Artemis’ Sacred Spring at Brauron

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If you look at sanctuaries to Artemis across the map, you’ll notice that they often are rather close to water. In alongside the Erasinus river, the sacred spring at the Brauron sanctuary played an important part in rituals.

Though it may not look impressive today, this spring was abundant at its peak. It was closed to (and possibly fed into, at peak tides) the Erasinus river, that ran down to a small harbour where it joined the sea. A stone platform stood beside the spring that would allow for rituals to be performed on the level surface.

As mentioned before, water and Artemis seemed to have gone together quite a bit, despite the fact that she was not a water deity. A similar layout to this sanctuary and its relation to water can be seen at the Artemis site at Amarynthos, which overlooks a river. There is some suggestion that crossing over water to reach a sanctuary to Artemis was significant, or at the very least a social ritual. The bridge at Brauron supports this theory for our purposes.


Most interesting about this spring is that it was found to be filled with votive objects. These objects indicate a practice of tossing offerings into the spring even before the sanctuary to Artemis was established on this spot. Water-offerings is an unusual practice in Greek culture, and is more something that we would see in Celtic and Viking cultures. My own theory is that this practice at Brauron comes from a rite surrounding an earlier and more eastern interpretation of the goddess. An examination of the history of the cults of Artemis indicate the possibility that Sumerian origins could link her to water in a symbolic capacity.

The sacred spring is so interesting! Later we will take a look at the objects found around the sanctuary, including some retrieved from these waters. Next week we will take a look at the temple and the later Byzantine church that stands on the site. Thanks for reading!


A Bridge Over Grecian Waters (Brauron Site)

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An ancient bridge still stands over the Erasinos river that runs close by the sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron. Let’s take a closer look at it this week!

If you recall the geography of Greece, the city of Athens is located to the west of Brauron and this sanctuary. Therefore we can understand why a bridge crossing the river in this direction would be necessary! This route would be the most popular one for entering into the sanctuary.

The bridge is square in shape, both 30 feet wide and long. At the time it was discovered, it was the only 5th century BCE bridge found on the Greek mainland! Some older Mycenaean bridges are known of, as well.

This image shows the supports for the bridge well. It would not impede the flow of the river while remaining quite sturdy.
This image shows the supports for the bridge well. It would not impede the flow of the river while remaining quite sturdy.

What is particularly interesting about this bridge is that it demonstrates a new kind of construction. A series of walls were constructed in the water running parallel to the river, so the water could pass through relatively unobstructed. These walls supported horizontal stone slabs that made up the top of the bridge. this construction is so sturdy that it still stands happily in place today.

Being so close to the sea, this river did indeed flood. A notably large flood occurred sometime in the Hellenistic era, and caused the surrounding land to become much more marshy. The temple and its associated structures survived this event due to its slightly higher elevation. However some caked on mud on the stones of the building shows just how intense this flooding could be.

Next week we are going to examine the sacred spring, located just nearby the bridge. Thanks for reading!

The Stoa at Brauron

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This week in our investigation of the sanctuary to Artemis in Brauron, we are going to take a look at the form and function of the stoa.

The plan of the sanctuary, in case you forgot!

First, you may ask, what is a stoa? A stoa is a feature of Greek architecture that typically consists of a covered walkway alongside a building, supported by columns. The stoa at the sanctuary is pi-shaped, meaning it has three sides – or at least, it was intended to have three sides. Only the north end was fully completed, the others left in stages of construction.

The stoa is dated to the end of the 5th century BCE, and is done in the doric style. Looking at the site plan you can see several evenly-sized square rooms in the structure. These are thought to be dining rooms, for they have raised levels around the circumference of the room which would support eleven full-sized dining couches, and tables stood before them made with local limestone and marble tops. The doors of the rooms are off-centre to accommodate the couches all fitting nicely.

The columns out front of the north side of the stoa. These photographs are from the Perseus Project.
The columns out front of the north side of the stoa. These photographs are from the Perseus Project.

