Artaois, the Forgotten Shaman? Andrew Anderson

In writing my new book, Artio and Artaois, I have attempted to reconstruct two Celtic Bear Gods that are mentioned in inscriptions across France, Germany and Switzerland, giving the reader a sense of who they may have been. Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of evidence for either, although Artio at least has a statue, which can be found in the Historical Museum in Bern. Archaeological information for the worship of Artaois is even rarer, with only a single inscription bearing his name.

The goddess Artio from the Muri statuette group, a noted collection of bronze figures of Gallo-Roman found in Muri bei Bern, Switzerland.
The goddess Artio from the Muri statuette group, a noted collection of bronze figures of Gallo-Roman found in Muri bei Bern, Switzerland.

I suppose the first question here is how, when there is only a single inscription to Artaois, do we even know he was a bear god? Well, primarily, it’s because of this name. The Celtic root word for bear is Artos and we see it echoed in other bear deities, such as Artio and Andarta. The statue of Artio in Bern sees her represented in the form of a benevolent she-bear emerging from the forests. Taken together, the etymological and archaeological evidence suggests Artaois was some form of bear deity.

The inscription to him can be found in the town of Beaucroissant in south eastern France, where his name is used as an epithet for a Roman deity. In the inscription he is referred to as ‘the august Mercury Artaius’, clearly a deity of great power. In fact, the process of aligning him with the god Mercury shows how important he must have been as his influence was preserved by the Romans during this process of cultural appropriation. The alignment of Roman and Celtic deities is not uncommon; a further 18 Celtic deities are actually evidenced as being epithets for Mercury, while a further 59 are used as epithets for the god Mars.

Aligning Artaois to Mercury is both helpful and not helpful for those of us trying to establish who he was. Predominantly, it must be seen as useful because by using his name in that way the Romans saved Artaois from the oblivion of history. Without this process, his name would not have survived at all. Other than that, it raises more questions than it gives answers. Why, for example, was Artaois aligned with Mercury, a god of messages and trading, rather than Mars, the god of war? In many cultures in existence at the same time as the Celts, bears were framed as strong and warlike creatures. So why wasn’t Artaois? Well, it’s likely that rather than being a god representing a single aspect or quality, Artaois was a chief god to a particular tribe and would therefore have played many roles, including that of warrior. It is also probable that Artaois was, in some form or another, a magician or shaman.

We find connections between bears and shamanism in many cultures, notably in some native American tribes for whom the bear has associations with herbology and magic. In her book Animal Wisdom, Jessica Dawn Parker notes that the people of the Lakota Tribe believe “When bear appeared in a vision to someone, that person became a shaman”[1]. Similarly, the work of Alfred Irving Hallowell[2] in the early twentieth century explored bear ceremonialism in ancient cultures around the world, where bears were clearly seen as having some kind of super-human, magical aspect. In that sense, it is possible, even likely, that a European bear god may have had shamanic qualities too. It is also worth remembering that Mercury, with whom Artaois was aligned by the Romans, was not simply a messenger but was also a notable trickster, one who used wiles and magic to bring his desired action to fruition.

Shaman on a bear. ‘Sans titre’ (Homme ou Chaman sur le dos d'un ours), from Samwillie Amidlak (Inukjuak, Nunavik, 1961). Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.
Shaman on a bear. ‘Sans titre’ (Homme ou Chaman sur le dos d’un ours), from Samwillie Amidlak
(Inukjuak, Nunavik, 1961).
Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal.

This sense of Artaois being a magician is deepened by his association with the figure of Gwydion, a magician and yet another trickster, who appears in the fourth branch of The Mabinogion. In the tale, Gwydion uses his magic for both good and ill. The fourth branch begins with Gwydion helping his brother rape the beautiful Goewin, for which he is punished by being turned into different animals. After this, he uses his magic and trickery to protect his nephew Lleu and create him a wife, the flower maiden Blodeuedd. Although the text of The Mabinogion presents the figures in the tale as mortal, it is clear that these stories are based around the tales of gods and goddesses. Through Gwydion, we can perhaps see some more magical, shamanic qualities to Artaois and get the sense that sometimes magic has darker, problematic elements.

Of course, one of the more obvious connections to explore for Artaois is the English bear warrior whose name, etymologically, shares the same root – Arthur. Arthur is probably a closer template for Artaois, with one Celtic scholar even suggesting that the British tales of Arthur became mixed with the French tales of Artaois, leading to the mythology we have today. While legend portrays Arthur as the figure of the wise leader and warrior who is not in any way shamanic, it is important to remember that magic is a common thread through Arthurian lore. It is embodied in the figure of Merlin, the original wizard and shaman of British legend. While it would be difficult to suggest that Arthur is purely an echo of Artaois, it is easier to see him as a blend of both Arthur and Merlin, a powerful tribal god who can both lead warriors in a charge and summon up the forces of nature.

In fact, it is Artois incarnation as a bear which would make him such a powerful and potent shamanic figure. As magical beings, bears access the three realms; standing firmly upon the earth of the apparent world, accessing the underworld through their long yearly hibernation and sitting among the stars in the upper world in the myths and legends of many cultures. Artaois wouldn’t just be a shaman, he would be a master shaman.

Ultimately, it is difficult to create a full and wholly accurate figure of Artaois from a single piece of evidence. However, exploring connections and associations with his name has suggested he was, and is, a multi-faceted deity. His aspect as shaman or magician is just one of the facets of Artaois I explore in my book. While it may be easier for some to imagine him as a warrior chief, I personally prefer to visualise him sitting within a forest grove, using deep and profound magic to care for his devotees and to trick those who don’t believe in the power of a bear god.

Andrew Anderson is studying in the Druid grade of OBOD and works as an Environmental Manager. Artio and Artaois is available from Moon Books, as is his first book The Ritual of Writing.

This article featured in Issue 50 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in October 2021.


[1] Jessica Dawn Parker. Animal Wisdom. Thorsons (19 Mar. 2001)

[2] Alfred Irving Hallowell. Bear Ceremonialism in the Northern Hemisphere (1926) via AnthroSource.

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