The Cult of Artemis at Brauron


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Who, What, Where, When, Why?

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Votive Relief of Artemis Brauronia and Worshippers ca. 4th century BCE. (Source: Flickr)

The remaining evidence for the existence of ancient Greek cults is often ambiguous. There are very few known details of what actually took place during religious ceremonies, rites, and festivals in classical Greece—as many religious practices were intentionally kept mysterious. The excavations of the site of Brauron in Attica however, have unearthed valuable evidence for an ancient cult that has been attributed to the worship of the Greek Goddess, Artemis. Cult activity at Brauron is estimated to have taken place during the 8th century BCE until the 4th century BCE, though most of the buildings on site date around the 5th century BCE.  The cult of Artemis at Brauron centered on the worship of Artemis as the goddess of childbirth and fertility and is seen to have played an important role in the lives of women and girls. Primary evidence from antiquity such as votive statues, women’s objects, pottery and even poetry all depict Brauron as a sacred place where Athenian women and girls performed rituals for Artemis and her priestess Iphigenia.

Excavation of Brauron

The site of Brauron was discovered in the Greek region of Attica and was excavated by Greek archaeologist, John Papadimitriou. Papadimitriou began the excavation in 1948 and continued until 1964. He estimated Brauron to have first thrived from Neolithic times up until the late Mycenaean period dating between 3500 and 1300 BCE. After 1300 BCE (when Attic aristocrats left the town to move into Athens), Brauron was abandoned until just before the Classical period when it became home to the Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia. [1] The actual temple located on site was estimated by Papadimitriou to have been built around 500 BCE. However, objects found that date back to 700 BCE suggest that there may have been an early shrine that predated the sanctuary. [2]

Tour arounnd the site of Brauron (Source, Vravrona Sanctuary of Brauronian Artemis, YouTube)

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Wooden pyxides ca. 6th-5th BCE (Source, Flickr)

The Excavators of Brauron found marble slabs with inscriptions described as lists of offerings dedicated to Artemis, including “jewels, rings, mirrors, and…clothing”(Papadimitriou, 1963, 113). Many of the items described, which were identified as “objects associated with the private lives of women,” were actually found on the site (Papadimitriou, 1963, 113). Papadimitriou described a well-preserved bronze mirror dating from around 500-480 BCE with the inscription reading:

“Hippyla the daughter of Onetor has dedicated it to Artemis in Brauron” (Papadimitriou, 1963, 113).

lil girl brauron
Marble Statuette of Young Girl with Hare ca. 320 BCE (Source: Flickr)

Various statuettes of children are some of the most striking and well-preserved artifacts from the site of Brauron. Papadimitriou described a statue of a young girl dating from around 320 BCE as evidence for the Arktoi at Brauron— the little girls or “little bears” who participated in religious rites for Artemis. The girl is holding a hare, which is likely symbolic of her association with the goddess. With these statues, Papadimitriou pointed to the presence of children in the cult of Artemis, especially young girls. [3] Statuettes of young boys were also found at Brauron, but Papadimitriou believed this “may have been an offering of thanks to Artemis by a mother who gave birth to a male child” (Papadimitriou, 116).

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Map of the Site of Brauron (Source: By Emma Burkhardt, Flickr)

The Excavation of Brauron also uncovered a large stoa consisting of ten rooms with eleven beds in each. More statuettes were found outside of the rooms which depict girls holding symbolic objects associated with Artemis. These rooms are therfore thought to have been dormitories for the little girls who participated in the Arkteia.  . [4]

Significance of Artemis

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Artemis and her Doe ca. 5th-4th century BCE (Source: Louvre Museum)
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Head of Artemis ca. 350-300 BCE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During classical Greek times, the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron functioned as a place of ritual worship of Artemis. Artemis, who was the daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo, was most widely regarded in ancient Greece as the goddess of the hunt and wilderness. Her association with the wilderness also related to her role in the lives of human women in antiquity:

“[Artemis] is the deity who mediates between the savage world of wild animals and the tool-using (and just as savage) world of humans. As goddess of the wilds, her cult marks transitions between the wild and the civilized, and between political domains. She helps girls become women, and more importantly, mothers…In most of her functions, to one extent or another, Artemis is the goddess who presides over changes of states of being” (Budin, 2006, 3).

