Bern’s Bear Goddess
A Dêwâ that is close to my heart personally, the great She-Bear Artio is one of the more popular localized deities since Her worship seems to be more concentrated in Switzerland but other inscriptions have been found in southern Germany. It’s fascinating how, what should be a more obscure Goddess, has captured the attention of many modern pagans and polytheists. Even the online game, Smite, has Her as a playable character. But what do we know about Her? Most sites online are UPG and there’s very little in the way of archeological finds. The most notable artifact is the depiction that was found at Muri near Bern, Switzerland. This collection of statuettes is known simply as the Muri Statuette Group which shows various Gallo-Roman deities. For this article we’re going to avoid certain sources that depict a modern opinion of Artio.
Not to disregard or devalue the gnosis and opinions of others. The point of this article is to try to dig back and reconstruct how the Helvetii and other Alpine tribes would have seen Her. As per usual, we will discuss etymology, cross reference other bear deities across cultures, and touch on my own personal gnosis with Artio with a few experiences I had and results from divination.
Name of the Bear
Let’s first look at Artio’s etymology and some alternate names since “Artio” is odd considering the normal construct of Gaulish names. The Gaulish theonym Artiō derives from the Celtic word for the ‘bear’, artos (cf. Old Irish art, Middle Welsh arth, Old Breton ard), itself from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ŕ̥tḱos (‘bear’). The Basque hartz (‘bear’) is also presumed to be a Celtic loanword. The bronze sculpture from the Muri statuette group shows a large bear facing a woman seated in a chair, with a small tree behind the bear. The sculpture has a large rectangular bronze base, which bears the inscription “Deae Artioni / Licinia Sabinilla” (“To the Goddess Artio” or “Artionis”, “from Licinia Sabinilla”). If the name is Gaulish but the syntax is Latin, a dative Artioni would give an i-stem nominative *Artionis or an n-stem nominative *Artio. That would perhaps correspond to a Gaulish n-stem nominative *Artiu. So Artiû may be a more accurate theonym if sticking to the original Gaulish and the pronunciation would be about the same, as far as I know.
Like with Anextlomarâ, there is a Gaulish tribe with a male version of Artiû: Artaius. Not much is really known about this bear God aside from an inscription in Beaucroissant that shows that He was one of many Dêwoi who was synched with Mercury. Possibly worshipped by the Graioceli tribe in the French Alps, Artaius seems to just be the male equivalent to Artiû but we shouldn’t assume and generalize. The name Artaius contains the root “arto” meaning “bear”, the ending of “aius” basically turns the meaning into a more derivative word similar to “ursine”. There’s also a possibility that Artaius is linked to a location. Based on the inscription found at Beaucroissant, Auguste Longnon, a French historian and archivist. surmised that the location was once called Artay; there is a similarly named town, Artaix, in Saône-et-Loire.
Anyone who’s done a quick Google and wiki search also can find that “arto” is likely the root of the name Arthur possibly linking bears into the King Arthur list of symbolism but that’s a rabbit hole for another article. Another Dêwâ that will be covered in a future article is Andarta who is also a Swiss Bear Goddess. Her name translates as “powerful bear” and there’s some who believe that Andarta is just an alternate name for Artio. From animism and the dangerous nature of bears, the name “bear”, in many cultures, fell into verbal taboo. Essentially, saying bear or wolf or other predators was thought to summon the animals so replacement words were used to avoid this. This brings us to another future article Dêwoi, Matutinus. Matu (good,) which is also the Proto-Celtic word for “bear”, being the replacement word in use for bear. That’s three bear deities in the same area.
Artobessus and the Bear City
Part of my personal practice can be identified as Artobessus or Bear Cultus. Now, just like with Andarta and Matutinus, this is a topic that will get full coverage in it’s own article but as I’m personally fleshing this out, what I can say is that it’s based on this theory that the Helvetii, and possibly other Alpine tribes, heavily revered bears. Particularly in the area that is now Bern, Switzerland, all three bear deities have inscriptions that were found. Bern is likely one of the 12 Gallo-Roman cities that were established post Roman occupation and, most likely, predates the Romans. What is interesting about this is that the association of bears long lived through the ages. Today, Bern still has the Bärengraben, also known as the Bear Pits.
