February 1 - March 20

Moons of Emergence

Symbols: Bear, Wolf, Horse, Bow and Arrows, Gromnica

Botanicals: Mullein, Mugwort, Birch, Elm

Stones + Metal: Moonstone, Spondylus (Spiny Oyster), Petrified Wood, Silver

Colors: Green, Brown, Red

Element: Air 

“The Bear Goddess is the Bird Goddess is the Bear Goddess, Indeed!”

This beautiful and poetic quote was interpreted from a series of inscriptions found on an ancient spindle whorl from the region that is now Belgrade, Serbia. The Vinča script is a vast series of symbols and marks found on similar neolithic artifacts from Southeastern Europe, and believed by some to be the oldest known written language, predating the Sumerian by hundreds of years. Although scholars do not agree that the Vinča script is representative of actual language (let alone claim definitive decipherment), the evidence of meaningful symbols associated with different iconic representations of the Goddess is significant.

Some of the earliest theriomorphic cult statues and figures appear to represent a female form, most likely a goddess, with the heads of various animals. Birds and bears figure prominently in these ancient artifacts, as well as ophidian figures (snakelike). The fact that these specific animals have divine associations has survived well into recorded history, especially in the Greek and Roman sources. Aspects of Slavic folklore today indicates a relationship with Hellenic mythology, if not a direct derivation from it. From current archaeological and anthropological research as well as DNA analysis, we are learning more and more that cultural exchange was not just possible in the Stone and Bronze ages, but likely. 

Devana, or Dziewanna, is a goddess known across indigenous Slavic cultures. She is an ancient goddess–perhaps even prehistoric–with many parallels to the Mistress of Animals (Potnia Theron), a widely recognized cult figure found throughout the lands of Europe and the Near East. Her realm is the forest and places of wilderness, and all animals are sacred to her. It used to be thought that Devana arose as a Slavic version of the goddess Diana, who in turn was the Roman cognate of the Greek Artemis. But as pointed out by Patricia Robin Woodruff and other scholars of historical goddess worship, Devana most likely preceded both Hellenic goddesses by thousands of years, only being recognized and named in recent history. Her ancient symbol was the bear, and like Artemis, many of her early name forms contain or derive from “artio” or bear, such as the Gaulish goddess, Artio or Artia. As well, the name Devana can be traced to the Hindi word devi meaning “divine.”

Neolithic sculpture and cave paintings abound with female figures, often depicted with animal heads or other aspects. Historian Max Dashu calls these figures “matrikas,” not necessarily goddesses, but multifaceted sacred feminine icons that might have been fertility talismans, objects of ancestor reverence, or the personification of animist forces or deities. 

“Matrikas are often found together with animal figurines, especially in the oldest archaeological layers. This association repeats the connection of vulvas with animals in many ancient petroglyphs. Sometimes the matrikas themselves show animal traits, like the vulture-headed icons of Amratian Egypt or the snake-faced nursing mother at al-Ubaid, Iraq. At Vinca, Serbia, a bear-headed mother suckles a bear-baby, and several other icons have duckbills. The famous goddess from a granary at Çatal Höyük sits on a throne flanked by leopards, the prototype for Kybele and her lions many millennia later. At Hacilar, too, a woman sits on a leopard throne, their tails snaking up her back. Another stands with a leopard cub balanced on her hip, the tail dangling.”

Goddess Among the Stars

Traces of the ancient Bear Goddess can be found in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In various Greek myths, Zeus seduces a maiden called Callisto, often said to be a companion or priestess of Artemis, and impregnates her. She bears a son called Arcus who is raised by his grandfather, King Lycaeon of Arcadia (whose name coincidentally means “wolf”).  In order to hide his infidelity from his wife, Hera, Zeus turns Callisto into a bear and abandons her to the forest. Years later, Arcus stumbles onto his mother in her bear form while hunting. Callisto instantly recognizes him as her son and charges toward him. In fear he raises his bow to shoot the bear, but Zeus intervenes, transforming Arcus into bear form and casting them both into the sky to form the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. 

