The Little Bears

There was a large temple complex dedicated to the goddess Artemis, outside Athens at a town called Brauron. Largely forgotten today, if you were a girl growing up in Athens, then you cared about Brauron very much indeed.

Brauron seems to have been like a combination holiday camp and finishing school for girls. A girl, when she reached the age of 13 or so, packed up her belongings and was taken by her father to the temple. There she was dedicated to the goddess to be her servant for one year.

The girls were called the arktoi, the Little Bears. It was a very special time in a girl's life.

The story of why they were called Little Bears is rather odd, and goes like this: Once, long ago, a tame she-bear lived at the sanctuary of Artemis. A maiden played with the bear, and the bear scratched out her eyes. [All right, not such a tame bear...Gary]. The girl's brother killed the bear, and at once a famine fell upon the Athenians. The Athenians consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who told them Artemis was annoyed about the bear. To appease Artemis, every Athenian girl must before her marriage play at being the bear of Artemis.

The Little Bears played in the forest, had running races and games, danced, studied, and served the goddess. By all accounts it was a time every girl looked forward to.

This first image is from Wiki Commons and is a statue that was unearthed at Brauron. It's difficult to see at first, because the statue's lost its color, but in the folds of her chiton she holds a bunny rabbit. See her left hand holds up the material and her right holds the bunny? This is very typical. Every child was shown holding either a cute animal or a bird.

The fathers commissioned these statues to commemorate the girl's time as a Little Bear. It's somewhat more permanent than a family snapshot. One thing we can be quite sure about: every one of these children was loved by her parents. Firstly because she got her year at Brauron, secondly because a statue like this isn't something you do lightly.

The chiton was probably painted saffron-yellow. There are references to say that was the standard uniform. I guess this girl is at the end of her time, because her hair's loose. The usual arrangement for a maiden is for braids to be tied up like so:

I took this photo at the Getty Villa. It's the head of one of the Little Bears and despite the degradation shows the usual hair arrangement well. There are sadly few statues of children from the Greek world. I suspect most of them come from Brauron. Those that do exist look

very natural indeed, which is a big help in judging the statues of grown-ups.

When her time as a Little Bear came to an end, the girl would enter the temple to dedicate her toys to Artemis. Which means she left them there on the altar. This was the moment when she transformed from a girl to a young woman. She left the Temple of Artemis and returned with her father to Athens, where in all likelihood a marriage had already been arranged. She would remember her time as a Little Bear for the rest of her life.


Merry Monteleone said...

Okay, I'd give them props just for sitting through the hair treatments...

btw, Gary, I just pre-ordered your book about a week or so ago... Can't wait to get my hot little hands on it!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Merry, I hope you like it. Do please let me know what you think!

Somewhere on the net there's an article about a group of young women who had a go at reproducing the hairstyles of the charyatids. They managed to do it, but apparently it took hours.

Julie said...

As far as traditional coming-of-age practices go, this sounds like a lot more fun than high school.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Julie, yes indeed, it would have been a whole lot more fun than high school. The kids in the Little Bear statues always look happy!

L. T. Host said...

Awesome! I'm not sure I was brave enough to leave home for an entire year when I was 13, but I imagine if you knew it was coming it might not be such a big deal.

Also, I wonder if that head was still at the Getty Villa when we went in July and we just missed it, which makes me sad, because I would have liked to have seen it in person. The Getty Villa is such an amazing place. I love all the marble-decorated rooms, and the courtyard with the reflecting pool is just breathtaking.

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T.

I'm reasonably sure the head would have been there. It's in one of the upstairs rooms, in the same case and to the right of the child's doll from Classical Athens. (The doll's also on my to-blog list.) This is the sort of detail I was looking out for, of course.

Yes, I adore the Getty Villa. I wonder if I could move in?

L. T. Host said...

You might have to fight me for living space ... :)

Also, I see you added an event in San Diego! My offer for dinner still stands :)

Gary Corby said...


There's plenty of room for everyone at the Getty. We could start a commune.

Yes, Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego
is a confirmed event. And very pleased I am too because I've been to San Diego before and I loved it. If I can possibly do it I'll stay an extra day to rest and have any nervous breakdowns that may be due by then.

Your offer of dinner is gratefully accepted!

L. T. Host said...

No nervous breakdowns! There's so much to do in San Diego. You can easily keep yourself busy enough to not have one.

Emailed you back!

Gary Corby said...

Very well, as a personal favour to you I'll attempt to stay sane.

And very much am I looking forward to meeting you!