Let’s Travel Back in Time: A Look at the Sanctuary Through the Ages…
800 BCE: A Temple is Built
At the beginning of the 9th century BCE, northwest of Sparta between Limnai and the Eurotas river, lay the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, a series of temples dedicated to the maiden goddess of the hunt, Artemis (Waugh, 159).
The sanctuary is indicated by the number 2 on the map of Sparta below, situated between the Eurotas river and E, Limnai. Built on the outskirts of the city, the sanctuary was home to an outdoor amphitheatre and numerous buildings that were rebuilt several times up until the 6th century BCE (Waugh, 159).
1900s: The Mystery is Unearthed
The sanctuary was excavated from 1906-1910 by the British School of Athens under the leadership of R.M. Dawkins (pictured to the right, middle). The team unearthed thousands of votives, hundreds of figurines, and several fragments of plaques and drawings that continue to allow classicists to infer the function and importance of the temple today.
This excavation was a key discovery for classicists studying women in antiquity because it uncovered evidence of how the lives of women in Sparta were influenced by the gods.
Modern-Day: A Historic Site
Today the sanctuary is barely more than a handful of stones imbedded in the ground, but in its peak it was a major religious centre for the education of Spartan youth, and played a special role in the lives of Spartan girls and women.
Modern-day site of Artemis Orthia (From left to right; Source, Kevin Norman, Flickr, and Wikimedia Commons)
The Leading Ladies of the Sanctuary
One of the 12 gods of the Greek Pantheon, Artemis was worshipped as the goddess of the hunt, nature and protector of animals and plants (Hughes, 191). A perpetual maiden, Artemis was often depicted as a young woman with a bow an arrow, (her weapon of choice), accompanied by an animal (Hughes 192).
Depicted in the wooden carving to the right (found at the site of Artemis Orthia) holding two birds is the goddess Artemis Orthia herself. This pose has appeared in art as early as Neolithic times (Hughes, 191), and is generally seen as an archetype of the Mother Goddess. Although associated with maidenhood, Artemis represents a key feature of the mother goddess; the defender of wildlife, or the “mother of living creatures” (Hughes, 192).
Artemis’s association with wildlife and the hunt contributed to the sacrificial and devotional purposes of the temple (Hughes, 193), and allowed women to participate in more typically masculine spheres.
Besides wildlife, nature and the hunt, Artemis presided over the winds, plague and childbirth (Hughes, 193). This association with childbirth helps explain why Artemis was seen as a goddess most important in transitional phases of a young woman’s life.
Due to her being the protector of the wilderness, the location of the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia only makes sense settled between mountains and a river. Artemis was an important figure in the lives of young girls and woman in ancient Sparta, as explained in the rituals outlined later below.
The Original “A Team”: Athena at Artemis Orthia
Artemis wasn’t the only member of the Greek pantheon to make an appearance at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia; there is also evidence of Athena being a figure of worship there.
Athena is best known as a warrior and agricultural goddess (Luyster, 134), specializing in battle strategy and is often represented as being incredibly clever. Another strong female figure, it is not surprising to find her at a site so pertinent to woman, nor is it a shock that she and Artemis should be worshipped together in a way that perhaps unintentionally promoted gender equality.
There have been several lead figurines found depicting what seems to be Athena, dressed for battle complete with her helmet, sword, and snakes being issued from her sides (Pinney, 157). The figure below shows Athena as she is most typically presented. Another figurine shows a goddess carrying a bow and is largely suggested to be Athena (Muskett, 165), again showing her power in the field of battle strategy. These dedications were indisputably female, and although largely believed to the goddesses themselves (Pinney, 157), they could also have represented the Spartan woman offering them. The figure to the right below shows a winged figure assumed to be Athena, as wings were often a characteristic of gods and goddesses.
A goddess of battle strategy, woman may have offered sacrifices or dedications in Athena’s honour to earn her favour to help their husbands who were away fighting or to pray for their safe return home. It is thanks to Artemis and Athena that women could participate in traditionally male-dominated fields such as hunting and battle.