The Bear Pits are a man made enclosure to house bears while the BärenPark is a more natural enclosure. Both the Bärengraben and BärenPark are administered as a geographically discrete part of the city’s Dählhölzli Zoo. The Bear Pits were first open in 1857 but the practice of owning bears in Bern dates as far back as 1517. Bears are the traditional symbol of Bern being featured on the flag and coat of arms. The modern city of Bern, located near the Gallo-Roman oppidum, was founded in 1191 by Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen. The legend goes that Berthold vowed to name the city after the first animal he met on the hunt, and this turned out to be a bear. It has long been considered likely that the city was named after the Italian city of Verona, which at the time was known as Bern in Middle High German. The city was sometimes referred to as Bern im Üechtland to distinguish it from Verona. As a result of the finding of the Bern zinc tablet in the 1980s, it is now more common to assume that the city was named after a pre-existing toponym of Celtic origin, possibly *berna “cleft”. Speaking of the Bern zinc tablet, it should be mentioned that, while we do not know the name of the original settlement, there may be a clue in the tablet. The inscription of Brenodor “dwelling of Breno” which could refer to the settlement or may be the name of the oppidum being named after it’s founder but I digress.
Clearly, Bern loves bears and it doesn’t matter if it’s an ancient Celtic culture or a modern Germanic culture. So it isn’t surprising that the Helvetii would have multiple bear Gods. From this it’s clear that bears were a sacred animal which makes sense seeing how survival in the Alps would have to factor living alongside such a powerful predator. Eurasian bears are few in number there today if they are living there in the wild at all. It definitely seems that bears in Switzerland are primarily found in captivity in zoos. In the Iron Age, however, bears would have thrived so coexistence would have been key. So how does Artiû fit within context? What is Her role? Andarta’s name hints at an aggressive role. Something of a goddess of war perhaps. Matutinus is synched with Mercury which has many possible associations but within the mold of a bear with the Proto-Celtic root replacement Matu it might hint at a docile and benevolent protector or, a possible theory, a trickster in the form of a playful cub. To establish Artiû we need to look at Her inscription.
The Muri Statuette
“Deae Artioni / Licinia Sabinilla” meaning “To the Goddess Artio (or Artionis) from Licinia Sabinilla” is the inscription on the statuette. This could suggest that the statuette was created as an offering to Artio. Votive offerings of deluâs (idols) is not uncommon and buried works are still being found that indicate buried sacrifices of Dêuoi depictions. The inscription doesn’t offer much sadly however the iconography does offer some ideas. The statuette has an almost dualistic message with a bear standing in front of a tree facing a woman sitting on a throne holding a basket of fruit while the tree seems dead and/or barren. There’s a few different ways we can look at this iconography.
Firstly, we can go based on the inscription. The woman in the throne could be Licinia Sabinilla herself. The throne could suggest nobility within the Helvetii and the act of offering the Bear apples is a sign of sacrifice of one’s bounty to the Dêuoi, Artiû in this case. The barren tree could represent the consequence of disrespecting Artiû. Some consider Her a Goddess of spring or, more specifically, the transition of winter to spring. Each side of the statuette could represent the duality of the wild and the tame. The bear and the tree represent the wilderness and forest and the noble woman in the throne represents civilization and the meeting in the center is the balance between the two.
The statuette could depict Artio in two different forms, one as a bear and the other as a noble woman. Going back to the duality of the wild and the tame, Artio could be a Goddess of both. A divine “Mama-Bear” if you will. A Dêwâ that represents the wild untamed facets of nature while also embodying the civilized mundane nobility of mankind. She can be both a regal Queen seen giving Her abundance to those who need it even if it’s a starving bear, and a majestic Queen of the forest and mountains who isn’t too proud to accept help from those who could be seen as weak. There’s many ways to look at this beautiful work of art but I leave that to you to decide.
Again, we don’t know much about how Artio was seen by the Helvetii and other tribes who worshipped Her. Most academia and other sources have very little so we need to look at animism to reconstruct something sound. Personally, I find bears fascinating and their behavior always surprises me. Bears are not one dimensional and they have many layers to their personalities. To try to narrow things down, Andarta, the powerful bear, represents a bear’s fierce hunting abilities and aggression while Matutinus brings in that Mercury Association to cover the whimsical playfulness and cunning of bears. So Artio can best represent what is probably the most famous attribute of bears, the mama bear.
The most iconic representation of maternal instinct and aggression, a mother bear is used as a euphemism for an overprotective mother who is otherwise seen as kind and gentle. Most animals are extremely protective of their young, but none are as terrifying as an angry bear charging when one comes too close to her cub. The major reason for this maternal defense is due to the fact that female bears are unable to breed while they have young cubs. This puts a target on the cubs come mating season by adult male bears. Mother bears are therefore forced to fight off male bears to protect their cubs and they don’t go easy even if it’s something small that they see as a threat. During the Iron Age, the Helvetii would have dealt with Cave Bears which are massive compared to their Eurasian descendants of today.
