Ancient Orphanage – The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron

“Muse, sing of Artemis, sister of the Far-Shooter, the virgin who delights in arrows…”

(Homeric Hymn IX)

Artemis – Goddess of the Hunt and Protector of Children

It was early January in Attica, Greece, a few years ago. I remember it clearly.

I drove out of Athens on a grey day that could dampen anyone’s post-holiday spirits.

The New Year had come and gone, copious amounts of food and wine having been consumed. A new adventure was needed.

My destination on that rainy day? – The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron.

I drove the forty two kilometres from Athens to Brauron, passing dark, rocky mountains and hills covered in deep green foliage. Greece is a very different place in the winter. This was another one of those journeys in which I didn’t know what to expect.

I had never heard of Brauron, or of an Attic sanctuary of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, protector of young girls and women in childbirth.

The car splashed its way over tiny roads and through villages lost to the outside world. As I drove past, a few heads poked out of windows to follow my progress as if in some eerie back-woods movie setting.

Finally, I came to my destination. I parked the car on the side of the road and stopped for a moment to listen to the pattering of the rain on the roof. I wiped my foggy window and could just make out a set of grey columns standing sentry in the rain. I put on my rain gear and jumped out.

The gate to the site was open and no one was at the booth. So I walked into the sanctuary.

Brauron – view from stoa, across the courtyard to the temple of Artemis

My initial reaction was one of sadness. I don’t know why, but the rain seemed fitting then, as though the gods wept for something.

This is a place of great antiquity.

Supposedly, Brauron has been inhabited since the early Mycenaean age. Legend has it that the sanctuary of Artemis was established by none other than Iphegeneia, the daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae.

Iphegeneia is brought to Aulis in this painting:

‘The Anger of Achilles’ by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Here is a brief summary for those of you who do not know her story. The Greek army, led by Agamemnon, was stuck at Aulis because of bad weather which prevented them from setting out for Troy.

This was said to be due to an offense done to Artemis. Calchas, the high king’s seer, told Agamemnon that the only way for the goddess to be appeased and for the winds to abate was for him to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to the goddess.

The young girl was brought to Aulis under the pretence that she was to marry the hero Achilles, and when she arrived, Agamemnon did the unthinkable.

Euripides opens his play Ipheigeneia in Tauris. Iphegeneia speaks:

“Child of the man of torment and of pride

Tantalid Pelops bore a royal bride

On flying steeds from Pisa. Thence did spring

Atreus: from Atreus, linked king with king,

Menelaus, Agamemnon. His am I

And Clytemnestra’s child: whom cruelly

At Aulis, where the strait of the shifting blue

Frets with quick winds, for Helen’s sake he slew,

Or thinks to have slain; such sacrifice he swore

To Artemis on that deep-bosomed shore.

For there Lord Agamemnon, hot with joy

To win for Greece the crown of conquered Troy,

For Menelaus’ sake through all distress

Pursuing Helen’s vanished loveliness,

Gathered his thousand ships from every coast

Of Hellas: when there fell on that great host

Storms and despair of sailing. Then the King

Sought signs of fire, and Calchas answering

Spake thus: “O Lord of Hellas, from this shore

No ship of thine may move for evermore,

Till Artemis receive in gift of blood

Thy child, Iphegeneia. Long hath stood

Thy vow, to pay to Her that bringeth light

Whatever birth most fair by day or night

The year should bring. That year thy queen did

Bear

A child – whom here I name of all most fair.

See that she die.”

So from my mother’s side

By lies Odysseus won me, to be bride

In Aulis to Achilles. When I came,

They took me and above the altar flame

Held, and the sword was swinging to the gash,

When, lo, out of their vision in a flash

Artemis rapt me, leaving in my place

A deer to bleed; and on through a great space

Of shining sky upbore and in this town

Of Tauris the Unfriended set me down;

Where o’er a savage people savagely

King Thoas rules. This is her sanctuary

And I her priestess. Therefore, by the rite

Of worship here, wherein she hath delight –

Though fair in naught but name. …But Artemis

Is near; I speak no further…”

(Iphegeneia in Tauris; Euripides; c.413 B.C)

Even in translation, the words Euripides gives to this tragic girl are powerful and moving.

Thankfully, the goddess Artemis is said to have substituted another sacrifice for Iphegeneia, and taken her far away to be a priestess in her temple at Tauris, in the Crimea. She spent years there away from her mother, Clytemnestra, and her brother, Orestes. She also lived knowing her own father had been ready to end her life.

Orestes and Electra at father’s tomb

The Trojan War played itself out, and Agamemnon made his way home to be murdered by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. About seven years later, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, returns from Athens and with encouragement from his sister, Electra, kills his mother and her lover.