Considering the ancient Bear Goddess was most likely molded into Artemis with the conquering Greeks, it’s not a stretch to consider that threads of this myth probably illustrate the subjugation of the original Bear Mother by the all-powerful sky god. 

Artemis was also an incredibly powerful goddess in her own right before she was absorbed into the Greek pantheon. Although Artemis ultimately eluded the patriarchal motif of the maiden goddess of the wild tamed by forced marriage or rape, her profound and wide ranging sacred character throughout the ancient world was still diminished over time. Artemis is now more commonly recognized as the child of Zeus and twin sibling of Apollo, rather than an independently powerful Bear Mother goddess. 

Although most Slavic lands name the constellation of Ursa Major “the wagon” or “wheels,” there is still an interesting connection to bears (and by extension, Devana, the protector and mother of animals) in the associated folklore. According to Olga Stanton (Magpie’s Corner):

“Folk astronomers call constellation Ursa Major Sazhary or Stozhary. This constellation is closely observed by Slavic hunters, who start their hunting season with observation of Sazhary. Hunters believe that this constellation helps them find the animals and that bears live under its protection. It is Sazhary that make bears hibernate in winter. When Sazhary are “looking” upon earth, bears are calm and don’t attack people. This is why hunting season began in Slavic lands only after Sazhary appeared in the sky.”

Like Artemis, Devana’s early mythos was enfolded in the patriarchal Slavic pantheon, where she is identified as the daughter of Perun, all powerful God of Thunder, and Mokosh, goddess of moisture and fertility. Here she is seen primarily as a maiden goddess of the spring, although she eventually becomes the grudging wife of Veles, god of the Underworld. 

Devana’s fierce independent nature was said to infuriate her father, Perun. She was known to ride through the forest on her loyal mare, hair wild and unbound, always hunting with bow and arrows at the ready. It was even rumored among the gods that she thought she was better suited to rule the three realms (of the gods, the mortals, and the dead) than Perun himself.

When word of her pride and ambition came to her father, he roared his outrage in her sacred forest, frightening her wolf companions away. 

What follows in this myth is a version of the “Tale of Two Magicians,” an archetypal story about two powerful beings in a contest of strength and wits. At turns the magicians change into different animal forms, each time morphing into an animal that will outrun, outperform, or outwit the other, taking on the strength and magical qualities of those creatures. This mythic motif can be found in many ancient cultures, including Greek, Celtic, Native American, and African and echoes the shamanic practices of spirit travel and shapeshifting that seem to have been nearly universal in some form in Neolithic and Iron Age cultures. The frenzy of Berserker warriors of Nordic tradition who went into battle clothed in the skins of wolves and bears to imbue themselves with the power of those animals could have been practicing a form of this magic. (image left, artist unknown)

In the Slavic tale, Devana and her father shift from form to form in a battle for her freedom. Devana eventually shifts into a fish, and her father directs his wife Mokosh to catch her in a fishing net–and thus the battle ends. As a punishment for her disobedience and pride, Perun forces Devana to marry Veles.

There are parallels here to the rape of Persephone myth, although Devana is not specifically known to rule or reside in the Underworld. She is often viewed as the bright half of the goddess Morana, or Marzanna, a Slavic goddess of death and winter, echoing Persephone’s dual nature as maiden goddess of spring and Queen of the Dead. As a spring goddess, Devana is thought to banish winter and herald the coming seasons of growth and harvest in widely practiced Slavic folk rituals. In these traditions, an effigy of Morana is drowned, signaling the end of her wintry reign.

Although many Slavic gods were known to be shapeshifters, Devana’s role as Mistress and Protector of the Animals sets her apart. When she was not in her human guise, she was most often believed to take the form of a bear. The great bear was sacred in so many ancient cultures, it is hard to overstate the importance of a goddess taking bear form. One of the most powerful animals of the wild, the bear was unmatched in strength and ferocity. She was also seen as a potent symbol of regeneration, as the bear disappears in winter during hibernation, only to return in spring with the sun and the emergence of new plant life from the seeds of the previous season. (see Goddess Talks link on reference list)

Bears were also seen as ferociously protective mothers; even today we use the term “Mama Bear” to describe a woman who would do anything to protect her children.

