Artemis and Bears, Part One

brauron header

This week we are going to explore what links the goddess Artemis with bears. Last week, we talked about coming-of-age rituals for young Greek girls, and one of those steps involved “acting the bear” for Artemis at Brauron. The title of this role was Arktos, or “Little Bear”.

As she was a goddess of wild animals, the wilderness, and hunting, any woodland creature would be relevant to Artemis. The bear in particular is fitting to the tasks performed at the sanctuary at Brauron. In this post, the first of three, we are going to explore why this is.

The habits of the bear, as the ancient Greeks understood them, make it a good mascot for a sanctuary around childhood development and motherhood. The hibernation and pregnancy were particularly curious. Hibernation was discussed in terms of the she-bear’s pregnancy: the bears mate one month before they go into hibernation, and the she-bear delivers shortly after she has gone into hibernation. She comes out only when the cubs are ready (in the third month after the winter solstice). The information that we have regarding this process is primarily from Aristotle and Pliny; based on what we now know about bears, these ancient perspectives aren’t completely accurate.

These writers noted that mother bears were ‘unusually fierce’ both before and after the delivery of their cubs. They were defensive mothers and used clever strategies to protect their young. This image of a bear as a very caring mother fit with ideas of motherhood and cast the wild animal in a more civilized light. Bears were also said to behave somewhat like humans, as they walked upright on their hind legs like a person and mate by lying down and embracing. Oppian compared the paws of the bear to human hands and feet.

There was also a strange notion about newly-born baby bears, which I addressed before in a Weird Classics post. Several ancient authors (possibly building off each others’ ideas) thought that baby bears were born formless, as little blobs of flesh. The mother bear would then lick the cub into the proper bear shape. Reference to this can be found in Plutarch Moralia 494, Ovid Metamorphoses XV 379-81, and Pliny Natural History 8.54. This act gave rise to the consideration of mother bears as creating their children twice; once through traditional birth, and a second time through the ‘sculpting’ of the baby. This made them twice the mother, and therefore closely tied them with ideas of motherhood.

American Black Bear. Lincoln Park Zoo mammal. 1900.
American Black Bear. Lincoln Park Zoo mammal. 1900.

Next week we will discuss the archaic associations of bears and motherhood that predate the construction of the sanctuary at Brauron. In the meantime, do you know any other myths about bears? Please share them in the comments!

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