Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Four Days in the Grip of the Bear Goddess


I have known since early in my long sojourn in North America that the Bear is a great medicine animal. A powerful dream that brought me personal healing reminded me that this was not unknown to early peoples in Europe, especially when the ancient way of the Great Goddess was most alive. Here is my unedited journal report from almost quarter of a century ago.


April 26 1999

Four Days in the Grip of the She-Bear

A she-bear is among us. I volunteer to deal with her. She is enormous, maybe six hundred pounds. Light in color, lighter than honey-brown. She grips my head in the crook of her arm, and holds it against her, close to her face. We spend four days in this intimate embrace. It is not uncomfortable, but I am aware that at any moment she could break my neck.

At the end of four days, the people who were with me at the outset gather around us again. One is a woman scientist or zoologist. They now have the means to release me. But the she-bear lets me go without a struggle, confident of our relationship. She shambles away into a space that had been prepared for her, in a room off the corridor of an institutional building, a hospital or teaching facility.

When I start talking about her, she returns to look at me. 

“You are Artemis,” I tell her. “I am Osiris.”

On waking, I noticed that troublesome symptoms that had been bothering me for days - headaches and wooziness - had left me. I felt charged with vitality, sure I had received personal healing, and grateful to the she-bear that delivered it.-

I was intrigued by the words my dream self had spoken to her. I could grasp why I might have identified myself with "Osiris", as candidates for initiation and travelers preparing for the next world were schooled to do in ancient Egypt. Osiris is one who dies and comes back, one who is dismembered and re-membered. I could find something of my finite story within his neverending one.-

But why did my dream self hail the she-bear with the name of the Greek goddess Artemis? I hit the books, especially the brilliant early studies of Jane Ellen Harrison, who had an intuitive grasp of the shamanic sources of Hellenic ritual practices. I rediscovered hat throughout ancient Greece, bears were sacred to Artemis. Well-born little Athenian girls danced as bears to Artemis of Brauronia, the Bear-Goddess. Jane Ellen Harrison observed they “could not but think reverently of the great might of the Bear.”-

More generally, Harrison wrote in  Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, "The mystery gods…are never free of totemistic hauntings, never quite shed their plant and animal shapes. That lies in the very nature of their sacramental worship. They are still alive with the life-blood of all living things from which they sprang."-

I looked anew, with the eyes of a dream archeologist, at ancient images of the Bear goddess, including the 2nd century bronze statue of the Celtic bear goddess, found near Bern in Switzerland, who appears in the photo that accompanies this essay. The Romans called her Dea Artio. As far away as Britain, the Arthur, as consort of the Bear goddess, led his men into battle under her standard. In her human guise, in the Bern statue, the goddess offers fruit to her animal self.-

The link between Artemis and the Bear can be tracked through the myths, though we need dream sight to get to the heart of these stories. In the Greek version of the creation of the Bear constellations in the sky - Ursa Major and Ursa Minor - Zeus pursues Callisto, one of the nymphs of Artemis. Callisto keeps shapeshifting; the lusty god shifts just as fast, seeking to cover her in every form. The nymph of Artemis becomes a bear, and now Zeus, as a male bear, wraps her in his embrace and has his way with her. When Artemis later notices that her nymph is pregnant, she flies into a rage and kills her, but quickly repents and places Callisto and her daughter among the stars, as the Great Bear many call the Big Dipper, and the Lesser Bear.

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