Our Lady of the Thunder Candle

Today, many of the indigenous gods and goddesses of Slavic lands have found their way into Christian traditions. The old ways do not die so easily, and many of these deities and spirits were syncretized with Christian/Catholic saints or celebrations. Devana seems to have specifically taken on many of the qualities of Matka Boża Gromniczna, or Our Lady of the Thunder Candle in Poland. This epithet of the Virgin Mary is associated with the celebration of Candlemas (February 2), the coming of spring, and protection of the home and family from the dangers of winter. This sacred February Feast Day has ties to both bears and wolves, Devana’s sacred animals. As well as its Catholic observance, Candlemas is known as the Day of the Bear in many European and Slavic countries (and of course, Groundhog Day in America). It’s believed that the bear will come out of her hibernation on this day, and depending on the local tradition’s weather lore will decide if she should wake with the spring or go back to sleep for another 6 weeks (roughly to the spring equinox).

The gromnica, or Thunder Candle itself was originally made from stalks of the mullein plant, which is named Dziewanna or Devana after the goddess, and dipped in layers of beeswax. It would be blessed in the church on Candlemas and carefully carried home while lit to protect and bless the home and family. A bit of the holy wax from the candle would be dripped on every threshold and windowsill then used to start the hearth fire. The remainder of the candle would be kept for other sacred ceremonies such as christenings, first communions, confirmations, and even deathbed vigils. Sometimes a part of the gromnica would be buried beneath the house for protection against misfortune or or in the fields for a successful harvest. 

The association of Our Lady of the Thunder Candle with wolves hearkens back to Devana’s own wild companions. Matka Boża Gromniczna both protected against hungry wolves during the cold stormy nights of February, and also held them sacred just as the goddess protected the animals of her beloved forest. She is the compassionate mediator between the human world and the wilderness at its fringes, striking a divine balance in the world. Her role was held in such respect that it transcended her pagan origins to become adapted into Catholic ritual traditions.

(image right, vintage "Heading to the holy mass on the Candlemas Day. 19th-century drawing by Józef Ryszkiewicz")

Devana is also associated with the herb mugwort, called Artemisia Vulgaris in Latin, named after none other than the bear goddess, Artemis. It is sometimes known as the “Mother of Herbs” and is deeply associated with the feminine qualities of healing, witchcraft, wisdom, dreams, and even shamanic journeying. Mugwort is a robust and resilient plant, often found growing vigorously along the fringes of human habitations, another energetic association with the Goddess of the wild.

I have always felt a deep affinity with the Mistress of Animals and other wild goddesses, and was instantly captivated when I first learned about Devana. A goddess with ties to my own ancestral Croatian lineage was powerful medicine for my soul. I suspect that there was a good deal of cultural exchange between Croatia and Italy on the opposite side of the Adriatic, where goddess Diana reigned supreme. I ultimately decided to take a variant of her name as my Priestess name, spelled with an extra “n” and composed with letters and syllables from my own birth name. In making Devana my namesake, I intend to cultivate in my character and my sacred work the qualities I admire best in her: fierce independence, a deep respect for the animals, plants, and spirits of the land around me, and always…a home in the wild.

Practices to honor Devana

  • Making (biodegradable) offerings in the woods 
  • Caring for wild spaces, picking up litter
  • Making and consecrating Gromnica
  • Slavic Beeswax Divination, Apantomancy, Witch Folk Tarot
  • Wildlife Advocacy + Wolf Conservation
  • Supporting young women’s independence and connection with nature

Sources and Further Reading

Woodruff’s Guide to Slavic Deities

Artemis Research Centre

We Love Artemis, 34 Circe Salon Podcast with Dr. Carla Ionescu 

Goddess Talks Podcast: Women, Bears and Mythology with Kaarina Kailo

Roots of Slavic Magic

Magpie’s Corner

Slavic Goddess Dziewanna/Devana, Brendan Noble

World Starlore: Ursa Major

Suppressed Histories Archives: the work of Max Dashu

If you are interested in my offerings for Devana, you can find my devotional candles here.