Cult of Artemis at Brauron

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Artemis worshipers were found all over the ancient Greek world. One of the most famous worshiping sites for Artemis was in Attica at Brauron. Artemis is said to have presided over all the biological transitions of females from before puberty to the first childbirth. “Young girls began to prepare for the event of the first childbirth at an early age. Even before menarche young girls danced for Artemis, in some places playing the role of animals. At the Attic site, or Brauron, in the rite called arkteia, girls representing the polis of Athens imitated she-bears, arktoi." [1] “The initiation ritual for girls was called the Brauronia, after the location of Artemis' shrine at Brauron, in Attica, where the ritual, performed by girls before they reached puberty, took place.”[2] Brauron is the site where Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter, is said to have established a temple to Artemis by decree of Athena, as told in EuripidesIphigeneia in Tauris.

Origin myths[edit]

One of the many myths surrounding the Cult of Artemis at Brauron originates with the story of Iphigeneia. In the story of the Trojan War, as described by Aeschylus, the Greeks had earned the disfavor of Artemis by shooting one of her sacred stags and thus were unable to put to sea against the Trojans due to disfavorable winds, conjured by the goddess. In Euripides' 'Iphigeneia at Tauris' lines 1446–1468 we find a reference to this origin myth: "And you, Iphigeneia, beside the holy stairs of Brauron you must hold the keys for the goddess herself: where you will die and be buried, and – as a delight for you – they will dedicate the finely woven material of woven cloth which by chance women having lost their lives in childbirth abandon in their homes. I command you to send forth these Greek women from the ground due to their correct intentions.”[3]

In response, an oracle declares that a human sacrifice is required and Agamemnon orders his daughter, Iphigeneia, to come forward for the sacrifice but under false pretenses. The attendants seize her and she is gagged to prevent her cries from reaching the ears of the gods. In a final act of desperation, she shrugs out of her robes and tries wordlessly, to reach out to the elders, hoping that in their pity they will release her from her hell. Iphigeneia’s shedding of her robes is an act done by the “bears” of Brauronian Artemis, as depicted by vases which show the bears having shed their robes and naked, an act which is significant as the fulfillment of a bear’s career. Iphigeneia makes the original sacrifice and the “bears” continue the ritual by shedding their saffron robes.[4]

Another myth is much more simple. According to this myth, two Athenian men killed a bear sacred to Artemis, who, “responding by sending a plague that would cease only if the Athenians would consecrate their daughters to her, the ‘bear Artemis’, every five years.”[5] Artemis was worshipped as the Great-She-Bear and the girls, who were required to undergo a period of ritual ‘wildness' before puberty, were her images, the arktoi, and often wore bear masks in rituals.

The wrath of Artemis[edit]

Artemis needed to be appeased or the results could be disastrous. “One legend describes how the polis of Patrai was punished with plague (loimos) and famine (limos) because a priestess of Artemis Triklaria entertained her lover in the sanctuary. The punishment was so severe because the young priestess had committed a triple violation: violation of the standards of purity for the sanctuary, violation of the requirements of sexual purity for service to Artemis, and, because the priestess represented all the young women of the community, violation of the social requirement that young women be kept from sexual experience until the time of marriage.”[6] The young participants in the Brauronia were expected to act in a certain way to stay in good favor with Artemis. “The anger of Artemis was always a risk. One commentator describes the girls celebrating the arkteia at Brauron as ‘soothing’ or ‘appeasing’ the goddess… Another says that girls had to ‘placate the goddess for their virginity (parthenia), so that they would not be the object of revenge from her.’[1]

Religious practices[edit]


"As soon as I was 7 I was an arrhephoros (sacred basket carrier). Then at 10 I was an aletris (miller of corn) for the foundress, and shedding my saffron robe I was an arktos (bear) at the Brauronia."

- Aristophanes Lysistrata, lines 641-647.
The stages described in this excerpt have been attributed the rituals of the Cult of Artemis at Brauron. Though some sources disagree, it is most commonly accepted that the participants were between the ages of 5 and 10, as in Lysistrata. The wealth of archeological artifacts documenting this festival in the form of painted vases and tablets suggests it was widely known, evidence suggests that the "girls that took part in the Athenian Braurania were a 'select few chosen from the best families'" to represent the entire community.[7] French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet said of the cult practices, "The myth is not difficult to explain: in exchange for the very advance of culture implied by the killing of wild animals, an advance for which men are responsible, the girls are obliged before marriage-indeed before puberty- to undergo a period of ritual 'wildness'."[8]


There are also many offerings found at Artemis’ shrines throughout the Greek world. At Brauron in particular the offerings include, “implements such as spindles, spindle whorls, loom weights and epinetra…The textiles and garments actually donated survive only in the list preserved on stone…”[9] At Brauron there have also been found certain vase fragments depicting what is certainly initiates and participants in the arkteia.

Importance of temple locations[edit]

Hughes notes that "the etymology of the name Artemis would be ark-temnis, “bear-sanctuary,” or more fully paraphrased, “she who establishes (or protects) the bear sanctuary.” Such sanctuaries were commonly and most characteristically groves of trees[10] near water. The placement and structure of the temple at Brauron carried significance because its features were often included in the worship of Artemis. Besides Brauron, many other temples devoted to Artemis worship existed. Cole suggests that “the theme that unites the most distinctive sites of Artemis is the idea of dangerous or threatened passage. She was particularly associated with places of narrow access…[which were] sensitive places necessary for a city’s defense but also the places most vulnerable to enemy penetration.”[11] Since she was associated with territorial boundaries, defensive positions, and the wilderness, many of the sanctuaries were located at the periphery or near water. Whether located on a mountain, marshy area, or near a river, water was often a focal point in the sanctuaries.[12] Brauron was located where a river flowed into the Aegean Sea. The structure of the temple highlighted the nearby river because water was essential to the rituals performed in honor of Artemis.[13]

For more information regarding the actual temple structure, please see Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron.

