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Mother Bear

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O glory, I sing glory to the queen of the beasts, Potnia Theron, fleet-footed Phoebe. To the blessed huntress, who is quick and nimble as a doe, who is fierce and savage as a bear, who is pure and shining as the moon in the heavens. I sing the kindness of the lady Artemis, protector of maidens, and the blessings she offered to the infant Atalanta, in the age of heroes.

Artemis and her maidens were in those days accustomed to roaming the land, for they would follow the wind and the trail of their quarry. One day, their hunt took them to the mountains of Tegea, in pursuit of a stag with a coat of burnished bronze, and horns tipped in silver. Swift ran the stag, yet swifter still ran the goddess, and her nymphs behind her. She overtook the stag, and would have pierced its heart, save that as she drew the bowstring to let her arrow fly, the cry of a hungry child rose in the morning air.

For this the sacred virgin stayed her hand, asking, "What child is this that cries for succor, so far from the homes of men?"

Her nymphs could make no answer, for no mortals dwelled this high on the mountain, where the goddess preferred to hunt. So they searched, among the trees and the brush, and at length the blessed maiden discovered the child, an infant wrapped in her swaddling clothes and laid upon a bare rock, where she might fall prey to hunger or cold or the beasts of the field.

But the babe was fearless, her eyes clear and bright as she reached out her tiny hand to grasp at the bow of the lady Artemis. At this the goddess smiled, for the courage of a young girl has always been pleasing to her.

"How dost thou come to be here, little one?" she asked. "Who has been so foolish as to abandon thee?" Well could she guess the reason, for there were men enough in those days who valued only their sons, and not their daughters.

"Shall we care for her, o mistress?" asked her maidens. "Shall she come with us, to be raised in our company and join in our hunt?"

The goddess shook her head gently, saying, "The child is mortal, and must live as mortals do, among her own; her destiny lies not with us." But the baby laughed, and tugged at the string of her bow, and the goddess could not help but smile once more. "Yet neither can we leave her here, to the mercy of the wind and the rain, when she has such heart. Come and gather round, and let us care for her; let us be sure that she is healthy and strong, when we take her back to her own people."

To feed the child, the goddess transformed herself, taking the shape of a mother bear, for no beast of the wood is so fierce in the protection of her young. And still was the child not frightened, clapping her hands to see the miracle and reaching out to touch the bear's thick shaggy fur. So the goddess reached out with one great paw, and drew the baby closer, to take warmth from her bulk and drink of her milk.

"Sing to her," the lady Artemis told her maidens, "for in this shape my voice is not harmonious, but the babe should have a lullaby."

Her maidens thus took it in turn to sing to the child, singing songs of their mistress's deeds. They sang of the folly of Actaeon, who let his desire make him careless, and of the fate that befell him when he was transformed and his own hounds, likewise blinded by their hunger, tore him to pieces. They sang of the tragedy of Callisto, most beautiful of all the nymphs of the wild, who allowed herself to be swayed from her vow of chastity by Zeus in disguise, and who now circled the heavens with her son in the shape of bears. They sang of the vanity of Adonis, who boasted that he could hunt better even than Artemis herself, and who died by the tusks of the boar that the goddess sent to him to punish him for his pride. All these and other stories did the maidens sing for the baby girl, that she might learn of the vices of men and know to guard against them, that she might be nourished by the knowledge imparted to her as well as by the bear's milk that she drank.

"Enough," said the goddess at last, when the child had drunk her fill and dozed in the sun to the sound of the nymphs' lullabies, and then woken a second time. "We must return this child to her own people, for we shall hunt again this evening, and she is too young to run with us. She nuzzled the baby with her great snout, and the baby laughed.

Her nymphs lifted the child, and placed her astride the back of the goddess-bear, where she sat comfortably with her small hands fisted tight in heavy fur as the goddess picked her way down the mountain, one paw in front of the other. At the base of the mountain was a cottage, where a huntsman lived with his wife, and it was there that Artemis made her way as the light of day faded.

The scent of the bear frightened the horses outside, and their noise brought the huntsman out to see what was the matter. He swore, and reached for his bow when he saw the great bear come down to his doorstep, but his wife stayed his hand.

"Wait," she said, pointing to the child. "Be not hasty, for the gods have sent a visitation to us."

"Well-spoken," Artemis said, and both the huntsman and his wife knelt, for they knew they were in the presence of a god. "This child that I bring to you shall be good luck. Take her in and raise her, and name her Atalanta, for she shall grow to be clever and fleet of foot. Treat her well, and teach her to track game through the wood, and to fire an arrow true. Do this," she promised, "and your hunts shall be always fortunate, and you shall have my blessing."

"Gladly," the huntsman promised, and he stepped forward to retrieve the infant Atalanta from the back of the bear. "She will be as our own daughter to us."

Thus the goddess left them, with their new charge, and she returned to the mountaintops to hunt with her nymphs in the wild wood. And in time, the child Atalanta grew to be a great huntress herself. Some men, who knew no better, thought that she was the goddess come to earth, but the true story is as it has been recorded here: that the goddess found her, and fostered her, and blessed her house. Glory, I sing glory to the goddess of the hunt.