This maternal ferocity can be seen among humans as well. There’s plenty of stories of mothers performing nearly superhuman feats to protect their children, the most common story being the ability to lift a car off of her child. I have UPG from a few years back when I was trying to use divination to contact the children of Artiû, a topic we will address in a bit, my readings were vague and I felt off by the results. The next morning I woke up with the Îagis Rûnâ under me. This Rûnâ is the one best associated with Artio and it’s main message is “patience”. The message couldn’t be any clear but I foolishly reached out again and immediately felt sick and was puking the whole next day. At that time, Artio wasn’t comfortable with me reaching out to Her children and I felt Her fury the hard way.
Aside from maternal protection, another big association with bears is hibernation. As mentioned before, Artiû is known throughout the modern pagan world as a Goddess of Spring or the transition to Spring. The symbolism here is that during winter, Artiû goes into hibernation and when She emerges, spring follows Her into the world. This cycle could lead into festivals and holidays, aka Iûos (EE-wohss), based on Artio’s descent into Her cave and Her coming out ushering spring into the world. One could set dates based on the regular first days of winter and spring or on the local bears going into hibernation. This leads to another thought, what does She do while in the cave?
Hibernation is an interesting process and it may mean more than just a season long nap. In fact, bears often hibernate while pregnant, giving birth during and after hibernation. Literally bringing new life into the world in spring. Hibernation isn’t just a deep sleep, bears will bulk up prior and enter a state of low heart rate and low metabolism. In a way, the bears go into a, sort of, meditative state. Looking at this context, Artio can be seen as a Goddess of meditation and dreams. Some Gaulish polytheists have encountered Artiû in their dreams and while meditating in their own UPG. So even in hibernation, Artio can still interact with the world.
Bear deities are not often found within the major pantheons but they are present in one form or another. There are many common themes from which to draw from in reconstructing Artio. First there’s Jambavan from Hinduism who is associated with protection and assisted Rama with His fight against Ravana. Jambavan has a loose connection to sleep as well since His name comes from the Sanskrit word for yawning. It should be noted that Jambavan is specifically seen as a black bear. We don’t really know a specific bear breed associated with Artio but I honestly don’t really think it matters with Artio or to any bear deity really. They may have preferences but I doubt Jambavan would ignore or neglect a brown bear. He is considered the divine bear king and not the black bear king.
While not a deity per se, Jean de l’Ours, aka John the Bear, is an influential figure in French folklore. Like most folklore, it originated as an oral tradition leading to various versions but the one common theme is that John is a half man, half bear or a human with bear-like features. Other versions are that he’s fully human but raised by a mother bear. Most of the stories of John is that he travels into the underworld to rescue a princess which displays the linear attributes of a bear, freely venturing in and out of a cave which can be seen as a gateway to another world.
Japan is home to the Ainu people who are known as bear worshiping people. The Ainu worship the God Kim-un-kamuy which literally translates to “God of the mountains”. A ritual was developed by the Ainu in order to honor Kim-un-kamuy. The villages would capture a live bear cub, treat it with great respect and pamper it for an entire year. At the year’s end, the cub would be sacrificed and eaten hoping it’s spirit would ascend and report it’s good treatment to Kim-un-kamuy. While we don’t know of any sacrifices, this capturing of bears and taking care of them is similar to what the later Swiss did with their bear pits. While the other Japanese clans didn’t worship bears they still revered their spirits in the form of the yokai Onikuma. These bear demons were malevolent and feared by the ancient Japanese.
Another culture that worshipped bears were the people or Finland. Otso is one of many names for bears since they also didn’t have a direct name for bears and instead used replacement words and titles such as friend, brother, uncle, and, my personal favorite, forest cousin. Killing a bear would require a ritual known as the Peijainen as a way to honor and release the bear’s spirit and avoid it’s wrath. The Bear spirit would be held in it’s skull and left in a clearing and offerings would be made to it. Before moving on, it should be mentioned that Native American tribes had a number of bear deities and part of the Korean founding myth includes the bear woman, Ungnyeo, who is a motherly figure in that story.