Artemis was largely associated with elements of change and transitionin, such as the wilderness and women’s bodies. Accordingly, she was the appropriate goddess to worship at the cult of Artemis at Brauron which dealt with the periods of transition in women’s lives i.e. puberty and pregnancy. Even the landscape of Brauron suggested this association of Artemis with change. Brauron was situated in rural Greece and existed in an area of territorial transition. [5] Cole theorized that the vulnerability of the borders of the Athenian polis was linked to the vulnerability of its women, and attacks on women in religious sanctuaries were considered an attack on Athens. [6] Artemis was therefore pleased by “the successful celebration of female festivals at unprotected border sanctuaries” and interpreted this as ” a sign of peace, security, and territorial integrity” (Cole, 1998, 3).

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Artemis as Kourotrophos, ca. 430-400 BCE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Artemis was especially emphasized as the goddess of women, children, childbirth and fertility within the cult of Artemis at Brauron. A terracotta statuette found at the site of Brauron depicts Artemis holding an infant, and serves as a good example of the goddess’ role in the lives of women and children. Similar statuettes were also found at the site which also depict Artemis as a kourotrophos, or child nurturer.[7] Artemis’ function as the goddess of children was apparent at Brauron where her cult was “associated with aspects of initiation, child cult functionaries, and the dedication of infants and small children to her care” (Budin, 2006, 69).

The Priestess, Iphigenia

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Iphigenia as a priestess of Artemis in Tauris with Orestes, Roman fresco from Pompeii ca. 1st century CE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Quick summary of Iphigenia (Source: Classics Summary: Iphigenia, YouTube)

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Bust of Euripides ca. 330 BCE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Primary evidence for the cult of Artemis at Brauron comes from a play by the ancient poet Euripides, called Iphigenia in Tauris. The play tells the story of Artemis, Iphigenia, and her brother Orestes who has been sent by Apollo to retrieve a statue of Artemis from the land of Tauris. Orestes is caught by the Scythians, but is recognized by Iphigenia. Iphigenia and Orestes join forces to steal the statue and are then commanded by Athena to set up cult sites to Artemis in Attica. [8] From lines (1528-1533) of Iphigenia in Tauris, Athena outlines the cult that Iphigenia is to establish at Brauron:

 

 

“Iphigenia! thou

Upon the heights of Brauron must preside Over her shrine, —and at thy burial

Rich votive robes shall be cast over thee,

Of finest texture, by the women left

Who died in childbirth.”

(Euripides, Iphigenia in Taurus, 1528-1533, Trans. Cartwright 1868)

This excerpt clearly refers to the site of Brauron uncovered by Papadimitriou. We know that women dedicated clothing in the cult of Artemis at Brauron from the marble slabs found at the site, which is further reinforced by the lines above. Accordingly, we can make the assumption that these clothes were dedicated by women who died in childbirth. [9]

It is believed that both Artemis and her priestess Iphigenia were worshipped in the cult of Artemis at Brauron. Lily Kahil asserted that Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris is essential for clarifying the relationship between the two dieties as distinguished fixtures of the cult at Brauron[10]:

“The character of Iphigenia, as she appears in Iphigenia in Tauris, contains very probably the elements of an ancient heroine, herself epitomizoing fertility, but with a chtonic aspect still found in the time of Euripides. It is to her and not to Artemis that garments of fine texture of the women who died in childbirth are given, while Artemis Brauronia herself…is more the goddess of happy deliveries” (Kahil, 1983, 233, Trans. Moon.)

