Having just watched the Disney / Pixar movie Brave, I’m pondering the vaguely Scottish-Irish-Celtic-European mythology and motifs buried in this film. Originally titled “The Bear and the Bow,” the movie weaves a a tapestry of bear and mother goddess symbolism which I find fascinating. Its narrative, set in an idealized 10th century Scotland, straddles myth, fable, and fairy tale.
Before I dive into the mysteries of bear-mythology, here’s a SPOILER WARNING: I’m about to give away a MAJOR PLOT TWIST in Brave.
Brave is a thinly-disguised parable of a maiden’s initiation into womanhood. Princess Merida resists the role prescribed by her mother and seeks help from the previous generation by supplicating a witch, i.e. a crone-trickster figure. This “wicked witch” isn’t truly wicked, but allows the girl to learn through the school of hard knocks by granting her wish (always dangerous in fairy tales). The mother also must learn a difficult lesson. During their ordeal, both mother and daughter transform, redefine their own roles and their relationship to one another, eventually reconcile and forge a new “womanhood” role which suits both of them.
Some of this is a revisionist feminist fairy tale (girl fights for her own autonomy and the right to choose), but some is very, very traditional and pre-Christian: note the maiden, mother, and crone.
I sense a hint of the Morrigan, especially in the witch who (of course) has a raven or crow familiar. Also, Princess Merida (did 10th century Scotland have princesses?) nearly precipitates a war through her refusal to pick a suitor. Self-determination is a messy process for princes and princesses, when succession and a whole country hinges upon their getting hitched.
Then there’s the she-bear. More familiar with Greco-Roman mythology than Celtic, I was immediately reminded of the goddess Artemis, who is — confusingly for those who know more classical, Edith Hamilton, Bulfinch mythology — both a maiden AND mother goddess, a goddess of childbirth and the wild, a protector of children, and, sometimes, associated with a bear. (Kallisto was identified in later mythology as a follower of Artemis, but probably was once an epithet of Artemis, “the fair,” like Pallas Athena.)
In particular, I’m reminded of the Brauronalia, a cult at the ancient Greek sanctuary of Brauron. During this festival, prepubescent girls dressed as arktoi, Greek for “bears.” They donned bearskins, and offerings at the sanctuary also show the girls shed their “skins” and danced unclothed. They danced to appease the goddess so that she would spare them (warding off child mortality). In this cult, Artemis is symbolically a mother bear, both terrible and protective of her young. Her name contains the arkt- root from Indo-European which means “bear.” She is a very old goddess indeed; her name shows up in Linear B tablets.
So much for Artemis. In the Celtic (or at least Gaulic) world we have the goddesss Artio whose name shows the same “bear” root.
The statue of Artio pictured above, part of the Muri group found in Switzerland, is a Romano-Celtic votive with a Latin inscription: Deae Artioni / Licinia Sabinilla “To the goddess Artio, from Licinia Sabinilla.” Scholars interpret this offering as the goddess in both bear and human form (the woman is seated on a throne). Other inscriptions from the Romano-celtic period also mention Artio (Green, Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend, 35). Green (p. 41) cites evidence of bear-cults in Britain as well, including bear talismans from Northern Britain (but not Scotland; she mentions York and Malton).
The Artio statue is considerably earlier and further south than when our film takes place, of course.
R.J. Stewart’s Celtic Gods, Celtic Goddesses gives us a few more Celtic bear-mythology tidbits which may shed light on Brave (pp.52-53):
The Bear is another animal with symbolic attributes that have survived well into the historical period. The bear was still associated as a heraldic animal with the old Stewart family of Traquair in Scotland as late as the eighteenth century, as a sign of kingship. Even at this late stage we find such symbolism, reminiscent of the possible relationship between King Arthur and the bear, commented upon by various writers. [...]
The old Celtic word for bear was artos: this is found incorporated into various place names such as Artobranus and Artodunum, of which there are over two hundred variants in Gaul. The name Arthgen/Artogenus is known from the Roman period, meaning simply, ‘son of the bear,’ or perhaps, ‘son of the Bear God.’ The goddesses Artio and Andarta were Bear Goddesses, and there is a classical parallel in the Greek goddess Artemis, who could take the form of a bear.
R.J. Stewart is focusing more on bear gods or non-gendered bear symbols in Celtic culture rather than bear goddesses. However, that “Bear’s Son” reference tying in Arthur strikes another chord that occurred to me while watching Brave. I was vaguely reminded of Odysseus, whom the preeminent classical scholar Rhys Carpenter identified with a European “Bear’s Son” folk-hero in his seminal Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics. Modern scholars are critical of Carpenter’s premise for good reasons, but I can’t help recognizing some sort of bear-archer-kingship archetype. Odysseus was a trickster and archer who, along with his son, dealt with a plague of suitors in his house by shooting them! While watching Brave, I couldn’t help imagining Merida and her father dealing with their problem in the same way, although that would of course not be permitted in a Disney film.
Finally, the bear is associated in Northern Europe with transformation and shape-changing.
I’ve circled around my point, but I hope you see what I’m getting at. Brave is a coming-of-age story. Merida’s mother is a stand-in for Artemis/Artio. There are even children dressed in bearskins, although they’re not girls. In order to pass her initiation from maidenhood to womanhood, Princess Merida must dance with her mother in bear-form — who at times forgets herself and becomes truly dangerous. Both of them are transformed. Merida finally delivers her mother out of the bearskin and (naked) back into her human role, even as Merida claims her own womanhood. Also, the queen-bear-mother is a symbol of sovereignty, a distinctly Celtic idea. Coincidentally, the arcturus-archer-arcus (Latin for “bow”) motif is also present.
(Yes, I realize I’ve totally failed to incorporate the “demon bear” into this interpretation. I’ve got nothin’. Except that he tried to usurp the goddess’ bear powers and sovereignty, and…oops.)
The parallels to classical and Celtic mythology are not exact, because archetypes are not direct descendants of older myths. Rather, an archetype is a parallel motif that happens to arise because people tend to use similar symbols to describe common life experiences such as puberty, initiation and family. On the other hand, Brave’s parallels with older myths may not be entirely accidental, since it was developed by people who studied at least a little Celtic mythology, perhaps enough to have picked up the bear-goddess motif.
Note: My background is in Mediterranean and ancient mythology more than Northern European and Medieval, so if anyone knows of Celtic or Scottish precedents or myths which shed further light on the bear motif, please add your comments!