Brauron’s strange and intriguing practices have always held a place of interest; however, through a close reading of the Bacchae, one cannot help but link the two as the maenads mirror the hounds of Artemis from a generation earlier that turned against Actaeon. For my research paper, I will explore the relationship between women in Greek antiquity and the social function of the wild in religious rituals, proposing that the wild acts as a pharmakos to adapt young girls to the domesticated life of wives. As case studies, I will be gesturing to both the Arkteia at Brauron, as well as the Bacchic maenads found in Euripides’ Bacchae.
As a result, I hope to investigate the role of the initiatory rites at Brauron and connect female maturation with a retreat from the wild by opposing the catharsis of the Arkteia at Brauron to the savage revelry of the Bacchic maenads. Perhaps by investigating the correlations between the female followers of both Artemis and Dionysus, some insight may be gained concerning of the possible social conditioning women were put through, and the ways rituals allowed them to confront their function in society. As a prefatory remark and a general note, there is a disparity of sources provided from female authors of antiquity.
Due to this, many of the rituals and practices I gesture to are reconstructed from either an incomplete male perspective or satirical plays. After all, the vast majority of evidence left to us concerning women is constructed by and geared towards the male imagination of the feminine sphere (Gould, 38), and much of the following will rely on conjecture drawn from impressions and implications drawn from the sources considered. In Athens, the patriarchal organization of society left little room for women in the public sphere.
Instead, women found themselves excluded from the legal system and synonymous with domestic space (Gould 45). As such, women were conditioned to accommodate marriage, motherhood, and household duties over public life (Cole 238). To be a woman in Athens was to be legally and socially bound to a male kinsman (Cole 236), with very little autonomy or representation beyond domesticated life on Attic vases and art. Furthermore, what little female agency was represented was done so accompanied by negative mythological representation to reaffirm its notoriety (Bremmer 73).
In addition, by nature, the tasks allotted to women were time-consuming (Gould 48) and stratified women in a position of subjugation limited to the oikos. This seclusion is denoted time and time again in Greek tragedy, with movement beyond the home called out as reproachable without the presence of a male escort (Gould 40). However, some did have more freedom than others. Women belonging to the lower class would be expected to work outside the home (Gould 48) and youth appears to have allowed for a relief from the strict limitations introduced at adolescence (Cole 233).
Nevertheless, adolescence marked the period of maturation when distinctions between boys and girls took center stage. For young men, initiations rituals focused on recognition by fellow demesmen and admission into public and political life (Cole 234). Young women, on the other hand, were disallowed from the realm of politics, instead participating in initiations that conditioned a dedication to their domestic role. Their introduction to ritual was as a means to define their social status and female arete (Ingalls 1).
For women, the Greek conception of religiosity allowed for the creation of a social system that both gave them opportunity to interact with one another, and provided escape from imposed familial duties (Bremmer 72). One such ritual was the Arkteia at Brauron. The Arkteia revolved around the worship of Artemis in many of her primary functions—from her role as goddess of the hunt, to her supervision of transitional stages in a young woman’s life (Hughes 195)—and will serve as a case study of the normative function of ritual for Athenian women.
As an aside, identification of ritual objects at other sites in Attica denote that similar rites were performed throughout the Greek landscape (Cole 242). Our current understanding of the Athenian Arkteia is that during adolescence, and before they reached a marrying age, young girls would follow a cursus honorum of duties (Walbank 280) until they could participate as arktoi, adorning bear pelts—or yellow dresses—to mimic a bear through dance (Cole 240).
For the duration of the ritual, just as animals were safe from hunters in sanctuaries to Artemis (Hughes 192), so were young girls from the soon to be trauma of marriage. However, a key stage of the ritual was the shedding of the literal—or symbolic—bear skin, marking a return from the inversion of the normative female role and a re-embrace of limitations beyond the limits of the sanctuary at Brauron (Stinton 11).
As for the pedagogical function, in general, female ritual performance enacted an internalization of temperance and passivity by means of choral education (Ingalls 3). Although physical evidence is lacking to attest to the use of a chorus at Brauron, fragments from the works of Sappho and Corinna concerning the choral education of women on matters such as marriage and sexuality (Ingalls 14, 17) allow for stipulation about the utilization of choruses on similar subjects consecutive to the dancing of the bear at Brauron.
Modern scholars generally accept the Arkteia as marking the transition from young girls to women capable of taking on domestic duties and rearing children of their own (Cole 243); however, what interests me in particular is the purpose of the time the arktoi spent personifying the bear and its implications for the female psyche.
It was not a rarity for Artemis to be associated with the wild, her epithet Potnia Theron denotes a deep connection to the wilderness (Hughes 191), and another of her epithets Paidotrophos speaks to her as a rearer of children (Hughes 195). The two epithets collide during the Arkteia as young girls take the form of bears, and as the ritual comes to an end and the bear pelts are shed, the discarding of the wild lends itself to understanding the social conditioning of women.
An obvious interpretation is that the act is a symbolic exchange of culture for a period of ritual wildness (Hughes 195); this being derived from the myth in which a bear is killed by the brothers of an Athenian girl who must then be sacrificed to appease Artemis and rid the city of plague and famine (Cole 241). In spite of this, I propose an alternative interpretation that presents the bear pelts as a pharmakos for female agency.
Pharmakoi are gestured to as ritual expulsions of some sort of pollution from the community (Bremmer 313) and from Hesiod onwards, encounters between men and women with an association to the wild end in a destructive breakdown of societal norms (Gould 52). With this persistent negative association between women and the wild being found throughout mythology—for example, the furies, Sphinx, and gorgons to name a few—the two elements are reinforced in Greek narrative as inhibitors to traditional culture that the male hero must defeat.
This enforces the necessity of the Arkteia and its ritualized shedding of the wild; with imagery of taming unmarried women to alleviate them of agency littered throughout antiquity (Gould 53) as a key element of civilization. Despite this dissonance, the Arkteia is not alone in having women integrate into the wild for a time, with a similar narrative occurring in Bacchic tradition.