As a person who grew up in Alaska I have a keen respect for bears…everything from the “small” black bears to the large Kodiak Grizzlies, Brown Bears, and the even larger Polar Bears (which thankfully live much further north than where I lived. Growing up you are taught to be aware when you were outside. In town during the winter and spring you needed to be aware of moose (especially in the spring when the mammas were out with the calves), and in the summer you had black bears that would venture into backyards (with every dog on the block barking its fool head off). But being an outdoorsy family meant that outdoor activities such as fishing, camping and berrypicking on the mountain presented its own potential danger of meeting up with a big bear. In a way, bears are attached to the imagination in a big way. They are very large, and rather tempermental, omnivores that can kill a man with little effort on their part. This is part of what gives bears a strong fearsome presence in the minds of men. The bear is perhaps one of the most, if not the most, largest and impressive of all land predators…it really is no wonder that bears have found their way into world mythologies. As a small child I admired the Tlingit totem carvings of the bear, in his human-like stance upon his hind legs. As I grew older I appreciated the role that the bear took in relation to the goddess Artemis, and even made a necklace of a bearclaw that I had found in my bedroom one year that I wore about my neck for many years in her honor before giving it to a friend. The bear makes a strong presence in myth.
However, in myth we don’t really see any direct link between Artemis and the bear…but something more indirect via the myth of Callisto. So we have Callisto who was seduced by Zeus (some say in the form of Artemis, and Apollodoros in his Library presents an alternate version that others say it was in the form of her twin Apollon…which certainly alludes to an interesting relationship between the twins if Callisto wasn’t objecting to Apollon), and remained among the hunting company of Artemis until her pregnancy began to show itself, after which she was expelled. However, at this point there seems to be some discrepancy. I have heard that Artemis transformed her into a bear, but I have also heard that she wasn’t transformed into a bear until after she gave birth to her son Arcas..and that the transformation was done by Zeus to protect her from Hera in one telling, and Ovid says in another that Hera turned her into a bear out of revenge.
So we have that Callisto, having birthed her son, became a bear to wander about Argos. At which point we come to a branching of the myth. In one version her son having reached maturity, pursued her as a hunter and so Zeus placed them both in the heavens in the form of bears, but Hera forbad them to over to enjoy a respite to bathe in Okeanos for which they never sink below the horizon. The two bears are referred to it seems by Euripedes Ion on a tapestry from Delphi which mentions the bear constellation that can’t sink into Okeanos.The other was that Hera spoke to Artemis and had Artemis slay Callisto with her arrow (after which Callisto was immortalized in the heavens). The poem The Phainomena however doesn’t speak of two bears but rather about Arcas who turns about the polar star (as so by whom sailors navigate), and the trail of light (which appears to refer to ursa major). Thus we are presented with an interesting image of a trail (a path through the forest/wilderness) at the end of which there is a bear who circumnavigates the polar star, the seat of Koios–the axis of the heavens.
That the bear is forbidden to hide herself in Okeanos is quite interesting because this is contrary to the nature of bears and so seems to have a very specific mythic presence. Bears are animals that bear a strong earth association as creatures which have dens beneath the ground, but also spend a significant amount of time of year beneath the earth hibernating. While I am not too certain how this works in Hellas, bear hibernation is a very strong character of bears and so is also a good reason to actively avoid them during the spring when they are hungry and cranky.Thus we are presented with an animal who resides for a period under the earth, during which period the female gives birth to her cubs (ones that she will be rearing for the next several years) beneath the earth, who emerges in the spring, consumes nearly everything (plant and animal food sources), and are a symbol of strength. This puts bears in a position for a perfect symbolic relationship with Artemis, a portal presiding deity strongly associated with the earth the bear has a good symbolic presence as animal of transition which would explain its strong feature in the cult of Artemis in Attica at Brauronia in which the girls were identified as arktoi (little bears) before reaching the age of maturity/marriage.
However, associations of the strength of the bear can be seen in the myth of Agrius and Oreius who were giants that were half bear from Thrake. However, like Arcas, it begins with a follower of Artemis named Polyphonte who, like Hippolytus, spurned Aphrodite which caused the angry goddess to make Polyphonte fall in love with a bear and mate with it. In response Artemis turned all beasts against her and Polphonte fled to her father’s house where she gave birth to her sons where were of remarkable size and strength. These did not honor the gods and ate the flesh of strangers. This cannibalist behavior is one that is particular to the human species at a very base instinctual level, whether it follows with the idea of some tribes that to consume one’s enemy allowed one to draw in their strength or just a basic survival mechanism that gives no thought to anything beyond consuming and surviving. This bear becomes part of the symbolism of the physical mortal being at its most primary level from which everyone must evolve (and so would explain why Arcas sought to slay Callisto when she, in the form of a wild bear, entered into Zeus’ sacred precinct, as well as explain the retaliation of Artemis for the death of a tamed bear which is of a nature different to a wild bear which the goddess herself would hunt) towards the other end of the spectrum towards the symbolism of the heavenly bear of Callisto’s myth.
The bear constellations are indeed set in such a manner in the heavens that the bears are “not permitted” to sink beneath the horizon…i.e. the bears do not retire into the earth. Though the myth has a flavor of punishment in this design it is very telling in some ways because going down and returning is distinctive of death and rebirth analogies. It is a direct opposite symbolism to the typical symbolism we can infer from the nature of the bear which is so strongly associated with the strength, seasonal cycles, and fertility of the earth. Yet the ursa major constellation does have an interesting relationship to the turn of the seasons in which the cup of the constellation is either facing upwards, or facing downwards (typically in the sping and fall) as if pouring out on the earth, as it follows its course around the north star. When I first discovered this as a teenager (from watching an astronomy program) what had come to my mind was the receiving of heavenly blessings (the upward cup), which is followed by the outpouring of seasonal blessings (the downward cup)…which likewise is usually accompanied by rains associated with such seasons. If we combine this with the Trail of Light idea we can see the trail of light is a road that follows to a divine height (the axis of the heavens which in turn can metaphorically indicate Olympos as the height of all heights for us) which the bear (that which is connected to the cycle of mortality) may procede to the height and thus make a distinctive division from the mortal cycle as the bear of the heavens is distinct in its designation in the heavens from the bear of the earth. Thus we have Arcas (whose name indicates that he represented the people of Arcadia) who was born from a mother bear, and through his path on the trail in his pursuit he became as a great bear and set amid the heavens to be favorable towards men (particular favorable towards seamen who navigated by his turnings). Such would be a good example why this constellation was described with very few other favorable constellations by Euripedes on describing the tapestry from Delphi.