Our Sacred Relationship with Bear — The Bear Goddess in Pre-Christian Europe

Dea Artio, the bear goddess, Berne History Museum, Switzerland.

Dea Artio, the bear goddess, Berne History Museum, Switzerland.

by Cathy McCartney
by Cathy McCartney

HAVE YOU EVER FELT that the bear has entered your psyche – and you don’t understand why? Maybe you find yourself dreaming of bears and that dream affects you well into the waking hours. Or have you ever watched a bear and felt the presence of the Divine? You wouldn’t be the first person to feel this way. Archeological evidence reveals that the bear may be the oldest European deity, and that bear worship (arctolatry) dates as far back as the paleolithic period).[1]

THE BEAR GODDESS ARTIO is seated before a large bear who seems to have just emerged from the woods. She holds a basket of fruit before the bear, who stands patiently with his mouth open...

This statue (above), discovered in Berne, Switzerland, and another found in France, are the strongest evidence of the worship of the Celtic-Germanic Bear Goddess, whose patron animal was the bear. My New Jersey friends will notice immediately that while so many times we see bears depicted as ferocious, this bear gazes into Artio’s eyes as he waits, dog-like in posture, for the fruit. Engraved into the base of the statue is: “Deae Artioni” or, “To the Goddess Artio”. 

Artio, (AR-tee-oh) also known as Dea Artio and Andarta, gets her name from the Gaelic word “art”, meaning “bear.” The Swiss city of Berne, where one stature was found also means “bear.” So if your name is Bernard, Art, Arthur, McCartan, or any variation, your name also comes from the word “bear.”

It’s commonly held that Artio is a goddess of the Forest and of Wild Things, particularly bears. Her worship appeared in western Europe in 450 BC with the migration of Celtic tribes.[2] Unlike the goddess Diana, who is depicted with her bow, Artio holds no weapon. Instead, the Bear Goddess holds an offering, and is therefore associated with abundance. She is also likely a Motherly provider and a strong protector, two traits attributed to bears. Artio is considered a zoomorphic goddess, meaning that she can take the form of an animal, in this case, a bear.[3] Given such, it’s speculated that the bear in her tribute statue is actually the goddess, and the woman is her servant.[4] 

Sandstone Bear figures, Armagh, Ireland.

Sandstone Bear figures, Armagh, Ireland.

Sandstone figures of bears dating to pre-5th c. BC, have also been unearthed in Ireland, during the rebuilding of the Armagh Cathedral in 1840.[5] It’s well-known that the Church often built directly upon pagan temples, as a means of converting the non-Christians.

But our spiritual connection to bears may go back much further than we can imagine. A 70,000 yr-old grave discovered in Southern France tells the story of possible bear worship. There the skeleton of a neanderthal lies on a bear skin, surrounded by stones and the bones of a bear, carefully and systematically arranged.[6] A bear skull sits on an altar, overlooking the remains of someone that the tribe considered of great importance.

The American mythologist Joseph Campbell theorized that Artio’s roots lie with those ancient bear cults. He also ties her to the heavens through the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – the Great Bear and the Little Bear. Arcturus, the brightest start in proximity to the Bear constellations, is Greek for “Guardian of the Bears”[2] .

Reverence for bears survives into modern times. Native Americans stories talk about a time when people and animals could shape-shift, speak to each other, and even marry.[8]  This animal, with his god-like strength and ability to walk upright like a human, is also known as a healer, instinctively knowing which plants to eat when sick.

They also symbolize rebirth, emerging from the earth every spring after a deathlike hibernation.

Artio, by  Judith Shaw

Artio, by Judith Shaw

Modern-day pagans acknowledge the Bear Goddess. Says Judith Shaw, an artist whose paintings center on female deities, “When Artio calls your name, know that you are protected.”[2]

And while we have a historical connection to bears what draws us here today to the movement in New Jersey to protect them? Is it solely for animal welfare reasons, or does it go deeper than that? Do we share the same psychological connection to bears that was once carried by ancient people? 

IT SEEMS THAT THE BEAR has captured not only our hearts, but the deepest forest of our minds. We may fight for their protection on moral grounds and we may be charmed by their sentient nature, but the bears’ great size and massive strength still inspires awe. They are the forest gods. They are the bridge to a time when this place we call New Jersey, was wholly wild. And they fill a void in our spirit.


Judith Shaw's Goddess paintings can be seen at: www.judithshawart.com/art-gallery/the-goddess-and-ancient-wisdom/

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear_worship
[2] https://feminismandreligion.com/2015/08/26/artio-celtic-goddess-of-wild-life-transformation-and-abundance-by-judith-shaw/
[3] http://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2012/09/artio-germano-celtic-bear-goddess.html
[4] Sjoestedt, M (1949). Celtic Gods and Heroes
[6] https://balkancelts.wordpress.com/tag/armagh-bear-statues/
[7] http://www.druidry.org/library/animals/bear
[8] http://m.juneauempire.com/outdoors/2014-02-21/beaten-path-bear-truth#gsc.tab=0