Friday, October 14, 2011

Artemis the Bear Goddess

I have to admit, my knowledge of the cults of Artemis is severely limited. I have never taken up a study of her the way I have often for say Athena, who has been the subject of many books I have read over the years. I am hoping to rectify this.

To that end I am looking through for hints about where to start, and among the cults of this goddess that struck me was one I had heard of before but never given much thought to. It is the cult for Artemis of Brauron, the bear goddess. Now, as great as is, it is not a research site, it is a site of quotes, like a large bibliography, allowing you to see quotes from ancient sources with regard to a particular deities, heroes, and other mythological characters.

Among these quotes are these:

Callimachus, Epigrams 35 (from A.P. 6. 347) (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
"Artemis, to thee Phileratis set up this image here. Do thou accept it, Lady, and keep her safe."

Suidas s.v. Lysizonos gune (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Lysizonos gune (girdle-loosening woman) : She who has drawn near to a man. For virgins about to have sex dedicated their virginal lingerie to Artemis."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 23. 7 :
"There is also a sanctuary [at Athens] of Artemis Brauronia (of Brauron); the image is the work of Praxiteles, but the goddess derives her name from the parish of Brauron. The old wooden image is in Brauron, Artemis Tauria (of Tauros) as she is called."

Herodotus, Histories 6. 138 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.) :
"The Pelasgians dwelt at that time in Lemnos [C6th B.C.] and desired vengeance on the Athenians. Since they well knew the time of the Athenian festivals, they acquired fifty-oared ships and set an ambush for the Athenian women celebrating the festival of Artemis at Brauron. They seized many of the women, then sailed away with them and brought them to Lemnos to be their concubines."

Suidas s.v. Arktos e Brauroniois (trans. Suda On Line) (Byzantine Greek lexicon C10th A.D.) :
"Arktos e Brauroniois (I was a bear at the Brauronia) : Women playing the bear used to celebrate a festival for Artemis dressed in saffron robes; not older than 10 years nor less than 5; appeasing the goddess. The reason was that a wild she-bear used to come to the deme of Phlauidoi and spend time there; and she became tamed and was brought up with the humans. Some virgin was playing with her and, when the girl began acting recklessly, the she-bear was provoked and scratched the virgin; her brothers were angered by this and speared the she-bear, and because of this a pestilential sickness fell upon the Athenians. When the Athenians consulted the oracle [the god] said that there would be a release from the evils if, as blood price for the she-bear that died, they compelled their virgins to play the bear. And the Athenians decreed that no virgin might be given in marriage to a man if she hadn't previously played the bear for the goddess."

Sanctuary at Brauron


You may wonder what these quotes mean to me, but it is not so much their meaning as their attestation that I was looking for, and that last one, a description of something I always find intriguing about religious ritual, in this case, a ritual for the Goddess Artemis, and that is the re-enactment of an even from the far past. Just as many Christian cultures re-enact the birth of Christ during Christmas, or the Passion during Easter, so too do many Pagan festivals and rituals work to re-enact something of importance to the people in the past.

For reconstructionist pagans, such as Hellenistoi, there comes a small problem, the problem of disconnection. To the people of Athens who celebrated this festival in which girls, quite young, performed this "playing the bear" for Artemis had a special connection to this bear event. To them, especially to a particular tribe or deme, this event in which a bear was killed unjustly for essentially behaving like a bear, had special significance, and while we may seek to understand what it was, apply psychological reasoning to it, or seek to empathize with it, we cannot truly know what it was those people thought or why this partiucular event was of such importance to them that they commemorated it in religious ritual forever.

There is, of course, the pestilence, and the blaming of the pestilence on the unjust actions of the girl's brothers, a common thing in ancient times, and sometimes even today in our own culture, and maybe even a hint of a time when a young girl was chosen as a sacrifice to serve as a scapegoat.

The story of the bear drawing blood from the girl here symbolizes the possible sacrifice of the scapegoat, and the anger of the brothers and the taking of the life of the bear perhaps a transference of the scapegoat status to an animal rather than a human.

I think this particular myth, as with the myth of Iphigeneia, entrusts to us a history of the shift in sacrificial methods of the Hellenic people. From a time when savage human sacrifices or human scapegoating was performed to a time when an animal was used instead, and in the case of this bear, where there was a shift again from the use of a wild bear, taken in and tamed for the sake of using it as a scapegoat, to using a kind of "passion play" instead.

I see in this myth a shift in the relationship between man and the gods.

As for Artemis of the bears, it seems not at all odd to me that Artemis of the bears would send a pestilence to the people after the misuse of this bear. Not because Artemis as a deity has a problem with the killing of animals, but because maybe she has a problem with the use of a wild beast not normally used as food, though it is certainly edible, for something like this.

The girls in the saffron robes symbolize a shift in that relationship. A shift away from superstitious sacrifices to sacrifices based on the consumption of animals, allowing us to share what we eat with the Gods. But also, a shift in the ritual forms, taking them away from the savage and making them more and more an expression of our artistic imaginations. 

Artemis of the bears. The aspect of Artemis that seeks to remind us to pay respect to the world around us, especially to the life that surrounds us.



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