The chthonic aspect of Iphigenia which Kahil described refers to the fake sacrifice of the preistess in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. [11] This play revolves around Iphigenia’s father, Agememmnon, who plans to sacrifice Iphigenia to Artemis in hopes that the goddess will send the winds needed to move his ship. Before Iphigenia can be sacrificed, Artemis intervenes and sacrifices a deer in her place, making Iphigenia her priestess. [12] Iphigenia’s association with sacrifice and death made the dedication of  the clothes of women who died in childbirth more appropriate. By contrast, Artemis was more likely to receive the garments of women who had safe and happy deliveries.[13]

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Statue of Artemis saving Ipigenia ca. 125 BCE (Source: Flikr)
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Artemis’ Sacrificial Deer ca. 125 BCE (Source: Flickr)

The sacrifice of Iphigenia is often thought to have been set in Aulis, however Kahil had a different theory. Because Euripides referred to Iphigenia as the Key Holder of Brauron, she suggested that the sacrifice may have actually taken place at Brauron, with a bear instead of a deer. [14] Kahil’s theory fits in well with the worhsip of Artemis, as the goddess was often associated with the image of the bear. This association is particularly apparent in some of the artifacts found at Brauron that depict bear iconography in scenes of festivity and ritual.[15] Ekroth has suggested this theory may also serve as a link between Iphigenia and the Arkteia. Athenian girls who participated in a ritual called the Arkteia at Brauron dressed up as bears to honour the flase sacrifice of the priestess, Iphigenia.[16]

 Brauronia the Arkteia

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Bust of Aristophanes ca.400 BCE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The cult of Artemis at Brauron centred upon the festival Brauronia, which included a ritual for young girls called the Arkteia. The festival was primarily celebrated by women and girls, both of which had an active role in performing rituals for Artemis. Papadimitriou described Brauronia as an event that took place every five years wherin “a number of the young daughters of noble families, clothed in saffron-colored robes, were brought to the sanctuary at Brauron” (Papadimitriou, 1963, 118). These girls acted as little priestesses of Artemis in the rite of the Arkteia which is thought to have involved imitating bears, participating in processions and ritual dances, and sacrificing animals to the goddess. The image of the statuette above, which depicts a little girl holding a hare, is seen to represent one of the “little bears” or arktoi.[17] Some of the best evidence for Brauronia and the young preistess of Artemis comes from Aristophanes’ comedic play, Lysistrata. A chorus member in Lysistrata makes direct reference to Brauronia and the roles that women and girls had in the festival:

“At seven years old, 

I carried sacred vessels, and at ten

I pounded barley for Athena’s shrine. Later as a bear, I shed my yelow dress

for the rites of Brauronian Artemis.

And once I was a lovely full-grown girl, 

I wore strings of figs around my neck 

and was one of those who carried baskets.”

(Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 641-647Trans. Johnstone)

The passage above provided invaluable evidence for the festival Brauronia where women carried baskets in procession, and young girls—the Arktoi, dressed up as bears. The girls who participated in the Arkteia were thought to have been between five and ten years old and wore yellow dresses to symbolize bearskin. These pre-pubescent girls probably performed rituals for Artemis in hopes that the goddess would grant them a fertile marriage later on in their lives. This theme of fertility is also suggested by the figs worn by the women, as figs were largely symbols of fertility in ancient Greece. Women, puberty and fertility were all common themes within Brauronia and the Arkteia, as well as within the worship of Artemis herself. [18]

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Young Girls dance around an altar for Artemis ca. 500BCE (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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Krateriskos showing naked girls moving towards an altar ca. 6th-4th century BCE (Source:Wikimedia Commons)

Kahil analyzed scenes of ritual depicted on pieces of pottery found at Brauron to try to explain what might have happened during Brauronia and the Arkteia. The images show various scenes of cult activity, and the krateriskoi (vases) themselves were probably used during these rituals. The first krateriskos Kahil described represents a sacred race wherein little girls in chitons are running, while women in dresses stand by holding ritual objects. The second kraterisokos depicts a similar scene, except the girls are thought to be older and they run naked. [19] The nakedness of the girls was extremely unusual within the context of ancient Greek depictions of women, as naked females typically represented prostitutes. Kahil observed the girls’ nudity as:

“A renewel of the gesture of Iphigenia who also abandons her yellow robe at the at the crucial moment of initiation, the passage from life to death. The girls are similarily passing from the stage of childhood to that of women” (Kahil, 1983, 238, Trans. Moon).