Orestes is pursued by the Furies for his deeds, but then Apollo orders him to go to Tauris in order to take the wooden cult statue of Artemis and bring it back to Athens. Euripides tells how Orestes goes to Tauris and eventually sees his sister Iphegeneia there. They are reunited and she helps him to take the statue and together they return to Attica where she establishes the Sanctuary of Artemis.

Here, the Goddess Athena speaks to Iphegeneia before she leaves Tauris:

“…Iphegeneia, by the stair

Of Brauron in the rocks, the Key shalt bear

Of Artemis. There shalt thou live and die,

And there have burial. And a gift shall lie

Above thy shrine, fair raiment undefiled

Left upon earth by mothers dead with child.”

(Iphegeneia in Tauris; Euripides)

Iphegeheia is said to have spent the remainder of her days at Brauron.

Apollo blesses Orestes and tells him to go to Tauris Clytemnestra’s shade and a Fury look on

The cult of Artemis at Brauron died out after the Mycenaean age but was re-established from the 9th century B.C. on. Eventually, the cult of Artemis was brought to Athens. After that, there was a procession every four years from the Temple of Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian Acropolis to Brauron, in honour of the goddess and her priestess, Iphegeneia.

Sanctuary of Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian Acropolis (Perseus Digital Library)

But what was the purpose of the sanctuary at Brauron besides being a place to honour of the goddess?

It seems that the sanctuary also functioned as a sort of orphanage or fostering place for young girls who served the goddess from about five to ten years of age. They performed rituals which included sacred dances in which they acted like bears. In fact, the girls were called arktoi, or ‘the bears’. This odd tradition of the bears is said to commemorate the slaying of one of Artemis’ sacred bears by one of the girls’ brothers. The Arkteia was a service to the goddess in which young girls would transition from childhood to puberty and marriageable age.

Votive statues of children from Brauron (Brauron Museum)

At Brauron, Artemis was worshipped as a protector of girls and women in childbirth. Women who survived childbirth dedicated a set of clothes to the goddess. The clothes of women who died in childbirth were, in turn, dedicated to Iphegeneia.

I imagine a lot of hope springing up in this place, but also much sadness.

Aerial view of the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron

Once you cross the 5th century bridge into the sanctuary, you come to the unusual p-shaped stoa which has what are thought to be dining rooms or, more likely, rooms for the girls living within the sanctuary. Inside, you can still see places where their sleeping pallets might have been and holes carved into the marble where the door posts rested.

The stoa is known as the ‘Stoa of Bears’.

Remains of the Temple of Artemis beside sacred spring

I walked along the paving slabs on that rainy day, peeking into the small rooms and wondering at the children who would have been there. Were they peasants or nobility? Were their parents killed by war or plague? Were they sent there in fulfillment of a vow? Who did they have left in the world?

It must have been a frightening prospect to leave the safety of the sanctuary as well. What must a young girl have thought when she turned ten and knew that her time had come to perform the sacred dance one last time before going out into the world. Ancient Greece was not so kind a place for girls or women. They were seen as vessels to be kept indoors.

A good thing they had Artemis to look over them, and to see them through childbirth.

The stoa courtyard was overgrown with sodden grass when I was there, and the ruins of the small Temple of Artemis were minimal.

The ‘Stoa of Bears’

As I made my way through the site, I eventually came to a small cave-like recess that was supposed to be a shrine to Iphegeneia, that sad daughter of Agamemnon.

The rain stopped here, and the skin prickled on the back of my neck.

For how long had this first priestess of Brauron been honoured here? Ages, it seemed.

I let my imagination go in the sanctuary and could hear the laughter of little girls playing, or their lonely cries upon their straw pallets. I could see them mimicking the bears for which they were named, and hear the sound of their voices raised in song to Artemis, their protectress.

From Brauron’s beginnings as a sacred site, each of those little girls likely stood where I was standing and remembered Iphegeneia and her plight. I thought of how they must have wept at her sad story and perhaps felt better about their own lives that led them to that place in the green hills of Attica.

The Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron is a very special place.

Votive Statue of a young girl from Brauron

When I crossed back over that classical bridge and made my way back to the car, I turned at the gate and looked back through the driving rain one last time.

Usually, when I leave an ancient site or sanctuary, I feel uplifted and at peace.

Not so with Brauron.

Upon leaving Brauron, my heart was in turmoil, and it still is when I think back on that place.

It’s place of conflicting emotions wrapped in myth and legend.

It’s a great comfort in some ways to know that this was a place where young girls were protected, watched over by their patron goddess who saved the first priestess – this, in an ancient, male-dominated world of war and superstition.

On the other hand, as I turned my back on the dark columns and sodden earth of the sanctuary, my sole, sad thought was for Iphegeneia whose father was so determined to sail for Troy that he was willing to perform such a heinous and tragic act.

