The Celtic Bear
Written and Researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska, B.F.A.

Surprisingly, images and most stories about Bears have been lost to the ages in Great Britain, Saxony, and Nordic legends. Bears are no longer found in Scotland (since the end of the eleventh century) or Ireland, since they were made extinct in the late Middle Ages. Bear amulets made of jet have been found in North Britain. Many times these were placed in the cribs of new-born babies so they would be under the protection of the Great Mother Bear. The Bear's strength and power made them a powerful totem symbol for the ancient Celts, and Bear's teeth were considered powerful amulets. Some Celtic sites had votive statues and ritual jewelry dedicated to the Bear.

Archeaologists have found carvings and cave paintings of Bears at Drachenloch Caves, in Switzerland. Neanderthal man revered the Bear back as far as 70.000 years ago. In the Lascaux caves, in France, we find bear art back to 17,000 B.C. A sixth-century altar dedicated to the bear god, Aedeche, is found in the French town of St. Pé d'Ardet--the Vallée de l'Ourse -- not far from Lourdes. Many ancient cultures wore Bear skins with the head still attached to try to become Bear. Joseph Campbell claims that Bear Cults and Clans are older than shamanism. It is thought that bear skins were used by many early peoples, because of their warmth, for articles of clothing.

Today some gods and goddess tales remain. Greek and Roman legends tell how the infant Zeus was hidden and looked after by two Bears, who later became the constellations Ursa Major (the Great She Bear), and Ursa Minor (Little She Bear) . These star groups are almost universally associated with the Bear image. The stars seem to rotate around the pivotal Pole Star, which lies directly above the North Pole. Bears were sacred to the goddesses Artemis Calliste (the Celts called her Cardea) and Diana. In the cult of Artemis, young girls were dressed in yellow robes and called 'Bears' before being allowed to marry.

In the Roman arena, Bears were used as performers (dancing bears), as executioners for criminals, and in the "sport" of Bear baiting (as described above). These same practices were undoubtly brought to the Isles by the Roman invaders.

Bear baiting was practiced in many royal courts. This was a gruesome game between bears and dog packs. The bear was usually tied to a stake, with a chain or put into a pit, while a herd of vicious dogs attacked the poor beast. This event was very cruel and bloody and similar to other such offenses against animals such as cock fighting, and pit bulls fighting.

The Celts had two goddesses that took the form of the Bear: Andarta ("powerful bear") and Artio. In other cultures there are the bear god Artaois, Ardeche, or Arthe. Their names are both from "Art" which means "Bear, stone, or God." There are also many place names called Artos or Arth. Images of the god Artio have been found in Berne (Bear City), Switzerland, which has its "den of bears" which was used by the Bear cultists. King Arthur (a form of Artios or Artiaus, a great god of antiquity) is associated with Bear in that his name comes from the constellation of the Great Bear, which was also known as "Arthur's Wain/Arthur's Plow." Midwinter is the time of Alban Arthuan/The Light of Arthur and the Winter's Soltice. The Winter's Soltice is the longest night of the year, and people called upon the constellation of the Great Bear to light their way in the darkness. Soltices and Equinoxs were performed at Stonehenge. The Bear is also thought to be ruled by the planet Mars. Ancient traditions help us discover our ancestral roots. The legend of Arthur sleeping in an underground cave, waiting for his day of awakening, is like the life of a Bear that hibernates in the winter in a sort of suspended animation, as its bodily temperature falls to conserve calories. King Arthur and Queen Geunevere are also associated with the Alder Tree in Celtic Tree astrology. Arthur, as Artios, was consort to Cerridwen, the Welsh triple goddess who possessed a magic cauldron. In the medieval Welsh romance of Culhwch and Olwen, Arthur was also said to have gone to Ireland to recover this cauldron and in the process laid waster to one of the five Provinces. The Norse god, Thor, is associated with male Bears. Moon-goddesses often have association with Bears. Bear is like the Primal Mother, and will defend her cubs against all forces to the death. The Celtic god, Cernunnos is often depicted as being accompanied by a bear and other animals. Bear allows men to become Spirtual Warriors. Bear tells us not to allow the berserk (men that became bears) warrior to rule us by anger and primal ferocity which can damage lives, but to try to fight against what you can do and what you SHOULD do. The greatest men are said to be Art an neart - "a bear in vigor." The Druids called upon the blessings of the Great Bear, which is associated with the North. The reverence for Bears began to wain with the coming of Christianity, and was perverted into bear-baiting.

Even in Tudor times, every important town had its own Bear. One official was called the Master of the King's/Queen's Bears. Bears toured the country decorated with ribbons and flowers. They were blinded to maintain their obedience and control. Gypsies in the Balkans also practiced this cruelty to Bears.

Congleton, in Cheshire, was reputed to have used money that was earmarked for Bibles and used it instead for the purchase of a new town bear, since their own had resently died. This was in the seventeenth century.

Congleton rare, Congleton rare,
Sold the Bible to pay for a Bear

Phrases such as "licking a child into shape" comes from the belief that newborn bear cubs were small and fragile and their mother licked them into health and shape. The Bear Paw is also thought to secreate a substance that kept the bear through long winter hibernations. In China Bear Paws are thought to have medicinal powers, along with Bear gallbladders. Unfortunately, this has led to the poaching of Bears into extinct in this part of the world. Because of the hiberation pattern of the Bear, it is associated with rebirth and renewal. In all cultures the Bear seems to have been the first to have been honored and revered.

English medieval "mummers" play the Bear as a villian, having him terrorize flocks of sheep. Bears have always been admired for their great strength, and their knowledge. Bears will stay away from trouble with humans if possible, but when cornered, they will fight bravely.

In medieval times, it was believed the a Bear's eye in a beehive would make the bees prosper and make more honey. Bears love honey, and often will brave the anger of the hive for a taste of their favorite nectar. A child riding on the back of a Bear was thought to cure whooping cough. Many wandering performers went from town to town with their trained Bears and good paid by the citizens to watch them dance and do tricks.

Bears lie deep within the earth for the winter months, and when it awakens it has a whole new world of dreams and experiences before it. Bears are slow to arouse but can be extremely fierce when provoked. The Native Americans also had a great reverence for the Bear, and thought that they were closer to man than all other creatures.


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