Playing the bear

Today, I wanted to go to the temple of Artemis at Brauron. Artemis is my favourite Greek goddess. She is the goddess of wilderness; of transitions from childhood to adulthood (in particularly for girls); the one of protects women in childbirth and presides over lactation; her animals are the deer and the bear. Her sanctuaries are usually remote, in the wilderness where she can hunt to her heart’s content.

In Attica, the main sanctuary of Artemis is at Brauron, which is not particularly far from Athens Airport. In classical antiquity, a few girls each year were selected to go to Brauron (probably on foot or on mules) and ‘play the bear’ for the goddess. What that means exactly is not quite clear. It seems that the girls wore saffron-coloured dresses and danced. The good completion of the ritual ensured that the city would be protected against the wrath of Artemis (a rather volatile goddess). The idea that little girls his age would have done this sold Brauron to Big Boy T, so we set on our journey.

Going to Brauron nowadays is certainly not the same as it was in antiquity, but this is still not the easiest place to reach. We took the underground to the airport, wherefrom we took a taxi. If you cannot afford a taxi, I am not sure how you would get there, as most people look at you as if you were completely mad when you tell them you want to go to ‘Vavrona’ (the people at the desk in our hotel had never heard of it). Our taximan, with twenty-two years of service, had never been to the archaeological site. A few minutes after leaving the airport, the landscape of Attica starts to become really quite pleasant: vineyards, olive and pistachio groves dominate the landscape – with high hills in the background. Eventually we got to Brauron, only to find out that it was Monday, and the site was closed.

I rather felt like a bear woken up from her winter sleep at that point, but then I took stock and realised things were not so bad.  For the museum, there are books, articles and information online to be consulted. We did manage to get quite a good look at the temple through the gates. Again, I can learn more about the temple online. What one cannot really get online is a feel for the atmosphere of the place. The sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron was known as the ‘sanctuary in the marshes’. And lo and behold, the marshes are still there: murky waters in which grow tall reeds and other water plants. The sanctuary is in a deep valley, where the stillness is rather astounding when one thinks the airport is only a few miles away. The place is awesome, in the old meaning of the word: it inspires as much fear as it does admiration. Brauron is certainly a special place and if you have a car while in Greece, do make the detour from the airport. Maybe you will be treated with a sighting of one of Artemis’ wild animals or plants.

Note: this is what we did on Monday 6th of April. I could not post this earlier because of very poor internet connection in our hotel. T. tells me Brauron was what impressed him the most on our trip. He loved the idea of walking so many miles to dance like a bear in the wilderness.

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One Response to Playing the bear

  1. Pingback: Hitting the wall (Hadrian’s Wall) | concoctinghistory

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