Festivals and rituals[edit]

There is evidence that during the 5th century the festival at Brauron was celebrated every 4 years, earlier on it may have been an annual event. There is evidence to indicate that the site at Brauron was flourishing as far back as the Neolithic and Mycenaen periods. During the festival young girls, and it seems that on occasion young boys, would gather to celebrate Artemis, the Great-she-bear.[14] They did this by assuming the image of bears themselves and performing certain rituals. Vases depict images of races and dancing to honor the goddess. The dance, also called the "arkteia", was made up of slow, solemn steps meant to imitate the movements of a bear and was performed to a tune from a diaulos (double flute). The young girls also carried baskets of figs. Little is known about exactly what each stage of the ritual actually meant, but it is understood that they each symbolized a gesture of devotion to Artemis in return for her protection over the young and guidance on their way to maturity. Early on the participants wore actual bear skins, but by the 5th century bears had become scarce. The skins were substituted with Krokoton. These short, saffron-yellow chiton dresses were meant to symbolize the bear skins and were "shed" during the final ritual to symbolize the participant's maturation.[15]

Effects on Greek cultural attitudes[edit]

The worship of Artemis at Brauronia, and throughout ancient Greece, had several effects on Classical society. Two have already been noted: the need to appease Artemis affected the women participants and temples of Artemis were consciously placed in defensive or contested locations. Another, the dance of Arkteia, dealt in part with the wilderness aspect of Artemis. The Arkteia marked the beginning of the transition of a parthenos to a gyne, which was completed at marriage.[16]

A major part of the Arkteia was the presence of animal symbolism. The symbolism served to give the children (aged five to ten years old, ideally ten) an introduction to environmental education and concern for nature. This is due in large part to Artemis’s reputation as a protector of wildlife. She was a defender of wild animals, and was believed to punish those who killed them for objectionable reasons harshly. She was also identified with wildlife, and many areas were designated as sanctuaries and refuges where the hunting or killing of wildlife was either prohibited or restricted. Artemis was symbolic of ethical principles of hunting and wildlife management. These principles stemmed from the belief of primitive hunters and gatherers who believed that living things were sentient, intelligent beings, deserving of respect. Due to these factors, when embarking on hunts, hunters needed to be mindful of the respect and reverence due to nature and wildlife.[17]

Thanks in large part to Greek beliefs in regards to Artemis, large sections of the Greek landscape were preserved for many years. For this reason, Artemis is seen as an early pioneer and patroness of environmental education and the worship of the virgin goddess is in large part responsible for many of the conservation efforts of Classical Greece.[17]


  1. ^ a b Blundell, Sue and Margaret Williamson, eds. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1998, 33.
  2. ^ Harris, Stephen L. and Gloria Platzner, eds. Classical Mythology Images and Insights. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2004, 335.
  3. ^ Euripides, Iphigeneia among the Taurians, 406 BCE, lines 1446-1468
  4. ^ Stinton, T. C. W. 1976. “Iphigeneia and the Bears of Brauron.” The Classical Quarterly 26:11-13
  5. ^ Hughes, J. D. 1990. “Artemis: Goddess of Conservation”. Forest & Conservation History; 34:191-197
  6. ^ Blundell, Sue and Margaret Williamson, eds. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1998, 30.
  7. ^ Blundell, Sue; Williamson, Margaret (1998), The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece, New York: Routledge, pp. 30-34
  8. ^ Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1981). Formes de Pensées et Formes de Société dans le Monde Grec. Paris: Francois Maspero. pp.196.
  9. ^ Blundell, Sue and Margaret Williamson, eds. The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 1998, 36.
  10. ^ Hughes, 193
  11. ^ Cole, Susan Guettel (2004). Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp.184
  12. ^ Cole, 192.
  13. ^ Cole, Susan Guettel (2004). Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp.193
  14. ^ Hughes, J. Donald (October 1990). "Artemis: Goddess of Conservation". Forest & Conservation History (Forest History Society and American Society for Environmental History) 34 (4): 191-197.
  15. ^ Walbank, Michael (1981). "Artemis Bear-Leader". The Classical Quarterly (Cambridge University Press) 31 (2): 276-281.
  16. ^ Osborne, R. 1989. “Review: Girls’ Transitions in Attic Ritual and Art.” The Classical Review 39: 273
  17. ^ a b Hughes, J. D. 1990. “Artemis: Goddess of Conservation.” Forest & Conservation History 34: 196


  • Blundell, Sue; Williamson, Margaret (1998). "The Sacred and the Feminine in Ancient Greece". New York: Routledge.
  • Cole, Susan Guettel (2004). Landscapes, Gender, and Ritual Space: The Ancient Greek Experience. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 178–225.
  • Hughes, J. Donald (October 1990). "Artemis: Goddess of Conservation". Forest & Conservation History. Forest History Society and American Society for Environmental History. 34 (4): 191–197.
  • Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1981). Formes de Pensées et Formes de Société dans le Monde Grec. Paris: Francois Maspero. p. 196.