain, people believed that a child could be cured of whooping cough by riding on a bear’s back and that bees would thrive if the eye of a bear was placed in their beehive.
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