Artemis In Brauron (Vravrona)
Artemis is primarily a goddess of nature — a huntress and protectress of wild things. One of her most well-known sanctuaries is tucked inside a fertile valley in Attica, where the Erasinos River meets the sea. After so many years of adoring and studying the goddess, I finally was able to make Pilgrimage to the sacred wetlands of her temple at Brauron (Βραυρώνα).
The protected bay, where the Erasinos River meets the Aegean Sea, is rich with wildlife and uncharacteristically green for modern-day Attica. The air smells of marshy waters and wild herbs. We started our walk at the sandy bay and wound our way through the marshlands, thick with reeds and tamarisk shrubs (Tamarix gallica, called αρμυρίκι or αλμυρίκι in Greek).
Over 210 bird species call this area home, including the great tit, European greenfinch, and common buzzard. You can also find an assortment of reptiles, insects, and amphibians — including tortoises and river snakes.
The valley is also home to a variety of wild and cultivated trees: the olive (Olea europea — ελία), fig (Ficus carica — συκιά), kermes oak (Quercus coccifera — πουρνάρι) and a variety of the pistacio tree that is related to mastic (Pistacia lentiscus — σχίνος).
Arriving at the museum that marks the entrance to Artemis’s temple, we learned that the sanctuary itself was thought to be built around 700 BCE and reached its peak around the 4th century BCE (although settlements have been found in the area dating to before 3500 BCE).
The standing columns are the remains of the central courtyard while the temple itself was on the northwest side of the hill and only low, stone walls remain. It seems the sanctuary was abandoned around 300 BCE for unknown reasons. But in the 1450s CE, a post-Byzantine church was built on top of the ruins. (The church is closed due to renovations.)
Just west of the temple is a sacred spring with water bubbling up from an underground source that connects to the Erasinos River. They’ve found votive offerings there (including mirrors, minature objects, vases, and figurines) dating from between the 8th to 5th centuries BCE. It’s possible the objects were placed there by worshipers (as is the custom when worshiping at many European sacred springs). Or they could have been dumped there by the Persians in 480 BCE when they invaded Attica (as may be the custom when an invading army wishes to destroy a sacred site).
Artemis’s sanctuary is flanked on the southern side by the Kommeno Lithari hill. Some of the site is carved into the stone of the hill, including a cave that was once used as a sacred tomb to honor the supposed foundress of the sanctuary, Iphigeneia.
Iphigeneia was the mythic daughter of Agamemnon and she was associated with death and the underworld. As the mythic foundress of the sanctuary, it is believed she was honored as a key priestess of the temple. The ancient Greeks would dedicate to her the garments of women who had died in childbirth, carving their names and offerings into stone. At some point in time, the cave roof of her tomb collapsed, leaving only remains.
Inside the sanctuary museum are beautiful sculptures, pottery, and sacred objects excavated at the site and found in the surrounding valley. Even some exquisite wooden offerings survived for thousands of years because of the marshland environment. According to literary sources, these wood carvings were typically made from olive, beech, cedar, oak, pine, cypress, wild pistachio, and even ivy.
At the site, there was also an altar, but only fragments still exist and there seems to be conflicting theories about the images that are depicted there. Most seem to agree that you can see the goddess Artemis, her brother Apollo, her mother Leto, Dionysos, and maybe even the Pythia and Omphalos (great bellybutton) of Delphi, among others.
As one of Artemis’s most sacred centers, this was the location of one of her most important festivals, the Arkteia (Bear Festival). The festival, which was held every 4 years, but probably had its roots as an annual event, was a rite of passage ritual for young girls. Usually from Athenian families, it’s believed that the pre-pubescent girls would dress up as little bears (arktoi) and undergo a series of rituals, including races, dancing, and the ritual shedding of clothing, in order to embody the wildness and essence of bears — an animal sacred to Artemis.
There are some stories that say the festival was a means to appease the goddess Artemis, who was angered by the unnecessary killing of a bear. Others say that the festival was a ritual re-enactment of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, in which she shed her clothing in desperation to be saved. But either way, the festival was to mark the young girls’ transition from “wild” childhood virginity into soon-to-be married, sexual adults (in ancient Greece, they often described married women as “tamed” or “yoked.”)
It’s also thought that the Arkteia was a way to educate young girls about the importance of environmental stewardship. As her temples were usually located on the boundaries between human settlements and the wilderness — and as the protectress of wild animals — Artemis had many lessons to teach young children about respect for nature and their relationship within the landscape.