Sacred Bear Mother

The cross-quarter day between winter solstice and spring equinox that we refer to as Imbolc, Candelmas or Candelora, was long referred to as Bear Day among our archaic European ancestors.

bear medicine

“After you take a bear’s coat off, it looks just like a human”.

The relationship between bears and our indigenous European ancestors was exceptionally complex.  In fact, it’s an archaic pan-European belief that we humans descended from bears. And this ursine genealogy is still deeply woven into a rich legacy of Old World European beliefs and cultural constructs.  The sacred she-bear is our mother and was considered the most important spirit guardian of the European shaman. Our beloved Diana was known as a she-bear.

The Sacred Bear played a central role in the most basic rites of our Old World ancestors: the practice of shamanism and earth connection, the healing of the sick and injured, initiation rituals and rites surrounding the hunt.

There are many still-living remnants of this bear genealogy that connect us to our much earlier hunter-gatherer ancestors and their symbolic as well as cultural order. These remnants take the form of traditions, oral tales, folklore, processions and other ritualized performance art such as dance and music.  Our weather forecasting groundhog is a unique American expression of the ancient prophesizing bear associated with this day.

Within the animistic framework of our Old European hunter/gatherer predecessors, in which shapeshifting played a role, bears are seen as shape-shifted humans. The bear mother nurses her young holding them to her breasts just as a human mother does. Bear stands and sits just as a human does. At the same time, humans can and do turn themselves into bears.

Many ancient peoples shared a belief in the magical attributes of bear paws. Apotropaic qualities were attributed to them; they were perceived as possessing the power to heal, to attract blessings and good fortune, to avert evil influences and to protect from misfortune or bad luck.

Our shamanic ancestors, who revered the Bear Mother as a spirit helper, for whom Bear Mother was the most powerful totem, wrapped themselves in the skins of bears, wore necklaces of bear claws, painted bear signs on their faces and bodies, and used bowls, drums and other implements carved in the shapes of bears. They kept bear claws and teeth and other parts of the animal in their sacred Medicine or Brevi bags. They used bear claws and gall and bear grease in their healing ceremonies and in the medicines they made. They danced as they thought bears danced and they sang power songs to the animal. They ate the same plants the bears ate and employed them as their medicines.

Many diverse people and cultures around the world believe that bears have special knowledge of medicinal plants. Humans and bears are both foragers – omnivorous creatures who have existed in the same ecological niche for hundreds of thousands of years, competing for the same food sources.  Bear Medicines, thought to be especially strength building as well as energetically protective, are considered to be those wild plant roots that are exceptionally nutritive… sweet, tasty, tissue building and restorative. Angelica and sweet cicely come to mind.

The bear possesses an incredible memory of landscape as well as a keen sense of smell and hearing, all of which give it a distinct advantage over humans. Nevertheless, both human and bear walked the same trails, fished the same salmon streams, dug roots from the same fields and woods, and year after year, harvested the same berries, seeds and nuts.  We have co-existed with bear through millennia. Our relationship has always been one of reverence and mutual respect.

Celestial Bear as the Guardian of the Gate of Heaven – Our ancestors viewed bears as extraordinarily intelligent creatures, so much so that they were considered to have once ruled the earth. Bears are thought to be supernatural and mystical creatures, divine in wisdom, omnipotent and omnipresent. They have knowledge of the life/death rituals, in part because of the way they seemingly die in fall and resurrect themselves in the spring.  Also, it is believed that bears are capable of understanding human speech.

Because bear possesses the power to hear all that is said, in keeping with our ancestor’s animistic cosmology, it became taboo among our hunters to say the bears’ true name. Instead they referred to it in euphemisms, such as honey eater mangiatore di miele or brown one il marrone.  In our Napoletan language, the word for the Madonna is Marrone.

Good Luck Visits – Contact with the bear itself was thought to be especially valuable in terms of receiving its healing and curative powers. For this reason, as recently as fifty years ago, it was still common for a bear and its trainer to conduct annual visits to local villages throughout the Pyrenées.

During these visits, it was traditional for parents to bring their children and place them on the back of the bear who, under the care of the bear trainer, would take exactly nine steps. Participation in this annual ritual ensured the children were protected from physical illnesses and, in addition, that they would be well behaved. These ‘bear doctors’ made regular house calls to cure the sick and protect households from harm and the visitation itself was believed to bring good luck to the household. There is good reason to believe that similar rituals were performed—with real bears—across much of Europe. Monasteries were directly involved in training the young bears who would go about with their trainers to conduct the healing ceremonies. These activities formed what is called “good-luck visits”.

Variants of these visits and related ritual practices have survived intact into the 21st century. Indeed, they form part of rich legacy of popular performance art whose cognitive roots and cultural conceptualizations reach back to a much earlier worldview that draws its meaning from what now appears to be an archaic belief that bears are our ancestors. The “good luck visits” themselves provided a container for the cultural storage and preservation as well as the oral transmission of the tenets of the earlier European belief system, through reiterative structures typical of oral cultures.

