The sanctuary at Brauron, not far from Athens, was the site of an important cult to Artemis. There are impressive reconstructed remains of the temple to the goddess and the three-sided stoa, which would have served as the cafeteria area, as well as the sacred spring. Visitors can cross the only stone bridge that survives from ancient Greece, complete with grooves like trolley-tracks to ease the path of wheels, indicating the number of trips made by expensive vehicles, laden with food and clothing as well as worshippers. The Athenian elite brought their tween daughters from the temple of Artemis on the Acropolis to the temple at Brauron to take part in various rituals, including a large festival known as the Brauronia. It was held every four years and involved the ritual presentation of garments to the goddess, the grinding of grain and the dedication of toys and dolls, which the girls gave up to symbolise the end of childhood and the prospect of marriage.
The little museum at Brauron contains a rich collection of archaeological finds: jewellery, statues and reliefs representing the procession of worshippers laden with offerings. The most affecting exhibits are the toys discovered in the rich mud around the site: knuckle bones, little carts with wheels (even before cars, kids played with toy cars) and dolls with articulated limbs that look very like Yoga Barbie (these dolls, like their modern counterparts, would have come with stylish interchangeable outfits). The marshy soil of the spring, into which many small, precious offerings were thrown, enabled the preservation of an extraordinarily high number of wooden artefacts, including fragments of chests or boxes and a female statuette – perhaps representing the statue of Artemis supposedly brought to Brauron by Iphigenia, to whom there was also a cult on this site.
According to myth, Artemis refused to grant the Greek forces a favourable wind to set sail for Troy because Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, had killed her sacred deer. She required him to make a terrible sacrifice: he must kill his own daughter, Iphigenia, to pay for fair passage to Troy, or lose his chance to enrich and empower himself by a great military victory. The slaughter of Iphigenia foreshadows the massacre and enslavement of many more civilians during the Trojan War, and sets in motion Agamemnon’s own death at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for their daughter. The murder of daughter by father represents the tension within ancient Athenian society between loyalty to the household, including the women of the family, and loyalty to the public community, dominated by men. Aeschylus’ version of the myth, in the Agamemnon, presents the sacrifice of Iphigenia as the primary dilemma on which a new model of patriarchal democratic politics must eventually be founded. It is both a choice and no choice at all: the girl is bound and gagged before being killed, but her father, too, is ‘bound’ by the ‘yoke of necessity’. Euripides’ later interpretation, Iphigenia at Aulis, composed towards the end of the Peloponnesian War (which Athens would lose), ascribes more agency and more self-delusion to the callous father and to his idealistic, self-sacrificing child, and finds in the myth a dark picture of selfish, over-privileged men who value their own interests and reputations over the lives of young people. But there was another version of the story. In it, Agamemnon’s attempt to kill his daughter did not result in her death, because the goddess, at the last moment, switched the girl for a deer, and transported Iphigenia to Tauris on the Black Sea, where she became a priestess, and from where she was eventually rescued by her long-lost brother, Orestes, who helped her escape to Brauron, bringing with her a sacred statue of Artemis.
The existence of multiple Iphigenia myths speaks to one of the central anxieties for any parent of a daughter: will the transition to adulthood inevitably mean less freedom (the gag in her mouth and around her limbs) and more danger, both from men in positions of political power and from men in her own household? Can mothers save daughters from fathers and husbands? What will happen to our wild ones? Will they be tamed, and broken by the taming? The girls who went to ancient Brauron to undergo the symbolic loss of their girlhood would have known that for them, as for their mothers, marriage might well mean death. Many would already have lost their own mothers or aunts or cousins to childbirth: part of the festival involved offering up these women’s garments to the goddess. Contemplating the rockfall beside the cave, I found it easy to imagine the worshippers and mourners crowded in that dark, narrow space, a memorial to the pain, constraint and danger that attend on those who bleed. Artemis, an immortal virgin, goddess of the menstrual moon, was also the Olympian most closely associated with childbirth and gynaecological ailments, and the worshippers at the temple would have included adult women who stood in need of her protection, and her power to punish men who overstepped the mark.
The version of the myth in which Iphigenia manages to get away from her father offers a glimpse of hope or a fantasy of escape from patriarchal danger, the prospect that girls or women might somehow activate a different kind of power. The ancient initiates at Brauron were called ‘little bears’ or ‘bear-cubs’ (arktoi), and they seem to have pretended to be bears, perhaps with the help of masks and costumes – a reference to another myth about the killing of an animal sacred to Artemis, a bear, and also a hint at their ferocity and strength. Bears are rare in modern Greece, and we didn’t see any when I visited last month. The sun was too high in the sky for most of the wild creatures favoured by Artemis, the lady of wild things, potnia theron; all the rabbits and mice were hiding in the undergrowth. I went to Brauron with the poet Alicia Stallings, who recently translated the Batrachomyomachia, or The Battle between the Frogs and the Mice, an ancient mock-epic that reduces the Iliad’s grand meditation on the relationship between rage, violence and grief to a miniature scale, and reimagines Iliadic warriors as tiny animals, fully anthropomorphised and equipped with feelings of sorrow, anger, curiosity and xenophobia (as well as ingeniously scaled-down Homeric weapons). Walking through the marshes, we searched for toads or frogs, hoping to catch a glimpse of the treacherous, amphibian villains of the Batrachomyomachia lurking in the creek, or to hear their croaky song (‘Brekekekex, koax, koax!’). No frogs sang for us. But there were dragonflies, whirring like drones through the thick rushes, tiny lizards on the rocks, sparrows chattering amid the ruins, bright red, blue and yellow flowers growing in the stones around the shrine – and at last, at the edge of the path, a large snake slithering into the long grass, perhaps on its way to shed its skin and become its new self.
‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing boy,’ the speaker laments in Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’. In most societies, constrictions of much more obvious kinds close in around growing girls. Several Hellenistic epigrams from the Greek Anthology evoke the transition from girlhood to womanhood, and hint at the vulnerability and loss of freedom that this will entail. Here is one, dating to around 100 BCE, by Antipater of Sidon. The poem is in the voice of the young girl’s headband, now set aside so that the teenager’s wild hair can be constrained by the headgear of an adult woman.
The girl with thick, abundant hair, named Pony,
has tied it back, and washed her scented face,
because her time of marriage has arrived.
I am the headband that she used to wear,
but I require the fun and games of girlhood.
Artemis, grant the child of Lycomedes
marriage and offspring, in your kindness, please,
now she has given up her knuckle bones.
Perhaps the headband has an ulterior motive for presenting the transition to a different form of headgear as one involving constraint and loss. But the poem also hints that there may be a difference between the perspective of the girl herself and that of her father, who wants her to produce offspring to continue his line.
Alicia and I both have tween daughters. They were not with us on the trip, but it was easy to imagine them scrambling over the ruins (which is of course forbidden) or going into bored adolescent sulks as the adults talked on. It was easy, too, to imagine their ancient counterparts, dressed in the yellow saffron dresses approved by the goddess, roaming over the marshes looking for frogs and snakes and tadpoles, climbing rocks and wading into the muddy water, competing in races, dressing up and doing one another’s hair, and forming intense and complex friendships. Alicia’s poem ‘Verge’, about an earlier trip to Brauron, asks the goddess to allow her daughter to keep her wildness: ‘Leave in her something else, unnamed,/Untrammelled, liminal, untamed.’
I remember being told, when I first got my period, ‘You are now a woman,’ and then warned not to clog the toilet. The social pressure to inhabit this new identity, ‘woman’, seemed to be somehow intertwined with the pain and the mess. My primary source of comfort during the miserable period of early adolescence was my pet rabbit, an animal favoured by Artemis (my children have goddess-approved pet rats). Back home in West Philadelphia, I went with my two younger children (aged twelve and eleven) to a modern version of the Brauronia: a period party. Our ritual was organised by Tara Rubenstein, the leader of a youth group called Artemis Pack, intended for girls, non-binary and gender-queer kids aged between seven and fourteen. Not all the kids who participated in the ceremony were girls; one was a trans boy, several were gender-fluid or non-binary or demi-girl; non-menstruators were also welcome.
The period party began with the younger kids anointing the older ones with glitter and perfume before they gathered around the fire pit. Each in turn took a pinch of scented herbs and scattered them into the fire to say goodbye to childhood – a ritual borrowed from the Brauronia. The kids seemed for the most part eager to embrace their maturity (and excited at the opportunity to play with fire). Each parent also took a pinch and gave it to the fire, to renounce (less happily) their children’s childhoods. Each not-quite-adult was given red ribbons to plait, reminding them that they can choose how to braid the strands of their own life and which traditions, values and relationships they want to carry forward. There was a ritual sip of red wine (a thrillingly taboo moment for 12-year-olds) and then the kids were wrapped together in a huge green blanket, before it was released to let them out into the world.
The last element of the ceremony is different every year, because it is a response to the social and political issues that might affect a person at the very beginning of adult life. Last year, they meditated on the California wildfires. This year, the topic was the abolition of the constitutional right to abortion in the US. The physical violation of forced pregnancy, and its numberless medical, financial, social and psychological consequences, will become inescapable for many. It is hard not to be enraged by the hypocrisy and callousness of the removal of the option of safe, legal abortion from those who need it. Will my beautiful, wild, quirky kids and their friends be able to find a way out of the gags and the nets cast around their bodies, and hold onto their magical strangeness, their autonomy, their freedom?
At the end of the ceremony, we ate vagina-shaped pasta stuffed with tomato sauce and a cake, constructed with great care by one of my children, that oozed sticky red jam. I imagined the embarrassment and mockery that would have greeted this in the Oxford of my childhood and hoped that the goddess might send us a sign of her favour. Just then, a groundhog ran through the weeds at the bottom of the garden. Even in Pennsylvania, Artemis is with us.