Thus do myth, legend, and history combine to shape our view of the places of the past.

Thank you for reading.

Site map of the Brauron sanctuary by J.M. Harrington (Wikimedia Commons)

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Ancient Everyday – Childbirth in the Ancient World

Goddess Tellus on Ara Pacis

It’s been a while since I last posted in the Ancient Everyday series.

Last year we looked at the ritual of going to the public baths, the interesting experience of using a public toilet, and the use of mirrors in the ancient world.

Today, we’re going to take a very brief look at childbirth in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Now, as a man, my input and views on childbirth are somewhat limited, so I would invite my female readers out there to jump in with their comments at any time. I’m a father, and I’ve been present at the birth of my own children, but I would never presume to fully comprehend mysteries, and agonies, that women go through when it comes to bringing a tiny human into the world.

ancient baby

Let’s face it, we’re extremely lucky today as far as obstetrics and the technologies we have to help mothers and children safely navigate the process of pregnancy and birth.

That was not the case in the ancient world. Pregnancy and birth were risky affairs, and as with many aspects of life, the ancients called on specific gods and goddesses for help when it came to childbearing and birth.

Egyptian God, Bes

Egyptian God, Bes

The Egyptians offered prayers to the god Bes, a god of marriage and jollity, but also a protector of women and children in childbirth. Bes was not your typical Egyptian god. He is portrayed as an ugly dwarf with a feather crown, sometimes holding a tambourine.

His consort, Tauert, was also prayed to as someone who assisted all females, regardless of station, in childbirth. Tauert was portrayed as a pregnant, female hippopotamus.

In ancient Greece the goddess two whom prayers and offerings were made was Artemis, under her two epithets Kourotrophos (nurse) and Locheia (helper in childbirth).

Now it might seem odd that people prayed to the virgin goddess for protection in childbirth, but in myth, Artemis was said to have been present when Leto, her mother, gave birth to Apollo on Delos. She was considered, in some ways, the first midwife.

Artemis

Artemis

It is interesting to note ancient Greeks believed that women who died suddenly in childbirth were helped to a painless death by Artemis who showed them mercy by piercing them with one of her arrows.

The ancient Greeks also prayed to Hecate as a goddess of women and nurturer of children, as well as Hera, the Queen of the Gods who sometimes served as a goddess of childbirth in her capacity as goddess of marriage.

Roman Goddess, Juno - Queen of the Gods

Roman Goddess, Juno – Queen of the Gods

The Romans had many gods and goddesses to whom they prayed for help, and Juno, Queen of the Gods, was first and foremost under the epithets of Lucina, and Opigena.

Another goddess with a major role to play was Carmentis, a water goddess who was also a prophetic goddess of protection in childbirth. Carmentis had her own festival, the Carmentalia, and a temple on the Capitoline Hill.

A third goddess whom the Romans prayed to for a safe and successful childbirth was Matuta, the goddess of dawn and young growth.

It must have been a comfort to have so many gods to pray to, but that may also be indicative of the high risks involved.

Ancient Coin with image of Silphium plant on one side, and heart-shaped Silphium seed on the other

Ancient Coin with image of Silphium plant on one side, and heart-shaped Silphium seed on the other

Because it was so dangerous to bring a child into the world, and because families could not always afford to feed or provide dowries for all their children, contraception was something that was used in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Most of the methods used seem to be herb and plant-based, and included things like acacia, honey, Queen Anne’s Lace, date palm, willow, Artemisia, myrrh, and the now extinct silphium plant, among others. Some of these are apparently used in spermicides today.

The Egyptian Kahun Papyrus from c. 1850 B.C. actually contains a lot of information on birth control and is the oldest known gynaecological treatise.

Egyptian Kahun Papyrus - The World's first known gynaecological treatise

Egyptian Kahun Papyrus – The World’s first known gynaecological treatise

But we are talking about having children in the ancient world. Today, most husbands (I would hope) are in the room to support their wives and be there when their child are born. It happens at the hospital or birthing centre (most of the time), and there is a doctor/obstetrician to help the delivery.

In the ancient world, births took place at home. There were no hospitals, except for those at healing centres like Kos and Epidaurus, and oftentimes, anyone who had been ‘in touch’ with childbirth was not permitted to enter sacred sanctuaries anyway for fear of contaminating the place.

In Egypt, Greece, and Rome, midwifes were a constant. Today, midwifery seems to have made a big comeback, but in the ancient world, the midwife was always the one who helped women through childbirth. Their skills and knowledge were considerable. The only time a doctor might have been called in ancient Greece and Rome was if there were complications.