Bear Deity – As Christianity made its way through Europe, a syncretism took place. Residual belief in the Paleolithic bear-deity survived in the material and linguistic artifacts associated with the sites that were originally associated with the sacred healing bears; such as certain hermitages, monasteries, mountain tops and woodland wilderness areas. The wide geographical distribution of these sites can also be seen as a way of mapping the locations of sacred sites where the veneration of bears was once practiced. Linguistic artifacts, or names, associated with the ancestral bear-like qualities of healing and miracle working include Saint Bear, Saint Ours, Saint Ursula and the Ursulines. The Ursulines is a still vibrant religious organization originally founded in 1535 at Brescia, Italy, by Angela Merici. Its purpose was, and still is, the education of girls and the care of the sick and needy.

The Bear Son These tales represent the most common motif found in European folklore. The widespread distribution of the Old European stories called the Bear Son tales, link to the much older ursine cosmogony. The figure of the Bear Son, who is born of a Great Bear and a human female, is identified with a cycle of stories and related ritual performances found throughout Europe, including those called the “good luck visits” as described above.

By 1910 folklorists had documented 221 European variants of the descent of the Bear Son hero to the Under World. This cycle of oral tales is present in all the Indo-European language groups of Europe as well as in Basque and in Finno-Ugric languages, e.g., in Finnish and Saami and also in Magyar (Hungarian) and it is even found among the Mansi (Voguls). The most complete and least disturbed versions of the tales – ones containing the most archaic structural elements – come from former Basque-speaking zones of France and Spain or from the Basque-speaking region itself.

To understand the widespread distribution of the bear ancestor veneration motif it helps to recognize that these are archaic materials emanating from a much earlier European cosmology and story of human origins. In fact, for Europeans, there is reason to suspect that the Bear Ancestor, progenitor of humans, was linked symbolically to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) constellation.

The constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the great and little bears, are named for their supposed resemblance to bears, from the time of Ptolemy. The nearby star Arcturus means “guardian of the bear”, as if it were watching the two constellations. Ursa Major has been associated with a bear for as much as 13,000 years since Paleolithic times, in the widespread Cosmic Hunt myths. These are found on both sides of the Bering land bridge, lost to the sea some 11,000 years ago.

Our hunter/gatherer ancestors’ assumption that we descend from bears throws a hand grenade into the familiar modern day hierarchical and anthropocentric modes of thought, such as that human beings are superior to animals.

Bear Ceremonialism and the Keeper of Souls The Bear Festivals appear to be ritual reenactments and celebrations of real bear hunts that took place in times past. They are performances that could be interpreted as portrayals of the hunting, death and resurrection of the earthly bear who, in turn, was seen as an ancestor.  The celebration of ritual hunts—including ritual performances that mimed the hunt—was a way of insuring that the community would enjoy good luck, and good hunting, during the rest of the year.

Earthly bears needed to be treated with great respect since the primordial bear ancestor was also seen as the “keeper of souls”. There is a Pyrenean belief that in the Fall of the year the bear gathers up the souls of all nature’s creatures and puts them in its belly where they are kept until Spring, when they emerge once again. If properly treated, the bear releases the animal and plant souls so that its human offspring can live abundantly. Assigning this function to the bear seems to correspond to the concept of a supernatural mother or guardian spirit of all species of animals as well as the rest of the natural world, a common belief encountered among many indigenous peoples around the world.

The celebration of an abbreviated form of the ritual performance was part of the “good-luck visit” itself, where the performers would go from one farmstead to the next with their “bear” or would move through the streets of the village, stopping at designated locations to perform the same play. The latter regularly involves the bear dancing about, chasing and attacking the inhabitants, then being captured and killed; sometimes the instrument used in the play is a gun, in other cases a knife or a spear. The bear feigns its own death, falling down on the ground, but almost immediately—and on cue—it jumps up, resurrected, to begin dancing once again. And the troop moves on to the next house.

During the Easter Octave celebrations on the slopes of Monte Vesuvio in Southern Italy, which take place annually the week after Easter, deep reverence is paid to specific, greatly revered Madonnas with ancient lineage and roots going back to the Paleolithic. I’ve witnessed that, as the cart carrying the Madonna dell Arco in the procession approaches the church in Somma Vesuvio, the entire cart, with the Madonna on it, begins to dance and swirl and twirl around in the street. This may be a remnant of the dancing Bear Mother and the “Good Luck Visits”. These powerful healing Madonnas, often referred to as Sciamana Guaritori (Shamanic Healers), certainly embody all of the archaic associations of the ancient shamanic Bear Mother.

It is time, now, to reclaim the potent friendship and reverence of the Bear Mother of our ancestors. Time to realize that we too can be fierce beyond measure. We, too, can be a healing blessing for our community. Bear Mother is more than an ally and an inspiration. She is a powerful guardian spirit. With all that we are presently facing, in national and world politics, global changes, and personal survival challenges, we need her. We need to become her, as our ancestors did.  We need to act with her agency. Get your claws ready, your thick protective coat wrapped snugly around your shoulders, do not fear to bare your teeth. Today we honor Bear Mother. And we feel her awakening in all of her glory, within us. So may it be.

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