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The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Francois Perrier ca. 17th century BCE. Iphigenia sheds her robes while Artemis can be seen in the sky above. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

As mentioned above in Lysistrata, and confirmed by the vase described by Kahil, girls were almost certainly naked during the rites of Artemis at Brauron. This nudity was likely regarded as sacred, rather than shameful. It also could have represented the juxtoposition in acnient Greece between innocent and untamed youth, and clothed, civilized and marriagable women.[20] Clark contended that the clothing the girls shed and dedicated to Artemis “[identified that a previous stage of their life [was] over” (Clark, 2011, 5).

The third vase described by Kahil depicts Artemis, Apollo and Leto where Artemis is shooting an arrow at a deer. On the other side, a naked man and a woman dressed in a chiton (who Kahil believed to be Iphigenia) stand in prayer wearing bear masks. The naked man in the mask is thought to have potentially been a priest of Iphegenia, as it was common for Greek men to be depicted in the nude. This scene is thought to represent  the main event of the festival Brauronia because it incorporates all of the central iconography: Artemis, Iphigenia and the bear. [21]

Conclusion

The study of the cult of Artemis at Brauron has contributed to the way in which we interpret women in antiquity. Following the excavation of Brauron in 1948, it has been possible for scholars to use the primary evidence of women’s objects, statuettes, pottery and poetry to theorize how the rituals and practices that have taken place within the cult.  The study of Brauron solidifies Artemis’ role as the goddess of women and children while providing a unique link between Artemis and the priestess Iphigenia. Although we do not know for sure that every Greek woman and girl was able to participate in the Brauronia or the Arkteia, we can assume that these rituals were symbolic in the lives of those that did. The cult of Artemis at Brauron centered on the lives of ancient women and girls, combining religion with the periods of transition that marked the lives of women.

Endnotes

  1. Papadimitriou, 1963, 113.
  2. Papadimitriou, 1963, 115.
  3. Papadimitriou, 1963, 116.
  4. Papadimitriou, 1963, 118.
  5. Clark, 2011, 2.
  6. Cole, 1998, 3.
  7. Kahil, 1983, 233, Trans. Moon.
  8. Budin, 2006, 91.
  9. Kahil, 1983, 233, Trans. Moon.
  10. Kahil, 1983, 233, Trans. Moon.
  11. Kahil, 1983, 223, Trans. Moon.
  12. Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris, Trans. Cartwright.
  13. Kahil, 1983, 240, Trans. Moon.
  14. Kahil, 1983, 237, Trans. Moon.
  15. Kahil, 1983, 237, Trans. Moon.
  16. Ekroth, 2003, 64.
  17. Papadimitriou, 1963, 118.
  18. Kahil, 1983, 237, Trans. Moon.
  19. Kahil, 1983, 237, Trans. Moon.
  20. Clark, 2011, 5.
  21. Kahil, 1983, 237, Trans. Moon.

Bibliography

Budin, S. (2016). Artemis [E-book]. Retrieved from https://www.book2look.com/embed/9781317448877

Clark, B. (2011). BRAURON the sacred sanctuary of Artemis. Retrieved from http://www.astrosynthesis.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Sanctuary-of-Brauron.pdf

Cole, S. (1998). Domesticating Artemis. In S. Blundell (Ed.), The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece (pp. 1–10). London: Routledge.

Kahil, L. (1983). The Mythological Repertoire of Brauron (L.Moon, Trans.) (Ancient Greek Art and Iconography.). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Papadimitriou, J. (1963). The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron. Scientific American208(6), 110–122. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0663-110

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2 thoughts on “The Cult of Artemis at Brauron

  1. This is very well done, I really enjoyed reading this! I’m actually working on another project that involves me talking about the archaeology of the site at Brauron, so this was very informative for me. The page appears well organized and flows nicely from beginning to end. The placement of the photos and blockquotes are well-placed and they don’t disrupt the flow of your page.
    The only cristism I can give is that I’ve noticed a few typos here and there, but overall this is very informing on the cult of Artemis at Brauron!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi – Very interesting! It’s 19 years now since I stood by Iphigenia’s grave in Brauron.

    Another good reference for Iphigenia and cult worship (that I’ve only read the first quarter of so far) is Ken Dowden’s Death and the Maiden: Girls’ Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology (1989; republished 2014). This discusses Brauron and the Arkteia, but also the many variations of this cult in other places.

    Like

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