Last week we talked about the study of bears by the ancient Greeks, and how their observations contributed to the idea of bears as an icon of motherhood in nature. This week we are going to investigate some older mythological accounts that add to this idea.
Bears as good mothers seemed to be an idea that was floating around even before the Greeks wrote about it. An artifact found in Yugoslavia depicts just this. It is a Neolithic figurine of a bear, or at least a bear-masked figure, cradling a small baby. Whether or not this is actually a bear or a person dressed as one, the imagery is in place.
There is also a location in Crete called the “Bear Cave”. It is on the Akrotiri peninsula, in north-west Crete, and there seems to have been a cult established there in the Late Minoan III period, somewhere around 1400-1100 BCE. The worship in this cave seems to have been focused on a large stalagmite. The shape of this stalagmite has been interpreted as resembling a dog or a bear.
This cave has been identified in myth as the place where the nymph Kynosoura suckled the infant Zeus when he was abandoned. The tradition that associated Zeus and bear-nurses was already known in the 6th century BCE, suggested by Porphyrius’ statement that Pythagoras called she-bears “the Hands of Rheia” (Rheia was the mother of Zeus). The cult that was in this cave has been suggested as a kourotrophos cult, which if you recall from our discussion about epithets, refers to a divinity of child-rearing.
There is another myth about Kephalos, the great-grandfather of Odysseus, that relates to bears and human child-bearing. This story is recounted by Aristotle in the Constitution of Ithaka. It was a local legend, that told how Kephalos was childless and sought the advice of an oracle. He was told to mate with the first female he encountered. On his way home he met a she-bear, and in strict adherence to the oracle he mated with her. The she-bear then turned into a human woman and bore him a son, Arkeisios.
We see that there are plenty of references in both myth and archaeology to bears being worshipped or linked with motherhood. Next week we will finish up this three-part series-within-a-series by looking at Greek associations of bears with Artemis specifically.