The Great Bear Mother: A Journey with Brighid to the Ancient Dawn of Imbolc.
This essay first appeared in Patracia Monaghan’s anthology ‘Brigit: Sun of Womanhood’. Click on the image above to view on Amazon
My sense of Brighid has always been timeless, her roots stretching back past Saint and Celtic Goddess. This idea began to take form when I encountered the work of Irish Scholar Ó Catháin, suggesting that Brighid was the great Bear Mother, venerated by early bear cults. Alongside this interest lay a question, which asked if the source to the new consciousness our modern world required lay in an ancient spirituality?
This journey took me to the earliest Imbolc, to the bear emerging from hibernation, a symbol of renewal, sacrifice and ritual. Coded themes within myth unearthed a very different Imbolc from the one of the Celts, familiar motifs representing something hidden, taboo, whose roots stretch back to a far older time. The theme of regeneration emerges throughout and in employing Joanna Macy’s work in examining our modern sense of self expands who we are when we consider our ecological self. Brighid reminds us of our creativity, our ability to remember, revision and reclaim as if she herself morphs and changes to meet our needs. Irish academic Ó Catháin (1995) in his seminal book suggests that the folklore associated with Brighid shows a continuous link stretching back to shamanic practice four thousand years ago to early bear cults. The stories he searched within Nordic, Celtic and Germanic folklore hold the same knowledge, which exist within the layers of our unconscious as ancient folk memory.
The bear wasn’t just a biological entity to our ancestors, Shephard, Sanders and Snyder (1992) highlight that she represented both the physical and magical qualities they observed. She was a wise teacher, a loving mother who was fiercely protective of her young. Each fall ancient peoples observed the bear going into hibernation and yet in the heart of winter she would have appeared dead, her heartbeat slow and her breathing barely noticeable. To observe the same bear, coming back from the dead would suggest magical powers, that she was a communicator with the otherworld. Emerging from the dead bearing new life in the form of cubs, she also emerged bearing life to the land itself. She breathed life into the dead of winter, who lost its grip as the stirrings of spring radiated throughout the soil. All of these qualities fed our ancestors spiritual beliefs, creating myths and ritual and practices to live by which also marked the great cycle of the seasons.
Gimbutas (2001) in her archaeological work unearthed what may be evidence of bear cults in the form of figurines, possibly representing the bear as birth goddess. Small figurines from Eastern Europe 5,000 bce called “bear nurses”; depict human figures wearing bear masks. Similarly “bear madonnas”; figures dating from 6,000 bce depict human female figurines wearing a bear mask while holding a bear cub. The existence of such ancient figures shows the importance and variation of the bear in early cultures, often associated with motherhood and nurturing. While early archeology evidence investigating an early cult of the cave bear unearthed constructed cists containing bear bones and protected pits with bear skulls such evidence was debunked due to poor recording techniques Chase (1987). The idea of the bear cult however has flourished in popular culture quite possibly owing its success to evoking s our ancient memory. Gimbutas (2001) uses later linguistic evidence to illustrate how closely linked bear and mother are. The root of the word bear ‘bher’ meaning to bear ‘to carry children’ relating to the old Norse ‘burdh’ to birth. Later European folk memories tell of the bear as an ancestress, embodiment of the mother, and a giver of life. Recent traditions in Eastern Europe still refer to new mothers as ‘bear’.
Walkers between worlds
Circum-polar societies each associate the bear with supernatural qualities, although this similarity of beliefs is not related to a common ancestral belief system, but one each culture developed separately due to revering the bear above all other creatures. From ancient Siberia Shepard, Sanders and Snyder (1992) illustrate a practice of sacrificing a male bear, which was seen as essential in maintaining the order of the shamanic worlds. Within early myths Ó Catháin (1995) notes the symbolism of early shaman using the psychedelic mushroom Amanita Muscaria, common name Fly Agaric, which he color codes as ‘white speckled’ linking its use to rituals undertaken at Imbolc. McIntosh (1998) speculates that Imbolc could possibly have been an ancient magic mushroom festival celebrating the essence of spring with the new life as it dawns radiating out across face of the Northern Hemisphere. While Amanita Muscaria use is documented in numerous cultures thought Europe and Asia, there are only obscure references to it within Celtic culture.
Celtic legends are full of sleep inducing berries and apples as well as magical hazelnuts and salmon. These were selected by the filidh (poet seekers) as magical foods and yet there is nothing psychotropic about such foods, which on their own which could produce inspiring and prophetic visions. The Roman historian Laertius recorded that Celtic Druids and Bards spoke in ‘riddles and dark sayings’ and it seems many taboo subjects were referenced in obscure and coded ways. Motifs of such magical foods could be explained as being metaphoric references to Amanita Muscari as it is probable that direct referencing was taboo due to its sacred qualities Laurie and White (1997).
