“Artio and Artaois” by Beth Wildwood, cover art for
Pagan Portals – Artio and Artaois: A journey Towards the Celtic Bear Gods
When I think of Imbolg, I think of its traditional connection with the birthing of the lambs and goats. But they are not they only creatures giving birth in late winter / early spring. For our agrarian ancestors it was other livestock, including calves. And in those long-gone times, other creatures roamed the land and had an important place in the culture and lore. One of those was the bear, which is still common in many parts of the world although they are now extinct in my ancestral lands of Great Britain and Ireland.
Grandmother or Mama Bear is a potent symbol for women, connected to ancient tales of motherhood and child protection, and possibly to a much earlier “bear priestess” role for women. To this day, we still describe fierce protective women as “Mama Bears”.
Celtic scholars such as Séamus Ó Catháin and Joanna Macy have found pan-European folklore that link tales of the goddess Brighid, so strongly associated with Imbolg, back to much earlier Iron Age bear cults. And like Brighid, Bear was known as a fierce protector of women and children.
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas found bear figurines from 5000 BCE associated with bear cults, and even Proto-Indo European linguistic evidence of the link between “birth” and “bear”, with the common root “bhere”. We can still see this connection in modern languages (“bairn” for child in Scotland, and the Old Norse “burgh” for birth). And in English we still say to “bear children”, perhaps a coincidence or a nice bit of synchronicity! Jude Lally wrote an in-depth article on the Brighid-Bear connection which you can read here.
And it is likely that this bear-goddess-birth-healing link was established in much earlier times, when the Celts were in central Europe before migrating north and west. For instance, we know that the name for the Irish-Celtic goddess Danú comes from the same root as that of the river Danube. And the bear goddess, known as Artio, may have its original roots there. The influence of Artio, the original Celtic “she-bear” goddess, may have transformed in other cultures to the Greek goddess Artemis and the Christian saint Ursula (the Latin feminine for “bear”).
The Artio image pictured to the right is by Thalia Took, who also provides some history of this goddess (click the image for more info).
These tales and folklore recognized that Bear went into a period of deep rest and hibernation in Winter and was “reborn” in the Spring. The female bear conceived in autumn so the hibernation was also the gestation period for her cubs, who were born in late January / early February when we celebrate Imbolg. And apparently various stages of the bear’s hibernation were marked, including February 24th (the date this post was published) which celebrated (per the quote further below) Winter-Matt, when the Mama Bear “turned from one side to another on the Midwinter (or in Christian times, on the feast day of St Henry) and said “Yö puolessa”, “Half of the night has passed”.”
This echoes the folklore of Brighid, who at Imbolg transforms/is born from the Crone of Winter (An Cailleach) to the Maiden of Spring.
To those ancient peoples, the seeming ability of the Bear to be reborn after the “death” of hibernation truly was magical, and was seen as a connection with the Ancestors and the Otherworld.
Bear in the Sky
There is evidence that Iron Ages cultures (especially those of Northern Europe such as the Sammi and Finno-Ugric people of Finland, Estonia and Hungary) believed that Bear (Ursa Major aka The Great Bear, The Big Dipper and The Plough) came from the sky and married a human woman, giving women a special relationship with Bear (and that bears would not attack women, but we know this is not true).
The position of Ursa Major in the sky followed the seasons, and is visible throughout the year as it is a circumpolar constellation, circling the North Star throughout the year.
The year was divided into two halves of Light and Dark (not unlike the Celts) or sleeping and awakened separated by Bear Days:
The year was divided into two halves by two "Bear Days‟. The Midwinter or the Turning Day of the Bear on the 13th of January, and the Midsummer or the Birthday of the Bear on the 13th of July. It was believed that the bear, who went to its winter sleep on the St. Matthew‟s Day on the autumn equinox and woke up on the feast day of St. Matthias, "Winter-Matt‟ on the 24th of February, turned from one side to another on the Midwinter (or in Christian times, on the feast day of St Henry) and said “Yö puolessa”, “Half of the night has passed” (Vilkuna, 1950: 33, 266). It is interesting to note that during the long northern midwinter nights, the Big Dipper could be seen to move almost a full circle around the celestial pole, turning from one side to another. Quote Source: "The Bear and the Year: On the Origin of the Finnish Late Iron Age Folk Calendar and its Connection to the Bear Cult", by Marianna P. Ridderstad, University of Helsinki. Click here to read the article on Academia.edu.