The final figure we need to discuss is Callisto. Callisto, according to the myth, was a nymph devoted to Diana/Artemis. She was deceived by Zeus/Jupiter to sleep with Him and subsequently punished by Hera/Juno who turned Callisto into a bear who was ultimately killed by Her own son. She was then redeemed by becoming the constellation Ursa Major. There’s a second myth that includes Ursa Minor but there’s more evidence that the mythology behind Ursa Minor is Phoenician in origin. As far as we know, there is no Celtic Myth behind Ursa Major or if they even saw it as a bear, however, a number of cultures do and because the Celts had a close relationship with the Greeks it wouldn’t be hard to believe that the Continental Celts did as well.
Because of Artiû’s motherly attributes, a myth could be constructed that the seven stars of Ursa Major could each represent Her children. This is UPG from some other people that I have come to adopt in my practice as well. There is another element in this that needs to be addressed, who is Artiu’s consort? I would argue that, She doesn’t have one. Bears don’t mate for life and I don’t think Artio would take on a consort or husband. She is a regal Queen in Her own right but She is still of the wild and free to be as promiscuous as She sees fit. She is the ultimate mother and She doesn’t need a husband to do so.
As always, my divination system combines WildWood Tarot (WWT), Elder Futhark Runes (EF), and the Lepontic Rûnâs (LP). Each place is my interpretation of the cards and symbols that I was given and what I saw all fit into place and aligned with my thoughts on Artio. I can’t stress enough that my divination falls under UPG, in my opinion, and should be taken with a grain of salt. With that said…
Who is Artio?
WWT: The Green Man (Inverted)
EF: Berkano (Inverted)
LP: Locos (Inverted)
Meaning: Caution and reclusive. Like any mother, Artio worries and therefore does not act in haste. When winter comes, She does not hesitate or deviate from Her hibernation. Everything is put on hold until the time is right. Who is Artio? She is a mother who sacrifices creative freedom for safety and security.
1st Aspect of Artio
WWT: 9 of Vessels- Generosity
LP: Pellon (Inverted)
Meaning: Artio is the great mother, She knows every secret of childbirth and is generous with Her knowledge and protection. She does not horde Her power and wisdom but rather gives it to those who need it. She is present in the relief of a successful birth and gives the mother a sense of euphoria so the mother can forget the pain and focus on the love of her child.
2nd Aspect of Artio
WWT: Paige of Bows- Stout
Meaning: An emissary of the changing seasons, Artio represents the positive and healing nature of Spring as Winter wanes into the past and a bright potential for the future is ahead.
What Represents Artio?
WWT: Six of Stones- Exploitation
Meaning: Artio is the responsibility a mother has to handle when managing resources. If we squander what we have, the next generation, our children, will suffer. Never take more than we need, never over indulge. Artio’s strength lies in conservation. If we can supply what life needs, life will thrive.
What Represents Artio?
WWT: Four of Stones- Protection
EF: Ansuz (Inverted)
LP: Mî (Inverted)
Meaning: Keeping a strong barrier to protect around those thing we cherish most but taking time to recover that strength. To contemplate and meditate to strengthen the spirit as well as the body. Solitude and patience to discover any answers and find strength. Strengthening one’s self in order to protect others.
Artio is the ultimate mother and Her role within the Alpine “pantheon” is just that. She could be the mother of many of the Helvetian Dêuoi, seven possibly being the stars of Ursa Major and even Ursa Minor theoretically. Her process of hibernation rests Her body but strengthens Her mind as Artio travels the land of Dreams. Like any mother, even when resting Her mind is always active and working and watching over Her children. While Artio rests, the world goes cold and barren. The Anderoi and Antumnatîs, chthonic beings from the lower world and spirits from Antumnos, are free to wander the Earth as Alpes becomes Paliâcâ. When Artiû re emerges She brings Spring with Her and Paliâcâ becomes Alpuanâ.
Artiû protects Her children with unrelenting force but is kind and loving. She is stern and unbending but full of grace and nurturing. Artiû is strong and casts away the idea of needing a consort. She is still a woman and enjoys a promiscuous life but does not need a man to simply exist. She raises Her children and protects them despite all challenges and obstacles. The Great She-Bear of Muri, The Bear Queen of Bern, The Ursa Major of the Helvetii, without a doubt, Artiû/Arrio is one of the most captivating and stand out deities of the Alps that She even has a place in the modern eye as She’s seen in the game Smite and is worshipped by even non-Gaulish polytheists. Honor to Artiû the Great Mother Bear.
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- Delarue & Fife (tr.) (1956)
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- Fritz Geiser, “Metabolic Rate and Body Temperature Reduction During Hibernation and Daily Torpor”