From Maidenhood to Marriage: Rites of Passage at the Sanctuary
The sanctuary at Artemis Orthia was used for a variety of different kinds of rituals, rites and sacrifices.
Female Fertility and Male Macho-ness
Boys and girls alike partook in rituals at Artemis Orthia, though the purpose was to train them for the tasks they would later perform as adults; being warriors and the producers of warriors for boys and girls respectively. In one ritual, young girls performed dances while wearing phalli around their necks to promote fertility amongst the youth of Sparta (Suddaby, 6). The male parallel was a brutal process called “flogging”, in which young boys were told to steal cheese from the alter, but were beaten back by whips by their elders. This ritual was intended to promote strength and toughness in the future Spartan warriors.
Early Evidence of Equality: Woman Can Help Too!
R.M. Dawkins’s excavation unearthed four ivory plaques from the temple, three of which depict a female figure holding two birds in a position explained earlier (Kopanias, 123). As birds were often associated with either the hunt or battle victory, this pose of human dominance over bird suggests that birds were sacrificed for both reasons (Muskett, 166). As mentioned earlier, the identity of the woman holding the birds is somewhat ambiguous and could be interpreted as either Artemis, Athena, or even the average Spartan woman in the position of power, which reemphasizes their power in the hunt or in battle victory, respectively. If the latter is true, this means that the sanctuary at Artemis Orthia was a way for women to participate in traditionally male-dominated spheres (hunting and battle), and reinforces the Spartan idea that women can help in battle, not only by producing Spartan warriors, but by helping them win their battles through sacrifice.
A fragment of a line drawing was found depicting a man and a woman each with a hand outstretched holding a wreath. Men and women often bore wreaths as symbols of love and marriage (Waugh, 162), which suggests that this sanctuary was also a place to celebrate marriage rituals.
A Transitional Time
The diversity of the types of rituals practiced here shows how Artemis led a Spartan girl through the transition to womanhood (Suddaby, 6), from encouraging fertility to securing marriage. A perpetual maiden herself, Artemis and her specialties lay in other activities that took place outside the home, and perhaps she was used as a model for Spartan women to get their foot in the door in traditionally male-dominated realms, and participate in activities outside of the domestic sphere.
The Sanctuary: A Summary
The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia was a place of educational rituals and rites for Spartan youth and a way for Spartan women to participate in their communities and cope with the trials and tribulations of being a Spartan citizen.
Artemis was an important presence in the lives of Spartan women and was a key figure of worship in many transitional periods of their lives. The sanctuary remains a historic site to this day and is remembered as one of the places where Artemis’s influence was the strongest and her presence impacted the lives of Greek citizens.
Discussion Questions / Inquiries for Further Research:
How does the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia differ from her other cults, such as Brauron or Ephesus? How is it the same?
In what ways does the sanctuary promote gender equality?
How do the rites and rituals practiced at the sanctuary illustrate the Spartan ideals that women should be just as active (physically and socially) as men? How does it contradict these ideals?
Hughes, J. (1990). Artemis: Goddess of Conservation. Forest & Conservation History, 34(4), 191-197. doi:10.2307/3983705
Kopanias, K. (2009). Some ivories from the Geometric stratum at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta: Interconnections between Sparta, Crete and the Orient during the late eighth century BC. British School at Athens Studies, 16, 123-131.
Luyster, R. (1965). Symbolic Elements in the Cult of Athena. History of Religions, 5(1), 133-163. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1061807
Muskett, G. (2014). Votive Offerings from the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, Sparta, in Liverpool Collections. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 109, 159-173. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44082091
Pinney, M. (1925). Votive Gifts to Artemis Orthia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 20(6), 157-159. doi:10.2307/3254624
Suddaby, T. (1969). Masks and Maidens: Women and the Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. Constellations, 6(1).
Waugh, N. (2009). Visualising fertility at Artemis Orthia’s site. British School at Athens Studies, 16, 159-167.
Featured Image taken from Wikipedia Commons.