Egyptian birth - temple relief at the Ancient Egyptian Dendera Complex depicts a woman giving birth while squatting and attended by the two goddesses

Egyptian birth – temple relief at the Ancient Egyptian Dendera Complex depicts a woman giving birth while squatting and attended by the two goddesses

It appears that in most cases, no men were present at the birth of a child, though there were often several people in attendance, including the midwife, the women of the household (mothers, grandmothers, aunts etc.), and any female slaves that were needed to help.

It was not considered proper for men to be present, and the only man who might have been there was the doctor if he was called.

What about the position for giving birth?

Well, in Egypt, it seems that women often knelt in a shaded spot or shelter to give birth.

Ancient Greek relief of a woman in birthing chair

Relief of a woman in birthing chair

With modern hospital beds, women are in more of a lying-down position, with their backs propped up to give birth.

Interestingly, in ancient Greece and Rome, and in later centuries, birthing chairs were used. This was basically a wooden chair with arms, but no seat.

The midwife would kneel on the floor before the chair and help the woman from there, her hands wrapped in linen or papyrus so that the baby did not slip when she caught it.

It may be that couches were also used for giving birth, but I do wonder if midwives in ancient Greece or Rome might have had birthing chairs as part of their professional kit.

Roman birthing chair and midwife from plaque in Ostia

Roman birthing chair and midwife from plaque in Ostia

Mortality rates for women and children in pregnancy and childbirth were high in the ancient world, and from the little that I’ve read, the risk of death was extremely high in ancient Egypt. Many women died in pregnancy and childbirth, and infants who were born often did not survive the first few months.

Once a child was born, there was usually a ceremony for the naming and blessing of the child.

Funerary monument of a woman who died in childbirth showing her bidding farewell to her husband, mother and nurse who will care for her child

Funerary monument of a woman who died in childbirth showing her bidding farewell to her husband, mother and nurse who will care for her child

I could not find information on the specifics of an Egyptian ceremony (Egyptology is not my area of expertise), but I have read that water and ritual washing may have been a part of such a ceremony for newborns since water played a large part in Egyptian religious rituals. Perhaps my Egyptologist friends out there can shed some light on this subject?

In ancient Greece, on the fifth or seventh day after a child was born, there was a purification ceremony and feast called the amphidromia, at which the child received its name. This involved a ritual and an evening feast to which guests brought presents for the child. If a boy was born, the house was decorated on the outside with olive branches. If it was a girl, the outer decoration consisted of garlands of wool.

In ancient Rome, the naming ceremony was called a lustratio, and this took place nine days after the birth of the child. At this, offerings were made to the gods, there was a feast, and the child was introduced to guests.

In chapter twenty-one of my book, Killing the Hydra, I write about a Roman lustratio.

A Roman family making their offerings to the Gods

A family making their offerings to the Gods

Most people today cannot view the successful birth of a child with anything but gladness. And rightly so! It’s a beautiful thing, and most parents are happy when their child is born healthy, no matter if it is a boy or a girl.

However, in the ancient world, views of family and children could be quite different from our own.

It seems that ancient Egyptians were devoted to their families and that they loved their children. This can be seen in the many images that survive of happy families, babies in their mothers’ arms, and children playing.

Egyptian women and children

Egyptian women and children

In ancient Greece and Rome, children were meant to be less visible, and stayed inside with the women. At birth, a Greek father or guardian decided whether to keep a child. In Rome as well, the paterfamilias had the power of life and death over his family members, and this included newborn infants whom the father could deny the right to be reared.

Children could be exposed or killed in ancient Greece and Rome, and had no place in public life.

Practices also differed by place. For instance, in ancient Athens, if a child was kept, it was swaddled, whereas in Sparta children were not swaddled at all, presumably to start toughening them up, or cull the weak.

It certainly seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, but the truth is that if a child managed to survive birth, decisions about their usefulness and whether to keep them were more often based on the sex, the number of children the family already had, ability to provide for that child, the future need for a dowry, and general health.

Children's toys from ancient Greece

Children’s toys from ancient Greece

It’s odd, but most of the time, I tend to think that the past was much more exciting and interesting, more beautiful than our chaotic, modern society. I think most historians feel they were born in the wrong age!

But when I read about things like pregnancy, health, childbirth, and children in the ancient world, it makes me grateful we live in the age we do.

It’s not perfect by any stretch, but as far as childbirth, I would give that part of the ancient everyday a miss.

Statues of children from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, Attica, site of an ancient orphanage

Statues of children from the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, Attica, site of an ancient orphanage

And let’s not think that all children in ancient Greece and Rome were treated badly. It is my hope that, despite the social mores of those sometimes harsher societies, Nature instilled in the mother and father of most children a love and need to care for their offspring that is timeless and powerful.

As ever, thanks for reading!

Aphrodite and Anchises with baby Aeneas

Aphrodite and Anchises with baby Aeneas

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