Artemis and Bears, Part Three

brauron header

In the last two weeks, we have examined both scientific and ancient associations with bears and motherhood. Now we turn the conversation back to Artemis, and how the bear serves as part of her cult in relation to pregnancy, motherhood, and childhood.

There is much similarity between the coming-of-age rituals of young Greek girls and the maturation of bears. The human rituals involve a three step process: first, a withdrawal from society, when the girl enters into the tour of rituals. Secondly is the transformation, the coming of age into womanhood. Third is the return to society, when the girl goes back home as an adult woman (in society’s eyes, at least) and is ready for marriage and motherhood.

This process mirrors that of the bear. The withdrawal from society is the hibernation, when the bear goes into its den. The transformation is the pregnancy of the bear, which takes place in the den. The return to society is the bear emerging from the den, now a mother with cubs to look after.

These two ideas are united in the Arktos ritual at Brauron. The young girls arrive at the site in a state of “childhood”; they are young and not ready for marriage. The ritual undergone at the sanctuary is referred to as “Acting the She-Bear”. Through this process (which we admittedly know only a little about), the girls mimick the hibernation, transformation, and return of the animal in a symbolic transfer into womanhood. When they return home from Brauron, they are eligible for marriage.

Interestingly, bears are one of the least common animals represented in dedications to the Greek gods. In cults, animals are most materially involved as sacrificial victims. Typically domestic animals were sacrificed, but occasionally wild ones such as bears were used. Bears were also involved in festivals, such as that of Artemis in Laphria, described by Pausanias (7.18.11-13). The animals were thrown into a flaming pyre as sacrifice to the goddess. Pausanias records one instance of a bear breaking free from the fire and rushing at the crowd to try and escape – he notes that he isn’t aware anyone was hurt in the incident.

There are also a number of myths about Artemis involving bears. One tells of how a number of Athenian youths killed Artemis’ sacred bear, and in revenge she visited Athens with a plague. She only consented to remove it if a number of small girls served as arktoi, Little Bears, in her mysteries. This is given as an origin story for the practice at Brauron. Some confusion follows as to whether the girls were meant then as “sacrifices” to appease the goddess, or as “offerings” to gain her favour. The practice may stem from a literal child sacrifice but it is more likely that the time spend serving the goddess is viewed as the sacrifice/offering.

Had enough of this bear talk? I think we can now conclude that bears had a rightful place in the practices of worshipping Artemis in Greece. They were considered maternal animals with a close connection to their young, and their “wildness” made them dear to the goddess of wild beasts.

Image from page 292 of "True bear stories" (1900)
Image from page 292 of “True bear stories” (1900)

Next week we will start to look at the site of Brauron itself! How exciting! Stay tuned!

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