I refer to these rooms as dining rooms, for it seems a reasonable assumption as to their function. Papadimitriou (the archaeologist of the site) thought that perhaps these rooms were the residences of the arktoi, the little girls that participated in coming-of-age rituals at the site. He based this assumption on the small statues of children that were found outside the doors. While this may be possible, others think that these rooms must have been used by adults, whether they be visitors to the sanctuary, or the priestesses that lived and worked there.

One of the dining rooms. See the off-centre entrance (the light coloured rectangle), the base of a marble table, and the raised perimeter of the room for couches.

Along the back of the building is a long hallway – you can see it on the plan with a dotted line. In this hallway were stone bases where boards were placed, and offerings (mostly clothing) were left here. These were dedicated by women who sought aid in childbirth from Artemis. The clothes were thought to be those worn in pregnancy, or those of women who did not survive the childbirth experience.

The back hallway of the stoa. See the columns in the background for orientation. This long area probably housed offering garments from women who sought the goddess’ help.

Texts reference there being stables in the area, and though they have not been located, there is some suggestion that they might be out in behind the stoa. If this was another open-air space then it may have faced some sort of stable location. However more investigation would be needed to say with any certainty.

Next week we are going to take a look at the ancient bridge that still stands over the nearby river. Thanks for reading!

Archaeology at Brauron

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Finally, we are going to get into the architecture and archaeology of the sanctuary to Artemis in Brauron! This week we will start with a general overview, and over the next couple of weeks we will examine sections of the site individually.

First, some geography. Brauron was a small town on the coast of Greece, about a 6 hour walk from Athens by modern estimations (and modern roads). In addition to this sanctuary, a building known as the Brauroneion is found on the Acropolis is Athens. This site came later and will be looked at briefly after our investigation at Brauron.

Athens on the west coast of Attica, Brauron near the east coast.
Athens on the west coast of Attica, Brauron near the east coast.

The site of the sanctuary in Brauron was established around the 8th century BCE, though there is also evidence in this area for activity as far back as the neolithic era. Active worship of Artemis began here around the 6th century BCE. Additionally there were some Mycenaean chamber tombs nearby, which were filled with rich grave offerings. This area was a popular place for nobles to have homes, and there was a prominent maritime presence – the sea was supposedly much further inland than it currently is, giving Brauron a much more scenic view in its day.

The site was excavated back in the 1950s and 1960s by John Papadimitriou, a Greek archaeologist. To my knowledge his work at the site is the most recent comprehensive work (if you have evidence of anything more current I would love to know about it).


From the image above, you can see that in addition to the sanctuary structure (the pi-shaped stoa), there are many other interesting features to this site. We are going to investigate them one at a time, and they are as follows:

Sacred Spring
Church of St. George (and what lies under it)
Sacred House
Small Temple

Additionally, there are a number of interesting artifacts to be examined from around the site. If you are not familiar with the myth of Iphigenia, then look forward to the sections about the cave and the structures inside – it was said that this mythical woman came to Brauron after being saved by the goddess Artemis from a human sacrifice at the hands of her father. Papadimitriou (the archaeologist) was very keen to find physical evidence of this myth at the site, and though his arguments are interesting, the true functions of the cave and its related structures seem to be based more in reality than myth.

Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we take a look at the stoa!

Artemis and Bears, Part Three

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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!

Artemis and Bears, Part Two

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Last week we talked about the study of bears by the ancient Greeks, and how their observations contributed to the idea of bears as an icon of motherhood in nature. This week we are going to investigate some older mythological accounts that add to this idea.

Bears as good mothers seemed to be an idea that was floating around even before the Greeks wrote about it. An artifact found in Yugoslavia depicts just this. It is a Neolithic figurine of a bear, or at least a bear-masked figure, cradling a small baby. Whether or not this is actually a bear or a person dressed as one, the imagery is in place.

