by Dr. Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
Brauron, in ancient times called Vrauron, is situated on the east coast of Attica and was one of the oldest sacred-places in Greece, where the goddess of nature and the protector of fertility and childbirth Artemis was worshiped. According to myth, the sanctuary was established by Iphigeneia, the daughter of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon.
Iphigenia was to be sacrificed before the Greek fleet set sail against Troy, but Artemis saved her by spiriting her away to Tauris, where Iphigenia became her priestess. Seventeen years later she fled back to her homeland with her brother Orestes and his friend Pylades, taking with them a cult statue of Artemis. They arrived on the southeastern shore of Attica and Iphigeneia founded in Vrauron the sanctuary of Artemis Vrauronia, spending the rest of her life in service of the goddess. After her death she was deified and honored as a heroine in Vrauron, where she was probably also buried.
At the end of the Mycenaean period this place was deserted for some time, but in the ninth century BCE the region was again inhabited and the sanctuary and service reinstated. In the sixth century the older temple of Artemis was located there and the cult of Artemis Vrauronia played an important part in Attica. Peisistratus, who was born in Vrauron, transferred the cult of Artemis Vrauronia to the Athenian Acropolis. The sanctuary in Vrauron also flourished also during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE.
The present form of this sacred place dates from the fifth century BCE, when it was rebuilt on top of the earlier structures. This period also saw the construction of the temple of Artemis, the shrine of Iphigeneia (situated among the rocks), the Sacred House which was the residence of the priestess, and a monumental propylon with the so-called "Stoa of the Bears." According to some sources, part of this stoa (in the NW) was the residence for several children (five to ten-years-old girls), who served in the sanctuary.
These small girls were called arktoi ("bears"), commemorating the mythical story about the sacred she-bear of Artemis, killed by the brother of one of these girls, serving in the sanctuary. For this reason the arktoi wore clothes of crocus color, to remember the appearance and demise of this sacred animal. Finally, during the festivities in honor of Artemis, the young girls performed the sacred dances disguised as bears.
Many statuettes of children representing "bears," were discovered in this place and they can be viewed in several museums (i.e., Museum Brauron, The British Museum in London). Sculptors also depicted the children as taking part in the cult of Artemis, and vase painters showed arktoi learning music, dancing, and rhythm courses.
Concluding, we can note that "a maiden as a victim for the animal which has to be killed" is a widespread motif in hunting cultures. In mythology the maiden was presented usually as the bride of the bear or of another animal. We could suppose that similar scenes were performed in the sacred dances during the festivities in honor of Artemis in Vrauron.
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- Mavromataki, M. (1997). Greek Mythology and Religion. Athens.