Khloe hides her toy bow and arrow in the folds of her saffron gown, glancing down the line of fidgeting girls to where her mother stands watching. Khloe is supposed to give up her childish weapons as an offering to Artemis Agrotera, the Huntress, during this Brauronia ritual, as a symbol of her approaching adulthood. But Khloe is hoping to keep at least one arrow, a secret symbol of her unspoken hope. Her brothers laugh at her for her fierceness, her wildness, her love of playing the goddess during pretend hunts. They called her ‘Arktos’, or Little Bear, long before she was old enough to dance the bear dance at the temple in Brauron.
Her sharp gaze fastens on one of the little girls who is holding a doll and weeping silently, big bright tears coursing down her plump cheeks. That one is too young for this. She is still a baby, wanting her dolls and her mother. Only girls who are brave and strong should dance the arkteia and wear the bearskin gown.
Khloe is proud that she has been selected for service to Artemis at the Brauron temple for a year before returning to her family for marriage and full adulthood, a service that begins today. Her feet begin to shuffle as she thinks about the ancient, feral ritual about to begin. She will don the bear mask and take on the aspect of the frightening beast, growling and swatting at the other Little Bears who will prowl the sanctuary with her.
Khloe harbors a secret hope that Artemis herself will appear to her during her year of service, will shoot her with a divine silver arrow and transform her from an ordinary mortal girl into an oreiad. Joining the band of mountain nymphs who run, hunt, play and swim in Artemis’ train seems to Khloe a far better fate than being married off to produce fat, squalling babies for a lumpish husband.
Her nimble fingers separate a toy arrow from the rest and slide it into the leggings she wears under her bear-dress. She will make the offering to the goddess as is proper, but she will keep this symbol of her worthiness to serve Artemis more directly. And permanently.
Phoebe fidgets in her bright yellow dress, clutching her toy bear in one hand. She is not afraid of the bear dance, nor of leaving her favorite toy at the feet of Artemis’ statue. She feels at home among the animals who belong to the Potnia Theron, the Mistress of Beasts. It is the other girls who alarm her, and the priestesses and family members who are here to observe the rites and make sure they are properly carried out. Phoebe knows most of the girls standing in the line in their yellow robes, but rules and rites are difficult for her to remember. She is afraid of making a mistake, of making a spectacle of herself, of censorious eyes piercing her, of being slapped—or worse, shunned.
Phoebe is one of the older girls taking part in the ritual, at almost twelve while most of the others are around ten, with a few as young as five or six. She pleaded with her mother, who interceded with her father, to let her stay a little kore for another year, then another. Her mother understands, as few adults do, the difficulties Phoebe has with interacting in groups and following specific rules as the ritual requires. But she cannot put off any longer her participation in the bear dance, the first step out of the innocence and ferity of her childhood, overseen by Artemis.
Phoebe’s throat is dry. She glances along the line of girls and catches the eye of Khloe, another of the older girls. Khloe winks at her and makes a fist—Be strong!—and Phoebe lifts her chin. Is she not the best at acting out the ritual and comic dramas in her village? Is she not the one whom the other children seek out to learn about the animals in their region, since she loves and observes the wild creatures whenever she can escape her duties? Is she not known for being a girl to whom anyone can turn for comfort, friendship and advice?
She smiles back at Khloe, then glances down at her shabby, dilapidated cloth bear, made for her by her mother when she was a baby. She hugs it to her, squeezes her eyes shut, then opens them wide and lets the bear dangle from her fingertips. She will be a brave and fierce arktos in the dance. She will give up her toy to the goddess. She will perform the ritual actions as expected and move from kore (little girl), to parthenos (young virgin), in preparation for becoming a nymphe (girl ready for marriage), then a gyne (married woman).
Ismene holds her spinning top loosely as she watches the musicians ready their drums and double flutes for the arkteia. She has enjoyed studying the action of the toy and observing the criteria that govern its spinning motion, but she is ready to give it up. She knows that Artemis Phosphoros, the goddess who illuminates the world with the light of knowledge, will present her with more intricate and fascinating things to study and from which to learn. Ismene loves the way each new facet of comprehension informs and even alters earlier stages of learning. She never tires of the process.
Ismene sometimes wishes she were a boy and could attend school. The tidbits of philosophy and science she coaxes out of her brothers fascinate her. But her mother, with her bright eyes that miss nothing, has gently encouraged Ismene to teach herself to observe, experiment, disassemble and create with the objects in her everyday life. Ismene has learned to cloak her ongoing analyses within the accepted, and therefore ignored, activities of women and to add to her store of knowledge without bringing upon herself the censure of the men. She has no doubt that she can continue her path of self-enlightenment through marriage and motherhood.
Ismene is interested to discover the knowledge couched with the rites, soon to be revealed, and the new opportunities that may be available to her as a parthenos that were not as a kore.
As the music begins, each girl steps forward in her bright yellow krokoton and lays her offering at the feet of the statue of Artemis. They file past the altar, each accepting a basket of figs from the Brauron temple head priestess. Followed by the mothers, aunts, grandmothers and priestesses, they move into the sanctuary where they will don the bear masks and perform the arkteia. After this and other ritual actions, they will shed their ‘bear suits’, both masks and saffron gowns, and move into the next stage of their advancing maturity.
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Brauron was not the only site of bear-focused initiation of young girls in ancient Greece, simply the one best recorded. The ritual taming of the feral nature of girls took place in many forms. The Ortheia festival in Sparta tells of girls wearing the masks of Gorgons while boys were whipped until blood flowed.
Artemis rules over the wild and dangerous natural world, the primal place from which we all come and which we all carry within us. She reminds us that the ferocity of animals pulses only skin-deep beneath our veneer of civilization. Walls, lights and technology give us a facade of safety, but the bear is always lurking, prowling outside the comfort of community as well as within our own psyches.
Little girls have easy access to this casual ferocity until they are trained to ignore it. The initiation rites disclose the unease with which humans attempt to distance ourselves from the danger of living in and being part of the world, a world where death can come without warning, even to the young and innocent.
Artemis is a liminal goddess, present at birth and dealing death. The garments of women who died in childbirth were offered to Artemis at the Brauronia festival.
The Little Bears, the Arktoi, did not leave behind the protection of the goddess, not until their marriage, when they moved formally from Artemis’ sphere to that of Hera. But it represented their first step away from being little girls, free of the constraints that maturity brings, and also terribly vulnerable to the accidents, predations and illnesses which took so many young children right up to modern times.
It is fitting that little girls who died before reaching adulthood, as well as women who died in labor, were thought to have been pierced with the silver arrows of the Huntress.
Cult of Artemis at Brauron – Wikipedia