Neolithic bear figurine from Yugoslavia.
Neolithic bear figurine from Yugoslavia.

There is also a location in Crete called the “Bear Cave”. It is on the Akrotiri peninsula, in north-west Crete, and there seems to have been a cult established there in the Late Minoan III period, somewhere around 1400-1100 BCE. The worship in this cave seems to have been focused on a large stalagmite. The shape of this stalagmite has been interpreted as resembling a dog or a bear.

This cave has been identified in myth as the place where the nymph Kynosoura suckled the infant Zeus when he was abandoned. The tradition that associated Zeus and bear-nurses was already known in the 6th century BCE, suggested by Porphyrius’ statement that Pythagoras called she-bears “the Hands of Rheia” (Rheia was the mother of Zeus). The cult that was in this cave has been suggested as a kourotrophos cult, which if you recall from our discussion about epithets, refers to a divinity of child-rearing.

There is another myth about Kephalos, the great-grandfather of Odysseus, that relates to bears and human child-bearing. This story is recounted by Aristotle in the Constitution of Ithaka. It was a local legend, that told how Kephalos was childless and sought the advice of an oracle. He was told to mate with the first female he encountered. On his way home he met a she-bear, and in strict adherence to the oracle he mated with her. The she-bear then turned into a human woman and bore him a son, Arkeisios.

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in cage at Lincoln Park Zoo. 1900.
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in cage at Lincoln Park Zoo. 1900.

We see that there are plenty of references in both myth and archaeology to bears being worshipped or linked with motherhood. Next week we will finish up this three-part series-within-a-series by looking at Greek associations of bears with Artemis specifically.

Artemis and Bears, Part One

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This week we are going to explore what links the goddess Artemis with bears. Last week, we talked about coming-of-age rituals for young Greek girls, and one of those steps involved “acting the bear” for Artemis at Brauron. The title of this role was Arktos, or “Little Bear”.

As she was a goddess of wild animals, the wilderness, and hunting, any woodland creature would be relevant to Artemis. The bear in particular is fitting to the tasks performed at the sanctuary at Brauron. In this post, the first of three, we are going to explore why this is.

The habits of the bear, as the ancient Greeks understood them, make it a good mascot for a sanctuary around childhood development and motherhood. The hibernation and pregnancy were particularly curious. Hibernation was discussed in terms of the she-bear’s pregnancy: the bears mate one month before they go into hibernation, and the she-bear delivers shortly after she has gone into hibernation. She comes out only when the cubs are ready (in the third month after the winter solstice). The information that we have regarding this process is primarily from Aristotle and Pliny; based on what we now know about bears, these ancient perspectives aren’t completely accurate.

These writers noted that mother bears were ‘unusually fierce’ both before and after the delivery of their cubs. They were defensive mothers and used clever strategies to protect their young. This image of a bear as a very caring mother fit with ideas of motherhood and cast the wild animal in a more civilized light. Bears were also said to behave somewhat like humans, as they walked upright on their hind legs like a person and mate by lying down and embracing. Oppian compared the paws of the bear to human hands and feet.

There was also a strange notion about newly-born baby bears, which I addressed before in a Weird Classics post. Several ancient authors (possibly building off each others’ ideas) thought that baby bears were born formless, as little blobs of flesh. The mother bear would then lick the cub into the proper bear shape. Reference to this can be found in Plutarch Moralia 494, Ovid Metamorphoses XV 379-81, and Pliny Natural History 8.54. This act gave rise to the consideration of mother bears as creating their children twice; once through traditional birth, and a second time through the ‘sculpting’ of the baby. This made them twice the mother, and therefore closely tied them with ideas of motherhood.

American Black Bear. Lincoln Park Zoo mammal. 1900.
American Black Bear. Lincoln Park Zoo mammal. 1900.

Next week we will discuss the archaic associations of bears and motherhood that predate the construction of the sanctuary at Brauron. In the meantime, do you know any other myths about bears? Please share them in the comments!