Inspiration and divination was fundamental to the filidh and Brighid, as patron of poets, would have been invoked in rituals undertaken to inspire ecstatic poetry and induce prophetic visions. Brighid is a fire goddess, and many instances throughout her lives associated with pillars of flames around her head could be an ancient coding for Amanita Muscaria use, which produces a pronounced heating of the head. McIntosh (1998) speculates that Imbolc could possibly have been an ancient magic mushroom festival. Amanita Muscari use is likely at this cycle of the year to facilitate communication with the otherworld ensuring the return of spring to the land and ensuring the survival of life. While possible Amanita Muscari references were was coded so to was Brighid’s associations with speckled cow and snake, both having otherworldly origins. Her association with the snake is well known and Scottish and Irish folk references refer to Amanita Muscari as the speckled snake. There is a possible link to Saint Patrick who in banning certain pagan rituals, as well as banishing snakes from Ireland was actually attempting to wipe out an Amanita Muscari cult Laurie and White (1997).
Later agricultural communities celebrated Imbolc with Brighid bringing the new life to the land, and with milk being so important to the Celtic diet, celebrating the lactation of the pregnant ewes. Ó Catháin (1999) notes a phrase used when anyone complained of the completed winters store they were met by reassurances that, ‘‘it won’t be scare very long now as Saint Brigit and her white cow will be coming round soon’’.
With the loss of such rich mythology our sense of self has undergone a shrinking, once capable of shape shifting is now reduced to a mere shadow. Statistics abound with graphs showing sharp rises in the use of anti depressants and the insatiable hunger we have for consumerism. This in part explains our reaction to an unconscious feeling of a loss and partly due to the urgency of the overwhelming array of issues vying for our attention. The root of this great change lies in the destruction of tribal Europe and the worship of the great goddess, where our sense of self was drawn from each other, our non-human family and the land. Salomonsen (2002) explains the destruction of these early matrifocal & matrilineal cultures, which laid down the foundation for our civilization, was eventually conquered by worshippers of a male warrior god, which lay the foundation for patriarchal and oppressive societies in Europe. Overthrowing the goddess, by a male god whose reign is removed from the earth brought about an epic change in thought, which is still in place and dominates cultural thinking, which places women, animals and the earth as second-class citizens. As we eventually adapted to this new myth, our notion of self changed. The founding principle of the myth of progress is self-destruction. It views our race as apart and separate from nature concerned only with economic growth and material accumulation.
In Celtic culture it was the role of the Bard, devoted to Brighid, who kept the myths alive, the stories of the people. McIntosh (1998) explains that this poetic power was eroded away in repressive laws such as the 1609 Statutes of Iona in the Highlands of Scotland, with similar laws replicated throughout the world. This repressed the Bard’s role in maintaining cultural and ecological awareness to be replaced by the power of money and the adoption of values of commerce.
The crisis currently unfolding on our planet is a spiritual one whose roots stem from a dysfunctional and pathological notion of the self. Could the loss of the bear, in Scotland & Ireland, the loss of ancient forests, of habitat, of indigenous belief be the reason for the shrinking of our notion of self? With each loss we are loosing aspects of ourselves. Macy’s work (2007) centers around accepting the pain we feel in facing the overwhelming issues our current world faces, before they develop into grief and denial, so we’re able to turn our feelings into effective action. In defining ourselves we naturally adopt different notions of self to meet different needs. While we are free to select our boundaries wither it ends at our skin, our family, our tribe, our non-human family, the mountains, the oceans, the planet, ancient goddesses and gods or extend it to the very universe. Macy envisions that returning to this ecological self brings us into kinship with other forms of life ultimately bringing us new reserves of strength.
Awakening Our Ancient Memory
Reconnecting is one route to wholeness, reassembling our missing parts. The method employed does not lie outside; instead it’s a journey of going inwards. Journeying inwards to deep in our bones, our blood, our cells our DNA to where remnants of ancient memory that have been passed down through the generations. This was my journey in rediscovering Brighid, resonating with her as Bear Mother. Myths are the language of the soul, and the essence of a myth only comes alive when it resonates in the soul of the recipient. Just because the bear no longer roams in Celtic lands, of Scotland and Ireland, doesn’t mean that the same psychological needs that brought about the veneration of the bear are no longer relevant.
As she regenerated the land her regenerated spirit becomes meaningful again. She offers us the inspiration to envision a future, which values our non-human relatives and the earth in our natural relationship, of interconnection. Rather than accepting a future borne out of fear and helpless featured in sci-fi films which feed us horrors of ecological destruction to creating an empowering vision in which technology serves us in renewable ways and that we are empowered to create sustainable futures right now.
Brighid spans the existence of mankind offering the deep well of wisdom to those who seek her. In rediscovering her symbols hidden in layers of myth, accumulation of tales told over the years her symbols that might seem obscure once reassembled produce a powerful picture. She is the great mother bear who returns the energy to the land after winter. As she regenerated the land her regenerated spirit becomes meaningful again. She is the great mother who midwives our continual rebirth, her flame the transforming fire that burns within us. She is the fire of inspiration that the Druid filidh invoked which ignites our heads to dream new dreams, burns in our heart as compassion and warms our hands in the work we carry out.
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Laurie, E. R. and White, T. 1997. Speckled Snake, Brother of Birch: Amanita Muscaria Motifs in Celtic Legends. Shamans Drum. 44, November.
McIntosh, A. 1998. Deep Ecology and the Last Wolf. United Nations Biodiversity Proceedings: Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Cambridge University Press.
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